Oh, if only Casablanca were in color! If only Charlie Chaplin's City Lights had spoken dialogue! If only Errol Flynn's The Adventures of Robin Hood were in 3-D! If any of those sentences make any sense to you, then you may be delighted to hear that the TV series Star Trek is being released on DVD in a new and "improved" version that cleans up and removes old special effects and inserts brand new ones that never existed, all to make one of the most succesful franchises of all time...what? More accessible?
It's bad enough when filmmakers do this to their own movies -- Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Peter Bogdanovich and many others constantly fiddle with the DVD releases of their movies, revising and re-revising classics again and again. My rule of thumb: a filmmaker can do whatever they want, but ALWAYS make sure the original theatrical release is available in its original form, preferably in the same set. Anything else is a lie.
The new Star Trek The Original Series Complete Second Season ($84.98; Paramount) release is a lie. Just watching the first episode -- the fan favorite "Amok Time" -- reveals numerous touches and changes and tweaks and wholesale additions. The title sequence has been changed, with a new sleeker ship identical to the old but far more detailed on display. The planets seen in establishing shots seem to be more vivid and detailed as well. Most notably, when Kirk, McCoy and Spock visit the planet Vulcan for a marriage rite, there's a new shot of the location that shows a dramatic stone bridge that people are crossing to a site that is high up in th sky on a lonely peak, with a major city visible far away. It's eye-catching and well-done and very likely if Gene Roddenberry had been able to afford such a shot at the time, he would have wanted it.
More subtle are those new shots of the ship. Go to the excellent boxed sets released just four years ago, and you can see the ship floating through space - the ship itself is so grainy, you almost feel like you're watching old newsreel footage about the Enterprise. But what's most striking is how foolishly unnecessary these changes are: the core of the show is Kirk and Spock and McCoy, the way McCoy is surprised when Spock announces a beautiful woman as his wife and Kirk raises an eyebrown in manly approval; the way Spock reacts with joy when he realizes Kirk is alive and then tries to mask his emotion and so on. No movie or show EVER survives because its special effects were cutting edge. Great characters and great stories are what endure -- whether the effects remain effective (as with the original King Kong or the Ray Harryhausen movies) or are quickly revealed as hokey (as in, say, Flash Gordon serials).
Does it matter? Isn't worrying about spiffing up an old TV series just the fuddy-duddy moanings of a critic? I used to berate my brother for watching movies that were chopped and cropped for video and told him how he had NO IDEA of what the movie was really like and how this editing and panning and scanning ruined every frame of the film and was like removing the drums and bass from a Rolling Stones album or chopping out a third of a panting from its frame. He didn't care. But now that it's so much easier to see movies in their original aspect ratio, he and everyone else expects movies to be presented that way. Unfortunately, the opposite is true with this faux improvement of Star Trek. It's getting easier and easier to slap in new effects (as well as cheaper). Colorization never made any money -- not because regular folk cared one way or the other but because the process was so ugly. Soon, they'll be broadcasting new episodes of I Love Lucy in fake color and people won't even realize it's been changed.
Does it matter? Heck yes. Every grainy image from Star Trek gives you a subliminal idea of when it was made and by who; it lets you know the resources they had to tell the stories they wanted. The classic Dr Who series in the UK usually had aout $20 a week to spend on special effects. (And half of that went to tea from the looks of it.) Those lame effects are key to the charm, in a way. On Star Trek, their top-notch effects for TV were well-regarded at the time. And they are essential to enjoying and appreciating the show that was made.
You can't improve a book by condensing it or dumbing down the wording for kids. I was horrified recently to see my nephew (about 8 years old) reading a dumbed-down version of Treasure Island, a book any intelligent kid can read IN ITS ORIGINAL FORM right around that age. They also had Moby-Dick, a book which isn't a kid's book by any stretch. What's the point of having them read, "Hi, my name is Ishmael"? You are destroying history when you distort and change a work of art for any reason. Doing it to a TV show that has proven so wonderfully durable is just insane. Yes, people won't notice unless you point it out. And that's the danger. They'll never know that they aren't really watching Star Trek. And some sliver of pleasure derived by watching a series that was crafted 40 years ago in its original form will be lost forever.
(To top it off, they preserved one aspect of the superior 2004 editions -- the one aspect I didn't like. The packaging is cute and clever and almost laughably awkward and difficult to use. Simply taking out a DVD from the packaging is an annoying pain in the neck.)
Also out this week:
Foyle's War 5 -- The fifth and final batch of shows from the British mystery series ($49.99; Acorn) set during World War II and starring Michael Kitchen in a career-capping performance as Foyle. Kitchen is so smart and low-key in this series, half the fun is watching him squeeze mountains of meaning out of a word or two or just a quizzical look. Famously, he always urged them to cut down Foyle's dialogue to the absolute minimum. If the show had gone on any longer, Foyle might have become mute. Typically, these last three episodes involve such war topics as shell shock, suspicion of German immigrants, spies and the such. Without tying up the loose ends too nicely, there's a wonderful sense of finality as V-E Day looms, right down to the convincing air of confusion for some characters whose lives have been defined by the war and aren't quite certain they want it to end (notably Sam, Foyle's driver played with pluck by the beautifully named Honeysuckle Weeks). Foyle is unquestonably one of TV's great characters and if the series isn't quite in the absolute top rank, it's damn close. And fans of mysteries should certainly consider it essential viewing.
I Love The 80s -- It seems like a silly bit of branding -- slapping an "I Love The 80's" logo on a bunch of movies doens't really make any sense. And yet, these movies do seem to be of a piece and fitting reminders of an era when Hollywood moved from the idiosyncratic flicks of the 70s to the commercial crowd-pleasers of the 80s. It doesn't mean they're always good, however. Footloose is much more dated and silly than I expected, especially that slow-motion game of chicken between tractors that seems laughable now. Pretty in Pink, like most John Hughes films, has some great performances(hello, Molly Ringwald -- who I can't believe is now playing a mom on TV) in the service of a standard plot, though this movie's awareness of class seemed revelatory at the time for a teen flick. Some Kind Of Wonderful is a slightly more adult Hughes confection, though still set in high school and again elevated mostly by a cast that includes Eric Stoltz and the pining Mary Stuart Masterson. Top Gun was a fluffy bit of nonsense even at the time but one look at the magnetic Tom Cruise shows why it was such a blockbuster. And for years I resisted the charms of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, despite my deep respect for Matthew Broderick. But it just gets better and better with age and is surely the crowning achievement of John Hughes, alongside The Breakfast Club. No wonder it inspired not one but two TV series. All moves are $14.98 from Paramount.
Lonesome Dove ($19.95 and $39.99 on Blu-Ray; Genius) -- One of the all-time great TV miniseries and one of the all-time great Westerns from TV or movie (and one of my favorite books -- so good, I've always avoided the prequels and sequels for fear of spoiling its pleasure). And now finally, it's available on DVD in the widescreen format it was apparently shot in originally. The miniseries was not, to my knowledge, shown letterboxed. And the original DVD was cropped, although it admitted to being changed from the proper aspect ratio, which always intrigued and annoyed me. Now we can finally see Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones in this brilliant summing up of the Western experience. Blu-Ray should NOT cost twice as much as regular DVD, but if you're gonna splurge this is one title to do it on.
The Executioner's Song Director's Cut ($19.99; Paramount) -- It's a banner week for Tommy Lee Jones, who has one of his other landmark performances released on DVD in a new edition. They've provided only a director's cut and if you read my Star Trek rant above, you know what I think of that. Typically, they trumpet the fact that it's a "director's cut" as if that makes it more valuable, but don't even bother to include the name of director Lawrence Schiller on the box. Another major, Emmy winning TV event, they should have included the original TV version, this new edit and the European/cable version as well that's circulated for years. But nothing justifies NOT including the original production that was such a ratings hit and wildly acclaimed. How hard is it to understand that if a TV movie or miniseries or TV show is worth putting out on DVD, it's worth showing the original, extant version that made its mark?
TV Roundup -- The flood of releases is never-ending. Out recently are Masters Of Science Fiction ($29.97; Anchor Bay), a very good anthology series with top actors like John Hurt, Judy Davis and Brian Denney and hosted by -- of all people - Stephen Hawking and unfortunately gone in the blink of an eye; Get Smart Season 1 ($24.98; HBO), the enjoyable dumb spoof series too stupid to realize (apparently) that it should have come out right before the feature film spinoff, not weeks later); The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show ($29.98; VSC), a kids Saturday morning sketch show that numbered John Lennon among its fans; Robin Hood Season Two ($79.98; BBC), the recent BBC spin on Robin Hood that is nowhere near as bad as the New Age-y version from the earlier 80s but not nearly as good (of course) as Errol Flynn's movie; Wayside School Season One ($19.99; Paramount) is a nicely off-kilter animated series based on the books by Louis Sachar; Family Ties Season Four ($39.98; Paramount) was at a peak with Alex dating Ellen and Mallory dating the goofball Nick -- it was downhill from here; fans of Heart and R.E.O. Speedwagon can enjoy concert films captured on the TV show Soundstage in hi-def ($24.99 and $19.99 respectively; Koch); Sunset Tan Season One ($19.98; Lionsgate) proves that not every setting is ripe for reality TV; Masters of Horror Season Two ($86.97; Anchor Bay) is the Showtime horror anthology series that delves into a genre rarely tackled on TV anymore but the DVD set is a bunch of looose DVDs inside a skull that -- just like the Star Trek set above -- is just frustratingly hard to actually use; fans of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz should jump all over Spaced ($59.98; BBC) that has nothing to do with sci-fi and everything to do with slackers and helped launch the creative team behind those movies; and finally if you're loving the glimpses of China during the Olympics, pick up Wild China ($29.98 and $39.98 on Blu-Ray; BBC) for a closer look at that country's diverse wildlife.