When it comes to Paramount/CBS’ new Star Trek: The Original Series – Origins compilation disc, there is no point in delaying the inevitable conclusion: For most consumers, it is an unnecessary release.
The disc, which collects five Original Series that introduce various iconic characters in the Star Trek universe, is aimed squarely at those who are new to the franchise – or, more accurately, those who enjoyed the recent J.J. Abrams reboot films, including this summer’s Star Trek Into Darkness, and may be enticed by a simple, welcoming introduction to the original television show while they are out buying the new film on Blu-Ray.
And while I would say the release is not perfect even under those parameters, it certainly fits the bill. If you have never seen Star Trek before – and do not have a Netflix or Amazon Instant Video account, where all 78 episodes are available to stream in high-definition – Origins is a decent starting point. Longtime fans need not waste their time, as they likely already own these exact episodes, in these exact transfers, on the pre-existing Blu-Ray season sets (or through aforementioned Netflix and Amazon streaming channels).
The selection of episodes on this release appears to be rooted in the various Original Series inspirations used in the recent J.J. Abrams films. Thus, we get the original pilot, “The Cage” – which features Captain Pike, reimagined as a prominent paternal figure under Abrams – the second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” – the first appearance of Captain Kirk (sort of – more on that in a minute), and of Spock in his final, more recognizable conception (Spock appears in “The Cage,” but is not emotionless or so resolutely devoted to logic) – two additional season one episodes, “Space Seed” and “Errand of Mercy” – the respective debuts of iconic antagonists Khan and the Klingons, respectively – and one season two episode, “The Trouble With Tribbles,” which needs no introduction.
For the most part, the choice of episodes makes sense under the ‘Abrams audience’ criteria. Pike, Khan, and the Klingons all feature heavily into Star Trek Into Darkness, and including their introductory episodes will likely be of interest to fans of the latest film. I am more confused by the inclusion of “Tribbles” – a fantastic episode, obviously, but I’m not sure a brief, background Tribble sight gag in each of the Abrams film is enough to justify its appearance here – and of “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Certainly, finding an episode that introduces the show’s protagonists is not an easy task, given Star Trek’s resolutely non-serialized nature, but even given its pilot status, “Before” is not a particularly representative example of how the show used these characters. Dr. McCoy had not even been conceived of or cast at that point, and while the episode features a healthy amount of Kirk and Spock, other main cast members are marginal at best, and not yet fully evolved. I can see it is as a decent pick to illustrate Kirk’s character, as the episode’s main story revolves around the Captain dealing with an old friend, but the episode was not necessarily designed as an introduction – in airdate order, it was shown to audiences third, rather than first, emphasizing the unconnected nature of Original Series episodes – and there are plenty of other picks within the first season that would serve as better Kirk examples for new viewers.
Personally, I would kill two birds with one stone and swap out “Where No Man Has Gone Before” with “Balance of Terror,” which not only introduced the Romulans – who served as villains in Abrams’ 2009 reboot – but is about as good a showcase for prime-universe Kirk’s style of leadership and command. That the episode was omitted here actually baffles me a little bit, given that it would seemingly be of interest to fans of the Abrams film, and because as one of the series’ absolute greatest episodes, it is an even better hour than any of the five included here.
Oh well. Origins still provides a nice little sampler for newcomers – though I cannot imagine someone whose only experience with Star Trek is the action-packed, effects-laden Abrams films warming to these episodes, and “The Cage” especially, in the slightest – and with the possible exception of “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” which I have always thought is a little rough around the edges, the episodes included are uniformly outstanding.
“The Cage,” which was later repurposed into the exquisite season one two-parter “The Menagerie,” is simply top-notch science fiction, smart and imaginative and emotionally challenging, with some very big ideas residing at its core. “Space Seed” is perhaps the pinnacle of Star Trek’s many episodes where action is confined almost entirely to the Enterprise, as Ricardo Montalbán’s Khan provides a fascinating, highly dynamic challenge for the crew to overcome. The Khan of “Space Seed” is a very different beast than the Khan of “Star Trek II,” but I love both incarnations, and I actually think Montalbán’s work here inspired Benedict Cumberbatch’s take on the character in Into Darkness more the iconic film sequel.
“Errand of Mercy” is hardly representative of what the Klingons would ultimately become to the larger Star Trek universe, but it is a great, tense episode nevertheless, filled with both the intellectual, diplomatic action and more visceral thrills Star Trek was always adept at delivering. “The Trouble With Tribbles,” meanwhile, is just a ridiculous amount of fun, zany and comedic without betraying the show’s generally thoughtful style, and a veritable master class in television pacing to boot.
And while I think “Where No Man Has Gone Before” is the weakest of the lot, that is only in comparison to these and other spectacular episodes in the show’s first two seasons. You can tell, watching this second pilot, that Roddenberry is still figuring things out. The pacing is far from perfect. The storytelling is wonky and unclear at times, and most importantly, the character dynamics are only partially realized. Interestingly, McCoy’s absence in this episode hammers home exactly how crucial he – and, by extension, the core trio of perspective formed by him, Kirk, and Spock – was to the show’s dramatic, intellectual, and entertainment success. There is simply something missing from “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” which is no major sin – most television shows take far longer to come into focus than Star Trek did – but notable nevertheless. It still has some extremely interesting material, though, with the Gary Mitchell character serving as a highly complex, effective antagonist, and Kirk’s main dilemma over how to handle the growing threat of his former friend carrying a good amount of dramatic momentum.
For those who have experienced The Original Series on Blu-Ray before, you know exactly what to expect with the A/V presentation of these episodes, which is, in a word, spectacular. Judged under whatever standards one wishes to employ, Star Trek more than holds up visually, with CBS’ 2006 remastering effort remains one of the most impressive restoration feats of the modern era, taking a show that always had good-to-great production value and solid-to-impressive cinematography, but that had deteriorated greatly in the years since its initial airing, and making it shine as brightly, if not moreso, as the day it was produced. Star Trek was filmed on 35mm, meaning it theoretically has the same image quality as many motion pictures, and on Blu-Ray, the depth of color and level of detail on display is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Better yet, CBS never went to far in their restoration, cleaning up the physical damage while leaving the film grain gloriously intact, making for an image that is beautifully filmic in its texture and quality. Even viewed under modern HD standards, Star Trek looks spectacular, and while certain episodes have rougher patches than others – “The Cage,” as the oldest episode, has noticeable drops in quality here and there – the transfers are largely stable. Special effects shots were replaced with CGI, but the replacements were made respectfully, and mesh with the 60s cinematography remarkably well.
Audio is equally impressive, with all 5 episodes featuring full DTS-HD MA 7.1 surround mixes, as well as the original mono soundtracks. The purist in me wants to prefer the mono, but these surround mixes remain some of the absolute best audio expansions I have ever experienced. Deep and rich with a wide, immersive soundstage and crystal clarity at every turn, Star Trek sounds incredible (and that goes for the current Next Generation restoration effort as well). Origins does not include all the bells and whistles of the Blu-ray season sets, but the A/V experience is just as strong as ever.
Bonus features are limited to episode-specific introductions by Rod Roddenbery, son of Gene, and while he offers no revelatory insight into the episodes, he does provide some informative context and interesting tidbits. The intros certainly aren’t worth buying the disc for, but they are a nice little addition, and fans unfamiliar with Star Trek may find them pleasantly welcoming.
None of the next-episode previews, a standard on Star Trek releases, are included, nor is there the option to watch the episodes with the original special effects. Both features are accessible on the season sets, so fans wishing to have that content will obviously want to favor the more comprehensive releases.
But Star Trek Origins is obviously not intended for those fans – it is a simple little sampling platter for newcomers brought in by the J.J. Abrams films, and assuming those fans would actually be capable of warming to the calmer, more intellectually complex original television series, it is a perfectly decent starting point. Still, those serious about getting into Star Trek would be better advised to buy the Blu-ray season sets, or for a more cost-effective measure, buy a subscription to Netflix and have access to all 78 episodes – which, at $7.99, is less than half the cost of this Blu-Ray. No matter what, interested parties have many options when it comes to getting into Star Trek, and while Origins is far from the best way to do so, it is also, with five genuinely significant episodes in pristine quality, far from the worst. Take that for what you will.
For longtime Star Trek fans, "Origins" is of little interest, but newcomers - provided they can get past the stylistic shock of going from J.J. Abrams to original Gene Roddenberry - may find the disc to be a solid foundation for future Star Trek explorations.