When Star Trek: The Original Series made its remastered way to Blu-ray Disc a few years back, the knowledge that the video had been overhauled and the audio remastered made thousands of franchise diehards cry foul. How could Gene Roddenberry’s titular sci-fi series be tinkered with? Was Paramount going all George Lucas on the Star Trek franchise? Truth be told, the remastering was well worth it, and for series stalwarts the original versions still existed on the disc. Fast-forward to 2012, and Star Trek: The Next Generation has its own remastering that begins with “The Next Level,” a three-episode sampler of what’s to come later this year when the entire series is overhauled. And if Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Next Level is any indication, the hubbub over the updates to TOS has no reason to rear its ugly head with TNG.
Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Next Level has been remastered from the ground up and from the original film, not simply upconverted from videotape. This makes the CG effects look crisp to the point that they almost look native, not like some sweetened version of a 25-year-old TV show. Sure, there are a few instances where the effects don’t have a consistent level of polish, but by and large the video presentation elicits the same “OK, that’s cool” line of thinking as when I first saw these shows back in the 1980s and ‘90s. The audio has been tweaked as well, now being presented in a full Dolby DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround sound, although truth be told most of the sound still comes from the front channels and renders the 7.1 aspect somewhat moot.
Three episodes are included on Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Next Level: Encounter at Farpoint, Sins of the Father, and The Inner Light. Opening with Encounter at Farpoint is genius, both because it was the original The Next Generation pilot episode and because it’s a great basis from which TNG newbies can familiarize themselves with the characters and continuing mission of the starship Enterprise. Sins of the Father, in which Worf returns to the Klingon homeworld to defend his father’s honor, provides an action-packed episode to get people riled up, while The Inner Light shows how emotionally deep TNG’s creators took the series while it was still on network television. Taken as a whole, thee three episodes are great reminders of the top-notch entertainment on its way later this year when the entire series ships on Blu-ray Disc, and they’re solid representatives for the hard work Paramount and CBS Home Entertainment are putting into this remastered collection.
Encounter at Farpoint is littered with visual updates, from an outstanding revamp of the lighting and detail on the Enterprise itself, to additional clarity and saturation on the jellyfish-looking creature that emerges from the planet’s surface. This pilot episode includes its share of explosions, transporter “beam ups,” proton torpedoes and celestial and terrestrial environmental shots, and never does the visual integrity slip. The aforementioned explosions provide an opportunity to test the 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio effects, but as mentioned earlier, the majority of the audio still ends up coming through the front channels, to the point that you’re hard-pressed to really distinguish whether it was a 5.1 or 7.1 audio track.
Sins of the Father fares slightly better in that regard, if for no other reason than the on-screen action is more geared toward hand-to-hand combat rather than massive city-wide explosions, which lends itself more readily to positional audio. Yet the episode isn’t without fault, as several indoor scenes look grainy, hazy and unsaturated. CBS says on the Blu-ray cover that “13 seconds of the original film elements for this episode have not been located, and thus have been upconverted from Standard Definition videotape,” but there are far more than 13 seconds that suffer from these visual problems. In fact, just about every scene that takes place in Klingon chambers has this issue, particularly scenes bathed in red light. Furthermore, one scene shows a video monitor in the background in which there’s a distinct discrepancy between the quality of the main picture and that of the video that’s little more than “environmental decoration.” Of the three episodes on Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Next Level, this one is by far the most visually concerning.
Fortunately, the video quality picks up immensely in The Inner Light, an episode in which Jean-Luc Picard “dreams” an entire lifetime on another planet while he’s unconscious – a planet that’s bathed in bright white light and affords many opportunities to showcase the episode’s clarity and contrast. Several subtle audio highlights surface here as well, particularly when Picard plays the flute, giving viewers the first indication of what the full remastered series may offer from a 7.1 audio standpoint when it ships later this year. There aren’t any explosions, and there aren’t any big battles; instead, it’s rife with environmental audio that really helps set the sense of place. Of all three episodes included on Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Next Level, The Inner Light has by far the best combination of video and audio upgrades.
The hardest thing to get used to – and this is across all three episodes and frankly a bit petty to say – is that the episodes are all presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio. The 4:3 presentation makes sense, since that’s how TNG was originally presented, but it does feel a bit you’re like wasting space on a 16:9 HDTV. It doesn’t detract from the overall presentation, mind you, but when the graphics and CG effects have been updated as they have, you really find yourself wanting to see the HD visuals across the entire 16:9 screen, not stare at vertical black boxes on either end of the set.
Regardless, for 3 hours and 2 minutes, everyone who ever enjoyed TNG during its first run is bound to be impressed, entertained and motivated to buy the entire set while watching The Next Level. As an appetizer for the Complete Series hitting Blu-ray Disc later this year, The Next Level has done its job whetting my appetite for a whole lot more TNG goodness. As Paramount and CBS Home Entertainment did with the remastered TOS Blu-ray set, they’ve clearly taken their time with The Next Level and seem well on their way to doing right by TNG’s debut on Blu-ray Disc. If you were excited by The Next Level, which I certainly was, watching these three remastered episodes will make you downright giddy at the chance to own the complete series on Blu-ray Disc later this year.
If you’re a fan of TNG, you should seriously consider pre-ordering The Next Level and the entire series from Amazon.com using these links: Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Next Level | Star Trek: The Next Generation – Complete Series [Blu-ray].
Score: 8.5 — The largely well-done visual updates suffer from only a few miscues, while the audio shows potential but doesn’t entirely live up to expectations in these three episodes.