Hasslein Blog: BLU-RAY REVIEW: Star Trek: The Next Generation Season Two Remastered


Hasslein Blog

Monday, January 7, 2013

BLU-RAY REVIEW: Star Trek: The Next Generation Season Two Remastered

by Rich Handley

One downside to doing something incredibly well the first time around is that it sets you up to disappoint in the future. The Matrix sequels, the Star Wars prequels, The Fly II, Escape from L.A. and both Ocean's films not ending in the word "Eleven" proved this all too well.

Last year saw the release of Star Trek: The Next Generation's remastered first season on Blu-ray, and the reactions were near-universally positive. Never had the series looked so amazingly vibrant, crisp and bright, and never had it sounded so clear. Suddenly, 25-year-old episodes looked as though they had been produced within the past year or two. That first season was brilliantly remastered, setting the bar remarkably high. I wish I could say that Season 2 maintains that level of quality, but for all of its positives, one negative stands out, and it's a big one: the remastered effects, which sometimes fall short of that bar.

Despite a writer's strike, the loss of Beverly Crusher and a 
clip-show finale, season two had a number of excellent episodes.

For Season 1, CBS Digital handled the effects restoration and did a marvelous job. Because parent company CBS Corp. intends to release the entire series on Blu-ray by next year, however, the tight schedule prevented CBS Digital from being able to do all of the required work on time. To that end, the company will restore only the odd-numbered seasons, with other firms assigned to oversee the even ones. That's unfortunate news, consistency-wise.

Sadly, it appears that HTV Illuminate, hired to restore Season 2 (and, ironically, owned by former ST:TNG visual effects supervisor Dan Curry), cut some corners. As a result, although much of the live-action footage looks fine, many of the planetary shots, ship exteriors and space views look noticeably low-resolution and blurry compared to what was accomplished for the prior season. In one bizarre case, which can be viewed below, elements are presented out of alignment, causing the front of the Enterprise's saucer section to seemingly vanish. This is especially frustrating when one recalls that a documentary on Season 1 showed CBS Digital discussing how it successfully avoided this very same problem.

Giving the term "saucer separation" a whole new meaning.

Don't get me wrong; there's much to laud and be excited about with this latest release. First and foremost is the extended, 57-minute version of Melinda Snodgrass' award-winning episode "The Measure of a Man," in which Data must fight to maintain his freedom in a court case established to rule whether he is Starfleet's property. Thirteen minutes of the original cut had been trimmed prior to airing, but that earlier version has thankfully survived the past quarter-century, stored safely on a VHS tape in Snodgrass' possession.

"The Measure of a Man" has long been regarded as one of TNG's finest episode—indeed, one of Star Trek's best from any series—and for good reason. It resonates on every level: brilliant writing and directing; a poignant discussion of slavery between Picard and Guinan; powerful acting on the parts of Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes and Brent Spiner; and stellar casting for the roles of Amanda McBroom as Phillipa Louvois and, in particular, Brian Brophy as Bruce Maddox (it's a crime that neither character was ever brought back for future episodes). So the revelation that CBS would be throwing in some extra footage for good measure (sorry, I couldn't help myself) was welcome news among Trek fandom.

Commander Maddox, space bully

The longer version does not disappoint. The new scenes include Maddox, Jean-Luc Picard and Admiral Nakamura beaming aboard the Enterprise, with Nakamura and Picard reminiscing about their days aboard the USS Reliant; Picard confronting Nakamura regarding Data's transfer to Maddox's command; Data gifting Geordi LaForge with his Sherlock Holmes pipe, and considering life outside Starfleet; and an extended version of Data's Ten Forward party, in which an uninvited Maddox insults the android by comparing him to a circus freak, before being brusquely escorted out. Other scenes involve William Riker interrupting Picard's fencing match to warn that he intends to do whatever it takes to win as prosecutor; Picard helping Data prepare his testimony; Data citing William Shakespeare's "kill all the lawyers" speech from Henry VI, Part II; Picard adding an extra, pointed "Do you?" during his closing argument; and an extended cut of Data's post-hearing conversation with Riker, in which Data calls the commander "Will."

These additional scenes, while not necessarily vital, are nonetheless exciting and well-executed. It's a testament to Snodgrass' resilient script, in fact, that so much material could be cut out or added back in without sacrificing cohesion. The fencing confrontation, in particular, provides a counter-balance to the aired scene in which Riker peruses Data's schematics and discovers the android's "off" switch, and it also drives home Riker's emotional battle at being asked to prosecute a valued friend and comrade, versus his drive to excel at everything he does.

Phillipa Louvois judges Picard sexy.

The only cut scene that doesn't quite work involves Maddox crashing Data's party. By barging in and so harshly mocking Data in front of his friends, Maddox comes off as an unrepentant jerk and bully, as opposed to his on-air portrayal as a man simply too driven by his work to recognize another viewpoint besides his own. At no point during the aired episode does Maddox truly qualify as a villain, despite the tension of the conflict, since he means Data no harm; he has noble intentions, in fact, and is merely blinded by his desire to expand mankind's accomplishments. But with the "circus freak" scene added back in, he becomes too aggressively antagonistic to remain likable. It's good that it was cut.

The extended edition utilizes not only the above new scenes, but also a number of new angles for existing shots. Both the original and extended cuts are included, as well as a "hybrid" version combining the high-definition aired scenes with Snodgrass' rough-cut extras. I recommend the extended cut over the hybrid version, but it is interesting to compare the two. Unfortunately (and this was also true for Season 1), none of the episodes are presented in their original, non-remastered form. This I consider a grave oversight, not only for archival purposes, but also as a marketing tool; offering both versions would have provided an extra incentive to get fans to buy the Blu-rays. When The Original Series was remastered, the 1960s versions were included alongside the new cuts, enabling fans to compare and contrast; it's a shame CBS failed to do the same with The Next Generation.

Data lends a hand to Riker.

In addition to the extended version of "The Measure of a Man," the set also features deleted scenes from the episodes "The Icarus Factor" and "Up the Long Ladder." In the single cut scene from "The Icarus Factor," Wesley Crusher informs Worf and LaForge that Riker has assigned him to an urgent project, leaving him unable to help them "study Worf," who has been acting strangely due to his inability to properly celebrate the tenth anniversary of his Age of Ascension. This redundant scene adds little to the story, and would have dragged the pacing had it been used.

The other deleted scenes are from "Up the Long Ladder," and include a filler shot of Riker seating himself in the captain's chair and smiling; an extended version of the Ready Room meeting between Picard, Riker, Pulaski and Wilson Granger regarding the Mariposa colony's origins and the need for new clone DNA; Danilo Odell telling a campfire story to his fellow Bringloidi; and a wrap-up shot at the episode's conclusion in which the Bridge crew discuss the future of the two colonies. Most of these scenes add naught to the episode and were wisely cut, but the final one features a very amusing gag (that I won't spoil) involving Worf reciting Klingon love poetry. It's a shame that one wasn't retained in the aired episode.

Deleted scenes from The Next Generation are hard to come by, so it's a rare treat to be able to view these. But it's unfortunate that these are the only two episodes (aside from "The Measure of a Man") for which extra footage is provided, especially since "The Icarus Factor" is a mediocre tale, while "Up the Long Ladder" is widely considered one of the worst of the entire series.

OK, so maybe "Up the Long Ladder" wasn't ALL bad...

"The Icarus Factor" and "Up the Long Ladder" are also heavily referenced in "Departmental Analysis, Year Two: Memorable Missions," which is a bit perplexing. With such excellent stories to spotlight as "Q Who" (which introduced the Borg) "Elementary, Dear Data" (the first Sherlock Holmes outing), "The Emissary" (introducing Worf's mate, K'Ehleyr), "Loud as a Whisper" (a surprisingly sensitive Deanna Troi love story involving a deaf mediator) and, in particular, "A Matter of Honor" (Riker's Klingon exchange-program episode), it's strange that CBS would bring so much attention to much-maligned clunkers like "Up the Long Ladder." Some of the above episodes are mentioned during the "Memorable Missions" special, but it's disappointing that more attention wasn't paid to highlighting the gems in this weak season, which was plagued by a Hollywood writer's strike, causing a number of subpar scripts to be filmed.

That said, the abundance of entertaining features is a definite highlight. Among these is an on-air promo for the second season, introducing Diana Muldaur as Doctor Pulaski and Whoopi Goldberg as Guinan (or "Alien Humanoid," as she is called in the promo). This ad brought a grin to my face, immediately propelling me back to 1988, when I anxiously awaited the return of my favorite new television series. Particularly amusing is the announcer's mispronunciation of "Data," given a scene early in the second season in which Data corrects Pulaski for making the same mistake.

Of Season 2's two cast additions, only one connected with 
audiences... proving that sometimes a man will tell things 
to his bartender that he'll never tell his doctor.

A special titled "Season 2 Tech Update" features interviews with Michael and Denise Okuda, who are always informative when discussing Star Trek, the success of which they have played a large part in ensuring. As they did on the Season 1 set, the Okudas recall their work in the 1980s and explore what it's like to revisit that work 25 years later. Additionally, Dan Curry discusses his role in remastering the quarter-century-old effects, and describes using CGI to recreate some elements of the breathtaking Borg cube interior from "Q Who." In another extra, "Departmental Briefing, Year Two: Production," Curry explains how the unusual cube design was conceived, noting, "In the vacuum of space, aerodynamics are irrelevant, and it gave the Borg a very sinister and indifferent quality to their surroundings."

Another great feature is an archival segment of LeVar Burton's acclaimed children's TV series, Reading Rainbow. The segment in question takes Burton's young audience behind the scenes at ST:TNG, explaining how TV shows are made, how scenes are set up for filming, how the transporter beam effect was produced (amazingly, this was accomplished simply by pouring glitter into clear water and stirring it) and so forth. According to Burton, this was the most popular of the series' 155 episodes, and its inclusion in this set is sure to bring a smile to many faces.

I particularly enjoyed "Inside Starfleet Archives," in which Penny L. Juday, Paramount's Star Trek coordinator, explains her role in maintaining the firm's extensive Trek archives (props, models, set pieces, blueprints, drawings and much more). I almost skipped this feature, not expecting much, but I'm glad I didn't. Juday provides a tour of some of Paramount's six massive warehouses, and it's very impressive. Think "Raiders of the Lost Ark's final scene," and you'll have a good idea.

Penny Juday... giving props to Star Trek.

Juday provides a close-up look at numerous props used on The Next Generation. These include the blue and yellow cargo containers often seen aboard the Enterprise, which look huge onscreen but are actually the size of a Barrel of Monkeys toy; various shuttlecraft models; the Dyson Sphere from "Relics"; a space station dubbed "The Mushroom," used in TNG, The Motion Picture, The Search for Spock and elsewhere; Chekov's eel-infested ear from The Wrath of Khan; the Regula I station model; Borg energy packs from First Contact, made from bird feeders and a fluorescent tube; and a variety of weapons, including disruptors, Bat'leths and phaser rifles.

My personal favorites form that special are a cross-section of the Enterprise hull, cored out by the Borg in "Q Who," so detailed that it shows the ship's plumbing, furniture, electrical wiring and carpeting, most of which would not be visible onscreen; and the Utopia Planetia station, kit-bashed from miniature aircraft carrier pieces, garbage can lids, graphics tape, car-stripping tape, radio components, a bird bath, a cat toy, an egg poacher, hair curlers and more.

Why you should never piss off the Borg.

Fans will love one particular extra: "Reunification: 25 Years After Star Trek: The Next Generation," hosted by Robert Meyer Burnett, the writer and director of Free Enterprise and a consultant for the Las Vegas attraction, Star Trek: The Experience. Most of the TNG cast (aside from Denise Crosby, Colm Meaney, Whoopi Goldberg, Michelle Forbes and Diana Muldaur) sat down with Burnett for a lengthy reunion, in which they reminisced about the show, shared personal memories of the past quarter-century, and made it clear how close and loving their relationships with one another have remained to this day. Poignant, humorous and insightful, "Reunification" is a must-watch, with Stewart's fellow actors frequently ribbing him about his age, his baldness, his faulty memory and his tendency to constantly bring up his Shakespearean past… but always with genuine and mutual fondness behind the joking. It's touching to watch, and it's a delight to see most of the cast come together to discuss their unique shared experiences.

The hilarious gag reel included on disk three reinforces that affection. The cast clearly enjoyed working together, to the extent that they found it difficult to recite their lines without losing composure and joking around. Frakes, Stewart, Spiner and Michael Dorn are particularly goofy, and it's difficult not to laugh along with them upon seeing Dorn, normally so serious on the show, repeatedly smiling, laughing out loud and flubbing his lines, much to the others' amusement.

A family that laughs together stays together.

Two comments from the reunion special sum up why ST:TNG resonates so strongly with fans. Says the still-lovely Marina Sirtis, "One of the reasons the show was such a big hit was that, fundamentally, good stories, well-written, well-acted, right? But, we had Old Baldy here as our captain, and we knew, kind of viscerally, that he was not going to be involved with anything that wasn't excellent. And I think that basically trickled down to the rest of us." And from Frakes, sharing insight once imparted to him by the late Gene Roddenberry: "In the 24th century, there will be no hunger and there will be no greed, and all of the children will know how to read."

It's moments like these that make the set worth buying. Despite the uneven effects remastering and the odd focus on weak episodes, the Season 2 Blu-ray set is still enjoyable, though it's unfortunate that the first season's quality could not be maintained. HTV Illuminate will reportedly not be assigned further seasons, and a promo for the upcoming Season 3 set looks amazing. Like Icarus, the remastered Season 2 at times flies too high, falling short as a result. With luck, future sets will usher the TNG Blu-rays back up the long ladder to Season 1's glory.

Also posted at TrekWeb.com.

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