Monday, March 3, 2014

Trekking in HD: Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season One

Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season One 
Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before. 

In the summer of 1986, Paramount Pictures was on a collective “high” about Star Trek.  Much to the studio’s surprise, Gene Roddenberry’s sci-fi TV show was now the company’s crown jewel franchise. It survived cancellation by the NBC TV network in 1969 by becoming a hit in syndication. In 1973, Star Trek returned briefly to network television via Filmation’s Star Trek: The Animated Series.  Plans for theatrical films and TV movies came and went, but by 1977, plans were underway to launch an updated version of the show as the flagship of the Paramount Television Service. 

The new series, Star Trek: Phase II, starred most of The Original Series’ cast except Leonard Nimoy. Star Trek: Phase II would depict Capt. James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and the crew of a refit USS Enterpriseundertaking a second five-year mission in space. Gene Roddenberry signed on as executive producer, and many veterans from the 1966-1969 series joined the production staff. Roddenberry and the writers wrote several teleplays, including a two-hour pilot titled In Thy Image. Matt Jefferies designed new sets, and costume designer William Ware Theiss updated the classic Starfleet uniforms. 

To replace Spock, actor David Galtreaux was cast as Lt. Xon, a full Vulcan science officer. Persis Khambatta was cast as Lt. Ilia, the Enterprise’s Deltan navigator. Planned but yet uncast was the role of First Officer Decker, a young and dynamic Starfleet officer. 
A short time before production began on Star Trek: Phase II, however, Paramount’s plans for its TV network fell apart. Nevertheless, spurred on by the success of 20th Century Fox’s Star Wars, the studio announced the cancellation of the yet-unseen TV series and asked Roddenberry to turn In Thy Image  into what became 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. 
The subsequent success of the first four Star Trek movies, including 1986’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, inspired Paramount to convince Gene Roddenberry to create a new Star Trek series. The new show was set almost 100 years after Kirk’s original five-year mission and featured a new Starship Enterprise. TheEnterprise-D, Galaxy-class ship, was larger than the first Enterprise and was designed for a 30-year mission of exploration. This Enterprise had the capacity to carry a larger Starfleet crew and their families. 
Launching a New Enterprise 
 Star Trek: The Next Generation – as the show was eventually titled – was designed as an ensemble show in contrast to The Original Series triad of leading man William Shatner and supporting actors Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley. Instead, Roddenberry and his team created nine major characters, including: 

Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart)
First Officer Cmdr. William T. Riker (Jonathan Frakes)
Ops Officer Lt. Cmdr. Data (Brent Spiner)
Navigator Lt. (j.g.) Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton)
Security Chief Lt. Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby)
Counselor Lt. Cmdr. Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis)
Asst. Chief of Security Lt. (j.g.) Worf (Michael Dorn)
Chief Medical Officer Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden)
Wesley Crusher, Dr. Crusher’s son (Wil Wheaton) 

Indeed, except for the name of the ship and some background elements (the Federation, Starfleet, deep space exploration mission), Star Trek: The Next Generation was designed to be free from too many links to Roddenberry’s “classic” Trek. Writers were to avoid stories dependent on Vulcans, Klingons, Romulans or other established characters from The Original Series.  Aside from a few nods to Kirk’s ship and her crew,Star Trek: The Next Generation’s  focus was on its new cast and on all-new stories. 

The show was pitched to the major networks, including NBC. Despite the success of Star Trek: The Original Series in syndication and the box office performance of the spin-off movies, the networks declined. This worked in Paramount’s favor; the studio preferred offering Star Trek: The Next Generation to individual TV markets in first run syndication. This would free the producers from interference by the networks’ Standards and Practices departments (the censors) and give writers the creative space they needed. 

However, Paramount truly was going where no one had gone before. As co-executive producer Rick Berman later explained, “Star Trek: The Next Generation had three strikes against it before it even made it on the air. It was an original syndicated series. It was a science fiction series. It was a  syndicated science fiction sequel.” If there was a recipe for a potential ratings disaster, The Next Generation had all the ingredients.   

Paramount announced the series’ creation on October 10, 1986. The cast was introduced in May 1987. Four months later, on Sept. 28, 1987, Star Trek: The Next Generation made its debut with a two-hour TV movie,Encounter at Farpoint. 

Growing Pains 
Star Trek: The Next Generation’s first season had its fair share of problems. Some of the  writers and producers who had worked in Star Trek: The Original Series – including  David Gerrold, D.C. Fontana, and Eddie Milkis – helped Roddenberry in the early stages of pre-production. However, creative differences with “the Great Bird of the Galaxy” caused most of them to leave. Milkis was gone before filming began onEncounter at Farpoint, and Gerrold left by the time the seventh episode aired. Only Robert H. Justman, the associate producer for Star Trek: The Original Series and the creator of Next Generation’s Lt. Worf, stayed till the end of the season. Then he retired. 

There were various reasons why Star Trek: The Next Generation had so many growing pains during its first season. One, of course, is that no television series ever has a perfect first season. The characters may be well-defined in a show’s “bible,” but it takes time for the writers and actors to get their heads into how these people think and behave.

It took several weeks for Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, Marina Sirtis, Denise Crosby and the other cast members to gel as a team and embody their characters. The first batches of episodes show the actors gamely grappling to “get into” their roles. By Episode 26 (The Neutral Zone), however, the cast is more at ease on the Enterprise set and the characters are more appealing. 
The biggest weakness of the show was in the teleplays. Though many of them had their good bits, the scripts were usually allegorical in nature rather than being straightforward dramas. Many stories had plots in which the Enterprise crew beamed down to an alien planet and learned X, or the aliens would get a lesson in Y from Capt. Picard or other Starfleet personnel. And because The Next Generation was set in a more enlightened era, conflicts were resolved by Capt. Picard’s diplomatic skills rather than by more action-adventure means. 

Gene Roddenberry’s insistence that there was to be no interpersonal conflict within the Enterprise crew also limited the series’ dramatic possibilities. Many writers joined the staff eager to be a part of the Star Trek mythos, only to leave in frustration because their scripts were rewritten or rejected by Roddenberry. 

Finally, Star Trek: The Next Generation (ST-TNG) had to attract the faithful core of Star Trek: The Original Series’ fans. The original cast was still active and making theatrical features set in the 23rd Century, and many TOS fans complained that Picard, Riker, Data, and Dr. Crusher weren’t Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. 

There were other sources of discontent about the new show. Lots of Trekkers groused that the Ferengi were poor substitutes for the Klingon and Romulan adversaries of Kirk’s era. The show was too allegorical or too dependent on Picard’s skills as a diplomat. Other fans strongly disliked Wil Wheaton’s Wesley Crusher; they were annoyed by his precociousness, his ability to save the Enterprise from danger before trained officers could and his seemingly implausible status as an acting ensign on the Bridge. 

Still, The Next Generation was still Star Trek;  the show’s ratings were good enough for Paramount to produce the full first season’s slate of 26 episodes. And despite the unevenness of the writing, there were several superb episodes. Tracy Torme’s The Big Goodbye, Robert Lewin and Gene Roddenberry’sDatalore, Maurice Hurley and Robert Lewin’s 1100110011, Joseph Stefano and Hannah Louise Shearer’sSkin of Evil rank among the best episodes of ST-TNG’s freshman season. 

The Blu-ray Set:  

CBS Blu-ray, which produces Star Trek home media for Paramount after CBS acquired the franchise’s copyright several years ago, released Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season One on July 24, 2012. The six-disc collection is ensconced in a slim Blu-ray jewel box package not unlike that of its Star Trek: The Original Series – Season 3 counterpart. Its cover art (which is duplicated in the cardboard slipcover) featuresST-TNG’s Starfleet insignia against a red backdrop. Within the Starfleet delta are portraits of Capt. Picard, Cmdr. Riker and Lt. Cmdr. Data. The background art depicts the Enterprise-D cruising near a planet, with distant stars lying further away. 

My Take: I’ve never owned previous Paramount’s VHS or DVD issues of Star Trek: The Next Generation, so I can’t offer a comparison between the Blu-ray edition and its forebears. According to the package blurb and some of the behind-the-scenes materials in the set: 

For the first time ever, (viewers) can experience all 25* season one episodes in glorious 1080p high definition, with true high definition visual effects and English language digitally remastered 7.1 sound – or with the original audio.  You’ll witness new picture detail and depth and enjoy spectacular visual effects that have been painstakingly re-created from the original film elements…not upconverted from videotape! Join Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and the entire crew of the Enterprise on a voyage of to the next generation…of Star Trek: The Next Generation. 
In contrast to the remastered versions of Star Trek: The Original Series, the wizards at CBS Video did not replace the 1987-1988 era special effects with 21st Century updates. They did, however, digitally clean up the images directly from the original film used during the show’s production. The result: a vast improvement in video and audio quality that doesn’t compromise the vision of the original directors and effects supervisors.

Fans of behind-the-scenes documentaries will enjoy STARDATE REVISITED: The Origin of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the first in a series of retrospectives about the series and how it was made. As its title suggests, it delves into how and why Paramount decided to make ST-TNG as a first-run syndication series. 

STARDATE REVISITED: The Origin of Star Trek: The Next Generation also discusses such topics as production design, the casting process, and some of the difficulties Roddenberry and the production staff encountered during the first season. Denise Crosby’s voluntary exit from ST-TNG is explained in detail, as is Gates McFadden’s firing as Dr. Crusher at the end of Season One. 

Written by Robert Meyer Burnett and Roger Lay, Jr. (who also directed), STARDATE REVISITED: The Origin of Star Trek: The Next Generation features new interviews with executive producer Rick Berman, David Gerrold, Rick Sternbach, Michael Okuda and the entire main cast. 

Owners of the DVD editions will note that the Mission Logs extras have been bundled into the Blu-ray edition. These short featurettes examine various aspects of the series and show highlights from several episodes. 

Viewers can choose to watch each episode with or without its original TV promotional ad. While this feature adds some nostalgia value to the experience, the promos are not presented in high definition. As a result, they look outdated and don’t match the clean and crisp visuals of the episodes. 

Despite its various teething problems – many of which had an effect on Season Two – Star Trek: The Next Generation’s first season still has its charms. Patrick Stewart and his fellow cast members perform well enough to keep viewers interested despite the uneven quality of the scripts. The special effects still hold up even though they’re 25 or more years old now, and viewers can see hints that the show will improve in later seasons. 
Capt. Picard: There's still much to do; still so much to learn. Mr. La Forge - engage! 
Note on Languages (Subtitles and Audio) 
Though the product listing on Amazon only lists “English” in the Language category, Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season One features various languages in both audio and subtitle options. English is the default selection on the preliminary menu, but viewers may also choose Danish, French, Japanese, Castillian Spanish, Italian, Dutch, German, Finnish, Italian, Norwegian, and Swedish. (Some of these options apply to audio and subtitles, though some apply only to subtitles.) 

Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season One 
Disc One: 
Encounter at Farpoint, Parts 1 & 2 
The Naked Now 
Code of Honor 
Special Features: 
Episodic Promos 
Energized! Taking the Next Generation to the Next Level 
Star Trek: The Next Generation Archives: The Launch 

Disc Two: 
Where No One Has Gone Before 
The Last Outpost 
Lonely Among Us 
The Battle 
Special Features: 
Episodic Promos 
Disc Three: 
Hide and Q 
Too Short a Season 
The Big Goodbye 
Angel One 
Special Features: 
Episodic Promos 
Disc Four: 
Home Soil 
When the Bough Breaks 
Coming of Age 

Special Features: 
Episodic Promos 
Disc Five: 
Heart of Glory 
The Arsenal of Freedom 
Skin of Evil 
We’ll Always Have Paris 
Special Features: 
Episodic Promos 
Disc Six: 
The Neutral Zone 

Special Features:
Episodic Promos 
STARDATE REVISITED: The Origin of Star Trek: The Next Generation 
Gag Reel 
DVD Featurettes (“Mission Logs”) 

* Reviewer’s Note: The blurb states that Season One consists of 25 episodes instead of 26. This disparity exists because the TV movie Encounter at Farpoint originally aired in a two-hour broadcast in September of 1987. Paramount later split the pilot into two episodes to make it easy for stations to rerun Encounter at Farpoint  without eating up valuable air time.

© 2013-2014 Alex Diaz-Granados.  All Rights Reserved

Mobsters, Horses' Heads, and Cannoli: The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration

Michael: My father made him an offer he couldn't refuse.
Kay Adams: What was that?
Michael: Luca Brasi held a gun to his head, and my father assured him that either his brains or his signature would be on the contract.

When I was nine years old, my mom, older sister, and I saw Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather at the now-gone Tropicaire Drive-In in Miami. The now-classic adaptation of Mario Puzo's novel about an aging  New York Mafia don's efforts to hand over his empire of crime to his favored son was a top draw, and Mom and Vicky were  curious about it. I don't know why they took me; I'm assuming that they couldn't find a babysitter, or perhaps they didn't think that it had any objectionable content.

Because we had recently moved back to the States after living abroad for six years, I was still learning English, so I didn't understand any of the movie's plot, nuances, or the dialogue. I was, however, freaked out by the two scenes that stood out the most in my nine-year-old mind.

The first scene was the "horse's head in the bed" sequence in which movie producer Jack Woltz (John Marley) wakes up and finds the severed head of his prize stallion in his bed. (Woltz, you see, had refused a relayed request from Don Vito Corleone [Marlon Brando] to sign singer Johnny Fontaine [Al Martino] in his next movie. The indignant producer had shown the doomed horse off to Don Vito's consigiliere, Tom Hagen [Robert Duvall], then rudely told Hagen to tell the godfather where to stuff his request.)

The other scene that freaked me out was the bit at the movie's climax when a naked Moe Green (Alex Rocco) is shot in the eyes as he is enjoying a massage.  Although this bit was only part of a larger "Michael Corleone settles a mob turf war" sequence, it struck genuine terror in me and gave me nightmares that night, and for several nights after that.

As a result, I didn't want much to do with Coppola and Puzo's multi-generational saga of crime and Italian-American family drama for many years. I had never liked crime dramas much even when they were cut-and-dried "crime doesn't pay" tales a la the original Scarface, so it took me until very recently to warm up to a trilogy where most of the characters are either mobsters, relatives of mobsters, or their corrupt "allies" in law enforcement and government.

[to Rocco who has killed Paulie in the car]
Peter Clemenza: Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.

Now that I’m older and somewhat more open-minded about movies with morally ambiguous characters, I have overcome my Godfather phobia and purchased The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration.

Produced and released by Paramount Home Entertainment in 2008, this four-disc Blu-ray collection includes:

The Godfather (1972): In the late 1940s, the aging Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) struggles to keep his mob empire intact and grooms his favored son, Michael (Al Pacino) as his designated heir.

The Godfather: Part II (1974): Both a prequel and a sequel, this chapter of the Corleone saga shows how a young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) became a Mafioso, then picks up Michael’s tale where the first film left off.

The Godfather: Part III (1990): In the early 1980s, an aging Michael thinks about retiring from the family business, but just when he think he’s getting out, something drags him back in.

Each of the films has a director’s commentary track by Francis Ford Coppola, in which the acclaimed filmmaker discusses various aspects of the Godfather saga.

The Godfather Restoration: Supplements (2001, 2008): This is a revealing behind-the-scenes disc which combines featurettes made from the earlier DVD box set and the newer high-definition BD collection. Like the bonus discs found in 2011’s Alien Anthology or Star Wars: The Complete Saga, this disc is a Blu-ray disc (BD) instead of the usual standard-definition DVD that stingy studios like to include in BD box sets.

Special Features (which include materials from the 2001 Coppola Restoration DVD set)

Featurette: “The Masterpiece That Almost Wasn’t”

Featurette: “Godfather World”

Featurette: “Emulsional Rescue: Revealing ‘The Godfather’”

Featurette: “….And When the Shooting Stopped”

The Family Tree/The Crime Organization

Montage: “’The Godfather’ on the Red Carpet”

Four Short Films on ‘The Godfather’

Audio Commentaries

Documentary: “The Godfather Family”

“Behind the Scenes” Featurettes


Additional Scenes/Historical Timeline

Kay: It made me think of what you once told me: "In five years the Corleone family will be completely legitimate." That was seven years ago.

Michael Corleone: I know. I'm trying, darling.


Michael Corleone: Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in.

Paramount Home Entertainment’s packaging for The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration consists of a blue plastic multi-BD jewel case which features a stark black and red label with the famous The Godfatherpuppet-master logo in gold. The red element is a simulated bloodstain that, if you look at it closely, depicts some of the saga’s main characters. To the right of the pool-of-blood poster art, you’ll see a facsimile of Francis Ford Coppola’s signature.

The jewel box is protected by a cardboard slipcover with the same front cover art. Ensconced in the slipcover is a slim promotional brochure:

See this famously dark, staggeringly beautiful trilogy of films presented by the filmmaker as originally envisioned for the cinema. – From The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration brochure

Unlike, say, the booklet that comes with Columbia Pictures’ Dr. Strangelove two-DVD set, the one with The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration doesn’t include an essay by a film critic or any in-depth examination of the movies’ impact on Hollywood and American culture. Essentially, the booklet is a combination of contents’ guide and catalog of major awards and nominations. While I can live with this because the fourth BD is chock full of interesting behind-the-scenes stuff, it would have been nice if Paramount Home Entertainment could have coaxed Coppola to write at least a short essay for this collection.

My Take: Even though I’ve owned this set since April of this year (2013 for future reference). I’ve only had time to watch The Godfather, part of The Godfather: Part II, and most of the extras on the fourth disc. I think that Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece is worthy of all the critical praise it has received over the past 40 years, but I’m still surprised that a movie with very few “good” characters has such a wide appeal.

Maybe it’s because the screenplay by Mario Puzo and Coppola manages to add layers of human complexity to its major characters by showing the different facets of their personalities.

For instance, Brando’s Vito Corleone is a feared and respected Mafia don who can have a man killed with a softly whispered command, yet Coppola shows him as a doting father and grandfather who’s not above making funny faces at one of his grandkids.

And, of course, we have Pacino’s Michael Corleone, a decorated war hero who, like it or not, is destined to take his father’s place at the head of his family, both literally and in the context of La Cosa Nostra. After all,The Godfather trilogy is all about Michael’s seduction by the power wielded by organized criminals, and how he is corrupted by that power despite his intentions to go “legit.”

The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration looks sumptuous in this carefully remastered  high-definition edition. Each frame of all three movies has been meticulously cleaned and repaired; there’s no sign of dust, film stock degradation or scratched negatives. The films’ contrasting lights and darks now look as sharp and clearly defined as they were when they were released theatrically in 1972, 1974, and 1990.

In a similar fashion, the audio tracks – particularly the English 5.1 TrueHD Dolby one – capture every line of dialogue, every gunshot, and every note of the musical scores crisply and cleanly.

All in all, if you’re a long-time fan or a newcomer (like me) to the Godfather saga, The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration is the best way to see these landmark movies outside of a top notch movie theater.
© 2013-2014 Alex Diaz-Granados.  All Rights Reserved