In 1987, I was in my early 20s and was already a life-long Trekkie. And I was oh-so-skeptical of these usurpers to throne of Captain Kirk. But this Next Generation captain and crew quickly converted me with their adventures and their more thoughtful, but no less action-packed take on Star Trek. And so I watched their episodes as lovingly - and possessively and eventually obsessively - as I ever had those of their '60s forebears.
25 years later, "Star Trek: The Next Generation" - or "NextGen" as we have always called it - is on two or three channels two or three times a day. And now the shiny new Blu-Ray DVD of the first seasons lets you see the original special effects as they were intended before being blurred and muted by our primitive 20th century videotape technology. We can finally honor the epic achievements of those ancient filmmakers with their physical models and actual cameras, and that is not what I am here to talk about.
No, what's really special about this new high-tech release is the chance to re-experience, more intimately and up-close than ever before, the performances of one of the finest casts of actors ever assembled. Ensembled. Whatever. There were a bunch of them, led by Shakespearean-trained Patrick Stewart, and despite their reputation as the more sedate Star Trek generation, these guys were chewing up the scenery and spitting out technobabble with faith and earnest and a bellyfull of investment.
Remember, they were acting through all the same technological limitations that made the special effects look so muddy once upon a time. And now ... finally ... we can see it all.
First, Jonathan Frakes is not a stiff! Poor old Commander Riker had this reputation as the statue that stood at Picard's right hand and dumbed-down the technobabble. And that was a big part of his job. To be the third guy to say the same thing in a scene. But it turns out that Will Riker was positively smoldering all the time. Oh! Watch his eyes! Anytime he is slighted, his captain is slighted, or if anyone looks askance at Counselor Troi, just watch him flash and flare! Don't forget, the man honed his craft in soap operas!
Gates McFadden had a similar issue as Doctor Beverly Crusher. For plot purposes she was often called on to spend the first half of every episode explaining that she'd never seen anything like it, didn't know what to do, and that the patient was almost definitely doomed. Taken cumulatively, her dialogue over the course of the series might make her sound like the worst space doctor ever. But these higher resolution images of her old performance reveal the deep concern for the well-being of her patients that accompanied each repetition of her complete inability to do anything useful until Act III ... and these early episodes are also one of the places where her conflicted romantic desire for Captain Picard is most blatantly on display. More smoldering.
And if you want to see some REAL smouldering watch the Klingon, Mister Worf.
As first conceived, Worf was intended as an occasional character. But I believe that the gravitas and stern constancy Michael Dorn brought to the role in the first season -- before Worf softened up and starting having girlfriends and non-violent hobbies -- piqued fan interest and drew him closer to the center of the action. Well, that and the fact that the woman who used to stand in front of him on the bridge got eaten by a black slime monster.
And watching Worf actively breaking out of his first season background role... watching his every cautious instinct or aggressive impulse soundly rejected by the calmer human bridge crew and then seeing him rage and fume from behind all that rubber forehead... well his almost constant indignity is Worf's charm and the look of grim satisfaction that occasionally flashes across his features when everything goes to hell in Act II and Worf had told them so in Act I. Those moments are priceless.
As much of a joy is watching Brent Spiner figuring out who the android, Data, really is. In the early episodes his emotions are all over his face. Data was meant as the NextGen Mr. Spock, and thus without feelings. But he's almost goofy in parts of the first episode.
And watching Spiner, who'd come to the show from sitcoms ...
... sublimate the clown over time until he was playing Data with all those emotions and all that charm absent from his face but just screaming from behind his yellow contacts... well it's a privilege. We always loved Data. Now we can so clearly see why.
And so it is with the rest of them. The opportunity to watch the cast becoming the characters... and defining them... in that first season with crystal clarity is, to me, the added value to what some might see simply as CBS churning aging Trekkies for a few more dollars. No, the chance to sit in the virtual front row and watch these actors work up-close through the opera glasses of our modern technology has made them - and their performances - more real to me than ever before.
And that is the very special affect that I wanted to talk about.