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Review: Star Trek: The Original Series (Blu-Ray)

Star Trek TOS Season 3 Blu-Ray Set

For my birthday this year, my friends Pooch and Reaper gifted me with the Season 1 and 3 boxed sets of Star Trek: The Original Series on Blu-ray disc. Since this series (hereinafter referred to as TOS) was perhaps my first television love, and sparked an obsessive fanaticism which hasn’t waned for a minute since, I thought it appropriate to post my impressions of these all-new, high-definition episodes. They are, after all, the most significant reissue of TOS yet.

Since the moment the final episode aired in 1969, the original Star Trek became one of those iconic shows that has seen release on just about every media format ever conceived by man. Over the years, I’ve owned episodes on Betamax, VHS and DVD, each release getting progressively better — the VHS tapes added preview trailers, the initial DVD releases added remastered picture and sound, etc. The Blu-ray discs, however, add more than any of the others, for they contain the remastered episodes with all-new effects shots created by CBS Digital and rendered in high definition. This enhanced version of TOS has, amongst Trek fandom, become known as TOS-R.

What CBS has done here is monumental. Almost every effects shot in the series — ship flybys, phaser combat, etc. — has been reproduced digitally. This effort was apparently sparked by the format of the original effects composites, which were apparently low-resolution and could not be scaled up to high definition without massive quality loss. CBS’s solution was to recreate the effects entirely, and what we end up with are some (mostly) pretty impressive renders that add a whole new level of depth. Every time you see the Enterprise on screen, it’s like seeing her with a totally new set of eyes. Even several minor composite shots have been replaced, like some of the hand phaser effects and what-not.

The Blu-ray discs bring to life not only the new effects shots, but the old tried-and-true footage of Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest of the gang as well. TOS has never looked better — or sounded better, either, thanks to the new 7.1 surround sound mix. While watching the episode “Wink of an Eye” on the big screen earlier tonight, I was stunned by the level of detail that’s visible. At times, this even had the effect of cluing me into the crummy paint jobs and slapdash construction of the set pieces, which made me chuckle because I’ve never noticed them despite years and years of watching this same footage over and over.

Unlike the DVD releases of the past decade, the massive capacity of the Blu-ray format gives us a lot of advantages. For a start, there are five episodes per disc, meaning that each season fits on a very manageable six or seven discs. (I know that this isn’t that much of a step up from most TV-on-DVD releases, but the last time I bought TOS DVDs, they were the original orange boxes from the late ’90s — where only two episodes were fitted per disc. While that allowed for excellent picture quality, it meant buying 40 discs in order to own the whole series. Which I did, naturally, over the course of nearly a year — hence my hesitation to buy any more until now!)

More importantly, the Blu-ray format gives purists an extra treat by providing the original video and audio track for every episode on each disc. This means that if you’re one of those folks who thinks the new remastered effects look “lifeless” or “amateur,” you can simply select “Original Version” from the disc’s episode menu, and your original 16mm model shots will be there in all their 1960s-vintage glory. Likewise, the original mono audio track is also available for each episode, so you can go full-retro if you really want.

For an extra dose of awesome, you can switch between the original and remastered version of an episode in mid-stream. Let’s say you’re watching “The Tholian Web,” and you get to the part where Kirk & Company come upon the stranded U.S.S. Defiant — one of the better visual re-imaginings in the TOS-R series. If you want to compare the original effects to the new ones, simply hit your Blu-ray player’s angle button and you can toggle back and forth without interruption. It’s pretty darn cool.

There are tons of extras included on the Blu-rays; with a few omissions, all of the special features that came on the previously-issued set of now-defunct HD-DVD releases are present and accounted for. Easily the coolest features of all are “Billy Blackburn’s Treasure Chest,” containing rare on-set footage from Trek background actor Billy Blackburn’s personal film camera. This gives you a glimpse of candid moments during the filming of Trek, the likes of which I’ve never seen before. If you thought William Shatner hammed it up in front of the camera, you should see some of this stuff.

Rounding out the presentation are the menus, which resemble 3D renders of the Enterprise’s bridge consoles, complete with the requisite sound effects. While you drill through the available options, the bridge’s main viewing screen shows you an amalgamation of Enterprise wireframes and clips from the various episodes on the disc. The menus are very slick, easily navigated and perfectly functional overall.

There’s one more special feature, if you can call it that, in the third season boxed set of TOS-R. A little promo card slipped into the disc case entitles you to a free “Wrath of Khan Admiral’s Uniform” for the Star Trek Online PC game, meaning you can put the “movie-style” crimson jacket and ribbed turtleneck uniform on your in-game character. Now you can dress your female Vulcan bridge officer in it and run around calling her Saavik until she nerve-pinches your abusive ass into submission.

Paramount has a long history of overcharging for Star Trek DVD sets. When The Next Generation first arrived on DVD, each season was selling for a flat-out ridiculous $130. (I started buying them, but had to give up after season 3 because of the expense.) But with the TOS-R Blu-rays, you can actually pick up each season for a fairly affordable price, provided you shop at the right places. Amazon has each set for around $50, which I think is perfectly reasonable. Unfortunately, if you want to trip down to Great Best Buy and pick them up instead, you’ll be asked to pay more like $80, which is a much tougher pill to swallow.

The only bad thing about these sets — and this only applies to seasons 1 and 2 — is the packaging, another area where Paramount typically drops the ball. The plastic case that the discs come packaged in is as thick as two standard DVD cases, and inside is a rod-like spine that’s attached to the case itself by way of two brackets. Attached to the spine, in turn, is a flipbook of disc trays that holds each of the Blu-ray discs. The problem is that the two brackets are very easily broken irreparably off their mounts, leaving your disc trays to flop wildly about inside the case. This, as you might imagine, is very prone to occurring during shipment. My season 1 set arrived with the brackets already broken. As I write, Amazon has actually suspended shipments of season 2 because of overwhelming complaints about the same issue.

Paramount seems to have wised up by the time they got around to releasing season 3. The third season set comes in a slimmer case that’s no thicker than a standard DVD, and contains a revised interior design that’s less prone to “violent disassembly.”

Unfortunately, Paramount’s disc labeling still leaves a lot to be desired. As with every other Star Trek release on record, they refuse to print the episode titles on the label of the disc itself, so you have to go digging through the case or box to see which disc to put in if you’re looking for a particular episode. (Okay, the Voyager DVDs do have the episodes titles printed on the disc, but they’re printed in a spiral around the inner hub, making them almost impossible to read!)

Fortunately, packaging is of little importance when it’s the content that matters, and the content is presented in about as flawless a way as I can imagine. As home entertainment technology continues to progress, CBS Digital’s remastered effects coupled with Paramount’s Blu-ray release ensure that we’ll be able to keep boldly going back to the 1960s for many years to come.

A big round of applause to Pooch and Reaper for making this review — and tonight’s dinner theater — possible!