Star Trek Season One on DVD

Star Trek inspires love, ridicule, or a mixture of both, but most people have at least a passing familiarity with the long-running cultural phenomenon. I am certainly familiar with the original series, having watched it in reruns endlessly. I was born in 1967, just when season one was in full swing, but by the time I was old enough to watch them in reruns, the showswere frequently butchered to fit in extra commercials, hacking out key scenes and rendering the story incoherent. While I remember many of the episodes clearly, there are probably several that I simply never saw in reruns. My ten-year-old son has never seen any of the original series episodes.

So, we bought the first season on DVD. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about this package. Some are justified, in my view, and some are not.

Complaint number one is that the quality is poor and no restoration was done. This is patently false. All you need to do is compare the picture quality of the trailers (covered with scratches) with the quality of the restored episodes. There is a big difference. The episodes, shot on film, show almost no scratches or dirt.

Could the restoration have been better? I am not really qualified to say; I haven’t seen the best available negative or print. The colors are vibrant, although they maintain the Star Trek palette, characteristic perhaps of the type of film used, and we can see detail in the costumes and makeup that I’ve never seen before.

This isn’t always a good thing: I can better see the pancake makeup on Spock, and the low budget of the original becomes more apparent when scrutinized more closely — for example, in “Charlie X,” when Spock and Kirk are thrown against a wall, it is now painfully obvious that the wall isn’t made of anything much more substantial than painted cardboard, and it visibly tears.

In some effects shots there is still graininess, matte lines, and the occasional bit of fiber or dirt on the plate. These things may have been present in the original effects shot, and (I am guessing) were not retouched much because it would be difficult to decide how to proceed and where to stop while still remaining the low-tech, film-grain character of the original. Too much digital tampering would be very expensive and could result in an effect that stood out like a sore thumb against the rest of the images. Fans are complaining about just this sort of tampering in George Lucas’s THX-1138, as well as his repeated alterations to the Star Wars films. Star Trek was a product of 1960s-era film technology, and trying to make it look like a 2005-era film loaded with computer-generated imagery is to make it into something it is not. And here’s a news flash, which should not really be news to anyone: 2005 films will also look very dated one day. The super-shiny look and slick audio of Star Trek: The Next Generation already looks and sounds dated to me today.

I also have heard complaints about the encoding. To my eye and on my player, it is just fine. It looks much better to me, for example, than the Monk series DVDs, where there are frequent image freezes.

Gripes about the packaging are completely justified. While the snap-open tricorder-style plastic case is cute, you have to carefully take out the brochure and remove the paper sleeve from the book-style DVD trays themselves. The DVDs snap very tightly into these trays, and there is the justifiable concern that the force needed to pry them out will tend to cause the holes to crack over time. More recent DVD packages that I’ve seen have a central “button” you can press to help release the DVDs, reducing the force needed to remove and replace the disc, but these do not. When you are done watching, you have to reassemble the whole thing, unless you decide to throw out the paper sleeve and/or the loose brochure (which does not fit well into the case anyway). Those loose paper parts will certainly get lost or torn with handling, but throwing them out will ruin the look of the case; you’d no longer be able to see Kirk and Spock through the little “tricorder screen” window. It will also leave the top DVD open to dust exposure. A much more robust solution was certainly possible while maintaining the clever plastic case, but Paramount apparently couldn’t be bothered.

Is the price too high? I would say that it is too high, given the quality of the interior packaging. You’ll probably want to spend more money to buy some normal cases to store your set. The price would would not be too high, in my view, for the same same discs, better packaged. Consider that you get twenty-nine episodes on eight DVDs. If you pace yourself, that’s a lot of evenings of Star Trek. I have not yet watched the DVD extras and so can’t really comment on them. Unlike the extras on, say, The Lord of the Rings Extended Editions, I doubt they will really add much appeal; fans are buying this set to watch the episodes, not the extras.

Some people complain about the order of the episodes. Paramount placed them on the DVDs in the order in which they were aired, which was not the order in which they were filmed, which can be deduced by looking at the “stardate.” Watching them in this order apparently leads to some inconsistencies in costumes and casting; some think they should be viewed in stardate order. Well, obviously Paramount could not include them in both orders; they had to annoy either those in the airdate-order or stardate-order camps. They chose to include them in airdate-order, but the episodes are numbered in stardate-order, so you can certainly watch them in that order, if you want to.

Some people will find anything to complain about. Is it worth ranting about the fact that the discs don’t have a “play all” button? Are we so lazy that we can’t even bother to manipulate the remote control in between episodes? Is it really necessary or healthy to watch four episodes back-to-back without interruption? We used to have to rewind the VHS tapes, eject them, and put in the next ones. Can you tell I think this is a trivial complaint?

Many people have complained that the complete pilot is not included. I think they overestimate the quality of the original pilot — there is a reason that it never aired in its original form. It is, however, included on the third season DVD set, for completists. I am curious to see it. I’d love to see more of Captain Christopher Pike and Number One. I have also read the original pilot script, which was full of double entendres, and would like to see whether some of the wilder lines from the script are still present, such as the line in which Spock says “the human body is capable of generating a surprising amount of heat, depending on the skill of the operator.” This was an apparently attempt to tweak the network censors, who were ever-present, and a constant challenge to the writers, in those days. Go, Spock!

Finally, there is the question of the quality of the original Star Trek episodes themselves. Fans of the modern, big-budget Trek shows should try to keep in mind that these shows were produced almost forty years ago. The ones who start to crow about the quality of Enterprise, or Deep Space Nine, or Voyager, or The Next Generation, in comparison to the original series, should try to be a little more objective, and not just fixate on Star Trek as they first got to know and love it. Star Trek has always had a very wide standard deviation of quality. There are episodes and moments of The Next Generation and Voyager that are teeth-grindingly awful. Note also that just what constitutes “teeth-grindingly awful” varies widely from viewer to viewer, but to me it usually consists of having something absolutely ridiculous happen to the crew, such as in The Next Generation episode “Genesis,” in which the crew members “devolve” into primitive life forms. Then there is that show’s endless reliance on the holodeck, which while it occasionally produced an intriguing episode, most often just enabled the use of an unoriginal story in a science-fiction context.

To my mind, the very best episodes often involve few or no extraneous special effects at all, and just showcase an intriguing and original story. For example, watch “Space Seed,” which set up the story line used in the second Star Trek movie. And, usually, the best science fiction is about issues that a contemporary audience can relate to; not many of us today face turning into a walrus or spider monkey, but we may be concerned about the implications of genetic engineering. The wide variance in quality of Star Trek comes in part from the wide variety of writers who worked on the series, and the way in which the writers and producers were often up against extreme time pressure and extremely limited budgets.

The original series certainly has its moments of cheesiness, and it is easy to mock the overacting of Shatner and Kelley – a style which, by the way, I think was actually very useful, in that it tended to keep one from looking too closely at the styrofoam rocks and papier-mache gadgets. It is easy to make fun of Kirk’s expanding waistline, or his apparently magical ability to seduce women on every planet. But the show was also groundbreaking, in terms of casting, of writing, of politics, and at least occasionally, of storytelling. It is easy to look back at the show with forty years of hindsight and comment on the blatant sexism, but this has to be set against, for example, the show’s remarkably enlightened attitude towards race. And it is impossible to overstate the importance of the show’s role in inspiring many, many of today’s scientists and engineers. I strongly doubt that I would have ever developed an early interest in computers without the influence of Star Trek.

To me, what the original series proves is that a lot of money is never enough to create a story worth watching, that stands the test of time. Did the millions of dollars spent on Next Generation or Voyager buy them a consistently good show? Of course not. Money can buy script doctors and special effects but it can’t necessarily buy good ideas. Imagination, good writing, and a committment to storytelling will always triumph, and the original Star Trek is proof.

Ann Arbor, Michigan
February 2005

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