In spite of the recent success of the previous three Star Trek films, there was no guarantee that a series featuring a brand-new crew about a brand-new U.S.S. Enterprise would connect with an audience.
Creator Gene Roddenberry's spin-off was a tremendous risk and a mammoth undertaking when it went into production in 1987.
Now, 25 years, three spin-offs, and four Next Generation movies later, CBS and Paramount are poised to take on another daunting task as Star Trek: The Next Generation makes its way to Blu-ray.
It will still be a few months before the first full season of the series makes its way onto the format, but Trekkies (or Trekkers... as a fan myself, I've always preferred Trekkies) needn't worry. January 31 will see the release of Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Next Level, a three-episode sampler that offers a glimpse into the possibilities the now-classic series has in high-definition.
And if this release is any indication, the sky is the limit for Captain Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-D (extra nerd points for the first reader to comment which character actually uttered the phrase "The sky is the limit" in the TNG finale, 'All Good Things...').
Set about 100 years after the days of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, Star Trek: The Next Generation followed the adventures of Captain Jean-Luc Picard (played by the venerable Sir Patrick Stewart) and the crew of the new, Galaxy-class starship Enterprise.
In terms of special effects and general technical prowess, TNG stood head-and-shoulders above its 60s-era predecessor, but the quality of the storytelling was (at best) hit-and-miss.
Your odds of tuning in to see a watchable-but-unspectacular episode were about equal to your odds of catching an episode that was a step-and-a-half above garbage during those first couple seasons.
Gradually, though, the TNG crew began to take leaps that the folks behind the original series never dreamed of; paramount (no pun intended) among TNG's accomplishments is its ability to stretch its characters beyond their function within a given plot.
On the original series, the characters were more or less defined by their duties. McCoy was the doctor; Sulu flew the ship; Uhura answered the phone.
Now, let's take a look at the new crew of the Enterprise, starting with (arguably) its most popular character, the android Data (played by the amazing Brent Spiner) - a machine with capabilities (both physical and intellectual) far exceeding those of humans. However, he lacks the capacity for emotion and compounds that with a strong desire to understand and emulate humanity.
Then there's Worf (Michael Dorn), a Klingon warrior orphaned as a child and raised by humans. He's spent his entire life serving with humans, and yet he clings to and continuously honors the warrior heritage of his native people.
Finally there's Picard himself. Whereas Captain Kirk was (as described by Damon Lindelof) much akin to Tom from the Tom and Jerry cartoons (if you whack him over the head with a mallet, he'll forget all about it by the next scene), Picard is a character who carries the weight of his responsibilities and of his past missions through his future ones.
Picard is a character who stands apart as a capable military commander and a curious explorer - a prototypical commander who served as the mold for future Trek (and other sci-fi) leading characters.
And there was also the family aspect to the camaraderie between the characters. Picard had a history with both Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) and her son Wesley (Wil Wheaton). Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes, who went on to direct two TNG movies) and Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) were ex-lovers. Data and Geordi (LeVar Burton) went on to become best friends. And so on.
As for the episodes included on the sampler:
'Encounter at Farpoint' (1987) - In the pilot episode, the Enterprise is intercepted by the omnipotent Q (John DeLancie in the first of his tour de force performances of the character), who charges that humanity is a "grievously-savage child race" and contends that it has traversed the galaxy for too long. The more cerebral aspects of this episode (as with most things written by Roddenberry himself) are set out too far for the show to be able to grasp it. Having said that, this is a fairly well-structured pilot in terms of character introductions and setting the tone of the series.
'Sins of the Father' (1990) - Reunited with his long-lost brother, Kurn (Tony Todd of Candyman fame), Worf is informed that his deceased father is to be charged as a traitor to the Klingon Empire. Worf (with the help of Picard) must clear his family's name or live with the dishonor of treason for generations to come. However, as the investigation digs deeper, it becomes clear that things are not as they seem within the Empire. This is the first of the "Klingon" episodes (which were primarily written by Ronald D. Moore, one of the spearheads of the Battlestar Gallactica re-imagining) that added a new layer of intrigue to a race of characters that Roddenberry once referred to as standard "black-hat villains."
'The Inner Light' (1994) - The Enterprise encounters a probe adrift in space that connects with Picard and gives him a unique experience: In the span of 25 minutes, Picard lives an entire life in the body of man whose race died out thousands of years prior. This is widely regarded as one of the best episodes of the series, and with good reason. It's definitely the best stand-alone episode TNG has to offer, and it's a clear demonstration of the sophisticated manner in which the series endeavored to tell its stories.
Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Next Level comes to Blu-ray with a beautifully-rendered and remastered 1080p AVC-4 encoding that makes the show look far better than it has ever looked before. Having upgraded and cleaned the original film elements for the transfer (rather than the standard practice of converting from videotape), Paramount presents a vision of TNG that is positively breathtaking.
It's hard to believe that the special effects are in no way remastered – at least not in the manner of replacing the old, practical model effects with CGI models. Indeed, they're the same special effects they've always been; it's just that we can actually SEE them for the first time.
The colors of the red, yellow, and blue Starfleet uniforms are vibrant (as are all the colors), and the details textures absolutely come to life.
For the clearest example of just how clear these images are, however, look no further than exterior shots of the Enterprise. Every nook and cranny of Industrial Light & Magic's beautiful model of the Enterprise is on display in all its glory. Every detail is now wonderfully visible. Again, it's hard to believe that these are the images we've been looking at all along.
As for sound, Paramount has sprung for a magnificent 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that comes to rollicking life. The trademark constant rumble of the Enterprise has been mixed in perfect proportion to the more prominent sounds (perhaps for the first time ever), and ambiance in general is amazing.
Then there's the sounds that are at the forefront. The crash when an object or a phaser blast connects with the Enterprise; the urgent pulse of the "Red Alert" sound - this presentation is an absolute treat for the ears.
Beyond the Feature
As this is just a sampling (a taste of things to come, as it were), there are no bonus features. To be frank, I'm disappointed that we didn't at least get a short, behind-the-scenes type featurette about converting the pilot to Blu-ray, but, really, these episodes are pretty much their own reward.
And if this is just a sample, then I can't wait to savor the full dish. A concrete release date has not been set for the arrival of the first season of Blu-ray, but I can assure you that I'll be awaiting it anxiously.
To be honest, when I heard about this release, I was skeptical about the quality. Sure, it'll look good on Blu-ray, but honestly? How good can it look? Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that Star Trek: The Next Generation could look and sound even half as good as the wizards at Paramount have presented it.
And, yet, Paramount has made it so.
- Jason Jarman
Shop for Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Next Level on Blu-ray for a discounted price at Amazon.com (January 31, 2011 release date).
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