When I think of Star Trek: The Next Generation, now spruced up on Blu-ray, my thoughts are much the same. “Patrick Stewart, Patrick Stewart, Patrick Stewart.” Just when you begin to be distracted by the claustrophic sets, soap-opera acting, and sometimes trite moralizing, on comes Patrick Stewart, and you remember what makes the series so great.
Like several other British actors of his generation (most notably Anthony Hopkins), he is able to combine the emotional authenticity and immediacy of a Hoffman or De Niro with the crisp diction and mechanics of an Olivier. The stage-bred Yorkshireman was not an intuitive choice for the French captain Jean-Luc Picard, but he makes the role his own. Dispensing with any attempt at a Gallic accent, Stewart plays it straight, and is convincing even when the dialogue he must spout is less than scintillating. At every turn, he projects a humanity, intelligence, charm and class that makes the character one of the very finest in the Trek universe.
But perhaps I am not giving the show its proper due in focusing on its one strongest element only. In fact, there is much to enjoy. The show is always concerned with thought-provoking ideas, from the nature of the human experience to the puzzles of language (sometimes clumsily explored; the immensely imaginative creator Gene Roddenberry was never well-versed in subtlety). Moreover, Brent Spiner’s android character Data is paradoxically one of the show’s most relatable characters, seeking with each episode to understand and become more like his human crewmates. The recurring villains are well-developed and suitably threatening in unique ways – John De Lancie’s Q is playful, impish and often quite funny even as he menaces the Enterprise; the Borg are relentless, mechanistic and frightening in their threat to eliminate individuality. Even Roddenberry’s decision to re-use the Star Trek: The Motion Picture theme, with its strident, perfectly pitched evocation of a starship reaching warp speed, enhances the atmosphere wonderfully.
These elements tend to overshadow the occasional black-hole of an episode (“Shades of Gray”, anyone?) and the inherent corniness of some of Trek‘s signature conceits (the Dust Buster ray guns, pajama uniforms, et cetera).
Some of the effects are dated by today’s standards, and the show has never had the same bright visual dazzle that the TNG films had. Paramount has sought to rectify this by rebuilding each episode from the original film elements (transferred to video for original broadcast) and adding all-new computer effects.
The new Blu-ray sampler, an appetizer for the complete sets that Paramount plans to release, contains four episodes: the two-part pilot “Encounter at Farpoint”; the emotionally-tinged, moving “Inner Light”; and the Worf-centric “Sins of the Father.”