George Lucas’ crimes against nerdkind are, at this point, well known. One of the better overviews of this nerd tragedy is an episode of John Siracusa’s podcast Hypercritical from a few months ago. No matter how you feel about the so-called Special Editions, or other rereleases, including the in-progress 3Dification, the simple fact is that Star Wars, as originally released in theaters, no longer exists. Yes, you can torrent the laserdisc version, or hold on to your old VHS copies (as I have), but the original film negatives are not available, so without a massive restoration and reediting effort, we are unlikely to see a digital release of the original trilogy.
I am not arguing that a filmmaker isn’t allowed to modify their work after the fact, creating new versions and refining their masterpieces; nor am I claiming that almost every draft and notecard should be made public, as the Tolkien estate has chosen to do. In this context, I mean that a culturally relevant work, one that changed sci-fi filmmaking and spawned a huge (one might say galactic) fictional universe that is still generating new content in all sorts of media, was not saved. They had that additional responsibility: preserving the original version in a form that would continue to be accessible to future generations. Lucas himself used to agree.
Where George failed utterly, another science fictional universe even more dear to me than his films has succeeded beyond my best hopes. I write, of course, of the recently announced project to remaster all of Star Trek: The Next Generation into high definition. What’s exciting about this is that they went back to the original film negatives, which Paramount has apparently been storing in a salt mine somewhere. I’m also glad someone decided to record the show on film and not NTSC television cameras, making this project possible. The one disappointment is the schedule – it sounds like they’re planning to release two to three seasons a year.
A few weeks ago, Emery hosted a viewing of Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Next Level, a Blu-ray disc featuring a sample of three remastered NextGen episodes: the pilot “Encounter at Farpoint”, plus “Sins of the Father” and “The Inner Light”, which are among my favorite episodes. The first establishes Q as a nemesis (and bookend) for the entire series, the second really kicks off the “modern” Klingon storyline, which gets touched on even more in DS9, and the third is probably the most emotionally powerful episode of the series, and a real demonstration of Patrick Stewart’s acting ability. Overall, good choices to demonstrate what the HD conversion process entails, and how much is being preserved.
The thing that’s really striking is that the conversion to HD really highlights the work of all of the artists who aren’t on camera – the set designers, the matte painters, the model builders. You can see the slight color variations in the Enterprise-D’s duranium hull plating, the texture of every wall panel, the tiny buildings in the distance on Qo’noS, the fact that the post-atomic horror officer’s inhaler reads “ARMY” in a futuristic font. The key thing, however, is that most of these increases in detail are just capturing what was already there, not adding gewgaws where there were none, as Lucas has done. Apparently there are a few places where visual effects were completely replaced, but it’s generally pretty subtle, since they tried very hard to preserve the original look.
The one downside is what we already knew about HD – sometimes it is unkind to actors and sets. You can now see askew hairs, more wrinkles, faint stains in the carpet on the bridge, and the like. However, in my mind, these slight jars from immersion are far outweighed by the visual “wow” of the improvement in detail. I did notice one brief clip from a scene in Farpoint that was clearly just upsampled; presumably for whatever reason that section of film was too damaged to be restored, so they had to go back to the SD video. Hopefully the occurrence of those is rare.
Even though I already own all of TNG on DVD (a bulk purchase made several years ago, and totally justified by number of viewings), I’m excited by this huge effort to preserve this key segment of geek culture for future viewers. I can’t wait to see how the rest of it turns out, and I do plan to eventually rewatch it all in order in HD. Suffice it to say that their initial pass is amazing, and I hope it sets an example for other shows and movies.