Don't mess with "Star Trek."
That was my first reaction when word came down that the new HD-DVD release of the classic 1960s series would not merely be remastered from the original camera negative. In addition to sleek new high-definition video, the discs would also feature -- ye gods! -- "updated" and "enhanced" special effects.
Didn't Hollywood learn its lesson when George Lucas "improved" the visual effects of his sainted "Star Wars" movie for rerelease? Fanboys went bonkers over the sacrilege, even though Lucas maintained he was just doing what he would have done if he'd had today's technical tools back in the 1970s. Well, yeah, maybe he would have cast Zac Efron as Luke Skywalker too, so why stop there? In other words: Leave it alone, already.
To a lifelong Trekker, it's like fingernails on a blackboard to hear a proclamation like this one from the behind-the-scenes extras of the "Star Trek" Season 1 HD-DVD set released Nov. 20 (by CBS/Paramount, list price $218 for 10 discs). "We could do so much better now," DVD producer David LaFontaine declares in a featurette presumptuously named "Spacelift: Transporting Trek Into the 21st Century." Thus, LaFontaine explains, "we decided to take a big shot and replace all the exterior special effects of the show with current CGI computer-generated ships."
I was ready to scream.
Then I got an HD-DVD player and watched the new-and-improved visuals.
Turns out, they're not so intrusive. They're actually pretty spiffy. But they're not essential, either. And this neutral outcome is OK by me. I'd still rather savor every second of the original "Trek," creaky as it is, because the '60s cheese is half the charm now, after I've watched every episode 27 times and know them by heart. To some young kid today newly encountering the episodes, though, the original "special effects" must look the way silent movies looked to their parents when they were kids.
The 21st century Enterprise of HD-DVD looks seriously swank, even though it seems exactly the same. The CGI treatment gives that familiar ship dimension and sweep, moving more dynamically, seen from more dramatic angles, zooming past planets themselves textured with weather patterns and landscape details. Those nebula and other deep-space features boast depth now too. The establishing shots after each commercial break are no longer perfunctory. They're spectacular -- yet if you didn't know the shows by heart, you wouldn't notice.
We get to compare old and new in a special feature called Starfleet Access. Tapping HD-DVD's on-the-fly technology, it allows menus and interactive special features to layer right over the video. By clicking on-screen icons as the episodes unreel, you can watch concurrent picture-in-picture observations from '60s crew members, today's effects updaters and "Trek" experts or read text info about the characters, lifeforms, spaceships and technology.
Seeing the original '60s film footage in high-def can be revealing in other ways. That 1,080-line resolution lets you see every bloodshot eye, every seam in a rubber monster suit, every "video" screen on the Enterprise bridge that's just some static piece of stock art. And who knew Mr. Sulu wore such blue eye shadow?
Even those without HD-DVD players might want to buy the new set, because its "combo" discs offer HD on one side and standard DVD on the other (sans interactive features). You can enjoy the standard-resolution versions now and on laptop drives or portable players while having HD on hand for future enjoyment. And there's more to come: "Star Trek" Season 2 is due in HD-DVD next year.