In addition to its place of honor as the inspiration for what is usually considered to be the best Star Trek movie ever made, the first season episode "Space Seed" displays many of the virtues that got me hooked on Trek in the early Seventies: cool spaceships, great music (albeit tracked from other episodes here), exciting action and most of all the match-up of Trek’s always interesting cast against guest stars who were their (and especially William Shatner’s) equals in magnetism and theatrical power–people like William Windom, Ted Cassidy, Morgan Woodward, and of course, Ricardo Montalban. Montalban’s Khan Noonien Singh is the quintessential Trek heavy: superpowered, superintelligent, but ultimately humbled by his own arrogance. His scenes opposite Kirk and Leonard Nimoy’s Spock are some of the most dramatically charged, well-written in the series, and his passionate romance with comely historian Marla McGivers (Madlyn Rhue) shows off the series’ full-bodied embrace of adult sexuality, something the latter-day Trek shows always shrank from.
On G4’s Attack of the Show I took the devil’s advocate and argued against the entire concept of CBS Digital updating visual effects on the original series, and I can still see both sides of this argument.(story) The original Star Trek is a classic television series with visual effects work that was outstanding and clever given the budget, schedule and technical resources at the show’s disposal. The limitations of the effects of the show, in fact, probably was a major factor in Trek’s reach beyond its original broadcast, as it forced viewers to imagine a much larger universe than was ever explicitly shown on the series. That said, I doubt there are any long-time fans of the show who haven’t wondered–particularly after enticing examples like DS9’s "Trials and Tribble-ations" and Enterprise’s "Through A Mirror, Darkly," what the original series would look like with updated effects.
Trek Remastered Producer Dave Rossi (left) dabating me (on the right)
Apparently you can improve on the classic
"Space Seed" is an interesting example as you can easily argue that its original space shots aren’t very much in need of updating. The Botany Bay sleeper ship is an interesting design and the shots of it being pulled alongside the Enterprise are technically smooth, with no obvious compositing problems. The original shot of the Enterprise abandoning the Botany Bay even has some of the qualities of a simple motion control shot as the Enterprise banks away towards the end of the shot. In fact, as many of the complaints on this board point up, the early CG shots done by CBS Digital, while improving on some aspects of the original Trek effects (compositing problems being the major aspect), failed to achieve some of the simple levels of reality that photographing a physical miniature made relatively simple. The work has been steadily improving, however, and the new CG model of the Enterprise finally bears the hallmarks of scale–weathering, differences in panel specularity, and more attention seemingly paid to the virtual lenses used to "photograph" it–that made the original model seem convincing.
Whatever you might think of the effects, the incredible transfers done on these episodes make the entire project more than worthwhile. "Space Seed" looks particularly good–the colors are super bright and the overall look, while boasting notably solid blacks, is less dark than some of the early, nocturnal-looking transfers, showing off the great shadows in Jerry Finnerman’s cinematography without burying the amazing textural detail the HD transfers offer. One bonus of this work in "Space Seed" is something I never noticed before–the golden mesh costumes of the sleeper ship’s passengers, as worn by Montalban in his early wake-up scene, reveal that the actors are wearing little more than jock straps and suspenders, or bikinis in the case of the female sleepers, underneath them. There’s always been mutterings that Montalban was wearing some sort of chest appliance to bulk up his pecs in The Wrath of Khan, but Montalban was a weightlifter even back when "Space Seed" was made and there are enough shots of his ample chest in this episode to suggest that even 15 years later he could probably fill out a madman’s space suit about as well as Schwarzenegger.
From the first space shots of the remastered "Space Seed" it’s clear CBS Digital is taking a bolder approach to shots in the episode, yet it’s also refreshingly clear that they’ve carefully studied the original effects shots to break down what worked and didn’t work about them. The first shot of the Botany Bay shows the vessel drifting at an angle instead of on a flat plane, its surface pitted and scarred to more closely resemble Spock’s verbal description–yet the design itself is untouched. As the Enterprise pulls alongside (to the tune of a great musical cue from "Charlie X" by composer Fred Steiner), the ship begins to right itself under the grip of the Enterprise tractor beam. The Enterprise looks particularly convincing, an apparent wide-angle lens duplicating the cant of the engines as they appear in the original effects shots. For the first time the radical improvement in the maligned "nacelle domes" is visible here–a nice, frosted glass-like highlight touches the leading edge and the colored illumination from within the domes is subtle, lacking the painted-on fan blades that plagued earlier shots. The subtle weathering and paint detail on the Enterprise model has pushed it ever closer to photorealism–the ship looks great.
After the commercial break there’s a close up shot panning along both ships as they pass by that shows the depth of weathering on the Botany Bay; there’s still a bit of a CG feel to this ship that I can’t quite put my finger on despite the beautiful weathering work and lighting highlights; it might just be the difficulty of lighting an object that is basically flat white planes, however dirtied down. There’s another nice, subtly dynamic angle of the two ships with the Botany Bay off to the side on approach as Khan beams back aboard his ship. Then there’s the "They have my ship…" shot after another return from commercial and Khan’s takeover of the Enterprise–with the Botany Bay tumbling away from the Enterprise as if it’s being tossed into a trash bin. It’s an extremely effective shot that shows how the CG team can actually add to the dramatic power of the show’s live action with their work. And again, the angled lens gives the Enterprise engines the proper angled spread to convince us that we’re seeing a huge vessel from hundreds of yards away.
For showpiece shots that’s about it, although it has to be said that one of the downside artifacts of the new transfers is that they highlight one of Trek’s long-standing (but sort of loveably amusing) production problems: the stunt matching during its highly choreographed fight scenes. Although Montalban’s double in the engineering room showdown with Kirk is fairly convincing, Kirk’s is plainly not William Shatner and the crisp transfers let us see the faces of these stunt performers with dismaying clarity. The final visual effects shots are simple, with the last one of the retreating Enterprise almost a throwaway since half the end credits of the episode play over the final courtroom shot. I’m not sure if this is a reused shot from earlier episodes but the model here doesn’t have the weight of the ship in earlier shots—it shows off a semi-gloss paint job that looks more “model-like” than the dull scale finish the ship seems to show off in earlier shots.
This is a showcase episode for CBS Digital, demonstrating both a respect for the original compositions and designs of the series and a willingness to move beyond them and explore the possibilities these new tools can offer to the series. If the work continues to improve the way it has been we’ll really have something to look forward to for episodes like “The Ultimate Computer,” “Elaan of Troyius” and others.
Jeff Bond is editor-in-chief of Geek Monthly magazine; he’s written The Music of Star Trek and recently wrote the short story “Fracture” in the 40th anniversary Star Trek anthology collection Constellations from Pocket Books.