Monday, September 18, 2006

Star Trek

Last week in class I showed clips from the German film DAS BOOT and one of the things I mentioned was that the film showed the German POV of the war, which had not really been done in American cinema. Probably the closest was a film called ENEMY BELOW , starring Robert Michum and directed by Richard Powell. It's a great psychological thriller about two ships' captains in WWII.

I grew up a fan of STAR TREK the original series. I'm not quite old enough to remember its original run, but when I was in my formative years it was constantly in syndication, so I saw all the episodes numerous times. I wouldn't call myself a Trekker (I'd never go to a convention, although I know people who have).

When it was announced that they were going back to revise and contemporize the visual effects of the original series, I was pretty skeptical. I went to film school with Daren Dochterman, who did some revised FX work for the DVD of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE and who apparently pitched the idea to Paramount, only to have them give the project the green light with an in-house visual effects company rather than Daren.

A part of me thought, hey, the original series has lasted FORTY YEARS and is still aired regularly all over the world, do we REALLY need to update it?

The other part of me thought, it's dated. I watched a lot of TV when I was recovering from my illness, and thanks to Tivo, it's easy to watch the unedited versions of the episodes. Although the writing stands up very well, the production value is terrible on most of the shows. Maybe if they're careful, they can fix things without messing it up too much.

So last night the first episode, chosen by fans, aired. "Balance of Terror" is one of the best episodes. Frankly, I'd forgotten how good. An exceptionally well-written episode. Of course, they had great source material. They ripped off the plot of ENEMY BELOW and turned Nazis into Romulans. The most interesting thing in watching the revised version was, for me, the fact that the episode stands up so well. Not only is it well written, but the lighting and camera angles are very dramatic as well, which is not something you would normally see in episodic television. Usually you look for consistency between episodes, but this one has a whole different look. They also use very little music in the episode. In the lame STAR TREK 2.0 on G4, they keep a running count of "dramatic stings" per episode. This one must have the fewest of any episode. The lack of manipulative music actually makes the episode much more tense as a result.

In the revised version, the picture is cleaned up very well, which helps the cinematography.

One of the other things that is impressive about this episode is that it is a "ship in a bottle" episode. This is a term the writers used when they were running out of money and needed to shoot as cheaply as possible, so they would write an episode that all takes place on one existing set. No exteriors, no location shoots, no new sets, props, or effects. The entire episode takes place on the Enterprise and the bridge of the Romulan ship, which is practically a bare set. Yet even with these production constraints, the episode is riveting.

This means, though, that there aren't many effects shots to fix in this episode! So the work is minimal. For the most part, the Enterprise exteriors look great. I did feel like the Romulan ship looks like CGI instead of a model, which is a little distracting.

They also re-recorded the theme music for the opening titles and redid those FX as well. It sounded great, and looked good too. As the show did originally, they did not use the wordless vocals as it was a season 1 episode. Contrary to what I had read, they did NOT change Shatner's read of the voiceover. They did keep the annoying SWISH sounds of the ship, which seem louder now, as they stereo-ized it.

The body of the episode and the end credits did not get much sound work. The music sounded stereo-ized, but not badly, and the sound effects appear to be the originals, although they were also stereo-ized, and they made use of the greater dynamic range now available by making explosions and impacts louder. It's very intense now.

Overall, they did great work, and I look forward to seeing some of the future episodes.

Except, of course, for "Spock's Brain."
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