For some reason, there always seems to be an ongoing debate between the fervent fans of two of sci-fi’s most beloved franchises: George Lucas’ operatic space adventure Star Wars, and Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic vision of the future in Star Trek. Since both franchises are getting visibly older, the need for studios and rights holders to reinvigorate them becomes apparent. Star Trek is being reimagined by director J.J. Abrams, going back to the crew of the original series and charting a new course for them. Star Wars conceivably had its last film release in 2005, and is currently exploring options in what has historically been Trek’s territory: television.
However, as the media that established both franchises has continued to get older, the need arises to try and transfer those beloved stories into more modern formats, namely into high definition. If there was a competition about this kind of restoration between both of these franchises, the early favorite appeared to be George Lucas’ story of the Skywalker family. In the 1990s, Lucas had the foresight to begin restoring the original negatives of his original trilogy, one of the most beloved in cinematic history. When fans learned in the mid-'90s that Star Wars would be returning to theaters for its 20th anniversary, the reaction was resoundingly positive, as it would give an entirely new generation the chance to experience Star Wars the way that their parents had.
Then, to the horror of the most hardcore fans, the Special Editions were released, and something went wrong. True, Lucas restored the prints to pristine condition, and the beloved films did look very good, but these would not be the same experience that people had in 1977, 1980 and 1983. Lucas had been tinkering with the trilogy, actually changing the content of several scenes and abandoning the original versions to the point of not making them available at all in any current format.
Even a constantly altered film like Blade Runner has included every single version on its special edition home release(s). True, Lucas "released" the theatrical cuts of the film on a double-dip release of the original trilogy in the late 2000s, but fans called shenanigans when no restoration work went into them, and the non-anamorphic DVD transfers didn't even conform to the shape of a widescreen TV. When the entire Star Wars saga hit high definition for its release on Blu-ray late last year, the original versions of the films were missing entirely. When it comes to giving the fans not just what they want out of a home release, but what they deserve, George Lucas and Star Wars have failed.
So now, we come to Star Trek. Unlike Lucas’ franchise, Gene Roddenberry’s first made its home on television, with the three season original series from 1966-1969 becoming the groundbreaking piece not as an effects juggernaut, but for its use of ideas and exploration of human nature, impulse, history and the current events of the time. Star Trek’s ideas were greater than the reality, and when it was canceled in 1969 and exploded with popularity after it hit syndication in the 1970s, it became a cultural phenomenon to rival, and in some cases outdo, the legacy of the Star Wars films.
In the mid-2000s, CBS (new stewards of the Trek franchise) began developing a remastered version of Star Trek’s original series. In addition to bringing the series to high definition, CBS would be redoing virtually all of the series’ visual effects with CGI in order to stand up to the scrutiny of high definition. The actual content of the episodes of the series remained unchanged, and some effects which simply couldn’t have been included were inserted. The result was a gorgeous high definition transfer that brought detail out like never before.
The new effects were met with a little scrutiny, as the obviousness of the computer effects may have distracted a bit from the flow of each show. However, on the Blu-ray releases for each season, CBS included the option to trade between the original, unaltered visual effects and the new enhanced ones by hitting the “Angle” button on your Blu-ray remote. Not only are the original effects included, but you can actively compare between both sets of effects at the touch of a button. While there were some changes made in regards to the visual effects of the original series, the elements included didn’t actively change what was happening in each episode.
Sometimes they changed the angle of the Enterprise in approaching a planet, other times they added scale to a background matte painting that they simply couldn’t have in the 1960s. The only outright change I can think of on the original Trek Blu-rays is that in the season one episode “The Naked Time,” Mr. Scott is firing a Phaser to carefully cut open a panel. A beam between the Phaser’s tip and the sparks on the wall was added where there was none before. Practical, still accomplishing the same thing in the story, but now it looks like they wanted it to back in the '60s.
Remastering the original series also makes it viable for syndication on the increasing numbers of high-definition networks. But, there are still three other Trek series that were produced during its resurgence of popularity in the 80s and 90s that aren’t as easily converted to high definition for similar viability. While 2001’s Star Trek: Enterprise was made recently enough that it was mastered for high-definition release, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager were all shot on film but mastered, edited and finished on analog videotape. The amount of work that would need to go into remastering any of those shows for the standards of a true high-definition broadcast is monumental, but CBS decided, for the best of the batch, to take the plunge.
The result is the recent release on Blu-ray of Star Trek: The Next Generation Season One. In order to make the show available as truly HD experiences, CBS Digital had to find all of the original camera negatives and sound elements in addition to thousands of pages of production notes, remaster everything, and reedit every episode together as it was originally broadcast from scratch in order to release it. The result is probably the largest, and most impressive restoration work I’ve ever seen. Now, you might think that the team would’ve pulled a “Lucas” and taken the opportunity to redo all of the visual effects digitally. Well, that’s the kicker with this new presentation of the show: they’re the original effects. Because they primarily used high-detail models shot on film for the show’s space sequences, the original effects were remastered from their original elements and recomposited. The result is film-quality effects that in truth are unaltered, save for the fact that the amount of detail the remastering of the film brings is colossal when compared to the broadcast (and DVD) quality.
When comparing the remastering work between the two franchises, even when making changes, Star Trek seems to be operating more as curators of the original material than people on missions to change aspects of the original work. Why Lucas insists on doing this, only a handful of people know. However, as time goes on, he may find that the approach currently being employed to bring Star Trek to a new generation of fans (no pun intended) in the end is more respectful of all the efforts of the original people who first brought these stories to life, in addition to having more respect for his own legacy as a young, trailblazing filmmaker in the 1970s. Gene Roddenberry never lived to see his stories make such an incredible jump into the world of high definition, while still respecting all of the effort put in during the analog age. Mr. Lucas has the opportunity that Mr. Roddenberry never did: to see all aspects of his beloved creation reach new minds, unbound by the policing of which version is “right” or which version is “wrong.”
In the end, Star Trek is the clear winner in this non-contest, restoring its solid television material instead of basically remaking it, while also giving us all a new appreciation for the original work which now looks better than it ever has before. Doesn’t every sci-fi fan deserve this? Hopefully CBS will continue, and Mr. Lucas will at some point begin to "make it so."
Chris Clow is a recent Western Washington University graduate, film history fan, and comic book expert and retailer, contributor, and overall geek to Batman-On-Film.com and ModernMythMedia.com. You can find his comic book reviews for various monthly titles and his participated podcasts at BOF and MMM. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClow.