10 years ago, the 40th Anniversary of Star Trek was fast approaching. HDTV was the future. CBS knew they needed to do something to be sure the “one that started it all”, The Original Series, was ready for that future. Produced from 2006-2008, The Original Series – Remastered (TOS-R) was a huge undertaking that came with a variety of challenges and fan controversies. Keep reading for an in-depth look back at the project.
2006 in review
While we tend to quickly forget, the 40th anniversary year (2006) was actually a rather bleak time. Star Trek Enterprise had been canceled after only 4 seasons the year before. Many Trek products were put on semi-permanent hold or canceled outright. Organizationally Star Trek as a franchise was a mess because of the big Viacom split up that occurred in late-2005. The split resulted in all kinds of purging of Star Trek archives on the Paramount lot through auctions. Later on, while TOS-R was actively being produced, StarTrek.com was shut down for over 2-years (2007), and The Experience in Las Vegas was dismantled (2008).
Rumors of a rebooted movie franchise had only just started to circulate. It was of course those rumors that led to the founding of TrekMovie.com, known then as “The Trek Movie Report.” Any information about the new film was naturally sparse in the early days. However, the remastering of The Original Series was happening right then and needed to be covered. On a personal note, TOS-R is how I came to be involved with the site; I did the weekly coverage of the episodes as they aired.
While CBS knew the future was HD, the realities of the technology in 2006 was that HDTV sets weren’t nearly as ubiquitous as we might expect looking back on it from 2016. The adoption rate of HDTV sets was only ~15% of US households in 2006. HD DVD and Blu-ray were just barely formats and would be fighting it out for who would win the HD disc wars until 2008.
The idea of a streaming movie/TV service was just being toyed with and not really viable in 2006. Most people still downloaded their content for offline viewing from the iTunes store or Amazon. Netflix introduced their streaming platform in 2007 as an add-on to their DVD rental program. Internet speeds weren’t there yet to support a streaming HD experience, the average US broadband connection was a paltry 2 Mbit/sec or less. Other technology to deliver the content, like commodity chips to decode the H.264 compression standard, also wasn’t quite there. It would take the proliferation of devices like Blu-ray players, the Sony PS3, and the Roku streaming players over the next few years to get the final pieces into place.
Given the state of technology in 2006, the method best suited for first-run distribution of TOS-R was still the tried-and-true weekly syndication model. It slotted into the place of the Star Trek Enterprise repeats being shown on the weekend by local CBS or CW affiliates. The satellite distribution system for syndicated content was still only standard definition (SD) capable, upgrades were coming, but it would be too late for TOS-R’s run. Even being delivered in SD, the significant work done to clean up the aging film, along with the much better contrast and color of the new film transfers was immediately obvious.
The Remastering Process
Rather than working on an entire season at a time, the remastering was approached like a TV series, where the CBS-D team delivered episodes on a weekly schedule. The schedule was not in season order, rather in a “fan favorite” order, with well-liked episodes such as “Balance of Terror” getting worked on first.
CBS assembled a team based inside their subsidiary company CBS Digital (CBS-D). CBS Digital was doing visual effects, titles, and similar work, for the TV industry. For example, one of their well-known title sequences (from a few years later) is the Modern Family opening credits.
Mike and Denise Okuda were a logical choice to help guide the project. They worked with the production team to go through all the reels of film, to make stylistic choices on the new visual effects, and more.
You can read more about CBS Digital’s workflow in our article from 2006.
CBS realized they were in a bit of a rock-and-a-hard place with TOS. Unlike the much newer productions (such as TNG, which would later get remastered from the raw elements), they only had the finished episodes. So they did not have the isolated original elements to work with.
The old visual effects were looking worse for wear, by modern standards they never looked spectacular because of all the layers of printing film-onto-film and splicing in the visual elements, and there was lots of generational loss on the frequently re-used stock Enterprise footage. CBS made the controversial decision to replace the VFX sequences entirely with a new CGI Enterprise, and new more realistic planets.
The original 35mm film canisters of each episode were pulled from the archives and freshly scanned at 2K. The film was then digitally cleaned up by removing dirt and scratches and given a new color grading.
Since the entire finished episode was scanned, the later 2009 Blu-ray releases of TOS contain an option for either the original VFX or the CGI version. While the original VFX was available (mostly for purists who could get that on the Blu-ray season sets), the “default” version of TOS became the version with CGI.
To hedge their bets, a 16:9 widescreen version of the new VFX, along with the live action footage cropped to 16:9, was prepared, this hasn’t really been seen much, outside of a syndication run in Japan. The wider VFX can be seen in some episodes on Netflix and Amazon Instant, but the live action is the original 4:3 ratio.
The New Visual Effects
The new computer generated visual effects ended up being a bit of a mixed bag. There was excellent work on faithfully enhancing the matte paintings and creating new planets to give proper variety to the universe. These aspects were generally well liked.
The redone “Enterprise in orbit” shots allowed for a greater variety of angles.
The big sticking point for many fans was the new CGI model of the Enterprise. The first wave of episodes featured a model that just seemed a bit off, with oddly colored nacelle caps. The feedback was not great, and the message was received at CBS Digital. Of course, they already had a number of episodes in the pipeline that couldn’t be stopped. The second Enterprise model was much improved. It debuted with the fan favorite episode “The Trouble with Tribbles.”
The nature of an ongoing project to crank out episodes week-after-week meant that the CBS-D team got better with each episode, the unfortunate reality of this is that episodes done later in the process often look better than earlier episodes. So while the episodes weren’t done in standard season order, it does mean that the first eight episodes prepared were stuck with the initial Enterprise model, and early versions of planetscapes, etc.
Perhaps the largest part of the controversy with the fans and the CGI model of the Enterprise was the color of the hull. The CGI Enterprise was much more of a battleship grey, lacking the blueish tint we had all known. The blue tint, of course came from the bright lights and the blue screens behind the models needed to shoot the visual effects in the 1960’s.
The fan backlash was quite loud, the producers eventually made a statement that they had researched the paint of the physical model and their model was derived from how it looked in person. This started an interesting aesthetic debate, what was more appropriate: how it looked on the screen (with the blue spill), or the color of the model as it was in more normal lighting?
It’s interesting to see that the new 2016 Smithsonian restoration, which was painstakingly researched to be as accurate as possible, looks similar to the CGI model the TOS-R team used. The TOS-R version is still a bit darker than the model in the Smithsonian, this was a stylistic choice by the team, they purposefully lowered the level of light that hits the Enterprise as a nod to the fact the ship is in space.
The New Audio Mix
While the visuals were what really needed the help, the audio had been remixed for 5.1 with the DVD releases, the team decided to make a new audio mix. They started with as high quality a source as they could find in the archives. With an eye toward the future, the end result was a high quality 7.1 mix suitable for future high definition disc releases.
Perhaps the biggest audio change for TOS-R was that they found a new soprano singer, Elin Carlson, to record the famous opening “ahhhh-ahhhhh” with modern audio capture techniques which allowed for a fuller representation of her voice, compared to the rather harsh recording of the original singer. It was then mixed in with a newly recorded arrangement of the theme song, and a cleaned up isolated track of William Shatner’s famous opening monologue.
“Risk is our business”
CBS took a big risk presenting new CGI for our beloved show, especially when you consider it was on a TV show budget in 2006. I think ultimately it was a good choice, it let the remastering team provide variety: they could stop reusing the same few ships/starbases, matte paintings, even camera angles of the Enterprise. The downside of course is that the CGI can vary widely, in some shots looking great, and others a bit cartoony. The “feel” of the Enterprise model also was tweaked a number of times, sometimes it moved like a gazelle, others it lumbered more like the original VFX. It was an evolving process, with judgement calls made by the team episode-by-episode.
When the TOS-R project wrapped up in mid-2008, the HD disc wars had just been won, Blu-ray emerged a victor. While TOS-R had been released on DVD, a good High Definition release hadn’t really been possible. There was a Season 1 HD DVD release, but it too only contained the new VFX versions. In 2009 to much rejoicing CBS announced the Blu-ray season sets, thanks to the capacity of Blu-ray these new sets would contain both the original VFX and the new CGI VFX, so this release could become the definitive way to enjoy the freshly cleaned up TOS.
In syndication, for retro TV networks like MeTV, CBS seems to still only be offering up the CGI version, I can only infer that this is what they consider to be The Original Series for the casual fan. The original VFX seems to be reserved for purists and collectors, available on the Blu-ray season sets and the upcoming Roddenberry Vault Blu-ray set.
There’s more information at our TOS-R landing page, it has links to all the articles we’ve written over the years, links to the DVD and Blu-ray reviews, a link to our sub-page with the list of the episodes as they aired in the remastered “seasons”, and an archived list of the stations that were part of that first syndication run.