The high definition remastering of Star Trek: The Next Generation has thus far been a revelatory experience. Season three is the latest to receive the Blu-ray treatment and the results are as satisfying as any so far. While season two’s digital restoration work was outsourced and displayed marginally lower quality than season one (though to my eyes it looks far better than some of the nit-pickiest fans claim), CBS Digital has once again handled the complicated process. I can find nothing to criticize in their incredibly detailed work. Season two’s on-set footage looked excellent, but the recreated effects work by HTV-Illuminate had a sort of makeweight quality; not bad, but not as richly detailed as we knew from the first season that it could be. Don’t fret about such shortcomings with the vitally important third season, the point at which the show truly came into its own.
The quality of the upgrade simply cannot be overstated. Originally the show’s special effects work was finished on standard definition videotape. The earlier DVD sets looked bland, soft, and dated. Returning to the original 35mm negatives, redoing all the special effects in HD, and re-editing it all so it exactly matches the original cuts has resulted in a cinematic experience (despite the necessary retention of the 1.33:1 aspect ratio). If you have any doubts about the need for an expensive upgrade from the old DVD sets, I’ll just reiterate that if you want to see the show as it truly was meant to be seen then the Blu-rays are the only way to go. I know that sounds like a hard sell (from which I have nothing to gain), but I daresay TNG is the most dramatic example I’ve seen of the superiority of the format.
Season three began in 1989 and carried on into 1990. After the strike-shortened second season, this marked a return to the full 26-episode order. The more notable return was Gates McFadden as Dr. Beverly Crusher, who had left the show after season one due to creative differences. While I’m not overly fond of Dr. Crusher as a character, I’m glad we don’t see more of Dr. Pulaski (Diana Muldaur), the Enterprise’s doctor from season two. McFadden has some nice moments as Dr. Crusher adjusts to her son Wesley’s (Wil Wheaton) greater prominence as an Enterprise crew member. The third season, while not without a few dud episodes, displays a confidence and overall artistry heretofore unseen in the series.
Characters, as well as the interpretations of the actors playing them, began to really crystallize with this season. The thoughtful maturity of the first two season’s best episodes continued, but with greater consistency. Highlights abound, but one of the best episodes is “Sarek,” featuring Mark Lenard in a reprisal of his role as Spock’s father. While experiencing a sort of Vulcan equivalent of Alzheimer’s (one that throws their emotions out of control), Sarek mind-melds with Picard (Patrick Stewart) in order to transfer his raging emotion temporarily for a diplomatic meeting. Stewart turns in a tour de force performance as he conveys some of what is troubling Sarek. This is one of the episodes discussed at length in the set’s new special features.
“Yesterday’s Enterprise” is also a classic, one that finds the Enterprise encountering a 22-year-old Enterprise that passed through a temporal rift, changing the course of history. This one allows for a reappearance of Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby), who has not died in this alternate reality. “Deja Q” gives us another great appearance by John de Lancie as the omniscient Q (though not so in this episode, for which the Q Continuum has stripped him of his powers). “The Offspring” presents a clever (and emotionally effective) expansion on season two’s ‘how human is Data?’ study, “The Measure of a Man.” In this one, Data (Brent Spiner) creates a “daughter” for himself, which incites more controversy between Picard and Starfleet brass.
Then there’s the infamous—though highly regarded—cliffhanger, “The Best of Both Worlds, Part 1,” that concluded season three. This upped the ante for TNG, really setting a fever pitch anticipation for the fourth season. Spoiler alert for anyone brand new to the show (though a trailer for The Best of Both Worlds Blu-ray, which combines parts one and season four’s part two, leads off disc one), Picard is assimilated by that greatest of all TNG villains, the Borg. Pretty amazing turnaround considering the second season (though easily superior to the first) concluded in something of a state of creative turmoil.
I began by singing the praises of the 1080p presentation. The ultra-sharp images reveal so much that is simply not present on the DVDs. Textures in the makeup appliances of Worf and the many other alien characters are seen in far greater detail. Check out Sarek’s deeply-lined face, especially during the close-up in which he sheds a few tears. The DVD’s grayish black levels have deepened, becoming solid and inky. The washed out contrast of the DVD versions is no more. Now we can appreciate any dramatically lighted scene in its full glory. “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” with its not-quite-right, darkly-lit Enterprise, is a choice example. And perhaps above all, colors—from the maroon uniforms to Guinan’s various outfits—are vivid and rich in a way the previous versions never hinted at. The show couldn’t look better had it been produced this year rather than some 23 years ago.
As with the previous two seasons, each episode of season three has been treated to a sterling 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix. What I continue to appreciate about these mixes is that they cleanly present an expansion of what still sounds true to the show’s original sound design. The upgrade between the 5.1 Dolby Digital mixes of the DVDs to these lossless mixes is not as great as what we see in the picture quality. Still, these mixes are quite detailed. While I screened most of the episodes on a 5.1 system, the ones I heard in 7.1 (such as “The Enemy” and “Tin Soldier”) provided even greater directionality and nuance with the addition of two channels.
A selection of new supplements graces the set, along with the ported-over features from the previous DVD. A few new audio commentaries turn up. These include Ron Moore on “The Bonding,” Ira Steven Behr with Moore on “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” Rene Echevarria with Mike & Denise Okuda on “The Offspring,” and Moore again on “Sins of the Father.” Though the bulk of the new video-based material is reserved for disc six, the fifth disc has a new HD gag reel. “In Memoriam: David Rappaport” allows us to see, for the first time, the late actor’s scenes in “The Most Toys” (he was replaced by Saul Rubinek).
Disc six holds about three hours of new supplemental material, this time focused largely on the show’s writers. “Inside the Writer’s Room” is an hour and ten minute roundtable featuring four former TNG writers (Ronald Moore, Brannon Braga, Naren Shankar, Rene Echevarria) and moderated by Seth MacFarlane. Not only insightful, this is an entertaining look at the creative process behind the show. MacFarlane’s knowledge and obvious love of the show help make him a great choice to steer the reminiscing. The three-part “Resistance is Futile - Assimilating Star Trek: The Next Generation” delves into the various developments that ended up making season three such an important turning point in the franchise’s history.
There’s also a tribute to the late Michael Piller, a key figure in Trek history, who was brought on board as head writer during season three. Hearing the thoughts of various writers and cast members who worked with Piller , who remained with the show through its conclusion (not to mention co-developing Deep Space Nine and Voyager), is a touching way to conclude exploring Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season Three.