Remastered Star Trek – The Original Series (TOS): A treasure worth waiting for!

I haven’t been blogging much during April. One reason is that I’ve been travelling across space — and time.

I was in London for 10 days, and with its lovely Spring weather, I had every reason to be offline. I’ve also been spending a good deal of time back in 1966-67, and having a great deal of fun doing so. (The 1960s had a charm of their own that’s never been repeated…)

Let me explain. I’ve been watching the digitally remastered original Star Trek episodes, which had their first broadcast in that now far-away year — the same year I was born. And what an exhilerating experience to go back to these superbly crafted stories: they offer me both timeless mental stimulation and a sentimental journey to my own childhood/boyhood.

I’d heard of the digitally remastered DVDs’ release a couple of years ago, and was delighted when I found the last copy of Season 2 in a DVD store in Amsterdam in late March. The remastered episodes look and sound crisp, thanks to digitally restored imagery and audio. But the more daring work involved updating the shows’ visual effects with CGI to bring them more in line with the look and quality of later Trek efforts. That’s proving to be a real treasure – well worth waiting for…

As the promotional blurb reads on “Star Trek, the NBC series that premiered on 6 September 1966, has become a touchstone of international popular culture. It struggled through three seasons that included cancellation and last-minute revival, and turned its creator, Gene Roddenberry, into the progenitor of an intergalactic phenomenon. Eventually expanding to encompass five separate TV series, an ongoing slate of feature films, and a fan base larger than the population of many third-world countries, the Star Trek universe began not with a Big Bang but with a cautious experiment in network TV programming. Even before its premiere episode (“The Man Trap”) was aired, Star Trek had struggled to attain warp-drive velocity, barely making it into the fall ’66 NBC lineup.”

To boldly go where no man has gone before...

As I’ve said before, I’m as old as Star Trek: we were born a few months apart in 1966 (I’m older by seven months). But because we grew up on opposite sides of planet Earth in the pre-Internet era, our worlds didn’t collide until we were both well into our teens.

I have vivid memories of that delightful first encounter, which changed the course of my life forever. In mid or late 1982, Sri Lanka’s newly launched national TV channel Rupavahini started airing a space adventure series called Star Trek. Although I was already familiar with Star Wars movies (of which two had been made by then), I’d not heard about Star Trek until the publicity accompanying the local broadcast.

Star Trek (the original series, now abbreviated as TOS) aired on my local TV – we had just two channels back then – on Wednesdays from 7 to 8 pm, which was prime time just before the evening news at 8. I remember the series ran for at least a year, during which time around 50 episodes were broadcast. I managed to watch most of them.

That wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Our household didn’t yet have a television set, so I had to go across to my aunt’s house next door to watch Star Trek. My school teacher parents took a long time to warm up to the new medium – we didn’t acquire a TV set until early 1983, almost four years after TV was introduced to Sri Lanka in April 1979. And because they placed such emphasis on studies, I was allowed only an hour of television per week. I have absolutely no regrets that while it lasted, I devoted my entire weekly TV quota for Star Trek.

So every week at the appointed time, the United Star Ship Enterprise and its intrepid crew took my young mind roaming around the universe, providing me a welcome escape from the dull and monotonous routine of my teenhood. Even today, hundreds of movies and many thousands of TV hours later, I can just close my eyes and instantly replay in my mind the evocative theme narration and music of Star Trek TOS:

I sat awestruck by the adventures of Captain James T Kirk (played by William Shatner), First Officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy), chief engineer Lieutenant Commander Montgomery Scott (James Doohan), Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Communications Officer Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and others. The stories appealed to me as much for insights into the infinite possibilities (and combinations) of life, technology and power at a cosmic scale, as for the glimpses of the near-Utopian human society in the 23rd century.

See May 2009 blog post: Star Trek: Advocating a world of equality, tolerance and compassion

The series was already 15 years old, and it was showing signs of age. It had the faded Technicolor look and feel of films and TV programmes made in the 1960s and 1970s. The sets were basic and special effects appeared simple — computer-generated images (CGI) was not yet invented. On such technical merits, Star Trek TOS appears elementary when compared to the original Star Wars movie that would roll out just a decade later, in 1977. (A decade is a very long time in the entertainment industry.)

But what the series lacked in looks, the show more than made up in its brilliant story lines and rich imagination. Inadequacies in production values didn’t really matter to me — or to millions of other ‘Trekkies‘ scattered across the planet. The storylines were entertaining and mind-stretching, frequently carrying concepts distilled from the finest in science fiction literature (in fact, some of the genre’s accomplished writers were involved in writing stories for the series, e.g. Robert Bloch, Normal Spinrad, Harlan Ellison and Theodore Sturgeon). The characters were strong, diverse and played by actors who soon developed global fan clubs of their own.

And now, I can relive those journeys again — this time at my leisure, packing as many, or as few, into my private screening schedule. No broadcaster or parent holds me captive any more.

Here’s how the digitally remastered version of the same series opens (aficionados, please spot the differences):

And here are a couple of comparisons between the old and remastered versions that fans have done and released on YouTube:

Of course, remastering a series held in such awe and regard by millions of fans worldwide was a calculated risk.

As Wired noted in a December 2008 story: When Star Trek designer Mike Okuda began remastering the original Star Trek episodes for a series of DVD releases, there was a chance that the show’s more devoted fans would want him beamed to a Klingon prison planet for altering the 1960s classic. To guard against this, Okuda insisted that the new effects would have to be closely based on the originals to retain the visual spirit of the ’60s series.

Wired, December 2008: Star Trek Tweaker Talks Perils of Remastering Original Series

We’re grateful to Mike Okuda and everyone else on the remastering team for giving us the best of both worlds.

Star Trek designer Mike Okuda

From Nyota Uhura to Michelle Obama: The inspiration continues!

Inspiration across generations...
Inspiration across generations...

Actress Whoopi Goldberg was a child of 10 when the original series of Star Trek started its first broadcast on NBC in the US in September 1966. The futuristic science fiction series – about a spaceship travelling across space and time in the 23rd century in search of new civilisations – was to leave a lasting impression on many members of her generation.

In Whoopi’s case, it went beyond just general inspiration. Something in the show seemed incredible to the African-American child growing up in a land where colour and race were still divisive factors. She recalls running around the house, screaming: “Hey mom, look! There’s a negro woman on TV — and she ain’t cooking dinner!”.

‘That woman’ was the character Nyota Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols. This anecdote is captured in the 1997 documentary Trekkies, which explored the global fandom inspired by the show, which has gone on to become a franchise covering several TV series, 11 feature films (including the latest ‘origins’ film released on 8 May 2009), an animation series, as well as numerous books, video games and computer games. As Forbes magazine once noted, the allure is comparable only to that of Star Wars.

Sometimes, less is more!
Sometimes, less is more!
Uhura featured as the communications officer on board the USS Enterprise in Star Trek: The Original Series, Star Trek: The Animated Series, and the first six Star Trek films. She is significant as one of the first major black characters on an American television series and for engaging in a then-taboo interracial kiss with Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner). In the 2009 film, a younger Uhura is portrayed by actress Zoë Saldana.

The inclusion of Uhura, a black woman, in a critical technical position was certainly idealistic in the mid 1960s when the American civil rights movement was still agitating for equal rights for African Americans. She one of the first black women featured in a major television series not playing a servant; her prominent supporting role as a female black bridge officer was unprecedented.

As I’ve just noted in another blog post: “At a time when there were few non-white or foreign roles in American television dramas, Gene Roddenberry created a multi-ethnic crew for the Enterprise, including an African woman, a Scotsman, a Japanese American, and—most notably—an alien, the half-Vulcan Spock. In the second season, reflecting the contemporaneous Cold War, Roddenberry added a Russian crew member.”

But was the character, donning a sexy mini skirt uniform, somewhat tokenistic? Perhaps. But it still had considerable inspirational value – which is never to be under-estimated.

In fact, after the first season of Star Trek, Nichols had become frustrated at her relative lack of lines. At one point, she considered quitting the show, but was talked out of this decision by the civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.. MLK told her that a show that depicted a black woman working alongside whites in a position of importance was important for the goal of racial equality.

Another version of the story has MLK telling Nichols that he was a big fan of the series, and she “could not give up” since she was playing a vital role model for black children and young women across the country. It is also often reported that Dr. King added that “Once that door is opened by someone, no one else can close it again.”

After NBC executives cancelled Star Trek in 1969, Nichols went on to star in other roles — and also worked for NASA in a campaign to encourage African Americans to join the space service. Among those she helped recruit was Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to fly aboard the Space Shuttle, in September 1992. Jemison has cited Star Trek as an influence in her decision to pursue a career in space.

Goldberg: From inspiration to a regular role
Goldberg: From inspiration to a regular role
Meanwhile, things came full circle for actress Whoopi Goldberg, who was to get her own regular role in Star Trek: The Next Generation whose original run lasted from 1987 to 1994. In this successor series, she played the recurring El-Aurian female character Guinan.

Things have also moved on in the real world, where Barack Obama is now the President of the United States, with Michelle Obama as one of the most influential – if not powerful – women in the world. On 28 April 2009, CNN ran a story titled Why Michelle Obama inspires women around the globe. It noted: “Those who focus on Michelle Obama’s impact on America are underestimating her reach. The first lady is inspiring women of color around the globe to look at themselves, and America, in fresh ways.”

There is no linear link between Nyota Uhura and Michelle Obama, and the real world has very far to go to reach the utopian ideals of Star Trek. But the very fact that we have the Obamas where they are is an assurance that things can slowly move towards Gene Roddenberry’s grand vision.