Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Next Level (Blu-ray)

Is the Enterprise bridge’s viewscreen 1080p?

Silly me. When I volunteered to review this release, I mistakenly believed it was the long-awaited first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation on Blu-ray. Instead, this disc contains a mere three episodes. A “taste of TNG” is right—the disc is little more than a commercial, to show viewers how pretty the Blu-ray season sets are going to look.

It’s the future. Jean-luc Picard (Sir Patrick Stewart, X-Men) is captain of the Enterprise, where he and his crew are devoted to peaceful exploration and upholding the ideals of the United Federation of Planets.

• “Encounter at Farpoint”
In the series pilot, the crew gets to know one another for the first time while investigating strange goings-on at Farpoint Station. Things get complicated when a near-omnipotent being called Q (John De Lancie, Torchwood: Miracle Day) puts humanity on trial, using Picard’s actions at Farpoint as a test to determine whether humans will be allowed to continue exploring space.

• “Sins of the Father”
Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn, Heroes), the ship’s Klingon security chief, returns to the Qo’noS, the Klingon homeworld, after learning his late father is charged with being a traitor. With Picard at his side, Worf learns some dark secrets about the Klingon High Council and must make a grave sacrifice.

• “The Inner Light”
The Enterprise encounters a probe floating in space, which has an odd effect on Picard. Picard collapses and then wakes up on a distant planet, living the life of a man named Kamin. Years pass for Kamin as he starts a family and tries to find a way to save his planet from a crippling drought, all while the Enterprise crew tries to revive the captain.

This release is all about showing off the high-def tech specs, so let’s start there. The studio hype alleges that the 1080p picture has been recreated from the original film elements and not from upconverted videotape. They say this process provides new detail and depth to show’s look that viewers have never before seen. The effects, they say, have not been redone George Lucas-style, but instead the sharper-than-ever clarity makes the effects appear as the directors and effects artists intended them.

Now that I’ve watched the episodes, I can agree that yes, the picture is remarkably clean, and I spotted a lot of little details in the effects shots I had never noticed before. The Enterprise looks more silver than grey, and you now see where “Enterprise” and “NCC-1701” are written in tiny letters on its sides. During the opening credits, when the Enterprise flies up from under the camera, right before creator Gene Roddenberry’s credit, you can actually see people walking around inside one of the Enterprise’s windows, something I don’t recall ever seeing before.

For other effects, the big finale of “Encounter at Farpoint” uses models to simulate two giant space creatures. There is a ton of detail here as well, as you can make out a network of veins under the creatures’ skins better than you could before. A little bit of hair—or sci-fi alien hairlike filaments of some kind—can be seen wisping in the air, showing that this digital transfer is possibly a little too good. The cityscape exteriors of Qo’noS in “Sins of the Father” look good as well, with glimpses of people walking around floor level of the main building, and fine detail on the many towers in the distance.

As for the non-effects scenes, the flesh tones are natural, the colors are all clean and well defined, and there is a genuine sense of depth in the wide shots. Surprising detail can be seen in everyone’s hair. When Worf faces off with fellow Klingon Kurn (Tony Todd, The Rock), their hair in that scene looks so finely detailed, it’s as if you can reach right into the screen and touch those Klingon locks. (And then they would chop off your hand with a Mek’leth for doing so.) The Qo’noS scenes have a lot of dark, smoky lighting, which offers the disc a chance to show off some deep black levels. One scene has Worf standing in red light, only to step forward into a harsh blue spotlight. I love how movie lighting people manage cool tricks like this, and it’s a nice metaphor for Worf’s predicament in that he’s standing alone among his own people, but as far the Blu-ray is concerned, this shot is pulled off without any color bleeding or blurring.

What are the negatives? “The Inner Light,” has a lot of scenes with soft colors and lighting, done so intentionally by the filmmakers to evoke a feeling of home and warmth. What we gain in softness for atmosphere, we lose in the razor-sharp detail seen in the other two episodes. A lot of outdoor scenes are bathed in a harsh white light to depict the planet’s drought conditions. This washes out a lot of the colors and skin tones. These were choices made by the filmmakers to tell the story, which is fine, but that makes it harder to assess the Blu-ray’s clarity. It’s a great episode and a true fan favorite, but perhaps it wasn’t the best choice to demonstrate what Blu-ray tech can do.

The audio is remastered into DTS-HD 7.1 surround, with the original 2.0 track also on the disc. There’s not a lot of phaser-and-photo-torpedo space battle action in these episodes to check out those sound effects, but the Enterprise whooshing through space sounds as majestic as it always has. The best sound effect is probably the transporter. Whenever someone beams somewhere, the twinkly-blinkly sound comes out of all the speakers in a really nice balance, making you feel like you’re beaming down to the planet right alongside the crew. It’s the score, however, where the disc really shines. Music plays a key role in “The Inner Light,” and the understated tune at the episode’s end really stirs, as Picard’s famous flute mixes perfectly with the orchestration. “Encounter at Farpoint,” on the other hand, has the first season’s dreaded blaring horns—you know, the annoying horn section that went off to punctuate every plot point. If you must have blaring horns, might as well play ’em loud, and the disc’s audio cranks them up appropriately.

How are the episodes themselves? “Encounter at Farpoint” has the novelty of showing us how it all began, but is not TNG at its best. The plot meanders horribly. Even with the Farpoint mystery to be solved, and Q giving the crew a ticking clock to solve it, there’s just no tension. When the crew should be banding together to solve the case with Q breathing down their necks, they’re instead hanging out on the holodeck and making time for Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton, The Guild) to act like a dip. Look, I love how Wil Wheaton has transformed himself into an internet celebrity in recent years, but Wesley is still goddam annoying. When he walks onto the bridge with that goody-goody smile on his face, you just want to smack the kid. The pilot’s saving grace is John De Lancie as Q, who even at this early stage had the character’s omnipotent smarminess down to a science. His verbal sparring with Patrick Stewart is the episode’s highlight.

The other two episodes are better examples of how good the show was after it found its voice. “Sins of the Father” is essentially a courtroom drama, but filled with all that talk about honor and courage that Klingon fans enjoy so much. It dares to depict Klingons as noble but also deeply flawed, something that made them even more interesting as the years went on. “The Inner Light” is a standout performance from Patrick Stewart, as the normally solitary Picard develops a family and friendships in his new life. The ending is one of TNG’s all-time great tear-jerkers.

The only bonus features are three trailers, one for the upcoming season one Blu-rays, one for a Star Trek iPad game, and one for this disc.

The episodes are in their original aspect ratio, which means there will be black spaces on the left and right of your fancy widescreen TV. After years of watching widescreen DVDs on a regular TV, I had no problem with this, but it might bug some viewers.

Online sources allege that 13 seconds of the original film from “Sins of the Father” were missing, and had to be upconverted from videotapes instead. If you can spot those 13 seconds, you’re a far better nitpicker than I.

Who’s the target audience here? High-def aficionados hoping to examine the picture and audio on this disc before committing to buy the series? Fans who are on the fence about whether to upgrade from the already-expensive DVD season sets? Insane collectors who will buy absolutely anything with the Star Trek name? This disc is merely an advertisement, existing only to convince you buy the entire series. Make it a rental if you must check out the improvements, but save your cash for the real thing.

The Verdict

Computer, end program.

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