THERE WAS, BUT NOT ANYMORE: DOOMSDAY HAS ARRIVED!
Before getting to my review of the new “Doomsday Machine,” let’s get through the preliminaries first. First up, let’s address why it’s sacrilege to screw with the original Star Wars Films (ok, really SW and ESB, I never really cared what they did with Jedi – although putting a new song in Jabba’s court was not really a step in the right direction) and not Star Trek. The answer: because George Lucas, for all intents and purposes, is supplanting the original Oscar nominated versions of Star Wars (which resides in the Library of Congress among other places) for all time and, frankly, making them worse. The Enhanced Star Trek, on the other hand, is an alternate version of the original episodes which continue to be in syndication and on DVD and are not intended to replace the original 1966-69 versions, but rather exist as a companion piece to them.
Secondly, while I admittedly get a visceral kick out of watching the updated Trek episodes every week, I feel the original opticals have gotten unfairly maligned in the process. Many of the elements that have been labeled as cheesy such as the Styrofoam rocks and cardboard sets haven’t changed (nor will Jimmy Doohan fainting in “Spock’s Brain” as a distraction). All the new spaceship shots in the world aren’t going to change that. In most cases, I prefer the original opticals (is there a better special effect shot than that iconic image of the Enterprise firing its phasers from the cover of “The Making of Star Trek?” I think not and there’s probably no more grand and stunning visual effects scene than the Enterprise miniature leaving drydock in Star Trek: The Motion Picture) and have generally preferred miniatures over CGI which is why the initial decision by CBS Digital to remain utterly faithful to the original shots was a dramatic mistake, in my mind. The CGI often looked shoddy and fake compared to the best opticals from Classic Trek and even the new CGI model of the Enterprise pales in comparison to the original miniature.
The dirt on TOS-R
That said, let’s get to the real reason CBS has embarked on re-working the Trek visuals and to call it a dirty little secret, literally, would not be far from the truth. The fact is that the original elements that were optically composited to create Star Trek’s visual effects in the 60’s are long lost to the ravages of time and, the result of the many passes it took to create these effects in an optical printer are so dirty that they simply wouldn’t be up to spec for HD transfers. As a result, CBS needed to recreate the visual effects if they were to port the original episodes to the new high-definition formats. OK, fine. Right? Wrong. From day one, CBS hasn’t invested the time in R&D or money necessary to get the job right. Fortunately, their efforts did involve hiring several people passionate about Star Trek including Dave Rossi and Mike Okuda which was a step in the right direction. Unlike previous incarnations of Trek, these are people who have an affinity for Classic Trek and will do their best to protect it, even if their judgment isn’t always right on the money. Now I will tell you this, I like Dave a lot personally, but I was mortified to read Rossi’s comments on this very site that fans should simply give them a break and lay off their criticisms because they were doing the best they could. Now, I’m paraphrasing, but the fact is, when you put yourself in the public arena and take on a monumental task like this which is clearly going to inspire passions, both pro and con, you have to accept the reality that you will be both praised and damned. If you can’t take the heat, get out of the cage and go back to Rigel – or something like that.
What is gratifying to see is the braintrust behind the new Trek has learned from their mistakes and since the underwhelming “Balance of Terror” has showed marked improvement over recent weeks. Ironically, some of their best work has been when they were inventive and moved away from slavish devotion and verisimilitude to the original episodes and stock shots. “Space Seed” was a notable highpoint, particularly when the Enterprise discards the Botany Bay from its tractor beam, and in “Journey To Babel” when the shuttlecraft lands in the shuttle bay which I regarded with almost fetishistic delight as well as the video game-like battle with the Orion ship. By contrast, not changing James R. Kirk to James T. Kirk in “Where No Man Has Gone Before” is unforgivable — even if you justify the fact that Gary Mitchell mistook Kirk’s middle name for something else. So much for being a god…
But it’s no accident that when you think about revisiting the visual effects of the original series, there’s one episode that towers above all others and that is, of course, “The Doomsday Machine.” It has inspired numerous fans to take a crack at their own versions, most impressively Daren Dochterman’s re-imagination which he recently completed (and I won’t discuss as Daren is a good friend and it’d be inappropriate for me to sing his praises here). And now CBS Digital weighs in. How’d they do? Stick with me and I’ll tell you.
A great episode – or the greatest?
If there’s a better episode than “Doomsday Machine” in the history of Trek; it’s probably only because “City on the Edge of Forever” packs more of an emotional punch and “Mirror, Mirror” boasts an even more off-the-wall sci-fi premise, but “Doomsday” has the whole package; great space action, a sensational sci-fi conceit, a memorable Sol Kaplan score and powerful human drama. I think one of the reasons the troika of Kirk, Spock and McCoy works so well in “Doomsday” is because instead of their animus being directed towards each other, they all are united by their disdain for broken Commodore Matt Decker, played with unhinged panache by William Windom (it’s hard to believe anyone could be better than the great Robert Ryan who was originally considered for this role, but Windom nails it). Even when he leans uncomfortably back in Kirk’s captain’s chair and crosses his legs, he makes it clear that every fiber of his being has been shattered by his unforgivable mistake of beaming his crew to the ill-fated “third planet.” There’s also something really powerful about Kirk being isolated from Spock and McCoy and having to watch not only their potential demise, but, perhaps even worse, the demise of his ship — and not being able to do a thing about it. Not to mention there are perhaps even more great throwaway lines per minute in this episode than any other episode ranging from Kirk’s kudos to Scotty “that he’s earned his pay for the week” to Spock’s rebuke to Decker, “Vulcans never bluff.” (hence, why they are such bad fizzbin players) to Kirk pleading with Spock, “Gentlemen, I suggest you beam me aboard.”
But all of this wouldn’t mean a thing if “Doomsday” didn’t deliver first-rate visual effects spectacle in which the Enterprise battles the massive planet killer or, as Kirk labels it in a strained allegory to the 20th Century, “a Doomsday Machine.” The original visual effects were pretty miraculous for a late-60’s television budget and even hold up overall today. There are some notable weak spots, particularly the Enterprise strafing the titular weapon with the animated phaser effects bouncing off its impenetrable neutronium surface. But, ultimately the Doomsday Machine itself, along with the wrecked AMT model kit that was the Constellation are all pretty effective and never get in the way of the story.
For the most part, CBS Digital does a nice job with some of the showier moments including Decker’s attempt to destroy the Doomsday Machine with a shuttlecraft as well as the Enterprise caught in the maw’s tractor beam as well as the wrecked Constellation being held in tow by the Enterprise. The most impressive enhancement however is the damaged Constellation herself in which large chunks are taken out of the primary hull – although the damage to the warp nacelles is probably too severe. There’s an interesting shot of the Enterprise strafing the Doomsday Machine with phaserfire which, like much of the ship’s recently rendered movement, is borderline Star Wars, but it works here in illustrating the futility of the Enterprise’s attack on the planet killer.
Unfortunately, what doesn’t work is the Doomsday Machine itself — along with its destructive anti-proton beam. It looks like it was drawn in Crayola (much like my many sketches of it in the fourth grade during math class) and lacks the surface texture and sense of scale that the original miniature had. In fact, one of the real missteps here is the fact we rarely see the Doomsday Machine in whole, but rather only glimpse pieces of it so we never really get a sense of the machine’s true scale until the end. I would have definitely preferred to see more scenes where the camera wasn’t so tight on the Enterprise rendering the size of the planet killer less imposing. And for all the original opticals over reliance on stock shots, there’s one angle CBS Digital has revisited time and time again which I can’t stand which is an angle from behind the warp nacelles, overlooking the primary hull. It’s an unflattering angle for the ship which looks far better than when shot from below or straight-on looking down at the primary hull.
Overall, the episode is an incredibly ambitious undertaking and while it’s not a misstep in the way “Balance of Terror” was, it’s not a complete success either. It’s easy to say that time and budget considerations led to an imperfect result, but then that’s just as true of the original effects, which for the most part, work just as well as they do here. Ultimately, do the new special effects enhance the drama of the episode and make it anymore special? Not really. Are there moments that are totally cool? Absolutely.
What would have been ideal (and, admittedly impossible) would be a melding of both old and new. For instance, there are some minor modifications in Doomsday which are simple and effective in which an easily visible cardboard painting of the bridge viewscreen is replaced by CGI and this helps a lot and is unobtrusive to the story — as do the new effects on the display onboard the Constellation. In a perfect world, it would’ve been great to utilize the original miniatures of the Doomsday Machine itself and the Enterprise miniature (which still looks far better than CBS Digital’s new Enterprise “model”) while replacing the phaser blasts and the Constellation with CGI. But, of course, this is impossible without the original uncomposited effects — although this would have truly would been the best of both worlds.
Looking to the future
So what can I expect to float my Constellation-class boat in the future? Well, I’ll tell you what I’m most interested in — and it’ll probably surprise you: “The Cloud Minders,” for one. I’m very interested in seeing what they do with Stratos, the original cloud city. “Errand of Mercy” is also something I’m looking forward to, although don’t expect to see the Starfleet/Klingon battle as one thing they can’t do is change anything that would require altering the sound mix and adding a prolonged sequence would do just that. And most of all, “The Ultimate Computer.” If they lift the rest of the fleet from Franz Joseph’s Technical Manual instead of simply duplicating the Enterprise, all will be forgiven, and I, for one, will be positively giddy (and, I’m sure a few of you will be as well).
In the end who knows what the future holds for Trek. There’s rumors of recently unearthed unseen footage from the original series which could potentially be added to the show, even better revamped visual effects, re-imagining the animated series in CGI and, of course, the inevitable reworking of The Next Generation whose video composited low-res effects won’t stand up to HD scrutiny and will require a complete overhaul as well. And, of course, J.J. Abrams new Star Trek re-imagination. But then, that’s a story (and a trek) for another day.
MARK A. ALTMAN is the co-writer/producer of the Trek-centric cult classic, Free Enterprise, and Editorial Director of, appropriately, Geek Monthly. His books include Trek Navigator and the Captains Logs’ series for Little Brown & Company and he has written numerous Star Trek comics for DC and Malibu Comics. Altman, along with Free Enterprise director Robert Burnett and others discuss the remastered Star Trek on their podcast available at geekmonthly.com