And the train kept a-rolling! With this newest batch of Star Trek: The Original Series DVDs, the accelerated release pace that began with Volumes 23 and 24 continues. Though a month or two has separated most pairs, the newest duo comes only two weeks following the arrival of its predecessors.
You’ll hear no complaints from me, and I applaud Paramount for this decision. Trek fans seemed to be somewhat dissatisfied with the leisurely release pace of the prior discs, so it’s nice to see that the studio apparently responded to the concerns. I don’t know if the pattern will continue for long, but I’m still happy to see more frequent ST:TOS releases.
Without any further ado, 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 25: “A Piece of the Action” and “By Any Other Name”
The newest package of DVDs starts with a bang via “A Piece of the Action” (broadcast 46th). This episode takes a mildly-worn Trek concept - a planet that functions as an alternate 20th century Earth - but it spices it up with lots of fun and cleverness.
The Enterprise takes a visit to planet Iotia a century after the last Federation examination of their culture. Much to the surprise of Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and crew, it turns out that their society has changed greatly over that span. Apparently they’re a very imitative folk, and they’ve adapted their culture to meet what they read in a book left behind by their past visitors. The crew of the Horizon failed to retrieve their copy of “Chicago Mobs of the Twenties”, and the Iotians have organized their society around the Prohibition-era gangsters.
When Kirk, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and McCoy (DeForest Kelley) arrive on the planet, the natives immediately capture them, and they meet the first of many mob bosses, Bela Okmyx (Anthony Caruso). He keeps them prisoner, but they escape via some confusing gameplay by Kirk. Unfortunately, a rival boss named Krako (Vic Tayback) quickly scoops them up, and Kirk soon finds himself attempting to get out of this mess without severely tampering with Iotian society.
Star Trek went down this path in the past, but I thought that “A Piece” was one of the more entertaining iterations of the “alternate Earth” concept. The show became endearing largely because of Shatner’s typically campy acting. He threw himself into a gangster version of Kirk, and though he walked a fine line between funny and silly, he generally stayed on the positive side.
Actually, I thought “A Piece” provided one of the series’ most delightful segments as Kirk teaches the made-up card game of “Fizzbin” to the natives. The banter between Kirk and Spock reaches a fun level.
Most of “A Piece” stayed frisky and amusing, and I really enjoyed it. Hey, even if the rest of the episode had problems, who can resist an appearance from Vic “Mel” Tayback of Alice fame? This show’s broad comedy may make it seem groan-worthy to some, but I liked it.
By the way, there seems to be some disagreement about the spelling of “Okmyx”. Plot summaries from Internet pages call him “Oxmyx”, as do the DVD’s subtitles. Indeed, the name sounds like “Oxmyx”. Unfortunately, the end credits just call him “Bela”. So why did I go with “Okmyx”? Because the only time we see it written occurs in Krako’s office, and there it’s “Okmyx”. That’s the best proof we have of the accurate spelling, so I’m sticking with it!
“By Any Other Name” (broadcast 51st) also works from some standard Trek conventions but it manages to create an interesting an enjoyable program. I didn’t think it was quite as much fun as Action, but the result was an above-average Trek nonetheless.
At the start of this show, the Enterprise responds to a distress call from the Kelvans, a group from the Andromeda galaxy. Apparently these folks need a new planet because theirs will become uninhabitable within a few millennia, and they need the Enterprise to take over the Milky Way for their own use. When Kirk asks why they don’t just cooperate with the Federation and find a similar planet, the head Kelvan named Rojan (Warren Stevens) declares that this is simply the way they do things. They possess strong powers and quickly turn the ship’s crew to matter cubes, with only a skeleton crew of Spock, Kirk, McCoy and Scott (James Doohan) left in their normal form to operate the ship.
Although they’re really huge tentacled beasties, the Kelvans have adopted human form for this journey. Kirk and the others learn to capitalize on this modification, for it opens the Kelvans to a variety of problems. Not only do they look like humans, but they also take on some of our characteristics, and these stuffy critters start to enjoy their new surroundings. Scotty gets one of them drunk, and - inevitably - Kirk makes out with the sole Kelvan hottie, which inspires negative feelings in Rojan.
Eventually all of this leads to a successful resolution by Kirk and company. (Hey, that’s not a spoiler - it’s not like we don’t already know they’ll prevent the Kelvans from destroying all life in our galaxy!) “By Any Other Name” didn’t tread any new territory for the series, and some aspects of the show seemed to stretch credibility even beyond the normal limits.
Nonetheless, after a somewhat dry start, I thought the episode offered a fairly compelling experience. The crew’s attempts to get under the skin of the Kelvans became a lot of fun, and I felt the show proceeded at a nice pace. It reminded me a fair amount of Volume 21’s “I, Mudd” in that human emotions were used to subvert an unstoppable but painfully logical group, but “By Any Other Name” differed from that prior episode enough to be engaging in its own right.
Picture/Sound/Extras: Volume 26 C+/B/D-
Volume 26: “Return to Tomorrow” and “Patterns of Force”
After two very solid episodes on Volume 25, it seemed inevitable that the shows on the next disc would mark a decline. That’s the case here, though the dip represented by “Return to Tomorrow” (broadcast 49th) was a small one.
At the start of the show, the Enterprise receives a distress call from a mysterious planet. There they discover some of the usual semi-omnipotent beings, but these folks have their problems; a cataclysmic war long ago destroyed their planet, and only a few “survivors” have been left in disembodied form. The leader is Sargon, and he’s the one who contacts the Enterprise. These folks can zip into the bodies of living beings, and Kirk agrees to let Sargon give his carcass a whirl.
Though this puts an incredible stress on his system, Kirk decides that he and the others should help the disembodied aliens. Spock and Dr. Ann Mulhall (Diana Muldaur) allow their bodies to be used as well so that Sargon, his wife Filisa, and former foe Hanoc can construct androids to permanently house their “essences”.
Mulhall and Kirk can only stand brief injections of the aliens, but Spock’s stronger constitution allows him to sustain Hanoc for much longer periods. As such, he’s put in charge of creating a formula to lengthen the time during which the humans can maintain them. Unfortunately, Hanoc has other ideas. Although he gives Filisa/Mulhall the booster shot, he tries to kill Kirk/Sargon so he can a) stay in this bitchin’ Spock body, and b) get it on with sexy Filisa, who has become rather accustomed to her new physical surroundings.
Trek episodes during which powerful aliens manipulate the crew of the Enterprise were nothing new, but this show worked fairly well due to a nice emotional aspect. I won’t spoil the ending, but a theme of sacrifice works its way into the show, and the relationship between Sargon and Filisa adds a level of warmth and sadness to the program.
I also love to see Nimoy’s opportunities to loosen up a bit, and the villainous Hanoc gives him the chance to spread his emotional wings. While that aspect of the show was fun, some especially hammy acting from Shatner almost ruined it. He wasn’t able to aptly convey the noble and emotional sides of Sargon, and one particular monologue came across especially poorly. I always thought Shatner’s charisma and charm compensated for his weaknesses as an actor, but this was one episode during which the bad almost outweighed the good.
Despite that concern, I still enjoyed “Return to Tomorrow” and found it to be a generally satisfying show. Easily the worst of the four episodes on these two discs is the final one. “Patterns of Force” (broadcast 50th) takes a potentially powerful concept but it mucks it up with muddled execution and a tame story line.
As occurred during “A Piece of the Action”, the Enterprise have come to check on another humanoid planet. However, things have become even more problematic on Ekos than they were on Iotia; the society has come to almost perfectly replicate Nazi Germany. Oddly, their Führer seems to be a Federation advisor named John Gill (David Brian). Kirk needs to get through to this leader to find out how the apparently kind and gentle man became a latter-day Hitler. He also must straighten things out because the Ekosians have pursued a slaughter of the residents of their neighboring planet called Zeon.
Although the episode contained some potential to be a powerful and moving piece, it completely squandered it. While not as comic as “A Piece of the Action”, I thought “Patterns” didn’t utilize a radically different tone, and this was its fatal flaw. Perhaps in the period of Hogan’s Heroes it seemed okay to translate Nazis into comedy, but I thought “Patterns” delved too deeply into the core of the movement to feature any attempted humor.
Really, the show’s greatest problem stemmed from this trivialization of the Nazis. They aren’t treated much differently than were the Twenties gangsters, and the tone remains too light. The episode was nothing more than another Trek caper, and while it had a few entertaining moments, I thought the piece failed to deliver the depth it needed to succeed.
I also disliked the show’s gross misinterpretation of Nazi society. During the episode, peace-loving Gill believed he could unify Ekos and Zeon via the strength and organization of the Nazis and he could make it work without the negative aspects of the culture. Unless I misread the story’s message, it seemed to relate that Nazi Germany could have been a solid place to live but absolute power corrupted its leaders and led them to do bad things.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. Absolute power allowed Hitler and the others to do all of the bad things they’d wanted to do for years. Their ascension didn’t create inappropriate desires and actions; it enabled dreams to be realized. To be certain, some aspects of Nazi Germany were well-executed, as their leadership rebounded remarkably from the depths of the Depression and their humiliation after World War I.
However, to believe that Hitler and the others ever had any noble intentions for their creation is to misread history to a ridiculous extent. I don’t mind the liberties the show occasionally take with real-life cultures, but Nazis remain a very touchy subject, and this episode’s story was too far off-base to succeed.
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. Both DVDs continued the generally positive visuals seen on the prior discs, though Volume 26 offered somewhat stronger images.
Volume 25 showed slightly weaker material, as both “A Piece Of the Action” and “By Any Other Name” featured a mix of mild concerns. Sharpness generally appeared solid, with only a few minor instances of softness. Those issues cropped up mainly in wider shots; when the camera stayed close, the image came across as nicely detailed. Interiors also showed a modest fuzziness at times, as the indoor shots presented the most problems. As usual, some minor moiré effects appeared throughout the episode, but these stayed fairly small.
Print flaws were a little more substantial than typical. “A Piece” showed a mix of small nicks and specks plus some hairs, and it also displayed more grain than many other episodes. “By Any Other name” stayed with the normal issues and didn’t seem any worse for wear than most Trek shows, though the grain could be a little heavy. Periodic appearances of nicks, marks, and blotches caused these shows to look slightly dirty at times.
Colors appeared somewhat inconsistent, especially during “A Piece”. At times, some hues looked nicely bright and vibrant, as was the case when we saw street scenes on the planet. However, interiors became more bland and drab, and on those occasions, the colors appeared a bit flat.
The same concerns arose during “By Any Other Name”. Overall, this episode seemed a little murkier than most, and its colors were marginally less vivid than usual. Shots on the planet surface showed the blandest tendencies, and that episode came across as a bit muddier than most.
Black levels seemed to be acceptably deep and dark, and shadow detail remained acceptable. Unfortunately, low-light interiors could look rather drab and indistinct. The image stayed fairly watchable, but I thought this inside shots showed a lack of clarity that made them somewhat weaker than usual for Trek. Ultimately, the two shows on Volume 25 appeared to be fairly solid, but they seemed to be pretty average.
I saw improvements for the two episodes on Volume 26, though these weren’t huge. “Patterns of Force” marked the biggest upgrade as it showed the finest picture of these four shows. It displayed some of the usual concerns, but the overall impression I received was of a cleaner, tighter image. Sharpness seemed good, and colors were more vibrant than I witnessed on the V25 shows. The usual print flaws appeared as well, but they were less substantial than normal.
Similar improvements appeared during “Return to Tomorrow”. Some evidence of grain and other defects cropped up, but these seemed a little more subdued than what I saw on the prior DVD. Colors remained solid and acceptably vivid, and sharpness seemed to be fairly clean and accurate. A small amount of softness appeared, but this wasn’t as substantial as during the V25 shows. Ultimately, V26 marked a noticeable but not huge upgrade from the previous disc.
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. During the past few discs, I’d noticed that the soundfields seemed to have become less ambitious than those heard on earlier releases. However, that trend stopped with V25, a disc that provided some of the best ST:TOS audio heard to date.
The star of the show was “A Piece of the Action”, which provided a very solid auditory environment. The episode offered a nicely defined spatial atmosphere - especially within the city - and quite a lot of activity arose from the side channels. Cars panned neatly from one speaker to another, and the mix seemed lively and engrossing. Music also displayed better stereo separation than I’d recently heard; the score spread nicely to the sides and appeared to be well-delineated. Surrounds kicked in good reinforcement of the main elements, and they even added some split usage during gun battles.
The soundfield of “By Any Other Name” wasn’t quite as strong, but it still marked an improvement over other recent episodes. This mix created a solid atmosphere, especially on the planet surface. When the characters were inside a cave, the echo appeared clean and realistic. Music remained nicely separated, and the overall impression was positive.
While the soundfield of “Return to Tomorrow” seemed a bit more subdued, it still was strong for ST:TOS. The ship’s atmosphere provided a nice sense of depth and broadness, and some echo to the speech of the aliens added a good layer of distinctiveness. The mix stayed more closely to the center than did those on V25, but it still was a fairly broad and involving piece.
“Patterns of Force” stuck with a similar soundfield. It broadened nicely at times, and some good localization appeared, but as a whole it was somewhat subdued in the manner of “RTT”. Nonetheless, I thought the mix worked well for the material, and it opened up the track nicely. I was especially impressed with some smooth and clean panning that occurred, particularly when cars traveled from side to side.
Sound quality remained fairly positive for all four episodes. Dialogue appeared very clear and reasonably warm and natural, with absolutely no intelligibility problems. Music seemed a bit flat but was generally nice, and effects came across quite well for the most part. A little distortion appeared during gunfire shots, but these problems stayed pretty modest.
More than most ST:TOS DVDs, these two offered quite solid bass response. Throughout the four episodes, I heard some nicely deep and rich tones. For example, drumming during “Return to Forever” boasted a solid impact, and many aspects of “A Piece of the Action” seemed especially warm and robust. Ultimately, the audio found for both Volumes 25 and 26 didn’t blow away what I’ve heard on earlier discs, but these two DVDs provided some of the strongest 5.1 remixes to date.
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 24 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?
Despite the lack of extras, I continue to really enjoy the run of Star Trek: The Original Series DVDs. Of these two discs, I thought that Volume 25 was the clear winner. It provided two very solid episodes, and while the picture quality of each was fairly average, they both offered surprisingly good sound. As for Volume 26, one episode - “Return to Tomorrow” - was quite interesting, while the other - “Patterns of Force” - was a fairly weak program that was marred by a trivialization of history. If you only want one of these two DVDs, I’d go with Volume 25, but both discs would be good additions to your Trek collection.