And now the floodgates open! When they previously released episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series on DVD, Paramount did so in a reasonably leisurely manner. Although the pace varied, for the most part we’d get two DVDs issued every couple of months or so. This meant that through the end of May 2001, 22 ST:TOS DVDs had hit the marketplace since they started to appear in August 1999.
With the arrival of the two discs reviewed in this article, that rate is about to step up quite significantly. June 2001 brings four ST:TOS DVDs, with an additional four due in July and August. As I write this, the final announced discs come out on August 14, 2001, though obviously many more will appear after that; 10 more will arrive before all of the show’s episodes will be completed.
Eight ST:TOS DVDs in a span of little more than two months? I guess I’d better get prepared for a lot of Trek! As such, let's move on to my thoughts about the newest bunch. (Please note that the DVDs present the shows in the order in which they were filmed; the broadcast number provided indicates where each episode falls within that line.)
Volume 23: “A Private Little War” and “The Gamesters of Triskelion”
“A Private Little War” (broadcast 48th) offers a Trek attempt to be timely. At the start of the show, Kirk (William Shatner), Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and McCoy (DeForest Kelley) check out a planet on which Kirk had spent time 13 years earlier. At that time, it had been very primitive, but things have changed during the interim; some of the inhabitants have advanced rather rapidly and they now possess guns, one of which is used to blast Spock early in the show.
It turns out that our old friends the Klingons supplied these, and Kirk has to decide how to react to this development. Does he allow the Klingon-backed people to take the upper hand - which would ultimately lead to the annihilation of the other group - or does he aid their technological development to even out the odds? The latter choice brings its own problems, as it’ll lead to a never-ending battle to maintain the balance of power, and clearly it’ll mean that the inhabitants of the planet will become more war-like than they otherwise might have been.
An additional complication occurs when Kirk is poisoned by a bite from a native creature called a Mugato. McCoy has no antidote for this, so the wife of Kirk’s friend Tyree (Michael Witney) needs to use her magic to cure him. Nona (Nancy Kovack) does so, but with a cost: apparently the technique means that Kirk will easily succumb to Nona’s suggestions.
All of this sounds quite good, but frankly, I thought Private fell a little flat. It seemed as though the show tried to pack in too much information and subplots, and that rendered the overall product a bit muddled. It didn’t help that the message was a bit heavy-handed. The show directly evokes thoughts of Vietnam and makes it clear what a pointless course the parties involved were pursuing there. I’m all for shows that attempt greater depth, and Private indeed sparks some intriguing thoughts about the balance of power, but the discussion of the 20th century war was a bit much.
Probably the main reason I was less than enthralled with “Private”, however, involved its guests. For one, the warring tribes featured some of the silliest hairstyles yet to be found on a Trek episode. No, they don’t quite hit the heights of absurdity we saw with the ‘dos worn by the residents of Vaal on Volume 19's “The Apple”, but I still thought Tyree and his pals looked awfully goofy.
In addition, I found some of the crummiest acting yet seen on a Trek show, and that’s really saying something. As Nona, Kovack maintains a seriously sexy biker chick aura, but her campy and ham-handed performance really undoes the role. She’s so over the top that she makes Shatner look positively reserved. This didn’t ruin the episode, but it detracted from whatever positive elements it may have offered. Ultimately, “A Private Little War” was a decent but unremarkable Trek show.
Minor trivia note one: I believe that this episode offered the first actual look at Spock’s green blood. I know this element had been mentioned previously, but after Spock is shot, we see a small green stain on the front of his shirt.
Minor trivia note two: although the beastie in the show is clearly referred to as a “Mugato”, the show’s credits refer to the “Gumato”. Apparently Shatner mispronounced “Gumato” as “Mugato” and the new name stuck. I guess no one alerted the guys who do the show’s credits.
“The Gamesters of Triskelion” (broadcast 45th) seemed somewhat better, but it didn’t enthrall me either. On this episode, Kirk, Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), and Chekov (Walter Koenig) attempt to beam down to a planet but some funky dudes called “the Providers” intercept them and take them to their battle zone. There our heroes are meant to become participants in gladiatorial contests. The “Providers” are an intellectually-developed group who get their sole jollies from bets placed on these games.
Unsurprisingly, Kirk and the others aren’t wild about their enslavement, and during the rest of the show, they attempt to escape from this predicament. Also unsurprisingly, Kirk hooks up with the planet’s sole hottie, fellow “thrall” (combatant) Shahna (Angelique Pettyjohn). The green-haired sexpot starts out as Kirk’s assistant, but she soon succumbs to his manly charms, just like pretty much every other attractive woman who appeared on Trek.
While Kirk and company try to escape their prison, the crew of the Enterprise are challenged simply to find their cohorts. They have no idea where the trio went after they vanished from the transporter platform, so it’s up to Spock, McCoy and Scotty (James Doohan) to work yet another miracle.
As with “A Private Little War”, I thought that “Gamesters” was a decent episode but it wasn’t as compelling as the synopsis might make it sound. To some degree, it suffered from a feeling of déjà vu, since we’d seen many of the same elements in other episodes. We just saw the gladiator theme in Volume 22’s “Bread and Circuses”, and though the two shows were otherwise dissimilar, this was a little too close for comfort.
That said, “Gamesters” worked decently within the confines of the show. Pettyjohn provided one of the program’s sexier guest stars; despite the silliness of her green hair, that revealing silver outfit made up for any other problems. She wasn’t much of an actress, but at least she managed to avoid the excessive campiness displayed by Womack during “Private”.
One interesting element of “Gamesters” revolved around the manner in which Kirk solved the problem. Usually he finds some way to outwit the oppressive beings, and we then learn some lesson about the follies of supposed omnipotence; in this kind of episode, the highly-intellectual beings have some fatal flaw that forces them to miss something. However, in “Gamesters”, Kirk has to use his brawn to win the day. He doesn’t trick the “Providers” - he just says that if he wins a battle, he gets his way.
Ultimately, “The Gamesters of Triskelion” offered a fairly mediocre episode of Trek. The show possessed some tension that never really paid off, so the end result was an interesting but lackluster piece. It’s still decent Trek, but it’s not one of my favorites.
By the way, does anyone else think that Kloog (Mickey Norton) looked an awful lot like Bill Berry, the former drummer for R.E.M.?
Picture/Sound/Extras: Volume 24 B-/B-/D-
Volume 24: “Obsession” and “The Immunity Syndrome”
Although neither of the episodes found in Volume 24 was a classic, both offered modest improvements over the shows found in V23. First up is “Obsession” (broadcast 42nd), a tale that follows the Moby Dick theme. A mysterious gas cloud attacks a landing party that consists of Kirk, Spock, and some red shirts. This critter sucks all of the red blood cells out of the victim. Two of the red shirts buy it on the rock, but one survives briefly and makes it back to the Enterprise.
There the plot thickens as Kirk comes to confront part of his past. He’s dealt with this entity before, a fact that gets driven home by the dopily-coincidental presence of a new crewmember named Garrovick (Stephen Brooks). It turns out that the ensign’s dad was Kirk’s commander on the “USS Farragut” 11 years earlier, and the elder Garrovick was offed by the gassy beast. Kirk blames himself for his demise because he feels he froze under pressure, a part of history that seems to repeat itself when Garrovick the younger fails to appropriately attack the cloud.
“Obsession” offers a nice psychological subtext that makes it more provocative than most. On the surface, Kirk’s desire to track and eradicate the gas beast makes sense; this thing’s been killing folks for years, so he needs to end it once and for all. However, his fixation appears to veer into the dangerous side of the coin and Kirk seems to endanger the crew to satisfy his own needs. He also threatens the lives of other civilizations; the Enterprise is supposed to rendezvous with another group so they can take some medicine to needy folks. The remedy has a time limitation, so with every second Kirk spends on the gas critter, he jeopardizes these sick people.
“Obsession” doesn’t provide a stellar episode of Trek, but I thought it was quite enjoyable. Shatner offers some of his better acting here as he has to portray a variety of sides of Kirk. He spends less time in heroic mode and more in a somewhat disjointed vein. Shatner pulls it off well and makes this a solid show.
“The Immunity Syndrome” (broadcast 47th) deals with another terrible threat to the universe. Some entity destroys a ship of Vulcans and is after a lot more than that. Although the exhausted crew of the Enterprise is on their way for some R&R, they’re put back on duty to intercept this being. It turns out to be a giant amoeba, and its presence slowly starts to infect the crewmembers. They need to squash it before it splits and eventually contaminates the entire galaxy.
“Immunity” offers a fairly personal and cerebral episode of Trek. While apparently omnipotent and unstoppable beings aren’t new to the show, the concept of the enormous single-celled organism was creative, and the methods the crew needs to use to stop it are also more ingenious than usual. The solutions relate more to thought than they do violence - attempts to blast the critter with phasers just add to its energy - and it takes all of the ideas they can muster to put it out of action.
The show also nicely played up the close relationship between Kirk, Spock and McCoy. One of them has to go on an apparent suicide mission to gain necessary information about the organism, and it was somewhat touching to see how this played. Really, the personal interactions we see on Trek are a large part of its success, and this trio provides the most compelling mixture; McCoy stands for humanism and Spock for logic while Kirk stands somewhere in between the two. “The Immunity Syndrome” was a generally interesting episode that worked mainly due to these personal components.
These four Star Trek episodes appear in their original broadcast aspect ratios of 1.33:1 on these single-sided, single-layered DVDs; because of those dimensions, they have not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although some variations in quality appeared, for the most part the visuals found on these DVDs were pretty consistent, and they fit in neatly with what I’d seen on prior releases.
Volume 23 showed slightly weaker material, mainly during “A Private Little War”. Sharpness generally appeared solid, with only a few minor instances of softness. Trek often suffered from modest moiré effects, and those were definitely on display here; some grates and the chain mail of the Klingon uniform caused the most noticeable problems.
Print flaws were also a concern at times, and they seemed a bit heavier than usual. The mix of scratches, blotches, specks and grit weren’t more problematic than on the typical ST:TOS DVD, but grain appeared to be more prevalent than I’d expect. This element wasn’t overwhelming, but “Private” was one of the grainer Trek episodes I’ve seen.
Otherwise, the show looked quite good. Colors appeared consistently rich and vivid, which was pretty typical; Trek made excellent use of various hues and these looked nicely bright and lively, although they could occasionally seem slightly runny. At times Trek amped up color intensity a little too high, and those concerns could come through, but as a whole I found the tones to seem satisfying. Black levels looked fairly deep, and shadow detail seemed appropriately thick but not excessively heavy.
For the most part, “Gamesters” resembled “Private”, though it made a few improvements. Sharpness continued to appear fairly good. Some mild softness interfered with a few wider shots, but most of the episode looked concise and accurate. Modest moiré effects appeared, and the usual complement of print flaws also could be observed. Although “Gamesters” showed mild grain, that concern didn’t appear as heavy as it did during “Private”.
Colors remained nicely vibrant, though a few scenes displayed a minor yellow tint. Black levels seemed acceptably dense and dark, and shadows were also clear and accurate. “Gamesters” marked a modest improvement over “Private”, but the overall impression of the disc’s picture remained fairly average.
While nothing found on Volume 24 stood out in comparison to the prior disc, the consistency between the two shows seemed to be greater. Essentially, all of the comments I offered for “Gamesters” applied to both “Obsession” and “Immunity”. Sharpness became more of a concern during the early parts of “Obsession”, as some shots of Spock looked oddly out of focus. Otherwise, the usual mix of positives and negatives applied, and the same issues arose during “Immunity”. It lacked the focus problems I saw in “Obsession”, but in every other way it seemed to be very similar. As a whole, Volume 24 seemed to fit in with the visuals found on the prior DVD, but the overall presentation was tighter and more pleasing. As such, it warranted a “B-“ for picture quality.
As has been the case with all of the prior ST:TOS DVDs, these volumes feature newly-created Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes. This audio comes from original monaural tracks. The soundfield remains pretty heavily oriented toward the center, but it has been opened up a bit. Actually, the sound designers seem to be getting a bit more conservative as the series progresses. Earlier episodes featured more active soundfields, while the newer ones appeared to be more strongly anchored to the center speaker.
I find that to be a positive and a negative. On one hand, I can’t object to audio that replicates the original material, so if Trek remains largely monaural, I won’t complain about it. However, I thought the earlier, more active releases were very satisfying. They didn’t go overboard with gimmicks and they added to the material. As such, it’s a little disappointing to find that the newer tracks have cut back on the broadness.
For all four shows, the soundfield stayed fairly centralized. Music seemed to be modestly stereophonic in nature. I detected that the score spread from the center to a degree, but I didn’t think that the breadth was very significant; separation within the right and left channels appeared minor. “Private” offered some of the most interesting effects usage, mainly due to the gunfire that periodically occurred. Those elements split nicely to the side and rear channels, and that opened up the imagery to a small degree. “Immunity” also provided some fair effects separation when the Enterprise went after the germ monster, and that creature’s piercing cry popped up neatly in all five channels.
Still, the overall impression I got from the shows was that they remained largely monaural. Actually, while “Private” provided some good effects elements, it also showed a glaring error. After the Gumato bit Kirk, McCoy used his phaser to heat rocks to keep Kirk warm. The audio for the first one appeared accurate; the rock was on the right side of the screen, and I heard a phaser whine from that area. However, when McCoy fired on a stone found on the opposite side of the TV screen, the noise still came from the right! Hello, quality control!
Audio quality remained consistent through both DVDs, and it matched well with prior releases. Dialogue appeared very clear and reasonably warm and natural, with absolutely no intelligibility problems. Music seemed a bit flat at but the score generally sounded nice, and effects come across quite well for the most part. During prior DVDs, distortion could be a concern, mainly when explosions occurred. That wasn’t a problem on either of these discs. Even when we did hear blasts, they remained acceptably clean. I won’t say that these elements appeared accurate and lively, but they stayed fairly robust for material of this era, and they lacked significant flaws. Bass response appeared to be a bit tame - some earlier ST:TOS releases provided surprisingly deep low-end - but those aspects of the mix were fine for these shows. None of these episodes really needed highly active tracks, so I thought the audio for all four appeared to be quite solid.
The only genuinely unsatisfying part of these DVDs continues to stem 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. For the first 22 volumes of these discs, I griped about these omissions, and I don’t plan to stop now. I know that any changes in this domain are extremely unlikely at this point, but a boy can dream, can’t he?
You’ll find few surprises on any of these Star Trek: The Original Series DVDs, but their semi-predictability is fine with me since it means we get a consistently solid product. All four episodes found on volumes 23 and 24 were fairly good, though I definitely preferred the two located on Volume 24. “Obsession” and “The Immunity Syndrome” were good, intelligent Trek and they both worked well. Volume 23’s “A Private Little War” and “The Gamesters of Triskelion” seemed a little more ordinary, but both were fairly entertaining. Both DVDs offered largely similar picture and sound, though V24 presented superior visuals. Ultimately, both DVDs will be worth a look for Trek fans. I don’t think either is a “must have”, but I found no great negatives in either.