Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 4
Release Date: July 30, 2013
Blu-Ray Disc • 6 Discs
CBS Home Entertainment
The unenviable task of following the critically acclaimed third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation was never going to be easy, yet somehow when the show returned in September of 1990 it felt fresh, energized and full of new purpose. Season Four saw a gentle shift in tone as executive producer Michael Piller started to steer TNG towards featuring more emotional and often serialized storytelling. Plotlines such as Worf’s discommendation - left hanging in Season 3 - were suddenly picked up and developed into a recurring story arc throughout the fourth year with the burgeoning Duras/Romulan plot hanging over the Federation.
Once again the writers’ room saw its fair share of changes with the departure of mainstays Richard Manning and Hans Beimler and the arrival of familiar Star Trek alums Jeri Taylor (Co-creator, Executive Producer Star Trek: Voyager) and Brannon Braga (Executive Producer, Star Trek: Voyager / Co-creator, Executive Producer Star Trek: Enterprise). The fourth season also marked the departure of everyone's favorite Ensign as fans said farewell to Wesley Crusher with Wil Wheaton bowing out of the series in “Final Mission”, paving the way for a revolving door of different bridge officers taking the conn each week. Much like the third year, storytelling in Season 4 continues to be engaging and thought-provoking with any number of episodes being possible contenders for your all-time favorite Top 10 lists (I only need mention the likes of "Brothers", "The Drumhead", "The Wounded", "Family" and "Qpid").
Many of our readers will already be familiar with the hoops that CBS have been jumping through to remaster Star Trek: The Next Generation into high definition. The show is - in essence - being pieced together as if it had just been filmed, with the original 35mm camera negatives being rescanned and episodes edited together to match the broadcast versions from the 1990s. Because of the scale of such a project, the fourth season was outsourced to post-production company Modern VideoFilm.
After the uneven remastering of the show's second season by HTV-Illuminate, there has been a lot of discussion and speculation amongst fans on whether Modern will match the high quality of CBS Digital's visual effects and compositing work from the first and third seasons. Firstly it should be noted that both parts of "The Best of Both Worlds" and "Redemption" were done wholly by CBS Digital to ensure consistency across those two-parters. Modern Video took care of the 24 episodes sandwiched in between. Thanks to a close working relationship between staff from both companies, the finished Season Four appears to be - on the whole - stylistically consistent with the stunning third season remaster by CBS Digital.
I. Live Action Footage
Locating original film elements for thousands of minutes of a television show as structurally complicated as Star Trek: The Next Generation undoubtedly deserves the label of "needle in a haystack". Sarah Paul, Kiki Morris, Sean Sweeney and the whole film-hunting gang at CBS never give up searching, even when they're against a release deadline. Despite their best efforts, film for a couple of very brief shots in Season 4 couldn't be tracked down and as a result has been substituted for upscaled SD footage in the final Blu-ray presentation. Fans who already picked up April's release of "The Best of Both Worlds" will already be aware of one of these shots - Riker on the battlebridge, engaging with Locutus (see our BOBW Blu-ray review for more information). The second upscaled shot occurs in "The Drumhead" and features a 2 second look at the damaged warp core. It really is so transitory that it's hardly worth the mention (especially as the shot itself is already somewhat "foggy" because of the setting.)
The re-scanned HD live-action footage is yet again a joy to behold. I've waxed lyrical many times about the tremendous boost in resolution, detail, color and contrast yet seeing the dramatic transformation never gets old. The fourth season has always been blighted by strangely uneven color timing in standard definition (both broadcast and DVD). It's only when you compare episodes one after the other (under the same lighting conditions) that you are able to see the dramatic shifts brought about by the inherent limitations of transferring footage at videotape resolution back in the 1990s.
Contrasting the uneven color-timing of TNG's Fourth Season in standard definition (top row) with the newly remastered and freshly color timed high definition Blu-ray (bottom row). The episodes featured, from left to right: "Suddenly Human", "The Loss", "The Wounded", "Clues"
So what's our verdict on the look of an HD Season 4? The stability and consistency in color coupled with the huge boost in detail that high definition offers brings these new transfers tantalizingly close to being perfect.
One of the multitude of benefits brought about by remastering TNG is the ability to finally see the work of the talented designers, artists and craftsmen come alive and appreciate it as it was originally intended. The lavish costumes designed for characters such as Lwaxana Troi, Ardra the Devil, the Cardassians and Guinan (to name but a few) can't fail to impress. Diligently designed sets such as the Courtroom in "Devil's Due" and the Romulan Holodeck in "Future Imperfect" can be admired like never before with details you never even noticed were there becoming visible for the first time in 25 years. It truly is like watching the show for the first time.
Two episodes which immediately jump out over the rest are "Family" and "Qpid" on account of their heavy reliance on shooting on location. The glorious greens of the Picard Family Vineyard in France ("Family") and Sherwood Forest ("Qpid") burst off the screen in high definition. There's such a depth of realism when watching these episodes in high definition, realism which was entirely lacking with the standard definition transfers. I challenge any fan not to be totally amazed at how much detail was in the original 35mm camera negative - every leaf, every blade of grass comes to life and draws the viewer in like never before.
Sherwood Forest comes to life in "Qpid" thanks to the glorious quality inherent in the 35mm film and some top-notch color correction by CBS colorist Marvin Hildebrandt
II. Visual Effects
Undoubtedly the area which comes under most scrutiny from fans, visual effects and compositing make up the largest part of the workload for remastering a show like TNG. As the bulk of visual effects were originally created at videotape SD resolution - planets, transporter effects and the like – had to be recreated from scratch. CBS Digital are a hard act to follow yet Modern have done an admirable job of trying to match the high standards of the third season's remastering. Season Four has undoubtedly benefited from a closer working relationship between the two teams. Max Gabl heads up planet creation again, and gives us some truly spectacular pieces of art with his usual creative flair. Of particular note is the newly created Peliar Zel planetary system from "The Host" - quite a departure from the original version, changing from an incongruous yellow/blue sphere to a lush Earth-like planet with contrasting moons. I inspected all the planets from the fourth season and didn't see anything that I was disappointed by. Brilliant work!
The Enterprise approaches Peliar Zel II and its two moons,
newly created by Max Gabl ("The Host")
On to the compositing of ship scenes, and you'll be pleased to hear that the majority of ship shots have been handled very satisfactorily. Modern have clearly made an effort to reproduce the compositing style of Eric Bruno and his team at CBS Digital in most of their work. While not quite at the (admittedly high) standards of CBS Digital, most of the shots of the Enterprise and other ships look fantastic and really benefit from extra care taken with the compositing. Particular models which stand out include the Nebula-class U.S.S. Phoenix and Galor-Class Cardassian Warhip from "The Wounded" and the Argus Array space telescope from "The Nth Degree". The iconic shot of the Enterprise docked at McKinley Station in "Family" looks fantastic - despite being a little bright, the grandeur of the Enterprise in this shot cannot fail to impress in high definition.
The Nebula-Class U.S.S. Phoenix hangs in space with the Enterprise, composited by Modern Video ("The Wounded")
On the flip-side there are several instances throughout the season of shots which could certainly have used a bit of "extra love". Virtually every shot of the 4-foot model in "The Loss" looked poor to me, overly bright with lackluster compositing and a distinct cartoony-feel to it (excluding the deflector dish closeups). There are a smattering of other shots like this throughout the season but thankfully they are very low in number with "The Loss" being, by far, the worst offending episode.
"Galaxy's Child" is one of those rare episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation which relied quite heavily on CGI for the creation of "Junior", the spaceborne lifeform. Originally the shots were produced by Rhythm & Hues, the same CG company responsible for the famous Bajoran Wormhole in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Sadly a lot of the replacement CG shots in this episode disappointed me, moreso after the spectacular CG creation of the Crystalline Entity in Season 1 by Niel Wray and his team at CBS Digital. The birthing sequence of "Junior" in which the Enterprise uses its phasers to cut out the "baby" looks particularly poor with virtually no grain and a very plastic, cartoonlike appearance. Thankfully, it's brief but it certainly reinforces the importance of working on shots like this far in advance to ensure that they are up to scratch.
The rather cartoonlike birthing sequence, newly rendered using CGI ("Galaxy's Child")
Finally, I must end the analysis of the remastering effort with a special note about the many LCARS computer display animations used throughout the season. The original elements for most (if not all) of the LCARS display screens which were originally inserted in post-production have been lost. This presented the team with an incredible challenge of recreating virtually everything from scratch. When recreation is limited to simply re-entering text on a scrolling display, it may not present too much of a challenge for the remastering team. However, more often than not the LCARS displays contained increasingly complex animations of 2-dimensional (and later 3-dimensional) objects which are incredibly difficult to reproduce from scratch with only SD resolution reference material to go on. Thankfully the results on display in Season 4 are stunning - there is so much attention to detail in these recreated displays that their authenticity with respect to the original versions cannot be questioned. A tour de force for the talented people involved in this difficult job.
All in all, I walk away from Season 4 happy that Modern have done the best they could with their limited time, budget and experience when it comes to remastering something as technically complex as Star Trek: The Next Generation. The result is a polished, quality remaster which will have you returning to your favorite fourth season episodes over and over again to marvel at how good they look in HD.
I've made no secret about my huge admiration for the work done by Roger Lay, Jr. and Robert Meyer Burnett on the newly commissioned VAM ("Value Added Material") for these Star Trek: The Next Generation Blu-ray releases. The no-holds-barred style of documentary film-making on display in the first three seasons captivated my interest and made Disc 6 the first "must watch" when I receive the new sets through. As I described in my Season 3 review, the guys really ramped things up a gear on the previous set with the stunning Inside the Writers' Room reunion and three-part documentary. Keeping up that level of quality original content season after season was always going to be impossible yet I was still left a little disappointed with the VAM on offer for Season 4.
“Relativity: The Family Saga of Star Trek: The Next Generation” combines two thirty-minute documentaries, “Homecoming” and “Posterity”.
- “Homecoming” starts off quite strong with writer Ronald D. Moore talking about his deep desire for more arc-based storytelling and the resistance he met from Rick Berman and the higher-ups in the studio. Ron - by far the most engaging speaker in this segment - throws in a few more cute nuggets including how he would hold story meetings with the writers on the Observation Lounge set and the battles he went through to get the script to "Family" approved. There are a few anecdotes from Wil Wheaton about why he left the show (mostly due to the "terrible writing" for Wesley, it turns out) but beyond that, this part of the documentary feels a tad directionless with interviews from Larry Nemecek, Lolita Fatjo, Brannon Braga and René Echevarria edited together with no overriding structure.
- “Prosperity” is the strongest of the two parts and features new interviews with most of the primary cast. There are some cute stories from Brent Spiner on how he came to get three roles in one episode ("Brothers") while Jonathan Frakes talks about the Riker/Troi dynamic, Gates McFadden chats about dancing with Data and Michael Dorn gives us insights into Klingon humor. Conspicuously absent is any cast reaction to Wil Wheaton's decision to leave the show. It seems a strange oversight after we've previously had very touching commentary from the primary cast on both Denise Crosby and Gates McFadden's departures. Michael Westmore rounds this off with some interesting talk about the origin of the Cardassians whose shoulder ridges, it turns out, are all down to actor Marc Alaimo's long neck!
“In Conversation: The Star Trek Art Department”: After the previous reunion pieces (Season 2's Cast Reunion and Season 3's Writers' Room Reunion), Robert and Roger decided to revisit Star Trek The Next Generation's Art Department for Season 4, bringing together Herman Zimmerman, Rick Sternbach, Mike and Denise Okuda, Doug Drexler and Dan Curry in a 65-minute special. Fans expecting the same level of engagement from this segment as the superb Cast and Writers reunions are likely in for a disappointment. The dynamic of the Art Department staffers is clearly very different to that of the writers or cast and this directly impacts on the pacing and energy of the piece. Don't get me wrong, there are some touching moments to witness (Herman Zimmerman in particular was a joy to listen to) but much of the time I found myself thinking that an hour was far too long. The piece could comfortably have been edited into a 30-minute special and doesn't hold anywhere near the same re-watch-ability as its predecessors.
Gag Reel: More on-set frivolities from the cast. With the remastering team now seeking out bloopers and outtakes from the original 35mm camera negative, these special gag reels have become a regular feature on the Blu-ray season sets. Sadly this one only runs to 3:34, but the material presented will have you in stitches as per usual. Frakes losing it as he discovers a dead Dr. Soong (Brent Spiner) was particularly standout!
Audio Commentaries: The set contains two audio commentaries, newly recorded especially for this set.
- 4x03 "Brothers" with Rob Bowman and Mike & Denise Okuda - NEW
- 4x07 "Reunion" with Ronald D. Moore, Brannon Braga and Mike & Denise Okuda - NEW
Deleted Scenes: Certainly the highlight of the bonus material on this release. CBS have dug through the archives to unearth a range of deleted scenes from eight episodes! There is some wonderful material here, so much so that we've got a whole separate article dedicate to it. Check out our full breakdown of the deleted scenes included on the 4th Season set!
Putting an interesting spin on post-Season 3 VAM was always going to be challenging for a show like Star Trek: The Next Generation which, after the third season, was a well-oiled machine, smoothly sailing through safe ratings territory and churning out one solid season after another. If anything, my main issue with the fourth season set's VAM is that it feels rushed. The usual "special touches" of behind-the-scenes photos, footage, sketches, visual effects compositing breakdowns (the different model passes) and archival interviews are mostly missing here. The documentary feels like it lacks direction and the absence of any real reaction to Wil Wheaton's departure (from either the primary cast or - more importantly - the writers and producers) was a disappointment.
Hopefully Season Five will see Roger and Robert returning to the high standards they established in the releases of Seasons One through Three. In the meantime, Season Four's VAM isn't a total write-off, just don't be expecting quite as much excitement as you've seen before.
The Bottom Line? I don't find any reason to hesitate recommending you pick up TNG's Fourth Year on Blu-ray. The episodes are sublime, the remastering is more than enough to draw your appreciation and there's a nice collection of bonus material both new and old for you to feast on once you're done. A great release!
- Written for TrekCore.com by Adam Walker, July 23, 2013