Perusing the shelves at Wal-Mart this weekend I picked up Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Next Level, which is a very long-winded title for something relatively simple: a three-episode preview of the upcoming Blu-Ray transfers of the series. Unlike TOS, where they took the original film and replaced the model work and primitive effects shots with modern CG elements, here CBS has mostly recomposited the original film and model-based effects shots, so basically what you’re getting is a much clearer picture of what was originally shot—instead of copies from the broadcast master tapes at 480i60, you’re getting scanned film at 1080p24. Everything basically looks great.
The episode selection is pretty decent, as well, although two of the choices are relatively light on effects shots. First you get the pilot, “Encounter at Farpoint,” squished together as a single episode (as originally aired? I’ve never seen it except as a two-parter), in all its glory—including the near-legendary cringe-worthy overacting from Denise Crosby, Marina Sirtis, and Michael Dorn. Granted, all three (Sirtis in particular) are saddled with some pretty terrible dialogue to begin with; indeed, almost surprisingly, Wil Wheaton and Jonathan Frakes are the only actors whose dialogue generally works throughout, while Patrick Stewart at least manages to ham up some of his more absurd dialogue to the point it works (for example, his expository announcements to nobody-in-particular on the bridge before they get to Farpoint), and Brent Spiner’s Data at least is decently-written when he isn’t on the bridge. Nobody’s going to accuse this of being great television by the standards of 2012, although with some judicious editing you might be able to come up with a 90-minute episode that made sense. Obviously this is the most FX-heavy of the episodes included, and it looks great, even if it’s the worst Trek pilot ever (including both TOS pilots—for my money, DS9’s “Emissary” is historically the best).
You also get season 3’s “Sins of the Father,” which benefits more from the transfer quality than you might think; the second half of the episode, set on the Klingon home world, where every set was dimly-lit, always looked like a dark mess on TV, but here everything is clear. It’s also a far better-written episode, which makes it a rather less painful experience for repeat viewing, with some nice humor (much of it stemming from Kurn’s fish-out-of-water status on the Enterprise) despite the dark subject matter. Even if Picard does still send the Enterprise to the “first city of the Klingon Imperial Empire,” which is just a little bit redundant.
Finally you get season 5’s “The Inner Light,” a legendary TNG episode. I haven’t gotten around to watching it yet, but as one of the great real science fiction stories (as opposed to space opera stories) in Trek it’s one I’m really looking forward to, even though again it is not a particularly effects-heavy outing.
At retail I think it might be a little over-priced for what you get—but then again compared to a new-release Blu-ray movie $15ish isn’t bad for essentially three hours of entertainment, albeit three hours you’ve probably seen before. I can’t imagine myself splurging for the whole collection but hopefully the transfers also find their way to Netflix and other online streaming sites in due course.