Thursday, December 11, 2014

“The extraordinary world of 3D”: A Matter Of Honor

I have a fascination with stereoscopic 3D as a creative medium. I know in film, TV and video games it is, or at least was, cool to complain about 3D being a pointless and expensive gimmick that just makes things look fake, but I find most of those sorts of arguments to be made out of ignorance about how the process works or how our brains process images. Done properly, stereoscopic 3D has the unique capability to remove the crutch of artifice while counterintuitively adding an entirely new level of immersion at the same time.

As a kid I loved the View-Master line of toy 3D film reels. If you don't remember them, they were these miniature plastic reels that had tiny strips of film inside divided into pairs that were slightly offset. If you put them into a special View-Master viewer (that kind of looked like a clunky pair of binoculars) and held them up to the light, the effect was that you could scroll through a slideshow of 3D images. I was always really, really impressed with the 3D effect of View-Masters: Once you put those on, it was immediate and noticeable, and the reels always seemed to have a vibrant and lush colour scheme that just made everything pop even more. My favourites were always the ones based on live-action and animated television shows: Because you were looking at raw, actual film, View-Master gave you a look at your favourite shows that was strikingly different from anything you could see on TV unless you had a really expensive and high-end set, and even then it wasn't quite the same.

“A Matter Of Honor” was the only Star Trek: The Next Generation episode to be adapted for View-Master, and yes, of course I had it. This means that, while my recollection of the second season as it originally aired is hazy at best, this episode is permanently burned into my memory because I looked at those View-Master reels *constantly*. I have an innate understanding of this episode's beats, highlights and pacing at a very deep-seated level, because the View-Master adaptation dutifully cataloged every single scene, which I promptly memorized because I thought this thing looked bloody *gorgeous* and would click through it over and over again. So, even though I've only actually watched “A Matter Of Honor” maybe a couple of times, I likely know it better than any other episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Which actually proved to be surprisingly off-putting for me this time, as it turns out there are subtle, yet very noticeable, differences between the episode as aired and the episode as rendered in 1980s consumer-grade stereoscopic 3D.

The first thing I noticed was that the effects shots used in the View-Master version of “A Matter Of Honor” are completely different. The TV episode, like a lot of Star Trek: The Next Generation did, understandably relies mostly on reused stock footage for exterior shots of the Enterprise with new footage being filmed whenever it was supposed to interact with the Pagh. The View-Master release, by contrast, features entirely unique and original effects shots I haven't seen used anywhere else outside of these reels, and they're universally stunning. The opening shot of the Enterprise used here is actually one of my very favourites of all time: The scale of the shot combined with the 3D effect gives it an almost cinematic look that's unmatched elsewhere in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Surprisingly, though pleasantly so, the View-Master effects maintain Andy Probert's intended colour scheme of the 6-foot studio model that was never translated to screen. It's a little known fact that the Enterprise was never supposed to be the gleaming gun-metal or battleship grey it appears to us as on TV: It's actually meant to be a cool mixture of duck egg and sky blue, which was the paint scheme on all the original filming models. Due to the harsh studio lights used during production this never showed up too well on the series as aired, though if you look closely at the stock flybys or the footage from the first two seasons as restored on the recent Blu-ray releases, you can see the occasional blue highlight along the margins of the shot where the lights weren't as concentrated. By contrast, the View-Master footage not only picks up on this, it actually emphasizes it *further*, meaning on these reels the Enterprise appears clad in a profoundly striking coat of dazzling, brilliant azure adrift against the backdrop of the vastness of space.

(In fact, one of my biggest disappointments in the history of my association with Star Trek: The Next Generation was rediscovering upon the show's return to TNN that the Enterprise never actually looked like this on TV.)

And it's not just the Enterprise itself: Any effects shot is either unique to this version or, in the case of scenes that have direct analogues on the filmed episode, are either taken from angles we don't normally see or are entirely new and different composites. The phaser range scene actually shows the targets leaving a visible “star trail” effect that gives the impression they're three-dimensional objects swirling around Captain Picard and Commander Riker in a kind of light show vortex, as opposed to just being blinking lights flashing off and on on the back wall. When Picard first speaks to Krogan on the Enterprise viewscreen, the bridge of the Klingon ship looks like it's inside a furnace, with so much visible heat radiating it's impossible to make out anything but the captain, an effect I thought made the Klingons look menacing and imposing in a way they never really do. This is helped by View-Master rendering the main viewer as sprawling and overwhelmingly dominant in a way the show itself hasn't since “The Last Outpost”: Once again, it makes things seem really vast and immersive.

One aspect of “A Matter Of Honor” that always stood out to me, probably more than he should have, was Mendon. For some reason I found the Benzite really memorable, maybe because he plays something of a major role in the story and his design isn't something that's necessarily easy to forget. Because “Coming of Age” was an episode I didn't regularly watch I never made the connection that Mendon was transparently an excuse to recycle an existing head mold: I always found him to be one of the most distinctive and iconic bits of this season, and because I never saw a ton of episodes from *this* year at the time either, I always wondered why he never came back for a guest spot. One strike against the View-Master version of “A Matter of Honor” I have to call, unfortunately, is its omission of another vital Dirty Pair reference: When Mendon first sees the holes developing on the Enterprise and the Pagh, his science station indicates it's running “Operation Kei” and “Operation Yuri”. Perhaps understandably, a static shot of a computer console was probably not high on the list of shots View-Master was interested in recreating.

While some scenes seem to be alternate takes of existing effects shots, there are others that intriguingly don't seem to come from “A Matter Of Honor” *at all*: There's a scene of the command staff standing dramatically on the bridge in the beginning that I don't think happens in the episode, and the Enterprise and the Pagh are shown to be in orbit of (and strikingly dwarfed by) a Jupiter-like gas giant in the denouement that I don't recall ever being mentioned in the script. But even more stunningly, there are even *entire character moments* that *only* happen in the View-Master version, the most memorable of which is a scene between Doctor Pulaski and Deanna Troi...The latter of whom isn't even *in* “A Matter Of Honor”. The caption doesn't say much, it just has Troi asking Pulaski if she thinks “Riker will be OK with the Klingons”. But it's an important bit regardless-Back when I first got these reels an unmentionable number of years ago and didn't remember much about the second season, I assumed Pulaski was actually Lwaxana Troi, because I didn't recognise her at first. It just seemed fitting to me for Troi to express her concerns about Riker to her mom.

...Which, in a way, she did.

One thing that's always struck me about Doctor Pulaski is how she seemed to very quickly assert herself as a surrogate mother figure for the crew. For Riker most obviously, as we'll see in “The Icarus Factor”, but for Worf too, given the Klingon Tea Ceremony from “Up The Long Ladder”. And, if we take absolutely nothing else from the Star Trek: The Next Generation version of “The Child” (which is advisable), the very least we can say is that Doctor Pulaski was fiercely protective of Deanna and her condition in that episode. Furthermore, if we do connect her on some metafictional level to “The Old Generation”, which is sort of unavoidable given the blatant Doctor McCoy comparisons and Diana Muldaur's casting, this allows us to take her character in some interesting directions. It just makes perfect sense to me to have Pulaski be the person Troi would turn to if she was worried about something like this.

It's because of moments like these that I have to confess I think I've been surprisingly spoiled by the View-Master version of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Like so much about my history with this show, “A Matter Of Honor” has always been an irreducibly, vividly iconic story for me...And yet rewatching it I find it's the version of the story from the plastic 3D film reel toy I remember, not the actual televised story. For me it's best encapsulated in those breathtakingly stunning exterior shots of the Enterprise, popping out me as much thanks to the stereoscopic 3D as it does because it's awash in brilliant sky blue that contrasts with a blazing orange gas giant and the twinkling of starlight. Maybe it's just my nostalgic fondness, but I think there's something special about this reel: Star Trek: The Next Generation simply never looks like this again at any time or at any place else. It doesn't look like a TV show here; it looks far more like bold, vibrant world we can peer into and observe every now and again.

And perhaps for a show that so often did try to be a safe place we can visit and explore both inner and outer space together for the duration of our stay, that's the way it should be.


  1. This is a really lovely essay, but can I just pop in and randomly comment on how beautifully absurd I find the opening of this episode? It's just the most oddly casual thing ever, where Riker and Picard are training in the phaser range and the premise of the episode is set up in the absolute most nonchalant way- "oh, Starfleet's suggested we send an officer of our own" "I think that's a good idea" "well, there's a Klingon vessel in the area", etc.

    Like, I seriously love it, and it lends such an interesting tone for the episode to follow (for several reasons this always feels like a sort of a 'vacation episode' for the show, where things are a little more low-key and lighter). Kinda wish more episodes were set up in that sort of fashion, to be honest.

  2. I have much of the same nostalgiac love of viewmaster, but I come at it very differently. As a child, I had a severely lazy eye (Surgery had long since more-or-less-corrected it by the TNG era), and probably as a result of that, I never really "learned" how to see stereoscopic 3D until much later (I can move my eyes independently with a bit of effort, so if I know I'm supposed to, I can force myself to see stereoscopic effects. Makes it really easy to see Magic Eye pictures, though it kinda hurts so it's hard to hold an image for more than a few seconds.), so I kinda never noticed that they were supposed to be in 3D. Instead, I came at it mostly from the perspective of a fascination with the weird and arcane home media formats of the era before home video became ubiquitous. Stuff like the Viewmaster and the Fisher-Price Movie Viewer, and filmstrips, and the weird little handheld 8mm loop players (I never actually saw one of those in person, just comic book ads for them. But I think I read once that a handfull of TOS episodes got converted to that format). And later, weird dithered loops on a gameboy or tricking a Texas Instruments graphing calculator into pretending it could do grayscale by mucking with the refresh rate.

    I had no idea that TNG made it to Viewmaster format. I always thought of Viewmaster as not really being a Thing by this point in history. Nifty.

  3. Lovely essay and nice to have the Viewmaster as a framing/viewing device for the episode - makes me *so* want to see the reel you speak of, sounds glorious. I do have a vague memory of owning a Viewmaster with some reels, or what I am not sure, but I know there was at least a Seven Wonders of the World one I owned that I cherished. It felt for me that I could really step inside and inhabit the little world in each view. Simple and beautiful technology.

    1. Really so very glad I have caught up with your essays in real time again now!

  4. I have less to say about Matter of Honor than I thought I would. The further exploration of Riker and Worf's friendship is strong. The Klingons here haven't yet become the caricatures they'll be later - they have agency and mystique. The culture shock is fun and not too bawdy or broad. The subplot with Mendon was pretty awful. Kargon the posturing old hawk, compared to Klag, who has a different experience and who can connect with Riker and grow past misconceptions. This is one of those rare Klingon episodes that exists between the old Yellow Peril mustache twirling villains and the overexposed, overhyped, people have weddings and learn the language Space Vikings with a fan-club we'll have later.