September 8th, 2006 marked the 40th anniversary of the airing of the first Star Trek: TOS episode back in 1966. Sitting here today, it’s hard to believe that I’ve been a fan of this show for more than half of that elapsed time — in fact, the colorful sets and hackneyed effects of TOS are some of my earliest (and fondest) television memories, watching syndicated reruns at 7:00 p.m. on Detroit’s NBC affiliate in the early ’80s. (It came on right before Fame, incidentally.) Usually my dad would be there too, whistling along to the theme during the opening credits.
Since Star Trek is still Paramount’s sacred cash cow after all these years (albeit a bit of a dried-up one at this point), you know the 40th anniversary isn’t going to go unheralded. Quite the contrary: CBS and Paramount are working together to digitally restore all of the original episodes and rebroadcast them on TV — in syndication — for the first time in years. I know, what’s the big deal, right? Hasn’t TOS been restored before, for those horribly overpriced DVD sets they’ve got out now? Sure, but CBS/Paramount isn’t stopping there. This time, they’re enhancing the old series, too.
Oh, great. “Enhancing” — it’s the word that strikes fear into the hearts of dedicated sci-fi fans all over the world. Will this create a case of digital blasphemy, Star Trek’s very own “Han shot first?” I can’t answer that yet, but from what I’ve read and seen over at the official Star Trek website, I am actually very optimistic about this new 21st century update of TOS. Excited, even. But then, I usually go for “enhancements” — when they’re done right.
In all the preview videos and trailers on StarTrek.com, I notice that everyone on the CBS digital restoration team is quick to defend their effort. They want to make sure we all know that they’re not “messing” with the show, not making the Enterprise do barrel rolls or fundamentally changing anything about the stories or the continuity. Changing continuity after the fact is not-so-fondly referred to as “retconning,” which, ironically, was put to heavy use during the last season of the ill-fated (and ill-helmed) Star Trek: Enterprise.
Instead, the enhancement team is focused on replacing the cheesy, low-budget ’60s special effects with digital features of today’s era. Updating Star Trek for the 21st century, if you will. This includes every exterior space shot, all the ship models, even all the imagery shown on the main bridge viewscreen. It also includes some “sprucing up” of those alien landscapes constructed primarily of matte painted backgrounds and papier mache rocks, as well as various other little visual tweaks where 1960s technology and budget constraints prevented the original series creators from achieving the effects they really wanted. Two infamous incidents come to mind: the hand weapons in “A Taste of Armageddon” that don’t do anything when they’re fired, and the Orion ship in “Journey to Babel” that was never shown as anything other than a bright orange twinkly thing in the distance, like sunlight reflecting off a window a mile away.
The highlight of the newly-enhanced episodes is, undoubtedly, the original Enterprise. We first got a taste of how awesome it could look in the ENT episode “In a Mirror, Darkly.” Now imagine that quality of visuals being inserted into every single episode of the original series. It’s nerd heaven! Speaking of that ENT adventure, the CBS/Paramount folks admitted to making an attempt to update the bridge viewscreens and other hardware as shown in ENT. They came to the conclusion, however, that the updates were too distracting and thus left them out. This gives me some hope that they’ve exercised an appropriate level of judgment when deciding what to enhance and what not to.
Freshly enhanced episodes of TOS will be shown starting on Saturday night (September 16th) at 10:30 p.m. on local networks who have syndication rights to the show, starting with the episode “Balance of Terror” (so chosen because it was in some of the most dire need of enhancement). In our area, the network in question is UPN. The really craptastical thing is, that’s the same weekend when WB and UPN will be combining to form “The CW,” after which UPN is supposed to get their plug pulled. How this will affect UPN’s future broadcasts of the updated Star Trek is anyone’s guess.
I know one thing for sure: I’m going to be watching this on Saturday night. I’m easily more familiar with TOS than any other Trek series, having seen all of the episodes time and time again — but with this, it’ll be like watching every episode again for the first time, keeping an eye out for all the little tweaks and improvements here and there. “Balance of Terror” in particular was always one of my favorite episodes — a classic cat-and-mouse tale with its roots in submarine warfare — and seeing it in grand new style will undoubtedly be a treat.
Unless Greedo shoots first.