About a week ago I watched The Next Level, the Blu-ray sampler disc containing three episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation in HD. The level of my anticipation for this release cannot be underestimated, which is a little odd because I’m well aware that TNG is hardly the finest television show ever made. The technical and experiential leap forward that the disc offered was the true drawcard, the chance to see the cobwebs and dust blown off a cherished show to reveal what was always underneath but never before seen.
What’s remarkable about this release–and the complete series Blu-ray release it heralds–is that CBS had to essentially re-edit the episodes from scratch in order to create a high-definition presentation. The Next Generation was shot on 35mm film (which inherently has an even higher resolution than the 1080p offered on Blu-ray), but then transferred to videotape to be edited to save time and money. Visual effects were also often created on film but then composited with the live-action film on videotape.
So for 25 years, we’ve only ever seen The Next Generation in videotape quality, which is why your DVDs look so indistinct and dull: upscaling from videotape yields a subpar DVD because the visual information just isn’t available. But for years we assumed that this was the best it could ever get. To unlock the far superior image quality from the original film negative would involve:
- Pulling all the negative reels from storage (a salt mine in Pennsylvania, as it turned out)
- Painstakingly locating the final takes used for every single shot within every single scene
- Scanning these takes to create a high-definition digital copy
- Cleaning up each shot
- Editing the episodes back together, matching the timing of each shot precisely to the original, videotape-edited versions
Post-production would virtually have to be completed on these episodes again, although the effects shots are already extant, at least. Space sequences of the Enterprise and other ships were all made with models shot on film, and so were many composited effects like the transporter beam. These effects would then need to be recomposited as they were between 1987 and 1994, but this time in high-definition quality.
A few effects throughout the series were created with nascent CGI at very low resolution, however, so those effects would need to be redone from scratch. But even without those additions, such a project would still be time-consuming, labour-intensive, and expensive. Many fans assumed it would never be done.
And then last September, CBS announced that they would be doing exactly that for all seven seasons of The Next Generation.
So for any film or TV fan who gets a thrill from a shiny new restored version of a film being unveiled, this project is uniquely exciting because of its sheer scope. For one thing, restored films don’t even need to be re-edited because that process was all done on film. Even TV shows were edited this way until the late 1980s, which is why the recent high-definition presentation of The Original Series was so readily achievable.
So why are CBS doing this? To ensure that a perennially popular show like The Next Generation will continue to be bought by TV stations and new content providers like Netflix. In a few short years, high definition will be a standard that audiences demand, particularly younger viewers who have grown up with it. Murky, dull standard-def versions of TNG will no longer cut it, and potential viewers will turn the show off because it looks so damn old.
Even though first-run Trek series declined in popularity after TNG left the air culminating in Enterprise‘s cancellation in 2005, TNG has always had a healthy afterlife. Stations continue to pick it up to fill their schedules, even BBC America of late. It’s even back in Australian free-to-air primetime on Eleven.
If CBS wanted those licensing deals to continue, it had to give TNG a serious soapy scrub so it would look as well-groomed as the other kids. And given the time involved, it would need to start soon. CBS have three teams working on this 24 hours a day, and still only two seasons will be released a year on Blu-ray.
Blu-ray will likely be the first place these restored episodes are seen, but they’re merely an additional revenue stream and a way to spread word. For Trek fans though, they matter because they will present the episodes in the best quality yet possible given that a 1080p television signal isn’t yet possible.
So how do ‘Encounter at Farpoint’, ‘Sins of the Father’, and ‘The Inner Light’ look on this sample disc?
As markedly clearer as you’d expect given the godawful stunted, downgraded presentation we’ve been watching so far. ‘Farpoint’ in particular looks like an entirely different show. Colours are vibrant and present the sets and costumes more accurately (command uniforms are now red instead of purple). Detail is incredibly high, with skin that was once blurry and featureless now showing individual pores. Shortcomings of script and acting can’t be conquered, of course, but visually this is almost an entirely new show that looks like it was shot a couple of years ago.
And I love that this detail and clarity was there all along, buried in a salt mine in Pennsylvania. For a film nerd, that kind of reawakening is epically cool, and generates excitement to rewatch. I can’t wait to see The Next Generation all over again now, and the few episodes I haven’t seen will now premiere for me in the best quality possible.
But don’t take my word for it – you have to see this for yourself. Trekcore has an immense range of images and videos from The Next Level. In particular, check out the comparison videos and Flash presentations.
If you’re new to Star Trek, then seeing the show look like it was shot yesterday rather than in the 1980s may entice you to give it a go. However, it’s a hard show to recommend because much of the first two seasons are corny and subpar. Fortunately, two of the Next Level episodes – ‘Sins of the Father’ and ‘The Inner Light’ – show TNG at its truest and best.
Now when will season one be announced?!