Wednesday, February 1, 2012

'Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Next Level' [Blu-Ray]

Starring Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes and Brent Spiner
Created by Gene Roddenberry

In the 1980s, when 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' was in production, the show was shot on 35mm film, including most of the special effects shots.  But in post-production, the show was edited to videotape, meaning that film masters for finished episodes simply didn't exist.  In order to present the show in high definition, CBS has gone back to the archived original film negatives and re-edited the show.  Every single episode is going through post production once again, re-compositing the original special effects, remixing the audio into 7.1 uncompressed surround, and more.

"The Next Level" presents three 'Next Generation' episodes on high definition Blu-Ray.

"Encounter at Farpoint" is the 90-minute pilot episode.  Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) commands the USS Enterprise on a mission to the mysterious Farpoint station.  Along the way, he encounters the powerful Q (John de Lancie), who puts humanity on trial for its savage past.  Picard and his crew, including Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes), Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner) and Lt. Yar (Denise Crosby) must uncover the secret of Farpoint and prove to Q that humanity has evolved.

"Sins of the Father" - Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn) is surprised to learn that his younger brother Kurn (Tony Todd) is still alive, and that his long-dead father has been accused of being a traitor by Duras (Patrick Massett).

"The Inner Light" - An alien probe captures Picard's mind and makes him live out an entire lifetime on a dying world.

I won't discuss the quality of the episodes themselves other than to say they are all fine efforts.  The pilot episode has some exciting sequences, but overall feels a little stiff.  "Sins of the Father" is a great Worf-centric episode from writer Ronald D. Moore, and "The Inner Light" is one of the series' best dramatic episodes.

The real appeal here is seeing these episodes in HD for the first time.  It's like seeing the show again for the first time.  In standard definition, 'The Next Generation' always looked rather flat, somewhat colorless.    But in HD, it comes alive.  Flesh tones are full, and the colored Starfleet uniforms truly pop.  Even better is the sheer amount of texture and detail now visible, whether it's skin or clothing, or even all the remarkable set detail, everything here looks fantastic.  The bridge of the Enterprise, which always looked so bare, now seems awash in detail.  Every surface seems to have some new kind of texture, and all the various blinking control panels are now much more discernible and colorful.

And that's just the live-action footage of the actors.

When it comes to the special effects, the model photography by the legendary Industrial Light and Magic looks amazing.  The starship Enterprise is a highly detailed model, which we can finally see in its full glory.  Previously looking washed-out and gray, it's obvious now that the model actually has a number of different colors on it, including a lot of green paneling, and great details like inset lines carved throughout.  It is, simply, a revelation.

This show has never, ever looked so good.

That said, there are a couple of issues.  Firstly, the second two episodes on the disc, "Sins of the Father" and "The Inner Light," were produced after a shift in the show's production style.  The new director of photography both lit and shot things quite differently, and, frankly, a bit worse.  The lighting is flat, which has the unfortunate result of obliterating some of the fantastic detail that's visible in "Encounter at Farpoint."

While "Sins of the Father" and "Inner Light" still look great in their own rights - "Sins" for example features a lot of great alien makeup work for the Klingons that really holds up in HD, and "Inner Light" has old-age makeup for Patrick Stewart, as well as some nice outdoor photography, and the final scene in Picard's darkened quarters looks wonderfully cinematic - they don't quite match up to the pilot thanks to the flatter lighting.  But the colors are still fantastic, and there's a wonderful sheen of film grain over it all that gives the show an excellent new-found filmic presence.

This disc is just a sampler, unfortunately; the complete first season of the show won't be released until later in 2012.  But just watching these couple episodes has got me completely jazzed to revisit the rest of the show in HD.