Never get involved in a land war in Asia.
Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line.
Those are the classic blunders, but if Vizzini were alive today, he might list another: Never propose adding modern digital effects to a beloved work of filmed science fiction.
This weekend, Star Trek returns to nationwide syndication, augmented with 21st Century technology to make the 23rd Century look less like the 1960s. CBS just took 20 pounds off of Katie Couric; now it’s adding 40 years to the U.S.S. Enterprise. It’s only to make sure the episodes look good in the higher-res world of HDTV, supposedly; and the CGI will be “dirtied up” with grain and other signs of age, so that the new looks suitably old.
Even so, the argument goes, it diminishes the contributions of those special-effects artisans whose expertise and innovations helped Star Trek survive for lo, these forty years. When the last unaltered DVD has crumbled into pixie dust and all that survives of the Original Series is this hybrid, better suited for the formats of tomorrow, future generations won’t be able to appreciate what Star Trek looked like at its beginning.
The other side of that argument is the notion that at its beginning Star Trek was as likely to be viewed on a black-and-white TV as on a color set; and by our standards a relatively small set at that. The DVDs have also replaced the original episodes’ mono soundtracks with a 5.1 surround remix. Advances in TV technology have already started to change the originals, albeit in less-noticeable ways.
Personally, I must admit to a certain fondness for seeing the Original Series revisited through the lens of modern effects. When the Enterprise appears on the viewscreen in the opening minutes of “Trials and Tribble-ations,” or when “In A Mirror, Darkly” showcases the Constitution-class Defiant, somehow that old art direction seems more real to me.
And that feeling, I know, is a cousin to the Alex Ross school of comic art, which holds that the fantastic can be more grounded — more “real” — if it is (for lack of a better phrase) taken seriously. Yes, Jack Kirby and Joe Sinnott originally gave Galactus and his Energy Converter its power, but Marvels wanted to convince you it actually happened. The difference is one of perspective: Kirby and Sinnott convey one set of impressions, and Ross offers another. The latter is a comment on the former and, as such, assumes that the reader brings his own knowledge of Kirby/Sinnott to Marvels. Likewise, the recreations of the classic Enterprise in the context of Modern Trek episodes must assume that, for the most part, viewers recognize the classic settings and will be impressed at the seamlessness of their integration with later iterations.
Still, Marvels is not intended to replace or update the stories upon which it comments; whereas the implication of the “enhanced” Star Trek is that the original is no longer good enough. This naturally leads fans to invoke the L-word — Lucas — and suppose that their blue-screen-and-models Trek will be forever buried under a shower of texture maps and polygons. They love Star Trek unconditionally as it is, without kewl effects interfering in their imaginations, and therefore any attempts at “improvement” can only be blemishes.
I’m trying very hard to be even-handed here, because what might seem like a silly debate involving fanboy territoriality does raise some important questions about the nature of this kind of art and the mechanics of its preservation. This means I can speak only for myself, a second-generation Star Trek fan whose affection stems not just from the show itself, but also from the James Blish adaptations, the toys, and the movies.
And my thought is, if the old effects were a distraction that prevented me from engaging more fully in the experience of an episode — if they made me work overtime to suspend my disbelief — then I say put them in an archive on a new DVD and bring on the CGI. I “know” that the Enterprise model with the Obi-Wan glow is supposed to be the Defiant caught in interphase, but is it wrong for me to want to see a different name and registry on the hull? Shouldn’t those Romulan D-7s in “The Enterprise Incident” have warbird stylings a la “Balance of Terror?”
Well, the devil’s advocate might say, why should they? If these new CGI jockeys aren’t working from original material, who are they to decide what the Romulan bird-designs look like? This isn’t a Touch Of Evil restoration, working from Orson Welles’ original editing notes. It’s not even an issue of removing the “approved DC style” from Jack Kirby’s Jimmy Olsen and Superman figures. Beyond the fact that they work for Star Trek‘s owners, what entitles CBS/Paramount’s crew — as opposed to we fans — to stamp their designs with any “official” imprimatur?
It is one of the great ironies of Star Trek that its internal consistency has inspired dueling fan-created orthodoxies. Even something so simple as the Defiant‘s registry number (“revealed” in those Enterprise episodes) can affirm one group and anger another. Moreover, fans today can even produce their own CGI effects. In that respect, an enhanced Star Trek isn’t a restoration made possible through new technology — potentially, it tells fans that their imaginations were wrong.
And again, the flip side of that is someone like me, tantalized by those dark, grainy stock shots into wanting more and better views of the Enterprise and her kin. The phrase “in a mirror, darkly” comes from a particular translation of 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known.” It’s therefore unintentionally ironic for that episode to showcase the original Defiant not “darkly,” as in “The Tholian Web,” but “face to face,” as it “really was.”
Obviously CGI isn’t Heaven, but arguably it brings viewers closer to “reality,” in some Platonic way of seeing what’s casting those shadows on the cave wall. More to the point, that Corinthians verse is preceded by these: “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away.” George Lucas would approve, considering his stated preference for the Star Wars special editions over the originals. Here, the trouble comes not from a creator’s revisions, but from caretakers deciding 40 years after the fact what was making those shadows.
And that may not even be a concern. From the brief shots of upgraded effects available on StarTrek.com, it looks like the classic Enterprise flybys and orbits will be recreated pretty faithfully, although I’d expect they won’t be recycled as much as they were originally.
Still, even if the new stuff is convincing enough to make me forget the original, I wonder if that’s a good thing. We fans don’t just want to introduce our passions to new people, we want them to experience it the way we did, and most times that’s not possible. I can’t tell you what it was like to try and catch a snowy broadcast of “Shore Leave” from WAVE-TV in Louisville, 79 miles away. Nor can I describe the horror of watching an episode bloated to 90 minutes so bits of alleged “comedy” from local radio hosts could be inserted between acts, killing time late on Friday nights. I have forgotten how long it took me to get those 40 VHS tapes from Columbia House, but trust me, it was a while; and it probably took as long to decide to donate them, ultimately, to the local library. Each episode wasn’t just 50-odd minutes of television — it was information, the building blocks of a future world meant to inspire our own. If some of that information, no matter how trivial, might be supplanted, some accompanying trepidation might be understandable.
There’s also a comfort in knowing that you’ve built your own … support structure, I guess, around your particular passion, to help it run more smoothly in your mind. It creates at least the illusion of interactivity, and therefore of symbiosis. Naturally, that recalls the Keeper’s words to Captain Kirk, “[He] has an illusion, and you have reality. May you find your way as pleasant.”
In the end, though, I’ll just be glad to see Star Trek looking sparkly-clean. While there’s money to be made, of course, I’m naive enough to picture the enhancements as a labor of love. There is beauty in those old effects; otherwise we fans wouldn’t have been so enthralled by them. I hope the upgrades will only bring out what age and the limitations of the time have, perhaps inadvertently, obscured. Besides, as Sulu said in The Wrath of Khan, “Any chance to go aboard the Enterprise…!”