By Matt Zoller Seitz
Though I have fond memories of the original Star Trek—which I discovered via Jimmy Carter-era reruns, and through which I gained an understanding of the hourlong drama format, the pop gestalt of the late '60s, and the endless uses to which styrofoam could be put—I see no reason to oversell its virtues. It was dramatically crude and allegorically simplistic, and its then-daring social attitudes (which included endorsements of racial equality, interracial sex and global unity) often paled beside its Rat Pack-style vision of gender relations (Kirk bagged a different curvy space doll each week), and its earnest, unironic enactment of John F. Kennedy/Lyndon Johnson style interventionism (the Federation's Prime Directive forbade trying to change the culture of other worlds, yet Kirk regularly violated it—and in a couple of instances, he did it mainly to teach hippies what it meant to work for a living). The most interesting thing about the original Trek is the character of Spock, one of TV history's most complex and melancholy outsiders; the second most interesting thing about it is its time capsule quality—the fact that it is, in every sense, a product of its era: the Johnson/Nixon years, when reel-to-reel tape players, punchcard computers and color TVs seemed state-of-the-art.
Unfortunately, I suspect the second quality will be obliterated, or at least undermined, by CBS and Paramount's decision to "update" the show's special effects and sets for High Definition TVs when the series re-enters syndication September 16. According to High-Def DVD Digest, the tinkering will include "...redone spaceship exteriors, a rejiggered opening and even a digitally remastered version of William Shatner's classic 38-word 'Space, the final frontier...' credit monologue." E! Online says, "Battle sequences, ship exteriors, galaxy shots and landscapes (which previously came courtesy of matte paintings) will be given more shading, depth and computer-generated believability."
I don't see the point of that, because let's face it, most science fiction—even sci fi that's much subtler or deeper than the original Trek-- is of lasting interest not because it predicted how we'd someday live, but because it preserved the essence of the time in which it was produced. That essence includes the texture of the work itself—the color scheme, the costume design and wardrobe material, the haircuts, the actors' tics, the optical effects. And as time goes on, the visual/aural/rhythmic aspects of the work exert their own fascination—sometimes the only remaining fascination. Rewatching old episodes recently, I found myself snickering at Kirk's hard-on swagger, the female crewmembers' babelicious miniskirts and the show's insistence on ending nearly every episode ("City on the Edge of Forever" notwithstanding) with not just a tie-it-all-up climax, but a jokey denouement on the bridge wherein Kirk, Spock and McCoy busted each other's chops (cut to Spock raising an eyebrow). But I've retained respect for what creator Gene Roddenberry and his collaborators were able to accomplish despite tight budgets and continual interference from network suits—their ability to transform limitation into abstraction, so that the near-primary colored costumes, the warty styrofoam rocks and the brightly-hued two-dimensional skies became components of a poetic/theatrical dreamscape, a place where you wouldn't be surprised to see Gogot and Didi stroll into the frame, followed by Woody Woodpecker.
Just look at the hanging doors and windowpanes in "Spectre of the Gun," or the modified fallout shelter logo plastered all over the gladiatorial episode "The Gamesters of Triskelion," or the huge radar dish in the Enterprise's nose cone, or the red/yellow/blue uniform scheme (which made early color TVs seem well worth the expense); they're beautiful not in spite of their simplicity but because of it. Like dioramas or theatrical props, they represent the gist of something tangible, and leave viewers to imagine the rest. The ragged matte lines around the starships, planetary bodies and transported crewmembers aren't just evidence of a small budget. They're brush strokes—proof that you're watching something created by human hands during the golden age of analog sci-fi, roughly 1952-1982. So you can see the nails and seams and paint daubs when you watch the show in High-Def; that's not a drawback, it's a bonus.
This CGI facelift idea does not sound as intriguing, or as theoretically defensible, as latter-day Orson Welles fans going back and creating an alternate version of Touch of Evil based on massively detailed notes by Orson Welles that his studio ended up ignoring, or George Lucas' decision to revisit the original three Star Wars films and make them look like what he'd envisioned back in the early 70s but couldn't execute, due to lack of money or available technology. This Star Trek business sounds colder—the TV equivalent of a landlord gutting a beautiful old building and redesigning its facade and interiors to mimic current architectural fads. Next week, CBS and Paramount are hosting a teleconference with TV columnists to let the project's supervisors explain their motives and defend their choices, so I'll withhold final judgment until then. But for now I'll just say the very idea depresses me. There is no pop culture equivalent of a historic landmarks commission, but at times like this, I wish there were.