Star Trek: The Original Series

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson


Paramount, standard 1.33:1, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC], subtitles: English, single side-single layer, chapters, original broadcast preview trailers, rated NR, 100 min., $19.99, available now.

Studio Line

Stark Trek: The Original Series Volume 1-8 cover 16 episodes from the 1966 to 1967 seasons. Each episode has been digitally enhanced and remastered and remixed for Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. The DVDs also contain the original broadcast preview trailers.

Picture/Sound/Extras (C-/B+/D-)

Who woulda thunk it at the time? It's been almost 35 years since Star Trek first hit the airwaves, and if you'd told anyone that people would still cherish the show and collect memorabilia attached to it at the dawn of the next millennium, I'd guess they'd have laughed at you.

Star Trek is almost inarguably the most successful, influential and enduring TV shows of the Sixties, another concept that seemed ludicrous at the time. Yet here we are, almost 35 years later, and Paramount continues to rake in money from their most lucrative franchise!

Their most recent way to lure hard-earned cash out of our pockets comes from the gradual issue of original Star Trek episodes on DVD. (Actually, I guess you already know that since you clicked on an article about those DVDs. Unless it was my Force powers that made you do it! Oh wait - wrong series...)

Anyway, Paramount began this series of reissues during the summer of 1999 and as of the end of February 2000 they'd distributed eight DVDs with two episodes each upon them. Thanks to a renewed interest in the series (mostly because I read a terrific book about the show, "Inside Star Trek" from series executives Herbert Solow and Robert Justman) and Netflix' new unlimited Marquee rental program, I decided recently to work my way through the shows and report on these DVDs.

First of all, I wanted to offer a little personal history. I guess I've been something of a ST fan for most of my life. I don't remember watching the show as a little kid, but I know I collected the toys for much of my childhood. (Oy, do I wish I still had those Mego figures and playsets - what they'd be worth now!)

Although Star Wars became my science fiction favorite when it arrived, I renewed my interest in ST around - perhaps not coincidentally - the release of ST: The Motion Picture in late 1979. Apparently I liked the movie, though I now have no comprehension why, since it's one of the worst films I've ever seen. Nonetheless, I got back into Trek in a big way; I watched incessant reruns and delved heavily into the novelizations.

I don't know when exactly this fascination ended, but I remained mildly interested in things Trek over the following years. I saw the two subsequent films theatrically and checked out IV and V on video. By the time VI hit, I had a laserdisc player, and my enjoyment of that movie provoked me to invest in a box set that included the first five volumes of the films.

After that, I continued to follow the movies but not the TV shows, even as Star Trek had to become known as Star Trek: The Original Series after spin-offs The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager hit the airwaves. I even went to the Next Generation films despite the fact I've never seen an episode of that show.

For some reason, I convinced myself that I liked Trek movies but not the shows. Why? I have no idea. But as these DVDs came out, I realized that it's been nearly 20 years since I've actually viewed an episode of the original ST episodes! That surprised me, so I decided this was as good a time as any to get back into the groove.

After all this build-up, you may be curious what I thought about the shows - I know I was! Happily, I've enjoyed most of the episodes I've watched so far; though inconsistent, I find them rather capitivating and I'm glad I've rejoined the crew of the Enterprise.

Here follows a general recap of the individual DVDs, their episodes and my brief opinions of the shows themselves:

Volume One - "Where No Man Has Gone Before" and "The Corbomite Maneuver"

Somewhat confusingly, the first DVD contains episodes two and three, which may cause some to wonder what happened to episode one? In reality, episodes one ("The Cage") and two ("Where No Man...") were actually pilots made to sell the show; "The Cage" failed to obtain a buyer but "Where No Man..." enticed NBC to give the show a shot. Number three ("The Corbomite Maneuver") was the first episode to be produced as part of the normal series production run.

When they decided to release these DVDs, Paramount chose to place them in order of production instead of in order of air date, so although these are episodes two and three, they actually were broadcast third and tenth, respectively. ("The Cage" was never shown during the series' network run but it was integrated into a two-part episode, "The Menagerie", which will be discussed when I get to DVD Volume Eight. An uncut version of "The Cage" has been released on VHS and laserdisc; it won't appear on DVD until these reissues hit their fortieth - and final - volume.)

"Where No Man..." tells of a crew member (First Officer Mitchell, played by Gary Lockwood) who slowly obtains god-like powers through some mysterious alien force. It's a good episode with a compelling story but it seems awkward because it's clear the cast members hadn't quite figured out their characters just yet. Leonard Nimoy's Spock especially needed work; Nimoy displayed far too much emotion in his speech patterns. Trivia note: at one point Mitchell creates a tombstone for Kirk (William Shatner). However, Kirk's middle name does not say "Tiberius" as it should; it calls him "James R. Kirk".

"The Corbomite Maneuver" is a thoroughly terrific episode. When an encounter with a apparently much more powerful alien force threatens the Enterprise, Kirk bluffs his way out of annihilation. The show's suspenseful, witty and clever, although the "surprise" ending seems a little silly. Still, it seems amazingly mature for only the third show; definite evidence of the chemistry we'd grow to love already was on display. Clearly the presence of DeForest Kelly's Dr. McCoy added a lot to the interactions of the main characters.

Volume Two - "Mudd's Women" and "The Enemy Within"

"Mudd's Women" was strongly considered when the powers-that-be attempted to choose the first episode to broadcast but was rejected mainly due to some semi-racy themes; it eventually aired sixth. Essentially the crew of the Enterprise encounter some space 'hos and their scoundrel of a pimp, Harry Mudd (Roger C. Carmel). Of course, things aren't what they seem, and much chicanery ensues.

"MW" is a good episode overall, and most of its charm is due to the character of Mudd. He's nothing more than a typical flim-flam man, but he adds some spice to the Trek universe, one which generally is full of ominous aliens; it needs a little wit and charisma from the guests every once in a while.

In "The Enemy Within" (broadcast fifth), all of the spice we need comes from Shatner. He hams up a storm as yet another odd alien force splits him into two separate beings; one good and one evil. This episode is surprisingly philosophical and actually presages some parts of Star Trek V as Kirk and company consider what parts of a personality are truly essential.

And it's a lot of fun, too! Unfortunately, special effects technology wasn't sufficiently advanced to let us view the sight of Kirk kicking his own ass - that'd have to wait until Star Trek VI - but I still enjoyed watching him literally grapple with his bad side. The episode can be cheesy, but it's nonetheless very enjoyable.

Volume Three - "The Man Trap" and "The Naked Time"

Oddly, these two shows echo what we saw on the last DVD in many ways. "The Man Trap" (first episode broadcast) relies heavily on a person with an illusory appearance, as did "Mudd's Women", but other than that, it seems very different. Once again, some sort of mysterious force is killing anonymous crewmen on a planet surface. Eventually it's deduced that they're having all the salt sucked from their bodies. But how...?

That's the mystery around which the plot resolves, and it does so well. This show gives McCoy his first major role and puts him in an emotionally vulnerable spot. At times this episode pushes the limits of credulity, but it's stimulating nonetheless.

"The Naked Time" (broadcast fourth) resembles "The Enemy Within" in that we see characters with altered personalities. Although nothing as drastic as the anti-Kirk occurs, we see crew members familiar (Sulu, played by George Takei) and unfamiliar (Riley, acted by Bruce Hyde, appeared only in two shows) display exaggerated aspects of their personas as a virus takes over the ship.

Again we get to see some very enthusiastic acting and again it's a great deal of fun. The havoc that the virus causes on the Enterprise makes for delightful viewing and Kirk and company attempt to eradicate it. I still have the sound of Riley crying, "One more time!" before launching into another off-key song bouncing about in my head...

By the way, in case you start to wonder why Sulu is only at the helm part of the time, it's because a number of the supporting actors were on limited contracts at this stage; they were only paid to do a certain number of shows. For me, the Sulu episodes are a minor treat for one odd reason: I always laugh whenever I see a shot of him in front of the viewscreen in which he's the only person visible. Why do I find this humorous? To save time and money, the producers shot some stock footage of Sulu in that position, and you see the same bits pop up again and again. (Of course, it helps that I'm easily entertained - I found a ball of string yesterday that had me going for hours!)

Volume Four - "Charlie X" and "Balance of Terror"

"Charlie X" (broadcast second) involves another god-like being, but a more unusual one, in that Charlie's just a 17-year-old dude who's been virtually alone for much of his life. This episode cleverly documents the awkwardness of adolescence on a grand scale as Charlie struggles to cope with his emotions and not kill everybody at the same time.

It's a good episode made weak only by the higher-than-usual presence of Grace Lee Whitney as Yeoman Rand. Whitney only appeared on seven shows before she was canned due to personal problems, and while I'm sorry she had that experience, I was happy to see her go. She was a decently attractive woman but an annoying actress; her emotional range veered from looking irritated to looking peeved. She was one of the focal points of this episode because Charlie (Robert Walker Jr.) falls for her in a big way. I just wanted to slap the kid and tell him to find someone less grumpy!

"Balance of Terror" (broadcast fourteenth) marks another terrific episode and also is one in which we finally get to see one of the show's later-to-be-famous villainous races: the Romulans make their debut here. It's a serious cat-and-mouse piece of space warfare as the Enterprise comes head to head with their ancient foes (no points for guessing who wins).

It's also one of the more exciting episodes as each side parries and thrusts. Mark Lenard - who would later return to play Spock's father - does a wonderful job as the Romulan commander; he's authoritative, regal and sympathetic all at once. The show suffers from an unnecessary subplot involving two anonymous crew members who want to marry - gee, hope nothing bad happens to one of them! - but otherwise is one of the best episodes so far.

Volume Five - "What Are Little Girls Made Of?" and "Dagger Of The Mind"

"What Are..." (broadcast seventh) works well but loses some points for lack of creativity; we see another duplicate Kirk in this one. Yeah, there's a twist, of course, but two doppelgangers in ten shows? That's pushing it.

The story is interesting though fairly obvious through much of it; the plot twists weren't exactly a surprise and the eventual climax okay but a bit of a disappointment. The stiff presence of Majel Barrett, the then-mistress and future wife of series chief Gene Roddenberry, in a key role as Nurse Christine Chapel doesn't help. Barrett actually was cast as Number One, the second in command to Captain Christopher Pike in "The Cage" but was destined not to return to that part for the second pilot; Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) left the show of his own accord, but Barrett got the boot from the suits.

She obviously only ever appeared on Star Trek because of her intimate, not-so-secret relationship with Roddenberry, but there should never have been an episode that so strongly involved her. The woman couldn't act, and her presence in a key emotional role detracts from the quality of this one. "What Are..." isn't bad Trek, but it's pretty mediocre. At least Sherry Jackson's Andrea gives us some of the best ST eye candy to date as one sexy little robot!

"Dagger of the Mind" (broadcast ninth) is also a decent but unexceptional show, though it's a fair amount better than the one that precedes it on the DVD. An escapee from a mental hospital makes it on board the Enterprise and challenges everyone's assumptions that the staff of that "enlightened" place are working for the betterment of their patients.

This episode is memorable more for an extremely wild-eyed performance from Morgan Woodward as Dr. Simon Van Gelder, the escapee, than anything else; he's way over the top! From early on, however, it's pretty obvious where this one's going; it's an inevitable but fairly pleasant ride.

Volume Six - "Miri" and "The Conscience of the King"

"Miri" (broadcast eighth) didn't work for me. It's a self-conscious rip-off of Lord of the Flies that does nothing to add to the original, although it includes some plot twists (and girls, for that matter). The scenes of the society made up solely of children were obnoxious and wore on me; I found no charm in the characters at all and the plot was not terribly compelling.

Not much better is "The Conscience..." (broadcast thirteenth), an "is he or isn't he?" mystery that lacks suspense. I was happy to see Riley again - in what ended up as his farewell tour - and I will admit that the plot twist at the end actually caught me by surprise, but not much else did. It's watchable but not special.

Volume Seven - "The Galileo Seven" and "Court Martial"

Happily, these two shows rebound from the lower quality of the preceding two. "Galileo..." (broadcast sixteenth) unusually takes much of the emphasis off of Kirk and gives Spock his first chance at a command; he's in charge of a shuttle team that becomes stranded among hostile critters on a planet. It's up to Spock to work with the others to get off the planet and back to the happy environs of the Enterprise.

One part of Trek that gets old comes from the frequent challenges to Spock due to his lack of emotion; the show likes to get a cheap charge from some over-emoter screaming at him because he doesn't do the same. This theme pervades "Galileo..." but is more crucial to the plot as Spock starts to question whether the logical path is always the best. It's an exciting and thoughtful show.

"Court Martial" (broadcast twentieth) offers our first look at a Trek-style courtroom drama. Computer logs shows that Kirk jettisoned an occupied pod during Yellow Alert, while regulations require Red Alert before he should do so for the safety of the ship; Kirk insists that Red Alert conditions did exist when he set it free. Who'll win: man or machine?

Dumb question - we know who'll emerge victorious. Still, it's a suspenseful piece as we see what happens; the evidence is so damning that it really is fun to find out how Kirk escapes this mess. All in all, a compelling piece.

Volume Eight - "The Menagerie" Parts One and Two

And now the answer to the question, "What do we do with that expensive pilot we made? Seems a waste to just let it rot!" "The Menagerie" (broadcast eleventh and twelfth) depicts the logical Spock as he apparently acts illogically to aid his former captain Pike. Pike has been horribly crippled since his earlier days as Spock's boss, and Spock wants to help him as best he can, even if that means direct violation of the most severe Starfleet regulations.

Much of "The Cage" has been edited into "The Menagerie" as footage that current Enterprise crew view during Spock's court martial. I'm sorry, but this method didn't work for me. The whole episode seems so contrived as a way to use the old footage that I felt unstimulated. Spock presents the earlier material to illustrate why he had to take his insubordinate actions, but the whole thing feels fake and forced. Plus, the ending is far too neat and cute. "The Menagerie" reminds me too much of those cheesy compilation episodes shows do when they want to crank out a "new" show on the cheap. It's interesting to see the shots from "The Cage" but overall "The Menagerie" feels like a "fantasy" episode that doesn't count, like when they discarded that whole season of Dallas by saying it was a dream.

Footnote: unsurprisingly - since he told them what they could do with their little space show prior to the second pilot - Jeffrey Hunter does not appear as Pike in the "current day" shots; another actor - Sean Kenney - plays him there. You'd never know the difference, since Kenney's heavily made up and doesn't say a word.

Okay, so there're my opinions of these first sixteen episodes. So how about the quality of the DVDs themselves? While clearly a mixed bag, I find myself really quite pleased.

When you first opened this review, you probably noticed that I gave the picture quality for these shows only a "C-". I must say that this was one of the most difficult to award "C-" ratings I've yet issued, because although I think it's legitimate, it doesn't tell the whole story.

These Star Trek episodes appear in their original broadcast aspect ratio of 1.33:1; because of those dimensions, they have not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions.

Since I wasn't yet alive when Star Trek first aired, I have no direct observation of how the show looked during its first run. I do know that through eight billion reairings since the Sixties, things haven't looked too hot. Of course, not many TV shows from the Sixties appear that great; after all, it wasn't like they were worried about saving them for posterity.

A great number of problems can be seen on these DVDs. Sharpness generally seems adequate but it can vary greatly; most scenes appear relatively crisp but some serious softness can - and will - intrude on the image. Moiré effects are largely nonexistent, at least, although I witnessed occasional jagged edges; inspect Harry's hat in "Mudd's Women", for example. However, these problems are rare.

More frequent are issues related to print quality. Grain often intrudes upon the image, and other flaws appear; I saw scratches, speckles, streaks and black spots on not-infrequent occasions. These aren't a constant nuisance, but they're there in some form pretty often.

Color is very heavy on Star Trek, which I think was a production decision. At the time, NBC billed itself as the first "all-color" TV network, and one of the reasons they wanted ST was so their corporate parent, RCA, could sell colors sets. Hey, if folks are going to pay big bucks for a new TV, they want something to take advantage of the medium, and Trek was a perfect showcase; even as it foundered in the overall ratings, closer examination of just households with color TVs ranked it among the top shows.

Anyway, based on this knowledge, I surmise that the producers jacked up the color higher than it should be in an attempt to make it even brighter and bolder. Many viewers confuse "more" of some part of an image as meaning "better" - like all of the people with the sharpness cranked all the way up on their TVs - so I'd guess that the producers wanted Trek to display really intense colors. I'd also think that the quality of those sets wasn't very good, so "pushier" tones were needed to make the colors observable.

Well, for whatever reason, the colors on these DVDs seem very oversaturated. I wouldn't say they bleed, really, but they just appear much denser and heavier than they should. While this does make the show colorful and honestly seems impressive at first, once I adjusted I realized how off-kilter the hues really were. The tones weren't wrong; they were just too vivid and strong.

Black levels aren't much of an issue of Trek; such an emphasis was placed on color that we don't see too many dark hues. What we witness seems okay, and shadow detail - which also doesn't appear too frequently in the brightly-lit sets - looks similarly acceptable but unspectacular.

Those are all of the objective reasons I felt I had to give these Star Trek episodes a "C-". I definitely flip-flopped quite a lot, especially because the quality does vary somewhat from episode to episode. However, these differences are pretty minor so I felt comfortable with the one overall grade.

So with all of that evidence, why do I feel so bad about awarding the low rating? Because I really think that all things considered, these Trek episodes look darned good. I was so accustomed to the memories of the scarred, flat appearances of the syndicated broadcasts that I found these to be a revelation and I initially thought they looked really great. Once I got used to the look, I was able to find the flaws, but I still feel that these shows have aged surprisingly well. Yeah, they're still just a "C-", but it's a happy "C-".

My praise for the newly-mixed Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks of all these episodes is much less equivocal. Put simply, they sound absolutely great. Because I grade audio on an age-related curve, don't confuse the "B+" of these shows with a "B+" for a more recent production; the two don't compare. However, for material the age of Trek, these mixes really do sound fantastic.

This audio comes from original monaural tracks. The soundfield remains pretty heavily oriented toward the center, but it has been opened up quite a bit. Many sounds come from the front right and left channels, and we also hear occasional activity from the rears. The surrounds often give off some good ambient information - like the hum of the Enterprise - and split surround usage occurs on occasion, such as when the ship flies by or when a phaser blast heads to one side. No one will mistake these tracks for recent efforts, but the effects work quite well.

Even more pleasantly surprising is the good quality of the sound. Dialogue appears very clear and reasonably warm and natural, with absolutely no intelligibility problems. Music seems a bit flat but generally nice, and effects come across quite well for the most part. Although some distortion can interfere with effects, they're usually very clean and they even boast some good bass at times. Whoever remixed these suckers deserves a serious pat on the back; the results are fantastic.

The only genuinely unsatisfying part of these DVDs stems from their lack of supplements. Each disc offers four "original broadcast preview trailers." These are one-minute ads that offered viewers a glimpse at what would happen on next week's show.

On each DVD, two of these trailers are readily found; when you highlight a particular episode from the main menu, the preview appears as an option on the next screen. However, in addition to ads for the two shows found on that DVD, trailers for the episodes on the next disc also appear. To see those, highlight and click on the Starfleet insignia at the top of the main menu. When you do that, you will gain access to all four trailers.

Other than these trailers, the DVDs are virtually devoid of extras. Each disc's booklet contains a few pictures, some trivia and production credits in addition to a DVD checklist; that beats a kick in the head but doesn't offer much extra value. While the continuing nature of the series makes it harder to add in supplements - there'll be forty DVDs in all, and that would require a lot of content. Still, I can't help but feel something could have been added. While the Gene Roddenberry audio commentary one DVD newsgroup participant demanded seems rather unlikely to appear (unless Ouija technology has improved), interviews with other participants would have been nice.

Well, even without extras, these DVDs are compelling. Episode quality varies, of course, but most of the first eight volumes are quite good; the first four DVDs and number seven all make solid purchases, and the other three have some merits as well, with only number six appearing to be a dog. While somewhat weak, picture quality surpassed my expectations and seems more than acceptable, and the remixed audio shines. I don't know if I or many of you will feel compelled to amass a complete Trek collection on DVD, but many shows are worth owning, particularly at a relatively low MSRP of $20. The first eight DVDs are quite impressive overall; future reviews will examine whether or not that trend continues all the way through the fortieth release (unless I go nuts before that time).

Related Sites

Current as of 3/19/2000

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