The shakedown cruise of Star Trek: The Next Generation—may have been a bumpy one, but it got the newest incarnation of the U.S.S. Enterprise into action while winning over the "Trekker" fanbase at large. Gene Roddenberry's 1987 sequel to his 1966-1969 cult favorite rejoined the Star Trek universe seventy-eight years hence, assembling a whole new crew for the "continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before."
The wisest decision made by Roddenberry and Paramount Television (who mutually agreed to syndicate the series rather than having to answer to network brass) was the casting of Shakesperean actor Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Even in Star Trek: The Next Generation's most eye-rollingly cheesy moments, if Stewart's on camera, he's unwaveringly lending gravitas and total credibility. In the first season, the writers don't always serve him especially well, though he's given a chance to run the gamut of stentorian authority to endearing awkwardness around children to comic flourishes when made "drunk" by disease or playing private-detective dress-up on the ship's "holodeck." The holodeck was another genius innovation for the next TV go-round of Trek: given a test run in Star Trek: The Animated Series, the idea allowed crew members to recreate, for recreation, any time and place they desired. For Picard, that means stepping into the shoes of pulp-fictional private dick Dixon Hill and walking around his 1940s milieu.
Another most logical update finds Picard mostly bound to the relative safety of his command post on the bridge, while his "Number One," First Officer William T. Riker (Jonathan Frakes) leads "away team" missions on planets and other vessels. Roddenberry's vision of "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations" (a Vulcan motto) finds yet greater expression in The Next Generation. The bridge crew now includes an android named Data (an immediately spot-on Brent Spiner), the proverbial "blind man driving the ship" in helmsman Geordi LaForge (LeVar Burton), and a representative of the Federation's one-time enemies: Klingon tactical officer Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn). Rounding out the main cast are Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden), who has a history with Picard; Crusher's teenage son Wesley (Wil Wheaton); Ship's Counsellor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), and Chief of Security Lt. Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby), who would be written out of the show before season's end. (Future recurring cast member Colm Meaney also makes his first of many appearances in the pilot episode.)
The show's first season is far from perfect, but few first seasons ever are. Fans immediately criticized a tendency to repeat plots and plot devices from "The Original Series," including the overt homage that was the show's second episode "The Naked Now" (a sequel to the "Original Series"' first-season episode "The Naked Time"). The entertaining outing sends a deadly and intoxicating virus rampant through the ship, the better to release the crew's inhibitions and reveal hidden character. Not so entertaining was the show's tiresome over-reliance on illness as a plot point, and fans bristled at their fair perception that Wesley, a scientific prodigy, seemed to be saving the ship all the time (at least he gets an early field commission to "Acting Ensign" that legitimizes his proximity to the action). Many of the Season One plots are dull or, worse, senseless in the behaviors of the characters, but even the worst outings are watchable on the strength of the likeable cast.
Sirtis still cringes (and rightly so) at her psychic arias of "Pain. Such pain! Pain!" in the pilot, but she finds her footing. After overacting out of the gate, Crosby was just about finding her groove around the time, feeling under-used, that she asked to be released from her contract (she would return for guest spots). Burton is a milquetoast but still warmly welcome personality, the underrated McFadden resonant in Dr. Crusher's professionalism and personal mixed feelings, Dorn smartly self-calibrated to give his Klingon violent vigor but also a stealth sense of humor, and Wheaton (especially in his trademark geeky sweaters) a puppyish presence that provided a wide-eyed "in" for younger viewers and a steady source of annoyance for most older viewers. Though no group can ever take the place of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, Stewart, Spiner, and Frakes hold down the fort as this show's "Big Three" (the good-humored Frakes can play serious, but he's more fun when flashing a Shatner-esque devilish glint in his eye).
Memorable missions include opener "Encounter at Farpoint," which introduces the omnipotent challenger "Q" (a downright brilliant John de Lancie, later seen on Breaking Bad); a trip to the outer rim of the universe in "Where No One Has Gone Before" (with Erik Menyuk's enigmatic Traveller); the aforementioned comedy-tinged Holodeck adventure "The Big Goodbye" (which scored a Peabody Award); "Skin of Evil," in which the crew suffers a devastating blow; and the dark, daringly off-model "Conspiracy." Some of the strongest outings served to flesh out one of the regulars: "Datalore" explored Data's origin (and afforded Spiner a well-deserved showcase in a dual role as Data and his "brother" Lore), "Coming of Age" delineated a rite of passage for Wesley, and "Heart of Glory" has gone down as a classic Klingon episode, one which poses moral and ethical challenges for Worf.
A handful of "Original Series" vets rallied around Roddenberry to birth The Next Generation. "The Trouble with Tribbles" scribe David Gerrold contributed greatly during the show's development phase before jumping ship due to broken promises, while fellow veteran D.C. Fontana did likewise, co-writing the pilot and four other first-season scripts; meanwhile, supervising producer Robert H. Justman proved invaluable behind the scenes (veteran Trek producer Eddie Milkis was also on hand for the launch). Later seasons would class up the joint a bit as The Next Generation found its footing and its own identity, but there's something to be said for the way these early episodes win fans and influence people by nostalgically evoking the colorful science-fiction theatrics of The Original Series.
CBS Blu-ray's six-disc release of Star Trek: The Next Generation—Season One easily will stand as one of the top Blu-ray releases of 2012. In a remastering project of unprecedented scope, all seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation are being restored and re-edited from original film elements to match the work done twenty-five years ago in the standard-definition video domain. Since special effects were finished in standard-def video, these elements have also had to be reconstructed, from film elements (like model work) when possible and using CGI when necessary. Knowing the pickiness of Trekkers, the restoration team has done painstaking and tasteful work that's almost entirely faithful to the original episodes, only making slight improvements to effects that are unlikely to rile any but the most insistent purist. Bottom line: no one wants to watch these in standard def in 2012. Even in 1987, video-inserted effects, shimmering unnaturally, often glaringly stood out in the image. On the new Blu-rays, it's as if the series is brand-new again, which is entirely for the best.
The A/V quality takes a huge leap from the series' standard definition DVDs to these breathtaking high-definition Blu-rays: detail is now, quite literally, revelatory of textures and visual fine points that were impossible to see in low-res broadcasts or on DVD. Color is richer and truer to the source, with uniforms popping and greater subtlety to the alien (and android and, for that matter, human) makeups. The main quibble is with frequently visible white specks that are filmic artifacts (dust from the telecine process?), but if these are the trade for sharp image quality, it's a fine bargain. The image is nearly always well-defined and natural, with only the very occasional banding or aberrant soft shot. Some of these brief shots had me wondering if we had wandering for a few seconds into standard-definition, but that happens only once, for two seconds in the episode "We'll Always Have Paris," and it's been meticulously noted on both the film's packaging and the disc's menu (to save you some viewing agony, those seconds come at time index 12:25-12:27).
Every episode gets a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix that also helps enormously in giving the series a pleasingly state-of-the-art presentation. The original stereo elements aren't exactly up to the current level of snuff, but the audio team has done heroic work in making the best of them: dialogue is clear, music more potent than ever, and effects work sharp, while the expansion to a 7.1 sound field has been done with a tasteful, careful ear to retain the organic feel for the original mixes. At minimum, these mixes are subtly effective in ambience (as on the Enterprise sets, where we spend most of our time), and at times they're more potently immersive—take moments like the warp experiments in "Where No One Has Gone Before" for example.
Bonus features are excellent. Sure, one might wish the studio could have found yet more money to sink into the set to pony up for cast and crew commentaries, but Paramount has produced some fine new documentary featurettes, busted open the archives, and retained all previous DVD bonus features for what's, to date, a clearly definitive season set. All episodes come with original promos ("Next time on Star Trek: The Next Generation..."), and Discs One and Six include more features.
On Disc One, you'll find "Energized! Taking the Next Generation to the Next Level" (23:46, HD), which gives an interesting overview of the hi-def restoration work, from its origin to its challenges to its execution. In addition to being toured through film vaults and editing suites, we get interview clips of ST:TNG scenic art supervisor Michael Okuda & Star Trek: Deep Space Nine scenic artist Denise Okuda; executive producer Rick Berman; Roddenberry Entertainment CEO Eugene "Rod" Roddenberry; CBS Television Distribution Vice President, Multimedia David S. Grant; CBS Television Distribution Director, Multimedia Ryan Adams; Chase Audio re-recording mixer Greg Faust; and, from CBS Digital, head of mastering and restoration Wendy Ruiz, director of visual effects Craig Weiss, visual effects coordinator Sarah Paul, 3D supervisor Niel Wray, film transfer man Wade Felker, lead compositor Eric Bruno, compositor/editor Nicki Kreitzman, and digital matte artist Max Gabl.
Also included on disc one are a series of promos that will jog the memories of fans who saw them during the run-up to the show in 1987: "Introduction to the Series (1987)" (2:45, SD), "Promo #1" (1:36, SD), "Promo #2" (0:36, SD), "Promo #3" (0:37, SD), and "Season One Promo" (4:07, SD).
Disc Six adds the remainder of the substantial bonus features, beginning with the brand-new three-part retrospective doc Stardate Revisited: The Origin of Star Trek: The Next Generation. "Part 1: Inception" (28:09, HD) covers the eventual commitment to what became The Next Generation, development of the series' concepts and designs (seen in original wardrobe/makeup/camera tests), writing of the series Bible and pilot (including the debate over its length), and the casting of Captain Picard. This latter point has never been examined so publicly and in such depth, with actors Sir Patrick Stewart and Stephen Macht separately and candidly discussing being down to the final two in the audition process. Also interviewed are Gene Roddenberry (vintage), Berman (vintage and 2012), David Gerrold (vintage and 2012), supervising producer Robert H. Justman (vintage), associate producer D.C. Fontana, consulting senior illustrator Andrew Probert, set decorator John Dwyer, Michael and Denise Okuda, and illustrator Rick Sternbach, production designer Herman Zimmerman (vintage and 2012), and producer David Livingston.
"Part 2: Launch" (32:13, HD) deals almost entirely with audition stories from the cast—Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Brent Spiner, Gates McFadden, Wil Wheaton, Michael Dorn, Denise Crosby, and Marina Sirtis—but we also get comments from Berman; CBS Television Distribution Executive Vice President, Communications John A. Wentworth; Livingston; makeup supervisor Michael Westmore; Fontana; and the Okudas. Interspersed are blooper outtakes. "Part 3: The Continuing Mission" (32:42, HD) focuses on special effects demands and the strain on writers and actors as the series found its footing. Participants include Berman, Livingston, Zimmerman, Sternbach, special makeup effects man Doug Drexler, Probert, Offical Star Trek Fan Club president and publisher Dan Madsen, Spiner, visual effects coordinator Gary Hutzel, visual effects supervisor Dan Curry, visual effects coordinator Ronald B. Moore, model maker Gregory Jein, the Okudas, Gerrold, Fontana, director James L. Conway, Crosby, McFadden, Dorn, Sirtis, Wheaton, Frakes, Burton, and Stewart.
Also on Disc Six is the ratty-looking Season One "Gag Reel" (8:10, SD) long circulated, as a bootleg, among fans, but presented here officially for the first time. Rounding out the disc and the set are the original DVD bonus features. "The Beginning" (18:01, SD) includes interviews with interviews with Roddenberry, Justman, Stewart, McFadden, Crosby, Zimmerman, ILM artists Pat Sweeney and David Carson, Berman, John de Lancie, Sirtis, Wheaton, Spiner, Frakes, Dorn, and Burton. "Selected Crew Analysis" (15:18, SD) covers "Casting", "Character Notes", and "Camaraderie" with Berman, Stewart, McFadden, Sirtis, Frakes, Wheaton, Dorn, Burton, Spiner, Crosby, and de Lancie. "The Making of a Legend" (15:27, SD) gets into "Visual Effects", "Artistic Design", "Make-Up", "VISOR", and "Music" with Berman, Stewart, Zimmerman, Frakes, Justman, associate producer Peter Lauritson, Curry, Michael Okuda, Sternbach, Westmore, Dorn, Spiner, Burton, and composer Jay Chattaway. "Memorable Missions" (17:04, SD) includes interview clips of Berman, Frakes, Burton, Stewart, Curry, Westmore, Lauritson, Armin Shimerman, Zimmerman, Gene Roddenberry, and Crosby discussing their favorite Season One moments.
Season Two promises yet more riches, but for now, Star Trek: The Next Generation fans have plenty to feast on as they celebrate Season One's twenty-fifth anniversary.
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer