It seems strange now to think that Star Trek: The Next Generation first debuted some 20 years ago, but there it is – there’s no denying it. I was in college at Wisconsin when the first episode, "Encounter at Farpoint," appeared on the air. I’d been watching reruns of The Original Series for as long as I could remember, so at the time it was a thrill just to have Trek back on the air. The sets, the ships, the technology – it all seemed so sleek and futuristic back in 1987. So it’s somewhat shocking, all these years later, to realize just how dated The Next Generation seems today. Unfortunately, of all the Trek TV series – including The Original Series – this is the one that’s suffered most the passage of time.
Part of this is due to the fact that The Next Generation was produced at a time when television production – and particularly post-production – was transitioning from analog to digital. So while the live-action footage itself was shot on film, much of the post work and special effects were composited digitally. What this means is that the show has an overly digital look to it – a patina of artificiality – that, combined with the pajama-style uniforms and electronic musical scores, really cements this show in a particular time period.
Still, for all its problems, these seven seasons contain some of the truly great Star Trek stories. Seasons One and Two of the show were largely uneven, though there were a few stand-out episodes, including "Q Who?" (the debut of the Borg) and "The Measure of a Man" (beautifully representative of everything Trek stands for). Thankfully, the show really hit its stride in Season Three – arguably the single best season of the series – which offers several of its best episodes, including the spectacular "Yesterday’s Enterprise" and the best cliff-hanger Trek has EVER mounted… "The Best of Both Worlds, Part I". Along with "Part II," which started Season Four, these are easily my three favorite hours of this series. Unfortunately, with but a few exceptions, the final three seasons of this show were also terribly uneven, filled with the sort of clichéd plots and techie-solutions that all too often weigh this franchise down. The two-part series closer however, remains to this day one of the best TV finales of any show to date. "All Good Things" involved the entire cast, tied up the character threads nicely and really delivered an emotionally satisfying resolution. Fans and TV critics alike gave it well-deserved high marks.
The new set
This new complete series box set from CBS and Paramount offers the exact same discs that were included in the previous DVD full-season box sets, right down to the same menus and special features. The only thing that’s different about them here is the artwork on each disc. The video quality is generally decent – certainly better than the original broadcasts, and in the original 4×3 full frame aspect ratio. As I noted before, all the episodes (particularly the early seasons) have a slightly digital look due to the post-production process used at the time, along with a slight softness that comes from having been finalized in analog format. However, color and contrast are excellent. The audio is remixed in Dolby Digital 5.1 from the original stereo. The soundfield is surprisingly active and ambient, with nice directional play for effects. Dialogue is clean and centered, balanced nicely with the music. There’s good low frequency as well. The A/V quality isn’t especially noteworthy, but it’s certainly solid enough.
Given that these discs are the same as those previously released, all of the original special features (mostly behind-the-scenes featurettes included on Disc Seven of each season run) are included here as well. But you do get some new bonus material too, all included on the last disc of the set – Disc Forty-Nine.
You’ll find a trio of newly-created retrospective featurettes, including ‘The Next Generation’s Impact: 20 Years Later,’ ‘The Next Generation’s Legacy: 2007’ and ‘Star Trek Visual Effects Magic: A Roundtable Discussion.’ The new featurettes are presented in anamorphic widescreen video, and they’re surprisingly substantial. Each runs at least 25 minutes, so you get about 80 minutes of new material in all. 20 Years Later is hosted by actor John de Lancie (who played "Q" on the series), and offers recent interviews with many people who worked on the show. 2007 is hosted by Wil Wheaton (better known to fans as TNG’s Wesley Crusher). It looks at today’s space technology and Trek’s influences upon it, and includes a visit to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. The Roundtable Discussion features a chat between Trek FX vets Dan Curry, Rob Legato, Ron Moore and Howard Anderson (creator of the original TOS transporter effect). All of this is good stuff. There’s also a new Easter egg (the only one in the entire set) that’s a nod of thanks to the DVD producer, Stephen R. Wolcott. This material alone would be cool enough… but surprisingly, that’s not all you get here.
Something I really appreciate, is that this bonus disc also contains ALL of the featurettes that previously were only available to American fans on exclusive bonus discs packaged with the original DVDs at Best Buy stores (though the European DVDs included them from the outset). The practice of creating Best Buy-exclusive DVD bonus discs on Trek TVD releases began with TNG: Season Four (though previous seasons did offer bonus CD-ROM content). It continued with Seasons Five, Six and Seven, and all subsequent Trek complete season DVD releases (you can find a complete list of all such bonus discs – and Easter eggs as well, broken down by series – here at Star Trek.com). The specific featurettes included here are as follows:
- Select Historical Data I (S4 bonus disc)
- Inside the Star Trek Archives (S4 bonus disc)
- Intergalactic Guest Stars (S5 bonus disc)
- Alien Speak (S5 bonus disc)
- Select Historical Data II (S6 bonus disc)
- Inside the Starfleet Archives: Sets and Props (S6 bonus disc – incorrectly listed as Inside the Starfleet Academy Archives on this set’s packaging)
- Special Profiles (S7 bonus disc)
- Dressing the Future (S7 bonus disc)
This new set also includes a fold-out guide to each season. I have to say, the new packaging isn’t much to speak of, but it’s certainly better than the original DVDs. All 49 discs are contained in a series of 3 green plastic binders – similar to the ones used for the later Deep Space Nine and Voyager DVD sets. These sit inside a silver-gray plastic holder, and a thin, clear plastic box slides over them to keep them securely together. Again, it’s not the best packaging ever, but I think it’s an improvement over the original cardboard boxes. It also takes up a lot less room on your video shelf. Here’s what it looks like…
The new set carries an SRP of $455.95, but Amazon is selling it now for only $304.99. Keep in mind that each of these season sets originally sold for well over $100 each, so you’re definitely getting a better deal. Amazon also carries a bundle of all seven original season sets packaged together for just $309.99 (down from the SRP of $520.98), but again you don’t get the bonus disc or the new packaging. The bottom line is that if you already own these DVDs, this set’s very existence and low price is probably somewhat irritating. But if you don’t and you’ve always wanted to have them, the new set is almost a steal.
There’s talk that Star Trek: The Next Generation may soon be given the same "remastered" treatment by CBS Digital that The Original Series has received, to update the effects and bring the show into the high-def era. It was hinted at Comic-Con this past summer that tests on the series have already been done. I hope this is true, because this series REALLY needs updating. It’d be a helluva lot of work – CBS would have to rebuild each of these episodes almost from the ground up – but I think the result would be worth the effort.
In any case, there can be no doubt that Star Trek: The Next Generation – warts and all – once revived this franchise (though it remains to be seen whether it can be revived again). When it was good, Star Trek: The Next Generation was very good indeed. As such, it remains a must-have for any Trek fan on DVD.
Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Complete Series
20th Anniversary Edition – 1987-1994 (2007) – Paramount
Program Rating: B+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B/B+