Maybe it’s because I’m getting old, or maybe it’s because I’m a big nerd, but after a couple of hours at my friend’s house drinking whiskey last night, I began petitioning to download classic Star Trek episodes from XBox Live. My friend has an HDTV that he’s never used for HD, and my other friend had brought her XBox over, so all the ingredients were there for me to finally sate my curiosity about the remastered Trek. When I was a young man, back when there was only one Enterprise crew, I was something of a Trekkie. As in I had schematics of the Enterprise hanging over my bed. As in I thought William Shatner was a great actor. As in it’s possible I jacked it to a green Orion slave girl. Over the years my love of the franchise faded as I became aware of how lame my fellow fans were and as the spin-off shows continuously failed to capture the cheesy magic of the original, almost like the people shepherding Star Trek into the future were ashamed of its pulpy roots. I lost touch with the show, but found that I could never quite clear the nerd knowledge of the original series from my head, and despite not having seen most of the episodes in decades can still hold forth on Redjack and the Tholian Web and finer details of Amok Time.
The recent remastering of the show had gotten my attention, and my brother had reported back positively about the HD episodes he had downloaded from XBox. He hadn’t been a fan like I had, so he was kind of discovering the joy of early Trek, and it was fun to go back there with him. But his newfound interest had really resparked mine, and so after lots of cajoling, I got my friends to blow some XBox points on Trek.
We downloaded The Arena, the episode where Kirk fights the Gorn. This was one of my touchstone episodes as a young man, and one of the fight scenes that my friends and I would most often incorporate into our neighborhood make believe. There was something especially cool about the Gorn – I mean, he was a dinosaur man who kicked the crap out of Captain Kirk and could only be stopped by being shot full of fucking DIAMONDS. It was also great that the Gorn only appeared in one episode, a lesson other franchises should take to heart about overexposing their coolest characters.
But as soon as the download was completed, I was full of regret. I have never seen an episode of Star Trek with such clarity, never seen these characters presented so realistically. And I wish I never had. The long shots looked amazing, but as soon as the camera cut to a close up of someone’s face, I was filled with horror. Make-up drips off everyone’s face, but there’s still not enough foundation to cover the lunar landscape of Sulu’s cheeks. And one of the boasted about improvements of the HD version of Trek – that Spock’s skin coloring was, for the first time in history, presented as originally conceived – was the most distracting. Spock looks badly jaundiced, and his lips are a deep pink, like Nimoy was gorging on cotton candy between takes. His ears are egregiously fake, and I think you can see the line between the prosthetic and Nimoy’s real ears on a number of occasions. The only thing worse than Spock’s thick yellow make-up, though, is the way that it often just stops at his neck, really fakening up the whole image.
The Gorn, who never was all that sophisticated an effect, now looks like a joke. In original broadcast definition you could imagine that his skin’s texture was scaly; now it’s just a foamy latex mess. And the rocks that he and Kirk toss at each other look less like props and more like big rice balls. Meanwhile, the landscape of the planet where they battle has become ludicrous, and the shiny rock surfaces are patently tin foil placed atop the real environment of Burbank or wherever they’re fighting.
Of course all of this fakiness was apparent to me even as a child, but the HD version aggressively dares you to look past the tin foil and already-rotting latex (seriously, the Gorn looks like he’s falling apart around the joints), and that’s a dare I couldn’t take. What’s most puzzling, though, was how the new effects shots – the CGI replacements of models and cheap optical effects – are in widescreen while the rest of the show is in original format. Whenever there’s a cut to the exterior of the Enterprise we’re treated to an anamorphic picture and then when we return to the Bridge we’re slammed back to a little box. It’s a bizarre choice – why not just make the FX shots the same ratio as the original show? What was that thought process about?
I don’t have an HDTV, and this experience hasn’t done much to convince me that I need one. After watching Star Trek we downloaded a bunch of Robot Chicken in standard definition, and that looked great, but it’s obvious to me that anything made before the days of HD does not need to be remastered into HD. The filmmakers were simply not shooting for that resolution, and the lighting and make-up needed for standard broadcast definition or a 35mm film presentation just isn’t the same as what you need for HD, where every pore on an actor’s face stands out like a new Grand Canyon.
My friend Abbie put it best last night: ‘It’s like you’re at a club at closing time and the lights come on and you finally get a good look at the girl you’ve been dancing with all night and it’s not a good moment.’ I’ve liked dancing with Star Trek all these years, so if you’ll excuse me I’m going to dim the lights and put my arms back around Captain Kirk and company and pretend like I never saw what I did.