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"Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Next Level" Blu-Ray Review

I finally had the time to take check out the long anticipated Blu-Ray release of Star Trek: The Next Generation. This, it has to be said, is just a “sampler” disk providing episodes from various seasons: “Encounter at Farpoint” (the pilot), “The Inner Light” (arguably the best ever Next Gen episode) and “Sins of The Father” (a 2-part Klingon based episode).

I must admit that I never expected “The Next Generation” to appear in any High Definition format as I thought it all the episodes had been shot on low-quality video rather than film. Now it appears that only the effects shots were shot on video and they've been remastered for the HD release.

Rather than going the CGI route for external ship shots, the original model was re-shot in high-def using similar tracking moves to those for the original effects shots. This might explain why there are so few external ship shots in these sampler episodes. Other effects have been remastered in CGI as was done for the remastered Original Series.

So here's my impressions of this HD release…

Sound Quality: Brilliant - it's 7.1 surround though the original stereo tracks are there for purists. I remember watching Next Gen in the 90s with a surround sound amp plugged into the TV's audio outputs. But that was nothing compared to the 7.1 audio soundtrack on offer here.

Video Quality: The episodes look pretty good though I expected to see a bit more detail in them. That's probably down to my aging eyes though. I remember TNG episodes as having low-contrast lighting and always being a bit fuzzy, a result of it having being shot on video (as I thought at the time). I never liked the low-contrast look as it made the episodes look a bit wan or “flat”. The only time I thought they got the lighting right was in Yesterday's Enterprise which had a more stark lighting. Lighting was used to good effect in TOS, but it was a type of film making eschewed in the late 80s and early 90s.

Here's a video showing the differences between the original and remastered episodes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZQetJVRu0I

With this Blu-Ray release, the contrast has been tweaked so there's less of a washed out look and colours are more punchy. Detail is good. All the effects shots were redone in HD but in the opening sequence of Encounter at Farpoint, where the camera pans over the Enterprise, my first thought was “it looks like a model” not a real ship. High Definition has good and bad aspects.

Now to my real gripe: the episodes are presented in 4:3 aspect ratio. Yes, I know they were originally shot in 4:3 and broadcast in 4:3 but I found the format a bit claustrophobic to watch. They felt very boxed in. And rather than being pulled into the episodes, the black bars kept pulling me out of them.

The Original Series (TOS) was released on HD (both on HD-DVD and Blu-Ray) in 4:3 format as well, as it too was shot in that format. However, watching its episodes, the black bars never intruded on my enjoyment of an episode. That said, CBS did do a 16:9 version of the remastered TOS which was made for broadcast. I only saw it in standard def on the CBS Action channel, but they took the time to reframe shots using pan-and-scan rather than simply zooming in to the center till a 16:9 rectangle was filled and cropping. It looked fantastic. That's the set I wish they had released on Blu Ray. Unfortunately, it's never been released but I'd double-dip for that set.

I don't think 4:3 appeals to modern audiences, even to those of us who grew up watching it. If you're going to reframe a 4:3 format into 16:9, then you are going to lose some parts of the picture. In most cases, with proper reframing, nothing of importance will be lost.

I feel that a huge opportunity has been lost here to attract modern audiences to TNG (and TOS) by issuing the sets in their original 4:3 aspect ratio. Ideally, both versions would be available on the one set of Blu-Rays so the consumer has the choice to watch their preferred version. They did that in a way with the TOS release giving the option to watch the episodes with the original effects or with the remastered effects. And CBS have shown (with TOS) that they can reframe episodes in 16:9 format without compromising them.

Star Trek sets have never been cheap on DVD or Blu-Ray and never seem to fall in price as the years pass. Much as I like TNG, and much as I love HD, I can't see myself buying any of the TNG Seasons on Blu-Ray simply because they're in 4:3 format.

I want to be pulled into the alien worlds that play across my HD TV. I want a visual field that closely matches the ratio of what I see in the real world and 16:9 does that better than 4:3.

It's a matter of personal taste. Film-makers may say that episodes were shot in 4:3 and framed for that format because that's what they wanted or that's what was available at the time and reframing for 16:9 is altering their vision of the episode (e.g. Joss Whedon on early seasons of Buffy). I don't like 4:3 any more because there's almost always a sensation of looking at the TV though blinkers. Maybe I'm alone in that viewpoint, maybe I'm not. I want to watch widescreen stuff - that's why I bought a widescreen TV after all! Some series can get away with being 4:3. TNG, for me, isn't one of them. I want to see wide-open space vistas and alien planets not a boxed-in, tunnel-vision view.

That's why I think releasing TNG HD in 4:3 format is a missed opportunity. It won't appeal to modern audiences and relies pretty much exclusively on the existing fan-base to buy into it, double or triple-dipping as most will already own The Next Generation on DVD (a not inexpensive set when it was released).

Pity.

TNG seasons have been released since late Summer 2012, and all seven seasons should be issued by 2015. Older seasons are priced around the $50 mark (twice what you'd pay for new season of any other show) and about $75 for new releases on Blu-Ray (three times the going rate for seasons of other shows). And there's the rub: the price is too high.

Compare those prices to another well-known sci-fi franchise - Stargate. While there's been no Blu-Ray release of the “Stargate SG-1” series, all five seasons of “Stargate Atlantis” are available in a boxset for just under $100 (about $20 per season). “Stargate Universe” comes in at about $29 per season on Blu-Ray. And a 5-season boxset of “BattleStar Galactica” on Blu-Ray will set you back just $61, less than the price of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” Season 5 ($76).

While a greater than average price is expected to cover the costs of the re-engineered special effects and image clean up, what is being charged per season still seems excessive. The pricing of “Star Trek: Enterprise”, currently also being released on Blu-Ray, is all over the place, ranging from $34 all the way up to $85 for different seasons. And this series didn't require any remastering.

So the only conclusion to draw is that the Star Trek series released on Blu-Ray are as expensive as they are because people are willing to pay over the odds to get them.

As much as I love Star Trek, I don't appreciate being fleeced (multiple times) by the companies that produce the Blu-Rays. So I won't be buying any more Trek on Blu-Ray.


Television


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