Captain Kirk Meets The No-Win Scenario
The Enterprise crew discovers an alien time machine on an uncharted, lifeless world. In a fit of drug-induced paranoia (it’s an accident, kids — I can’t stress this enough; don’t do drugs, stay in school), "Bones" McCoy leaps back into 1930s New York and alters history such that the "Star Trek universe" never happens. Kirk and Spock go back in time themselves in order to fix history; in a twist familiar to anyone who has read much of Harlan Ellison’s work, a blameless young woman who loves the protagonist has to be killed in order to make Everything Okay Again.
Shatner shows Kirk’s depth
Flippant synopsis aside, I’m one of those geezers who consider this episode to be the finest "Star Trek" story ever produced. If asked by someone who knew nothing abut "Star Trek" to recommend an episode to demonstrate what all the fuss is about, this is the one I’d choose to show them. It’s bereft of Klingons, Romulans, fake navy combat in space, straining warp engines and Spock/McCoy bickering. Kirk doesn’t solve the problem by dint of superior wit or ethics or firepower. No Federation /America Uber Alles here. The choice Kirk has to make and the resulting denouement are tragic in the purest sense of the word; it’s a moment in which only character and values matter and no good outcome is possible.
The power of the drama turns almost as much on performance as on the story, here. DeForest Kelley, whose character is in many ways the most vulnerably human of the Trek characters, is fragile in the early going and at his most laconic and charming during McCoy’s "recovery." Nimoy displays the restrained empathy, at one time both studied and seemingly unconscious, that is emblematic of Spock. Most crucial, though, are two performances that can be summed up in a couple of phrases that look kind of wrong in cold print: Joan Collins’ modesty and innocent appeal as Keeler and William Shatner’s understated performance as Kirk. One is reminded again — as in watching the recent broadcasts of "Balance Of Terror" and "Devil In The Dark" — that Kirk’s "iconic" status is more grounded in the thoughtful work Shatner did in the first year of "Star Trek" than in the often-parodied, exaggerated mannerisms and telegraphed delivery he would habitually slide into later in the series’ run.
The Remastering is superb
As with the previously broadcast Remastered episodes, the live-action sequences are beautifully clear and newly color-balanced. The overall image runs a little less blue than the standard-resolution DVD releases; Kirk’s accurately colored avocado gold uniform takes some getting used to after forty years of seeing it as yellow-gold.
The trimming of the episodes for running time is thoughtfully done. That can’t be an easy thing to do, considering that six to seven minutes must be excised from each one in order to fit the commercial demands of current day broadcast.
A mixed bag on the CGI changes
Let’s get the worst out of the way up front: the nacelle lighting effects on the CG Enterprise model remain terrible. Most everyone seems to agree on this except for the folks at CBS Digital. The effect used doesn’t resemble anything in the original series however similar the mechanics of creating it may be. I’ve seen a couple of professional recreations and several fan efforts in CG that are more successful.
The poor effect is least annoying when the Enterprise model is seen in bright light and most garish when the ship appears in shadow. That’s a shame, because the orbital shots of the Enterprise in the remastered "City" are largely in shadow. The scene lighting itself is a marvelous touch — it suits the mood of the episode, and it demonstrates an advantage of the technology being used here: the artists can use the familiar "stock shots" of the ship from episode to episode yet give them distinctive looks based on different environments each week.
The opening shot of this episode would have been a great example of how effective this could be — except that it’s just about ruined by the far too-bright, frenetically spinning nacelles. I can’t fathom how the people in charge look at this effect week after week and say "that’s good enough."
The original globe of the Guardian’s Planet is replaced, of course. So far, the CG folks have been doing a bang-up job of capturing the slightly impressionistic quality of TOS planets while enhancing the specific details of terrain, cloud and atmosphere. The Guardian’s planet is no exception. The colors seem colder overall and are less monochromatic than the original.
Originally, Act One opened with an often-used pair of shots — one of the Enterprise approaching camera around the limb of a planetary globe, cutting to a reverse angle of the ship sailing away from camera. The Remastered version neatly combines these into a single shot. The "camera" tracks the Enterprise and follows it through the arc of its orbit. It’s a good shot — the nacelles aren’t too distracting (here, they even show some of the internal lighting and color variations that they should).
Something similar was done as the final shot of "Devil in The Dark,” but it’s still new enough to be unexpected, and it’s delightful. That said, given the reverential approach that the artists are taking to this project I imagine they’ll reach the bottom of this bag of tricks pretty quickly. Will there be any novelty left to the project, by the time they’ve done thirteen episodes or so, without a more radical rethinking of these kinds of shots? I guess we’ll find out.
Lighting aside, the CBS Digital model of the Enterprise looks great. On screen it exhibits about the same amount of detail as the original 11-foot practical model, though publicity images that have been released show that there’s somewhat more detail built into the textures than that. I’m not viewing these episodes in HD; perhaps more surface detail is visible at that higher resolution.
Very little else is changed in Act One. There’s another nicely lit orbital flyby, and the final shot panning up from Kirk and into empty space has been tweaked. A deep blue atmospheric gradient has been added so that the transition from the foil-and-plaster “rock” background into the blackness of space is less abrupt.
Act Two opens with a new CG shot of the Guardian’s planet. The original featured a camera push-in with the globe growing rapidly in frame for several seconds. The push-in on the new version is more subtle, but whereas before the planet itself rotated v-e-r-y slowly toward the west, it now is spinning at what appears to be about three hundred miles per hour and in a conventional Earthlike easterly direction. Perhaps it’s a very small world (say about the size of Connecticut), but the speed of the rotation is jarringly unrealistic.
There are no other new enhancements until the scene in which Spock discovers the recorded newspaper headlines concerning Edith Keeler’s two possible destinies. Here, new interference patterns have been created for the tricorder screen. The first is a denser and subtler version of the vertical black-and-white "static" originally used. The second, when the circuits burn out, is now a full-color effect that doesn’t resemble video static.
They’ve done something else here that shows a fine interest in the details: where the "newspaper clippings" were originally badly matted onto the non-functioning "screen" of the tricorder, the inserted image has been enlarged slightly and properly matted so that there are no irregular black gaps around it. The brushed-aluminum face of the tricorder itself is even made to cast a credible shadow onto the edges of the "video screen."
That improved effect is also used in Act Three, as Spock and Kirk review the divergent history caused by Keeler’s survival, and is the only new effects shot in this act. The scene in which the bum who finds McCoy steals the Doctor’s phaser and accidentally immolates himself was cut from the broadcast in order to shorten the episode. It’s one of the most memorable effects moments in TOS, but I guess we’ll have to wait for the Remastered HD-DVDs to find out if anything’s been done to it.
There’s one final improvement, in the last shot of the episode: the fog rolling off of the Guardian continues to do so during the final crew beam-out and during the end-of-story credits. Originally, the shot went to freeze-frame during the beaming and every time a credit was displayed.
Some things are best left alone
This kind of thing should be noted, I think, because it speaks as much to the taste and intentions of the people supervising the Remastered episodes as do the new effects themselves. This week, they resisted what had to be quite a temptation to extend the limited Guardian stage set with digital mattes.
I applaud that. There’s something essential to appreciating what "Star Trek" really was and is, in that moment when William Shatner plants his feet on a sandy stage surrounded by a few phony broken Greek pillars, looks past the camera as if into the dark distance and matter-of-factly states: "These ruins extend to the horizon."
The original "Star Trek" asked a lot from the collective imagination of its audience, engendering a sense of participation that probably accounts for much of its enduring fascination. If you can’t see those ruins in your mind when Kirk says that, this may not be the kind of trip you’ll enjoy.
I’ve had my own "vision" of those ruins for forty years and am a little relieved not to have that emotionally thrilling and mysterious landscape overlaid with the very specific visualizations of a modern artist, however talented he or she might be.
No credit where credit is due?
The show’s closing titles are not changed at all. This bothers me. The artists who are creating new effects for these shows are certainly entitled to credit. They are working on very short deadlines, and in my opinion they’re succeeding in the challenge in almost every instance. Certainly this lack of credit isn’t an accidental oversight. Whatever the reason is for it, I hope that it will be addressed and corrected sooner rather than later.