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