Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Surround
Paramount Home Video, $129.99
Given its legion of fans and four decades of unabating popularity, Star Trek unquestionably ranks as one of the truly great shows in the history of television and one of the most influential. It changed the face of science fiction, fusing imaginative concepts and an iconic cast in ways that ensured the show’s longevity and paved the way for a sci-fi renaissance in the pop-culture mainstream.
For anyone who grew up watching the original series during its initial run (or in syndication, as I did), the show remains a beloved touchstone that embodies the optimism and forward-thinking attitudes of the 1960s. Creator Gene Roddenberry infused his fantastic universe with positive messages, solid moral values and a multicultural cast, and he managed to sell the show to NBC executives by promising them a new form of Western, “with spaceships instead of horses, zap-guns instead of six-shooters.” The network suits bought into this concept, but they soon realized they were getting something very different.
The fact that Trek even made it to the air is one of the miracles of television history. In order to prove he could deliver compelling sci-fi thrills, Roddenberry was asked to create a pilot. The result was “The Cage,” an hour-long drama that pitted the crew of the Starship Enterprise against a trio of telepathic aliens with oversized skulls whose prominent veins throbbed when they transmitted their thoughts. Shot by William E. Snyder, ASC, this pilot impressed NBC executives, but they remained skeptical that Roddenberry could continue to deliver such high production values on a weekly series budget. As a result, NBC took the extraordinary step of asking him to shoot a second pilot on a lower budget. This show, titled “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” was shot by Ernest Haller, ASC, whose sterling resumé included a shared Academy Award with Ray Rennahan, ASC for Gone With the Wind.
This second pilot was almost completely recast; the most important holdover from the first attempt was Leonard Nimoy, who would go on to achieve immortality with his portrayal of the logical, loyal, half-Vulcan/half-human officer, Mr. Spock. However, one of the new casting choices would change the face of Trek forever: Jeffrey Hunter, who had played Capt. Christopher Pike in “The Cage,” was unavailable for the second go-round, so he was replaced by William Shatner as Capt. James R. Kirk (whose middle initial was later changed to T, for Tiberius). Shatner had impressed some of the Trek execs with his energy and work ethic on such shows as The Outer Limits; his turn as Kirk, however, would make him the stuff of TV legend. Shatner’s emotive zeal and famously emphatic line deliveries have been affectionately lampooned by countless comedians, but closer examination of his performances reveals the real reason for his success in the role: an absolute commitment to the character, and a total refusal to condescend to the material, no matter how outlandish the scripted situations became. At any rate, a more fortuitous collision of actor and character could hardly be imagined Shatner lent Kirk the appropriately larger-than-life quality that any intrepid Starship captain deserves.
Another key piece of the puzzle was the recasting of the ship’s doctor, who had been played by two different actors in the two pilots. Beginning with the regular episodes, the role was awarded to DeForest Kelley, an amiable actor who infused Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy with genial crankiness and a warm, humanistic concern for his fellow crew members, who included crack engineer Scotty (James Doohan), exotic and eminently capable communications officer Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), and stalwart helmsmen Sulu (George Takei) and Chekhov (Walter Koenig, who didn’t appear until Season Two).
With the core cast in place, the show finally hit “warp speed,” but a great deal of credit for Trek’s success must also go to the writers and key crew members whose efforts elevated the series above generic TV standards. Thought-provoking scripts were penned not only by Roddenberry, but also by such writers as John D.F. Black, Robert Bloch, Gene Coon, Harlan Ellison, D.C. Fontana, Richard Matheson and George Clayton Thomas, all of whom were allowed to push the limits of their imaginations. The first season also benefitted from the outstanding contributions made by a group of behind-the-scenes wizards, including cinematographer Gerald Perry Finnerman, ASC; composers Alexander Courage, Joseph Mullendore and Fred Steiner; art director Walter M. Jefferies; prop and creature designer Wah Ming Chang; and an ingenious special-effects team led by Howard Anderson, ASC and his brother Darrell. (Effects for the show were also contributed by Linwood Dunn, ASC, James Rugg and Joseph Westheimer, ASC.)
Finnerman got his big break on Trek after being recommended to producer Robert Justman by his mentor, Harry Stradling, ASC (whose son, Harry Jr., had turned down the gig because he was committed to Gunsmoke). Finnerman was soon hired, and he made the most of the opportunity, contributing a slew of creative ideas to the show. He detailed some of these innovations for AC in an October 1994 article: shooting with crosslight and more natural-looking source lights before these techniques were in vogue; using colored gels to add psychological and emotional subtext to scenes; and employing wide-angle lenses and forced-perspective tricks to make the show’s otherworldly settings, most of which were shot on stage, look larger. Finnerman also advocated more frequent camera movement to break up static frames, change compositions on the fly and create dramatic emphasis. “I was always pushing directors to go a little further,” he told AC. “I’d say, ‘On this two-shot, when Kirk walks away from McCoy, we can dolly over and take him over to the bridge.’ They weren’t comfortable with that. I liked to see a scene flow for three or four pages rather than shoot a straight master and then break it into close-ups.” Finnerman’s dynamic camerawork became a signature element of the show’s style, and his images are well represented in these DVDs’ crisp, clean transfers.
Viewers were also blown away by the show’s groundbreaking special effects, created by the Howard Anderson Company (which, sadly, closed its doors recently after nearly 80 years in the business). The Anderson clan created a variety of impressive optical and matte shots some of which, like the shimmering transporter beam, have left an indelible imprint on the culture at large. (Darrell created the transporter effect by dropping aluminum dust through a powerful light beam and filming the results with the camera turned upside-down.) The post work was so extensive, in fact, that the show was often in danger of missing its proscribed airdates. The Andersons’ innovative techniques retain their charm and wonder on these DVDs, although artifacts in some of the optical shots (especially interstitial shots of the Enterprise in orbit) are evident in the transfers.
Neither Finnerman nor Anderson appears on this boxed set’s various commentaries, but some of the set’s other special features are illuminating and amusing. On several key episodes (“Where No Man Has Gone Before,” “The Conscience of the King” and both halves of the “The Menagerie”), pop-up text commentaries by Michael and Denise Okuda offer factoids that will entertain and enlighten even die-hard Trek fans. The set also offers five documentary-style extras: “The Birth of a Timeless Legacy,” which presents informative interviews with various cast members, network executives and producers; “To Boldly Go... (Season One),” which offers comments on key episodes; “Reflections on Spock,” in which Nimoy articulately discusses his famous alter ego; “Sci-Fi Visionaries,” in which the series’ writers are discussed by John D.F. Black, D.C. Fontana and Robert Justman; and “Life Beyond Trek: William Shatner,” a curious piece in which the star discusses and demonstrates his love of horses. Also included is a photo gallery of actor portraits and scenes from various Season One shows.
The DVDs are handsomely packaged in a futuristic, “tricorder”-shaped case that splits apart vertically to reveal the discs, which rest in a hinged block of plastic trays that the user can flip through. Seasons Two and Three of Star Trek are also available, and all are highly recommended to anyone who wants to slip the surly bonds of Earth and “boldly go” where many fans have gone before.