TrekCore talks to Robert Meyer Burnett, one-half of the talented duo responsible for the creation of the new bonus features on Star Trek: The Next Generation's remastered Blu-Ray releases. Normally to be found beavering away in his edit bay, Rob generously took several hours out of his busy schedule to talk to me about all things Star Trek, answering questions about his work and dropping several juicy hints about the exciting things he and Roger Lay Jr. have planned for future Star Trek Blu-Ray releases.
Robert Meyer Burnett: Who Interviews the Interviewer? Part 7
Interviewed by Adam Walker for TrekCore.com
TrekCore: When you say [that JJ Abrams' "Star Trek"] brought the franchise back, there’s been this term bandied about now for many years: “franchise fatigue”. A lot of people, probably correctly, say that Voyager and Enterprise did real harm to the franchise by taking that trip to the well one too many times. Do you think that in the Rick Berman incarnation of Star Trek, it’s possible to get another show on the air, or does it need a complete retooling?
Robert Meyer Burnett: Here’s what I think happened with the Rick Berman era of Star Trek. Rick Berman knew what worked, and he was a devotee of Roddenberry’s original vision, but the Star Trek universe… they did not evolve with the time, with serialized, television storytelling. Deep Space Nine did get into serialized storytelling, but if you look at those episodes, it still had an “A” story and a “B” story for the most part; they still adhered to the formula of the act structure of Star Trek which began in the Sixties. As other shows were becoming more and more serialized, more and more modern, Star Trek was very mired in what had come before.
Enterprise could have been a complete departure, but it still was still telling a story with a five-act structure dealing with “A” and “B” stories; it was still stuck in the same Star Trek storytelling that they had even back in the Eighties. People thought, “Well, Star Trek has to have a spaceship, we have to have to call it Enterprise…” You needed to completely break from that mode of storytelling. Look, I would like to see the Mad Men version of Star Trek. Why not do that? If you could combine, say, The West Wing… to me, the first season of Enterprise should have been The West Wing in heading into Space. You had guys dealing with the Vulcans, dealing with world-building, and we had yet to have… how frustrating would it have been to watch Earth not be a spacefaring power, and all these aliens are coming to us telling us how to live our lives; we desperately needed warp technology to get there, to join this galactic community that we knew was out there, but no one was going to give it to us – we had to earn it, and that in itself… the whole show would have been a metaphor for emergent technologies, how we’re going to manage them… it would have been a great thing to do.
Here’s what I don’t understand. Having worked with the original cast – if I was given $30 million right now – I would go make a kick-ass Next Generation movie that is set on one planet, we never go into space, and we deal with some kind of a really interesting, philosophical, ideological problem. You know, you have Captain Picard who’s retired, or maybe a governor somewhere – you could make a kick-ass Star Trek movie now, with the original Next Generation cast, that doesn’t have to be some kind of a space adventure on the Enterprise. As a matter of fact, Gabriel Koener, who people know from Trekkies, and he became a special effects artist in his own right – he told me the greatest idea ever for how you bring back Data, who’s dead. His idea was that Data’s positronic system – they were able to somehow salvage that, and Data becomes the new central computer on ALL starships. Instead of Majel Barrett’s voice, the new voice of Starfleet computers and the Enterprise is Brent Spiner, who would appear as a CG, animated Hologram, so he’d still look like Data. Brent Spiner, using motion capture technology, becomes an artificial intelligence with Data’s personality, who happens to now be the main computer on every starship. You bring him back, and Data is there, but he’s the ship’s computer instead of being Data himself. I was like, “That’s a genius idea!” You incorporate Data, still alive; the computer is now called Data – you refer to him as Data, and he becomes the ghost in the machine – he exists as his character, he just runs the ship now.
TrekCore: Rob, you still speak with such unbridled passion about Star Trek, and it’s been part of your career now in one form or another for almost twenty years. Do you ever get to the point of reaching burnout? Does having it as your day job ever intrude on your hobby, your fandom? Do you get to a point where you say, “I’ve got to call it quits and just enjoy it as a fan again”?
Robert Meyer Burnett: No, because I am, for whatever reason – maybe it’s because it’s so ingrained in my brain – to me, in my imagination at least, the Star Trek universe is real. Probably silly for me to admit this, but I still read most of the Star Trek novels that come out, especially all of the ones set in the post-Dominion War continuity, like the David Mack Destiny novels; his new Data trilogy [Cold Equations] and just in the last month, the Star Trek: The Next Generation 365 book came out. Also, you have Round Two releasing a life-long dream of mine… a large, very accurate model kit, 1:350-scale, of the original Enterprise! You can also buy additional decal sets with all of the additional Franz Joseph N.C.C designation numbers. You can build any of the original 12 Constitution-Class ships or the I.S.S. Enterprise! There’s also an additional lighting kit so you can light the shuttlebay and it even has a bridge interior! And if that wasn’t enough, LaLa Land Records released the Holy Grail of Star Trek music, which is, of course, ALL of The Original Series music ever recorded, including tracks recorded but never used before, never heard before – which, to me, I hear that music, there are all these sense memories conjured up all the way back to my earliest childhood. And we’re getting it all now!
So, on December 4th, you have TNG Season Two on Blu-Ray dropping, David Goodman’s coffee table book Federation: The First 150 Years, AND the boxed set of fifteen CDs of all the music from The Original Series! It’s Trek-pocalypse! How can I, as a fan… every dream I ever had, everything that I ever wanted is there! I can now build a three-foot model of the I.S.S. Enterprise that has working warp nacelle lights, a shuttlebay, and a bridge; I can build it in my man-cave while listening to every single piece of music ever recorded for The Original Series. (Laughs) These are heady days indeed, my friend.
I have grown up, Star Trek has never let me down. It’s always been there. Started watching TOS, then the Animated Series came out. The Motion Pictures. Next Gen and the rest…as I’ve grown up and moved through my life…there has always been new Trek. Sure, I’ve liked some a great deal more than others; I can rip on J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek movie all I want – and I will never stop ripping on it, because it’s almost become part of my personality to do so – but who am I kidding? Do you know how many times I have watched JJ’s movie on Blu-ray? Way, WAY too many times…which is why I know I hate it so much.
TrekCore: Go on...!
Robert Meyer Burnett: A lot. I mean, I watch it a lot! I hate the production design; I hate the fact that San Francisco looks like a polluted mess… but it still has the biggest budget, by far, of any Star Trek movie and it does have a lot of cool, interesting stuff to see in it. I think Bruce Greenwood as Captain Pike is one of the most bad-ass motherfuckers ever, in terms of how they can get him so right… I love Chris Pine as Kirk, even though the Kobayashi Maru scene in that movie is an embarrassment; it’s ridiculous – he did not deserve a commendation for original thinking, he just broke the simulator and acted like an asshole. Had I written that scene, I’d have Kirk reprogram the simulator himself, not letting the Orion he was banging do it for him, and he would have reprogrammed it using, say, tactics he learned studying Garth of Izar; some amazing and obscure tactic that he would have figured out how to employ, and his professors at Starfleet Academy would have believed, if only for a moment, he actually did beat the simulator – because he was clearly a brilliant tactician, and they would have been like, “Wait a minute, no one’s ever done this before.” But, in the movie, you know from the beginning that he broke the simulator! He smugly eats his apple. He didn’t do anything clever and was immediately caught. What a douche bag that Kirk is. That Kirk…not the most finely crafted hunk of dilithium in the intermix chamber. But, whatever – I still watch it, fine. It’s okay. And after those nine minutes, I already hate INTO DARKNESS too…I mean…running from the spear-chucking Hovitos? Really? Did the writers adapt an old Gold Key comic for that scene? And, oh wait, Spock’s quoting the Prime Directive as he repels down from a Shuttlecraft which must be in full view of anyone looking up at the erupting Volcano from at least ten miles away. And don’t get me started on the Red October Enterprise...
But yeah…I’ll be first in line on opening day. Because it’s STAR TREK! As overblown and intellectually challenged and wildly over budget as it is…it’s still the most expensive STAR TREK movie we’ll probably ever get. Besides…I want to see The ‘Batch’s big reveal and I’m really hoping to see the Botany Bay in a flashback on the big screen at some point...if Peter Weller’s character did, indeed, happen to stumble across it a few decades early. Or maybe…John Harrison is simply John Harrison…uh huh.
TrekCore: To what extent does fan feedback influence your work on the TNG Blu-rays? Do you read feedback actively on the message boards, and does it influence the way you produce these things?
RMB: Fan feedback is absolutely one of the most important things for us. I lurk on the comments sections of TrekCore, and TrekWeb, and TrekMovie, just like everybody else. I’ll tell you something – in the “Energized!” documentary on Season One, we did not originally address the 16:9 [aspect ratio] controversy. There were people [...] writing, “Why isn’t this done in 16:9? They could go back and do it in 16:9!” I was so annoyed at reading that – and CBS was afraid of fan backlash; I was like, “These idiots! You can’t make this show in 16:9! It can’t be done!” So I was like, “No, no, no – we have to do a bit about 16:9.” So I went at got that footage, I asked CBS Digital to pull the shot from “11001001” where the Enterprise is entering Spacedock and going right off the frame, at the edge of the 1.33:1 frame. Wendy and Sarah at CBS Digital make sure we get all the elements we ask for, because obviously the Spacedock interior was done by ILM for 2.35:1 presentation, so I wanted to put that in to graphically illustrate why the VFX of the show simply can’t be done in 16:9 without recomposing almost every shot and thus diminishing the resolution. That was a direct result of what we’d read in terms of feedback on the web.
TrekCore: Season Two has got a backlash, and I think in many ways, it’s unfair. The vast majority of the product… it’s still a miracle in itself that we’ve got it. How do you feel reading the comments people have posted about the second season set, before they even had it in their Blu-ray players?
Robert Meyer Burnett: Well, obviously, Roger and I are VAM producers. We have nothing at all to do with the remastering of the show itself. But it’s frustrating in the sense that, look – when I read those comments, it’s like, “Oh, okay, are you saying that you’d rather watch the show in standard definition?” The fact we have the show in HD – period – ends the discussion for me. Every time CBS sends over a new group of remastered episodes to use in the VAM, I watch them and marvel…thinking to myself, “I can’t BELIEVE I’m seeing this! In the history of television, NO ONE has ever gone back in and rebuilt a show from scratch. When I watch episodes like “Elementary, Dear Data” – and you made the point in your review – that episode looks so good, and the detail looks so amazing…when originally, at 480i, the blacks used to look like grey sludge. You should see the blacks in Season Three’s “The Enemy!” Now, CBS’s mandate for the show was to rebuild it in HD. That was it. I would argue that what CBS Digital did in Season One was way above and beyond the original mandate. They went all out, and because they’re an effects house – if you want to look at it a certain way, they went way above and beyond their mandate. They didn’t just preserve the effects that were there; it’s not like somebody failed to do something. Both companies [CBS Digital and HTV Illuminate] took the 35mm negatives and recomposited them, just like they were supposed to. That was their job, and they did it. Period.
They did it to the best of their ability. Now, when you have effects companies that are going above and beyond – doing things like putting reflections on the hull from the glow from planets, they didn’t have that before; that wasn’t part of the original show, but now, with computer technology, all of those things can be done. I think the very idea that we have Star Trek at all in HD is amazing. Well, now that we’re spoiled… it’s like the old Louis C.K. routine – somebody finds out for the first time that they can get wireless internet on a transcontinental fight. They’re like, “Oh my god!”, and ten minutes into their flight, the internet fails. And that person’s like, “Can you fuckin’ believe this shit? The internet failed!” You’re on a plane, flying across the ocean, with satellite internet FROM SPACE! The fact that internet exists at all is amazing! You’ve had it for ten minutes and take it for granted, forgetting it’s amazing! It is astonishing that the Star Trek: The Next Generation Blu-rays exist. I think everyone as CBS, starting with Ken Ross, Dave and Ryan and everyone in Home Entertainment, deserves fine bottles of wine from every fan. This is a pioneering effort never before attempted in the history of television. It’s a first…and let me tell you…for this old school Trekker…I’m stoked.
Now, you can say, “Well, if they can do it with this certain amount of quality…” Everybody wants it to be the best it can be; nobody sets out to do work that isn’t great. There are economic and time constraints on these projects. That’s the reality of what we have. In a perfect world, yes, I wish the matte paintings in Star Trek IV were better than they are, but there’s never enough time and money! The visual effects in Star Trek IV are not nearly as good as the effects in Star Trek III, but I’m not going sit there and go, “Fuck that, man! I’m not going to buy Star Trek IV!” No, you buy Star Trek IV, even though the matte paintings waiver and the Cetacean Institute looks phony and I can’t stand the way the matte painting of the H.M.S. Bounty looks when they’re on the surface of Vulcan – but you still get cool shots when the Bounty takes off in the Vulcan sun; you still watch the movie. It does not hamper my enjoyment of the humor and story in Star Trek IV because the effects are not as good as the work ILM did on Star Trek III. I’m not going to go, “Fuck that, I’m not buyin’ it.”
That’s sort of my feeling; I just love having Star Trek: The Next Generation in HD. Season 2 has some great episodes – I love seeing “Q Who” in HD, I love that new matte painting where there’s Borg walking around, and they added the green sparks to every Borg alcove, and running water or oil or whatever the hell it is running down the middle of that ship. They didn’t have to do that. It certainly wasn’t part of what CBS Home Entertainment expected during the remastering process. But we got it anyway. I also love the new matte painting in “Loud as a Whisper”; even all the ship shots in “Peak Performance”, I love seeing that stuff in HD. I love seeing the paint job on the Ferengi Marauder and all of that. It looks a hell of a lot better than it ever did before.
Robert Meyer Burnett: And, let’s not forget – the extended “Measure of a Man” got done! I mean…I STILL can’t believe that one. Astonishing. I love those composites outside the Starbase, a la Star Trek: The Motion Picture – I love the way that stuff looks. So, I mean, I think that when people sit there and say, “Oh, I’m not gonna buy it” – that’s your loss. The way we scrutinize things now, it’s insane. God, it’s crazy - I want things to be perfect, too! It’s not like we’re not trying to make things perfect!
I got taken to task about the [starfield] compositing that was done in the “Energized!” documentary. Well, yes, we didn’t get to do the composites like we did for “Stardate Revisited”. We didn’t have a compositor working on it at the time; it is what it is, I would have liked it to have been better – but that doesn’t mean that the “Energized!” documentary doesn’t celebrate the work of CBS Digital, and isn’t worth watching, because it most definitely is. Season Two still has all the great stories, and the great acting, the great production design work of Herman Zimmerman and Richard James, and the music, and all that. We’re so entitled now – “Oh my god, we’re getting high definition Star Trek, but now we’re going to nitpick it to death.” If you had the opportunity of getting Season Two or not getting Season Two [in HD], I would always take the opportunity to get Season Two. It’s still great. And people should know, everyone at CBS is doing everything they can to make the TNG remastering project the very best in can be.
TrekCore: Robert Meyer Burnett, it has been an absolute pleasure to talk to you about Star Trek for three hours! I really appreciate your time.
Robert Meyer Burnett: Thanks, Adam. That was awesome.
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ROBERT MEYER BURNETT wrote and directed FREE ENTERPRISE and produced Warner Premiere and Dark Castle's THE HILLS RUN RED.
My huge thanks to Robert Meyer Burnett for such a wonderful, in-depth interview. We'll be bringing you more from Rob at a future date with a whole raft of talk and exclusive features on his production "Free Enterprise". Be sure to stay tuned to TrekCore!