You mess with Harpo Marx, you get the horns.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

To Boldly Go Back Where No Man Has Gone Before

A few weeks ago, my blog compatriot Nuffy Noe informed me that the remastered and high-definition Star Trek: The Original Series is on Netflix. After turning cartwheels on the table (and to Nuffy's dismay, upsetting his bowl of Sopa del carnaval amargo del invierno), I settled down enough to finish the meal and realize I still had 9 hours to go before I could go home and watch an episode or twelve. Once I finally got in front of the home viewing screen, and after adding Vulcan ears and a blue shirt to my Wii avatar, I sat back in my Captain's chair and took in this new wonderment.  Now, we get Netflix via our Wii, so I'm never completely certain that it's true high-definition. However,the episodes look so crisp and detailed, you could almost peel the base makeup off of Leonard Nimoy's face.*

I grew up in a world where television viewers were at the mercy of semi-intelligent, apelike programming executives, with a fondness for variety shows based on the meager talents of pop acts and wannabe vaudevillians. In addition, through my entire childhood, 12 channels was the norm, and three to six of those were mildly entertaining static (less if Sesame Street or the Electric Company were on). So, it's a little disconcerting to have every single Star Trek episode at your fingertips, as available and willing as the talking computer on the Enterprise.

The first time I pulled it up it took me thirty minutes to decide which episode to play (The Doomsday Machine, of course).**

Having a giant slice of geek heaven at your disposal isn't without some drawbacks though.

The first oddity I noticed was the new special effects. The Enterprise leans into orbits like a motorcycle racer taking a hairpin curve. You can almost imagine Chekov and Sulu on the bridge shouting, "Whee!" as they circle the planet. When Commodore Decker makes off with the shuttlecraft in "Doomsday," instead of steadily making it's way out of the bay as though it were on a slightly rusty special effects chain left over from Sky King, it does a little dip as it zips out ("And I thank you!"). In "Balance of Terror" when the Romulans fire their energy weapon, instead of being a menacing ghostly white, it's a friendly mix of magenta and red. Who knew the Romulans were employing interior decorators as their weapons designers?***

It's not that the special effects are bad. They're actually pretty decent, especially compared to say, the average Nickelodeon sci-fi program (very low bar, I know). What's peculiar is that they haven't remastered all of the special effects. So, in one scene you get a fantastic shot of a highly detailed USS Enterprise fishtailing into orbit around a magnificent ringed planet, and in the next one you get one of the Enterprise's computer screen, displaying 23rd Century technology in all it's NBC, pre-Atari 2600 glory. You'd think they could at least CGI some decent videos into the various monitors on the bridge, instead of leftover photos from the last International Astronomers Union kegger.

Then there's the music and sound. It's way to easy to recognize what's new, because like everything else in our day and age, the producers determined that they could subtly improve the quality of those elements of the program by making them 10 times louder. In episodes with remastered title sequences, the swish of the Enterprise going by sounds like Bruce Lee whiffing on a roundhouse kick in one of his early Hong Kong action flicks. In season two and after, the title theme replaces the thrilling and mysterious sound of a small, balanced chorus of women with an obnoxious diva singing the familiar melody as though she were trying to break a wine glass with her voice.

Then there's the sheer detail of the images now. Because Star Trek was originally shot on film (35mm, if I'm not mistaken) there was always the prospect of releasing it in high definition. Now, viewers can see the ship, consoles, equipment, and colorful alien makeup with frightening clarity. The initial reaction: "Could they have toned down the green rouge on Spock, just a little? He looks like Herman Munster's kid brother!" Also, it's now apparent that what seemed to be complex electronic control panels were more likely rejected versions of Bally pinball consoles.

It's really a case of CGI in the wrong places. Instead of a souped up Enterprise, with everything but the Jaguar on the hood, we wouldn't mind seeing a few guide wires and glue lines on the models. That's the kind of nostalgia that fits a sci-fi series containing strained Vietnam analogies and planets with Nazis and gangsters perfectly. But that makeup? They should have spent their whole SFX budget there. They should have left the audio alone, period.****

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to decide whether to watch Kirk split into a good and evil version, watch him exchange psyches with a woman, or watch him turn into a false Native American deity in space. So many choices!

* Alternate joke - You can almost count the straps on William Shatner's girdle.
** I had exactly the same response to Monty Python's Flying Circus, only funnier. 
*** Now if only they'd let them work on the actual Romulan interiors. 
**** With one exception: the episode where the ancient Vulcan hero yells, "Spock!" as he's being tortured. Some reverb would make that perfect.

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