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V'Ger Redux!

STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE "Director's Edition" launches on DVD

An Aisle Seat Review by Andy Dursin

Those of us who happen to be fans of the original Star Trek series know that Paramount has likely released more Trek episodes and various editions of the cinematic voyages on home video than any other property in their library. On laserdisc alone, it seemed that every film was released at least twice (first in pan-and- scan, then again letterboxed), driving collectors to the point where some had multiple copies of the same film, each time needing to upgrade their set. In fact, there may be some of you out there wondering what could possibly follow on DVD that we haven't seen before?

The answer is plenty, because November 6 will mark a "first" in the history of Star Trek -- that being the release of the very first, bona-fide "Special Edition" of a Trek film on home video.

In this case, it's the DIRECTOR'S EDITION DVD of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (*** movie, ***1/2 extras, $29.98), a remastered and re-cut version of the 1979 cinematic movie, an entertaining but flawed picture that nevertheless remains the most "cinematic" of all the big-screen adventures.

The two-disc DVD package is a treasure trove for fans and those who grew up with the film, offering a plethora of supplements (which I'll detail later) and a newly "re-thought" version of the movie itself -- the most debated of all the Star Trek films.

Plagued by production woes -- from a budget that went spiraling out-of-control, to the involvement of several special effects companies (one of which was seriously in over its head), and a Christmas '79 release date that was mandated by the studio -- it's a wonder that THE MOTION PICTURE ever became the box- office success that it did.

Its relatively straightforward story -- of a seemingly extraterrestrial "cloud" destroying everything that comes in its path as it approaches Earth -- recalls several episodes of the original series (including "The Doomsday Machine" and "The Changeling"), with Captain Kirk and crew setting out to explore the unknown "being" and stop it from destroying life as we know it.

What distinguishes the film from its small-screen counterparts is the lavish visual treatment the movie receives from director Robert Wise, cinematographer Richard Kline, the special effects wizardry of Douglas Trumbull and John Dykstra (among others), and of course, Jerry Goldsmith's all-time classic score, which provides more dramatic and emotional presence than anything in the actual script -- itself culled from what was supposed to be the pilot for a second, abandoned "Star Trek" TV series.

Although I hadn't been born when the original series aired on NBC, I still grew up with it through the magic of syndicated re-runs. When I was old enough to see ST-TMP, I was captivated by the images and Goldsmith's music the first time I saw the movie on home video in 1982, just a few months before "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" was released to theaters. After 30 minutes or so, however, I remember becoming just a bit bored by the film and its elaborate, though seemingly endless, parade of special effects -- a sentiment echoed by the general consensus of critics and fans at the time.

Set against the backdrop of the movie are sterile "dramatic" moments, with only a few notable exchanges between our beloved original crew making one feel at home. The movie's bland secondary characters -- Stephen Collins' Decker and Persis Khambatta's Ilia -- give each other puppy-dog glances, but they're never developed enough so that we care about them.

What's left that truly DOES work (aside from Goldsmith's soundtrack) is Spock's rediscovery of his human side as he attempts to probe V'Ger -- the little lost space vestibule trying to find its creator -- and the interplay between Kirk, McCoy, and our favorite Vulcan as they decide how to save civilization once again in the face of insurmountable odds.

Add in a few classic Shatner-isms ("V'Ger! V-O-Y-A-G-E-R. Voyager!"), and you have a lukewarm but still undeniably compelling film that manages to get by simply on the basis of its sheer look and scope.

"Fixing" THE MOTION PICTURE isn't anything new. The initial ABC network TV airing of ST-TMP added just about 12 minutes of footage to the theatrical release -- most of it character development and story-related -- that gave the detached film a more "human" element, yet the pacing of the movie still felt "off." Sure, it still had evocative effects, Goldsmith's marvelous score, and your favorite cast members in a large-scale odyssey to save the universe BUTÖit wasn't all it was cracked up to be, nor would it compare favorably with the superior Trek films that followed.

THE DIRECTOR'S EDITION seeks again to rectify that situation, adding some of the previously deleted footage that was restored for TV, while cutting out some of the theatrical version's static shots of characters staring at a blue-screen. Certain lines of unnecessary, heavy-handed dialogue that have also been newly excised, with a couple of unintended laughs going along with them -- like Kirk's "oh my god!" statement after the transporter room accident, and his repeating of the line "viewer off!" when space station Epsilon 9 is destroyed.

Some of the trims are fine for pacing, though in the latter case, Kirk's address to his crew now becomes awkwardly edited, with the elimination of dialogue and crowd reaction shots making it evident that material has been cut.

The new version also adds several new special effects shots and matte paintings, several of which aren't an appreciable enhancement over their original counterparts. The big changes are a new look at the V'Ger vessel late in the film (looking strikingly similar to the ship from "Lifeforce"), taken directly from Wise's storyboards, that wasn't able to be completed before the movie was released, as well a few improved FX shots (i.e. the Enterprise's destruction of the asteroid inside the wormhole).

The intent was to add little touch-ups here and there that Wise wanted but couldn't complete due to the original release date -- not simply to add new effects simply for the sake of doing so. For the most part, the alterations are relatively minor, and don't call all that much attention to themselves.

In all, the movie runs 136 minutes -- four minutes longer than the theatrical version, and eight minutes shorter than the expanded TV edition. It has a slightly tighter feel, like a refined second draft, though truth be told, I found that most of the problems I had with TMP on initial viewing are still there, and I'd be surprised if anyone's assessment of the film was radically changed by this newer version.

I also have to mention that the 2.35 transfer on the DVD -- while perfectly acceptable -- seems to hint that the source materials are no longer in pristine condition. There are times when the picture is flawless, but others when the image looks dull or "worn out." In comparison, Paramount's letterboxed laserdisc of the theatrical cut from a decade ago is quite comparable to the DVD -- in fact, some moments in the film (like Spock's sequence on Vulcan) seem to be in rougher shape here than they are on the LD, with additional print anomalies being apparent. I also noticed that the matte lines around the Klingon ships at the beginning are more visible this time around -- so anyone expecting the general effects of the original film to be cleaned up themselves will be a tad disappointed. (Perhaps DVD's heightened resolution have made the flaws in the print more apparent than before.)

That said, if you're only used to seeing ST-TMP in cropped, pan-and-scan TV transfers, the DVD's letterboxed, 2.35 image will prove a revelation. However, it's understandable that -- given some of the outstanding restoration work we've seen on titles as recent as Disney's "Snow White" DVD -- there may be some slightly let down by the general image quality here. I just get the sense that the print utilized was likely the best-available, and it's beginning to show its age.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, though, is quite good. Again, the producers of the DIRECTOR'S EDITION have tried not to overhaul everything in the movie's older Dolby Stereo mix, but to simply enhance the sound effects and add more directionality to the music. Wise mentions that some of the newly-added sound effects were intended to be included in the original release, but weren't mixed in due to the looming deadline. With that in mind, Wise says he told Goldsmith that his music would be the main ingredient holding everything together.

Two commentaries are provided: one features interviews with Goldsmith, Wise (who rightly praises Jerry's score throughout), Stephen Collins, Douglas Trumbull, and John Dykstra, offering a fair assessment of the film's turbulent, rushed production and new re-editing. Trumbull, whose comments at times are distorted by some audio break-up, discusses his particular effects, including the gorgeous shots of the Enterprise in its docking bay, and the initial journey into the V'Ger cloud.

There's also a "text" commentary by Michael Okuda, co-author of "The Star Trek Encyclopedia," that's actually a subtitle caption that runs during the movie, offering anecdotes and neat trivia. Unfortunately, it moves along so quickly that you may find yourself developing a headache trying to read through it! (More text on-screen at once, that changes less frequently, would have been much easier to read).

Most of the DVD's superb extras can be found on Disc Two, starting off with three self-contained documentaries, totaling just under an hour of "Making Of" material.

"PHASE II: The Lost Star Trek" is a 12-minute look at the abandoned mid '70s TV revival of the franchise, which ultimately served as the launching pad to "The Motion Picture." This featurette offers interviews with Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, story editor Jon Povill, and series co-producer Harold Livingston, touching upon Paramount's attempts to create their own network some 20 years before the UPN would be formed, as well as how Alan Dean Foster's original "V'Ger" story served as one of the spark plugs in the creation of the planned series.

Instead, it would form the basis for the TMP script as penned by Harold Livingston, with newly cast actors like Persis Khambatta and David Gautreaux turning their would-be weekly roles into one-time movie parts instead. The featurette includes costume design and screen tests for Khambatta and David Gautreaux's "Xon," the Vulcan replacement for Spock in the intended series (Gautreaux can be seen in TMP as one of the space station Epsilon 9 workers who ends up being consumed by the giant cloud at the beginning of the film). There's also fascinating footage of the re-designed Enterprise sets from PHASE II, with extras looking more like "Logan's Run" refugees than Starfleet officers!

A BOLD NEW ENTERPRISE is a 30-minute documentary on the making of ST-TMP, offering new interviews with Robert Wise, executive Jeffrey Katzenberg (then at Paramount along with former Disney boss Michael Eisner), William Shatner, Walter Koenig, Stephen Collins, Douglas Trumbull, John Dykstra, Harold Livingston, and Jerry Goldsmith among others. Those familiar with the many production stories bandied about over the years likely won't be surprised by any of the revelations here, but seeing and hearing the actual participants talk about the delays and mad rush to see the movie through to its December 1979 release is still lots of fun. There's a minimum of critical commentary on the film's problems, but nevertheless, it's a solid half-hour overview of the logistical nightmares involved with the production.

Jerry Goldsmith's score is rightly discussed in detail, going so far as to show Kirk and Scotty's first view of the retooled Enterprise with Goldsmith's original, unused music! Seeing this footage set to a pristine copy of Goldsmith's excised score -- if only for a few seconds -- will be enough to make this a must for all Goldsmith fans, who will also appreciate Wise and Jerry's comments on what was wrong with the first version -- and how it set up his now-classic scoring of the second. (And isn't it a shame this obviously available alternate scoring wasn't included on the "Expanded" CD of THE MOTION PICTURE that Sony released a couple of years ago?)

REDIRECTING THE FUTURE (14 minutes) looks at the production of the new "Director's Edition" with interviews with Michael Matessino and David C. Fein, who helped Robert Wise create his new, updated cut of the film. This is a great way to look at the difference between some of the visuals from the original edition that have been retooled for the new cut, offering examples of shots substantially enhanced by the new material (such as the "V'Ger ship" stationed outside Earth's orbit) and others that seem to be negligible compared to the older version (like the Enterprise crew surfacing on the exterior of the ship as they walk towards their final confrontation with V'Ger. In the new version, the figures are so small that it's virtually impossible to see the computer-rendered characters popping up on the small screen).

A full compliment of fascinating ORIGINAL TRAILERS AND TV SPOTS, most narrated by Orson Welles, can also be found on the supplemental DVD.

The original teaser -- presented in full stereo surround -- is noteworthy for its use of conceptual art, special effects and synthesized music created specifically for the ad. The longer theatrical trailer is also striking, since without the benefit of Goldsmith's music (there's a pastiche of tracked cues I can't immediately identify), it doesn't hint at any of the film's majestic atmosphere. It culminates in a bit of dated, late '70s special effects, with the one-sheet poster's multi-character "rainbow" design flying into the frame, tracked with electronic chords that make you feel as if you're watching something created on an Atari home computer of the day!

Some eight TV spots, narrated by Welles, attempt to sell the movie with some uneasy, overly verbose language -- the cramped pan-and-scanning also failing to convey the big-screen splendor of the movie's look and feel. Yet, they're all an undeniably compelling blast of nostalgia that fans will love flipping through.

A trailer produced for the new "Director's Edition" and a brief segment on the new ENTERPRISE series round out the DVD's "Advertising" section.

The ALTERNATE AND DELETED SCENES section give you everything -- and I mean everything -- that has been either cut out completely or altered in the "Director's Edition." Classified under the two previous versions of the film -- the 1979 theatrical cut and the 1983 TV version -- they contain sequences both heavily altered or trimmed by just a line or two of dialogue.

For the 1979 alterations, there are some six minutes of dialogue trims, along with the various FX sequences that have been enhanced for the new cut. There's also a never-before-seen outtake reel of "The Memory Wall," a partially-shot sequence where Spock discovers more about V'Ger before his mind meld with the machine. In this scene, Kirk was supposed to find Spock and become entangled with V'Ger "sensor probes" before being ultimately saved by his Vulcan comrade. Only some three minutes of camera tests were shot for the sequence, which was re-thought and ultimately filmed as Trumbull's "Spock Walk" in the final cut.

The 1983 TV version also includes footage not restored to the Director's Edition, including two exchanges between Sulu and Ilia, McCoy's questioning of Kirk's fitness in commanding the ship (which should have been left in), two extensions of Ilia in her quarters after she's been taken over by the V'Ger probe, and Kirk exiting the Enterprise in search of Spock -- yes, it even includes the exterior shot of the Enterprise with studio lights and set scaffolding readily apparent!

Finally, the ARCHIVES section includes Maurice Zuberano's original storyboards for the Vulcan sequence, as well as the Enterprise leaving drydock, and V'Ger's ultimate appearance.

Fans have long clamored for Special Editions of the STAR TREK movie voyages (first on laserdisc, now on DVD), and Paramount has finally produced a terrific release that all Treksters will find to be a must- purchase. The commentary and documentary features, plus all the footage from every other version of THE MOTION PICTURE, makes this as close to complete a package as I could have hoped.

There have been reports that a Special Edition of STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN may follow in 2002, and here's hoping TMP-DIRECTOR'S EDITION sells well enough to guarantee future deluxe packages of the Trek film series.

Warp factor 10, all the wayÖ


MORE VINTAGE "TREK"

Looking for more classic Trek? As Lukas mentioned a few weeks back, Paramount is winding up their release of the ORIGINAL SERIES on DVD.

Volumes 35 and 36 bring you episodes 69-72 from the third season, coupling "That Which Survives" (an okay episode with Lee Meriwether) with the heavy-handed, dated "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" (regarded by many as one of the most agonizing Treks ever); and teaming another average entry, "Whom Gods Destroy," with the socially-conscious "The Mark of Gideon."

Transfers and 5.1 sound are all terrific in the two volumes, available for $19.98 each. The complete run of the original show will be completed with subsequent DVDs to be released prior to Christmas, which we'll be covering here in the Aisle Seat.


NEXT WEEK: Special Editions of MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL plus FINAL FANTASY. Direct all comments to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then. Excelsior!


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