Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 18, 2012)
When CBS released the third and final season of Star Trek’s “Original Series” on Blu-ray in late 2009, fans immediately wondered when they would get to Star Trek: The Next Generation. Oh, I’m sure that some also wanted to know when CBS would issue sibling franchises like Deep Space Nine and Voyager, but Next Generation remains the most popular of the Trek spin-offs, and chronologically, it makes sense that it’d hit Blu-ray before the others. After all, Next Generation was the first Trek series after the original, so one would expect it to reach high-def before the others as well.
A little more than two years after the “Original Series” finished on Blu-ray, we get high-def Next Generation - well, we get a hint of it, at least. Rather than launch with Season One in all its glory, our first glimpse of Next Generation on Blu-ray comes via a “sampler” disc called The Next Level. This includes three episodes of Next Generation and as the packaging states, it provides “a hint of TNG in high-definition”.
Before I discuss the specifics of the presentation – and any changes from the original broadcast episodes – I’ll chat about the programs themselves. Here’s what we find:
Encounter at Farpoint (Season One) launched ST:TNG with a bang. A double-length episode, this one introduced us to the new crew of the Enterprise in a pretty solid manner. Freshly appointed Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) meets and greets his charges.
They immediately enter the soup when a powerful being called “Q” (John de Lancie) appears and threatens the ship. He declares that humans are barbaric and challenges the Starfleet personnel to prove otherwise. They have to complete a diplomatic mission to a station called Farpoint, and “Q” will judge the results.
On the negative side, “Farpoint” tries to pack too much into its length. The show attempts to provide a fair amount of exposition for most of the new characters and feels like it wants to fit a season’s worth of material into one show.
Nonetheless, it’s still a good introduction to the series. “Q” is an entertaining and intriguing new villain, and though the show uses the same “omnipotent manipulative force” theme seen often on the original series, it does so in a reasonably clever and fun way; it even shows some self-referential indicators that make the program more enjoyable. “Farpoint” bites off a little more than it can chew, and it suffers from a squishy and sappy ending, but I feel it offers a good start to the series.
Sins of the Father (Season Three) reprised a concept from Season Two’s “A Matter of Honor”. In that episode, Riker (Jonathan Frakes) acted as an officer on a Klingon ship via an exchange program, so the Klingons return the favor here. Commander Kurn (Tony Todd) comes to serve on the Enterprise and generally drives all the crew up the wall with his demands.
All except for one: he goes curiously easy on the only other Klingon on board, Worf (Michael Dorn). The latter regards the compliments as an insult and confronts Kurn, who provides the rationale for his behavior: he wanted to test Worf because the two turn out to be brothers!
The Klingons feel Worf’s father may have betrayed them at a battle in which he died and the sons were lost, and by Klingon law, the elder brother - that’d be Worf - needs to challenge that judgment and clear his father’s name. The Enterprise jets off to facilitate this matter. Picard orders his staff to use their facilities to research the battle in question to find any evidence possible to solve the matter.
“Father” expands nicely on Worf’s backhistory and manages to avoid the soap opera tendencies that might mar such a plot. We learn a little more about the Klingon ways and get good delineation of Worf’s character. We even see Picard go at it with a little more hand-to-hand combat! “Father” offers a tight and compelling tale.
A mysterious probe approaches the Enterprise at the start of The Inner Light (Season Five). It sends a beam inside the ship that apparently only affects Picard. He passes out, and when he awakes, he finds himself on a strange planet in the hands of a woman who refers to him as “Kamin”. Her name’s Eline (Margot Rose), and she’s supposedly his wife. Picard/Kamin roams that landscape as he tries to discover where he resides and how he can get back to the Enterprise, even as the years seemingly pass. Meanwhile back on the ranch, we see that Picard remains unconscious, and the crew tries to figure out how to disconnect him from the probe and bring him back to reality.
When we see episodes that deal with Picard and an alternate reality, they usually find him in a domestic situation that forces him to examine the life he could have lived. “Light” offers a watchable but somewhat bland example of that genre. I do enjoy this kind of “alternate reality” material, and this show seems different from the others as it displays many years of Picard’s second life. Unfortunately, the probe’s purpose becomes obvious too early, which renders the show a little toothless. Overall, “Light” appears decent but unspectacular.
Apparently any time Star Trek moves to high-def, controversy comes along for the ride as well. When “The Original Series” headed to HD-DVD, it did so only with altered – and allegedly “improved” – visual effects. Paramount fixed this for the Blu-ray release, however, as it included both original and “updated” effects.
Similar potential concerns confronted the Blu-ray version of Star Trek: The Next Generation - and a new one popped up, as well. In the “related” area, the folks behind the Blu-ray Next Generation needed to figure out what to do with the shows’ effects. Although the series was shot on film, they finished the episodes on video. This meant that although the original live-action footage existed on film, all the effects resided solely in the video realm – video that looked crummy on DVD and would likely look even worse on Blu-ray.
To solve the problem, the producers of the Blu-ray went back to the original effects and reshot them. In essence, they recreated the same effects using the old elements, so unlike the computer effects made for the “Original Series” Blu-rays, these didn’t develop anything new.
Although I don’t have the Next Generation season set DVDs any longer, I rounded up a compilation with “Sins of the Father” on it and synched it to compare as I watched the Blu-ray. Based on this, I could tell the “recomposited” effects didn’t create an exact replica of the original, but they came very close – and often did look identical. The only real difference I noticed came from an establishing shot of a Klingon vessel; it was seen at a slightly different angle on the Blu-ray.
Otherwise, I thought the elements literally recreated the original effects. I’m sure that if I’d been able to directly compare the other episodes, I would’ve found more small discrepancies, but if this was an indication, it seems clear that the refilmed effects offered a very close match to the originals.
Even without comparison to the old DVDs, I could tell that the effects remained true in spirit. On the “Original Series” Blu-rays, the new effects stood out like a sore thumb; they never fit into the world of that show.
That’s not a problem here. Yes, the effects look good, but they still look like part of their era; they don’t feel anachronistic like the CG material plopped into the “Original Series”. At no point do the Next Generation Blu-ray’s effects feel too modern or out of place. Instead, they seem to be true to their era, and I’ll be surprised to hear of any negative fan reaction to them, as they appear to be accurate renderings of the original material.
The new controversy connected to Next Generation on Blu-ray related to aspect ratio. Rumors abounded that CBS would reframe the series for 16X9 TVs, with the idea that no one can stand to watch 4X3 material any longer.
Perhaps somewhere down the road we will see reframed Next Generation, but the Blu-ray sticks with the original 1.33:1 image. Well, it gives us a 1.33:1 image; I can’t claim it’s a perfectly accurate replication of the original broadcasts because of the comparisons I made.
As I watched “Sins of the Father”, I noticed that the Blu-ray offered tighter framing than the DVD. On the DVD, I witnessed a bit more space around the frame, so we got a little more information on the top, the bottom and both sides. At first I thought this might be due to a little TV overscan, but that would only affect the top and bottom; since the sides of the image get bracketed by black bars, overscan wouldn’t affect those parts of the picture.
While I can say that the Blu-ray does frame the image more tightly, I can’t claim that this makes it wrong. It might be, but the image still showed good composition; it simply eliminated some of the air around characters.
I’ll leave it to more knowledgeable Next Generation fans to debate the more accurate framing. I wanted to mention the discrepancy but didn't think it was a substantial snag; both images looked fairly similar and the Blu-ray altered only a minor percentage of the DVD’s frame.
This part of the discussion has veered into technical elements, so I guess that means it’s time to move ahead to the most important topic: how does the Blu-ray look and sound?