Thanks to insomnia, I have gone where only the most dedicated fans of Star Trek--the Original Series have gone before. It was 3 A.M. and I switched on the TV to somnambulantly wander with my remote through the hazy media netherworld of half hour infomercials, advertisement-pocked B horror flicks and tedious reruns of the Andy Griffith Show. Finally, I found safe harbor in the visage of Mr. Spock.
As I settled in, half attentive, I started noticing something was odd. First off, the crew's uniforms were brighter than I remembered. And wait, why was the image on the bridge view screen so crisp? Even odder, when the ship entered orbit around a planet, it's features, as well as those of the Enterprise, seemed much more detailed. Not only that, the planet was much larger in respect to my favorite starship; the scale seemed much more realistic. Later, in a shuttle bay scene, I could swear I saw figures in the windows of the observation decks looking down on a landing shuttlecraft. Wait a minute, what shuttle bay observation decks? By now I was wide awake. Something had changed. Had I, in my grogginess, somehow slipped into an alternate universe? That would be bad, because it would mean my evil version would be terrorizing loved ones back on my Earth, maybe getting into a low-speed chase with the police, or even more terrifying--writing SciAm blogs celebrating the Creationist Museum.
Thankfully, I was in the right universe but just witnessing the new digitally remastered version of the original series. This is an as yet unfinished project being produced by CBS Digital that plans to revamp all 79 original episodes.
The remastered Trek is worth a look for any fan. Because the local affiliate here in New York City--WNBC--runs them weekly, but in the middle of the night, I have resorted to my DVR. They may run at more civil hours in other locations. Here is the list of remastered episodes so far (they are not being redone in original order), along with a list of the local affiliates that run them.
From what I've seen so far, the designers have not tried to rethink the plots, rather they have enhanced them, removing visual inconsistencies and replacing some exterior shots with more dynamic angles and detailed graphics, although resisting the temptation to add scenes not used in the original shows. As Dave Rossi, one of the remastering producers, put it when asked what the criteria were for picking the special effects in each episode to be replaced:
[We] meet a couple of times a week to review episodes. We watch an episode and build a list of ship shots, view screen shots and matte paintings. We also take detailed notes on what's happening in the story at each shot, what we think the original writer, director or editor was trying to convey. That's the heart of the project. We also build a list of other effects that we feel should be redone. Sometimes it's what we call "broken shots," effects that just need to be fixed. Sometimes it's things that we just think will look cool.
One that will make longtime Original Series veterans do a double take is in the episode "Amok Time" in which the Enterprise goes to Vulcan to allow Spock, who is in, let's say, heat, to fulfill his, shall we say, reproductive imperative. When Spock, along with Kirk and McCoy beam down to Vulcan for the mating ritual, they are seen in as tiny figures walking on a massive desert landscape, conjuring up a scene from Star Wars rather than the original series's tired "planet surface" cyclorama with that too-close horizon, too-red sky, and cluttered with those ubiquitous of Styrofoam boulder props that usually notched the show's effects up to "cheesiness factor 2." Another episode that profits greatly from remastering is "Doomsday Machine" where Kirk uses a crippled starship to whack a planet-killing machine. The new exterior scenes of the planet eater, the trashed U.S.S. Constellation and the battles are far more detailed, consistent and rich in scope. Here and here you can find the episode in two parts on YouTube. Once there, needless to say, an endless supply of captures from other improved episodes awaits.
Remastering the show has also given every scene a crisper, more vibrant look that will thrive in the brave new HDTV world, although there is a downside: Enhanced visual information renders a too-much-information view of Capt. Kirk's ripped-shirt torso and confirms his nondigitally enhanced pate. The brightness of their uniforms and interiors also adds a comic book-like effect, but I think I like that.
And not to worry, all this good work will not keep you from asking the questions that always arise in Original Trek: "Is a class-M planet one where the climate at any latitude is room temperature and the inhabitants--humanoid or not--always speak perfect English?" Or, "Why do they continually expose themselves and the ship to pathogens when they beam back and forth?" Actually, I really don't care. I figure I already drank the Kool-Aid when I stopped questioning transporters, warp drive and just what it was about red jerseys that beseeched termination.