Yeah, I’m Paramount’s bitch. Or would I be CBS’s bitch, since they own Star Trek now? Hell, I’d like to think that on some corporate DNA level I’m still Desilu’s bitch.
From the moment I saw it on startrek.com, I knew I was going to the big theatrical screening of the remastered version of the two-part Original Series episode “The Menagerie.” To the uninitiated, what’s unique about that particular episode is that much of it is a diegetic flashback to the original series pilot “The Cage,” which featured a different cast of characters except for Spock.
I was momentarily deterred by the fact that the closest showing was at the horrible googolplex in Emeryville. As I’ve expounded on in the past, I hate those places, and if I have to deal with one I’d prefer it at least be in town. But, no. Evidently the Evil Ex-Sony Metreon and the AMC 16 (originally called the AMC 1000 in reference to its location at 1000 Van Ness but renamed a few years back because people wondered where the other nine hundred and eighty-four screens were) didn’t want to lose out any valuable showings of Bee Movie, so I had no choice but to leave the City and County of San Francisco. No choice, you understand. This was something I simply had to do. The opportunity to see an episode of the original Star Trek projected, from the season when the cinematography mattered, to get a close look at details that would be lost otherwise? Oh my yes. I anticipated spending much of the time studying the backgrounds and corners of the screen, much like I’d done in the past with The Motion Picture.
In the “Star Trek Remastered” project, Original Series episodes are restored from the negatives, with new sound and special effects and a cleaned-up picture overall, thus keeping new relatively Trek product in the marketplace in spite of all the rest of the teevee shows and movies having been released on DVD. Even the red-headed stepchild known as the Animated Series was let out of its room and allowed to play with the canon. Actually, I’d always thought the Animated Series was a prime contender for new visuals. They already had the performances and sound effects and music, and even Flash-based animation would be a major improvement over the original This is not to say that Filmation’s work didn’t have its charm, and they did the best they could under the circumstances, but there’s so much potential.
Aside from watching the previews online and having the neato shot of the Enterprise firing phasers as my desktop at work, I hadn’t seen any of Remastered episodes. I don’t have cable or an especially highfalutin’ teevee at home, and though I could probably download them from BitTorrent if I poked around, I’ve never bothered to poke around. (Because that would be wrong.) Nor did I feel any particular outrage about it, as some fans did. I have no problem with remakes or updates in general, especially in this case, when the original is still available.
Which brings to mind the apocryphal quote from…shoot, I don’t remember. Elmore Leonard, I think. Somebody like that. When asked how he felt about what Hollywood had done to his books, he allegedly said something to the effect of: “Hollywood didn’t do anything to my books. They’re still right over there, on the shelf.” Same thing here. I’m perfectly okay with them futzing with the original series episodes because, because considering how Paramount has milked them in the past with two separate DVD releases, I seriously doubt that the unfutzed versions will be taken off the market. And if they did pull a Disney and remove commercially viable product off the shelf to create demand, well, that’s the beauty of living in this digital wonderland, isn’t it? I can bust out the DVD of unremastered “The Doomsday Machine” and revel in the lo-fi splendor of the effects, which I still genuinely love. The wobbliness of the cheap little Constellation model doesn’t take me out of the story. I know it’s make-believe to begin with, and I admire the ingenuity of the effects team. Unlike the CGI work in the remastered episodeswhich doesn’t not look more realistic per se to methose guys were inventing entirely new wheels. Star Trek History has some incredible still photos of the original Enterprise models being photographed against the bluescreen. The occasional topless doughy guys in the frame is great, too.
(The “so obvious it doesn’t even need to be mentioned but I will anyway” exception to this particular futzing philosophy is the first Star Wars trilogy, and even the original versions of those were quietly slipped onto DVD last year. The Long Tail in action, indeed. I suppose an argument could be made about E.T., but I’ll let someone else make that argument, and it doesn’t really apply in this case.)
I went to the showing on November 15, the “encore” screening which was added when the original on November 13 sold well. My friend Ripley and I were first in line, soon joined by our friend Zuki. Ripley and I were in our basic black street clothes, and Zuki wore an Original Series uniform she she’d sewn that day at her clothing store in Oakland. She also carried an original series phaser, and her hair was up in a period-appropriate fall. (I forgot my tribble. I have a perfectly good tribble sitting on my desk at work, a promo tie-in to the Deep Space Nine episode “Trials and Tribble-ations” in 1998. Even replaced the battery around 2003 so it still talks. And I didn’t bring it. Ugh. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.) Zuki’s easily the biggest Original Series fan I know, outpacing myself in terms of loyalty and devotion. I was happy to start acquiring the series on DVD to see them looking all crisp and spiffy, but she’s perfectly satisfied with her collection of VHS tapes.
As other people arrived, I showed Zuki how to do the communicator flip-top motion with her Motorola Razr. (The trick is to exaggerate the motion with your wrist while using your thumb to actually open the lid.) It reminded me of my brother John and I camping overnight for the premieres of Star Trek V and Star Trek VI. Going to all that trouble for Star Trek V should have been an object lesson in disappointment, so the fact that I have pleasant memories shows how strong the social aspect was. I think it’s what the media coverage tended to miss when covering similar fannishness for the second Star Wars trilogy and Harry Potter and such. Yeah, okay, from the outside these are incredibly geeky, possibly lifeless fans whose priorities appear to be seriously out of whack. But they’re having fun, and it can actually be quite a bonding experience, especially when the rest of the world doesn’t want anything to do with you.
I never did the overnight movie thing again after Star Trek VI, nor do I expect I will. Indeed, I haven’t cared for or actively participated in the fan circus thing since the nineties. I think the moment I really got off the train was when Kim and I were in line opening night (not opening morning) of Star Trek: Insurrection. We were talking about the fact that it was written by Michael Piller, and a classically overweight/virginal/basement-dwelling fanboy in front of us said: “Do you think there’ll be a lot of Piller Filler?” Oy. I made a point of ignoring him as he chuckled at his cleverness. Who even are you? And if he thought it was likely to be bad, why did spend upwards of seven dollars of his mom’s money to see the movie? Of course, this was before any of us knew just how painfully bad Insurrection would be, or that it would look like Children of Paradise compared to Star Trek: Nemesis.
There were three other costumed people in line for “The Menagerie:” a fellow with a ponytail and goatee dressed as a Klingon, a woman in store-bought Original Series uniform (which was more accurate but less charming than Zuki’s homemade number), and chubby guy wearing a Cage-era uniform. He carried one of the more cylindrical phasers from “The Cage,” back when they were called lasers, and spoke in what was easily the most cliched Shatner impression I’d ever heard. Yeah, we get it. Shatner ofen has a peculiar cadence, wiith what many consider…to be…inappropriate…pauses and inflections.
Okay, I’m going to say it: William Shatner impressions are not funny anymore. Between John Belushi and Kevin Pollak, it’s been done. Thank you, drive through.
There were at least as many girls in the audience as boys, and I enjoyed that the first three people in line were Zuki, Ripley and I, three attractive women ranging from their mid-thirties to their mid-forties. Such a thing would have been highly unlikely back in the day. The crowd was older in general. In addition to the obvious nerdy white guys, there were some older lesbian couples, a few sets of gay boys, a punky teenage girl with a heavy black eye makeup and a t-shirt off the rack of Hot Topic, and most charmingly, three women sitting behind us whom I parsed as representing three different generations of a family. The pre-show slides were mercifully quiet, and allowed for plenty of opportunities to marvel at the craptastic nature of the theatrical poster. Photoshop has probably caused so much damage to the art of the movie promotion…ugh. Anyway. Another article for another day. Moving on.
The first line of the aforementioned crappy poster was: “Beamed onto the big screen in HD.” (In case the “Piller Filler”-level of cleverness escaped you, allow me to say it again: beamed to onto the big screen! Get in? Because in Star Trek, they beam stuff! It’s funny! Laugh, damn you!) As I understand these things, one of the practical upshots of High-Definition technology is the elimination of physical media which can be stolen or copied. It can magically travel through the aether into the projectoralmost like it’s on a…ray of some kind, a narrow stream, or a long lineand since it never takes the form of a film reel or DVD or unencrypted analog broadcast, there’s nothing to pirate.
This also drastically reduces the amount of work to be done by the theater itself, since they don’t have to change reels or even keep an eye on the clock; it starts when it’s supposed to start and ends when it’s supposed to end, and all the theater has to do is rake in those phat concession profits. It’s similar to the sort of minimal-effort exhibition which the old Jerry Lewis Cinemas strove for and failed so miserably at in the seventies. (Aside to my fellow ‘Lopers: does anyone remember if there was a Jerry Lewis Cinema in Fresno? I so very much want to believe there was.) The man was a visionary, you gotta give him that.
Like capitalism, communism, religion or anything else that looks good on paper, there’s a fatal flaw to the plan: humans. This system eliminates the already meager amount of responsibility theater employees seem willing to take, and if they’re told the magic machine does the work, then they’re absolved from having to pay attention at all. And when it’s something as retarded as Star Trek? Puh-leeze. At least, that’s my theory as to why the sound was so bad during the making-of doc which opened the show, very low and out of one speaker. The sound eventually went up, but never went to proper stereo until the episode itself started.
Something which did not change was the fuzzy picture quality. For as much as the words “High Definition” are touted, it tends to leave out the v-word: video. High definition and digital, perhaps, but still video. Not film, the sort of thing which was designed to be writ large like this. I don’t think it was even necessarily that the episode was shot over forty years ago, because at least it was shot on 35mm film, which looks just peachy when projected on a big screen. The original film probably would have been sharper.
The fuzziness wasn’t the worst part, either. The picture was dark. We’re talking David Fincher-style dark; I kept expecting Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt to enter the frame carrying flashlights. Most of the detail was lost on the Enterprise flybys, looking like little more than a shape zooming through dim stars. Many of the bridge scenes were similarly compromised, especially Spock at his station.
On my long list of why I hate movie theaters is their highly stupid habit of turning down the brightness level on projectors in the mistaken belief that it’ll extend the life of the bulb. Roger Ebert says it don’t work that way, and I’m inclined to believe him. The UA Stonestown in San Francisco is particularly bad; when I saw The X-Files there, I didn’t realize that Mulder was pissing on a poster of Independence Day. That was in 1998, but the few times I’ve been to theater since then it hasn’t been any better, and I’ve encountered it in other theaters as well. It’s just very wrong to sit in a movie theater looking at a ginormous screen and think wow, i can’t wait to watch this on my teevee at home so i can see the details. I mean, is it me, or is there a disconnect?
Granted, I don’t know if that was the case. Do movie theaters use the same projectors for HD presentations as they do 35mm? If not, can they reduce the brightness on the HD projectors as well? At least one other easy-to-please fan at the Emeryville screening accurately described it as “WAY, WAY, WAY too dark”, and one of the comments posted on the offical site more meekly described another showing as “a little dark.” In any event, as if to prove that The Powers That Be truly loved us, the lights didn’t come on at the end of the show, so we had to exit in the dark. What could go wrong? (I hope the theaters had good insurance.) According to startrek.com, this happened all over the world. Yay for technology!
Presentation issues asideand wana bet I won’t be able to put them entirely aside?I enjoyed the show quite a lot. The new effects felt organic, as if the original shots were demos and this is what they had in mind all along. (Contrast: Star Wars. ’nuff said.) A lot of it was rather subtle and restrained, especially the effects in “The Cage,” which largely retained their original look. The shots of the planet and the Enterprise were upgraded, as were the background mattes.
On the other hand, the laser beams were only slightly modified, and the weird little yellowpoisongasstuncloudthing the Talosians used to knock out Pike didn’t appear different at all. Even minor details, such as the basic dissolve effects when Vina first disappears or the Talosian being strangled turns into a monster, weren’t jazzed up. The original effects weren’t broke, so they didn’t get fixed, and gods bless Team Okuda for their restraint.
Most surprising to me was that they resisted the temptation to restore/reinvent the shots of the other creatures in the titular menagerie, which were briefly seen in “The Cage” proper but removed when it was incorporated into “The Menagerie.” It must have been tempting, since everybody knows that more CGI creatures means a better story, right?
Overall, the changes felt respectful. Almost too much so; there was an obvious sound error in the original episode which I expected they would fix, but didn’t. After the hottie in the red uniform at Starbase 11 says that Pike has disappeared, Commodore Mendez reacts to what was surely supposed to be a sound cueprobably “Starbase Operations to Commodore Mendez” or even just a beepbut it still isn’t there. It’s one those little things which I doubt anyone else noticed, and yet another testament to how scarily obsessive I can get
I wasn’t in it for the new effects so much as I was to get a closer look at everything else in the well-lit scenes the sets, the props, the acting. It’s an episode I know by heart, as you’ve surely gathered, so it’s not like I missed any of the story. I’ve always been rather fascinated by such things as the lighting (the purples used on Starbase 11 are gorgeous) and the texture of the sets. Good art direction gets me hot, even when much of it is lost due to poor projection. I hate to harp on that point, but it really makes a difference.
I saw things in the performances that I hadn’t seen before. Naturally, the audience laughed at a lot of the acting and dialog, especially Shatner. Because, as previously established, everything he does is funny. Oy. If you can get past the stigma (for want of a better word), the first few acts of the episode show what a great actor he can be. He didn’t chew any scenery, but gosh, isn’t it more fun to react like he did? I was also impressed by Susan Oliver as Vina. Again, a performance I’ve seen before a zillion times, but never this close, and I hadn’t realized how practically from the start, she’s a bundle of tics. In most every scene (with the exception of the Orion Slave Girl sequence) there’s a terror and nervousness under the surface, which makes perfect sense for the character. It’s really quite brilliant.
So, overall, I’m glad I went. In spite of how little it has to do with my life anymore, for as over it as the one-two crap punch of Enterprise and Nemesis made me feel, it’s nice to indulge in this geeky lifelong passion again, especially since so much of the focus is on the stuff that I grew up with. Who says that Boomers have a monopoly on excessive nostalgia? Us aging Gen-X’ers will probably be ten times worse.
At the same time, it’s hard not feel a little shafted by the attention and care given by ParaBS to the actual technical details of the presentation. (Question: is mushing “Paramount” and “CBS” into ParaBS more or less clever than the easy rhyming of “Piller Filler?” Discuss.) I just can’t believe the sound and projection issues and even the lights not coming back up at the end are entirely the fault of the theaters, and lord knows I have no love or sympathy for them. I also know that the Star Trek‘s corporate ubermasters couldn’t send someone out to check every single theater, but for pete’s sake, these were issues that happened on the November 13 show. There wasn’t anything they could do to fix the problems for the November 15 screenings? For thirteen-fifty per ticket, I’d like to at least pretend that whoever’s making the profits gives a shit. I’m also expecting a flock of pigs to land at San Francisco International Airport later today.
Of course, for all my fannish k’vetching and bellyaching, I know the same thing they know, which gives them the power: I’ll return. Star Trek has been a textbook definition of diminishing returns over the past decade or so, and I suspect that this revival is an attempt to narrow the focus onto a more profitable sectorhardcore nostalgiato increase the ROI. Said ROI might not be as much as they’d want, but the overhead will be lower, but it would still be more profitable than the wash that the Next Generation spinoffs turned out to be in syndication. How much do you wana bet they look at the ubiquity of Law and Order over teevee and they’re all “What the fuck! That was our idea!”
So if they do this again, I’ll probably be there with Tribble in hand, just like I’ll be there on Christmas Day next year for the new movie, licking it all up.
In the meantime…I can’t wait for “The Menagerie” to hit video so I can see all the details.