Sunday, 2 June 2013

Star Trek: VHS: A Trekollections Curveball (Part I)

In the days before DVD and blu-ray, there was but one way in the UK to get your quickest fix of Star Trek.

VHS videos from CIC were that answer, Two episodes per cassette with, more often than not in the case of The Next Generation, a blurry shot or three from the featured episodes on the case, a brief bit of story blurb and cleverly a lot of the two-parters were split over two volumes to ensure maximum spending and much reduced shelf space if you were only buying select episodes. Now these were also the days when the season would air in the US in September/October and the first VHS cassette would arrive on the shelves of Woolworths, Boots or WH Smiths in February the following year. In today's media savvy world where you can expect the latest episode the following - of not the same - day as it's aired in the States to be on SKY that's just unbelievable. How did we manage and without the internet to get a fix?!

We just did! That's the answer! 

Being a teenage student when The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager were being released my budget was finite. My first foray was actually the 25th Anniversary box set of the first five films and the 25th Anniversary Special but what I really want to focus on is the wonderful material that presented itself with the series releases as featured above. I never bought any of the Original Series video releases because I'd seen a lot of them on terrestrial TV. I would eventually get some of the 60's series on the re-releases which, if you got the full set, read "We are the first to reach this far..." which I believe is a Spock quote from The Corbomite Maneuver. The rear of each tape carried three stills and episode details and was nothing spectacular. To start me off, probably unintentionally, my grandparents bought me Encounter at Farpoint and some of the first season before I got started on expanding the collection myself. 

Now don't get me wrong, DVDs and blu-rays are a far sight cheaper - £12.99 for two episodes on VHS vs 26 episodes for £12 on DVD is a no-brainer really - but there was a certain anticipation about getting down to the shops and seeing the latest releases. Oddly I'm not looking at the episodes themselves here but the box they came in. They were magnificent examples of 80's, 90's and 2000's art. The Next Generation effectively followed the theme set by the Kirk and co. era. Simple box art accompanied by a shot taken from one of the featured episode on the front, two more stills on the back from Story A and Story B with some microscopic synopsis of each into the bargain. Each VHS box was numbered from 1 to 89 and this number coloured to reflect the series it was from (I recall season one was white, three pink, six red and seven orange).

When you look at each first volume from each of the seven seasons (and All Good Things...) you start to see minor changes - Riker gets a beard drawn on for season two, Crusher is replaced by Pulaski and then reappears for season three, Troi gets a new hairdo, Geordi, Worf and Wesley get some new clothes. Season three sees the uniforms gain collars and Beverly gets a new picture. For the fourth season, Guinan appears and Wesley changes into his ensign uniform. Season five means Picard changes into his captain's jacket ensemble, Data gets a picture change while Alexander and Ro also squeeze into the picture. Troi also gets a costume change to grey. Season seven maintained the picture but for the final volume everyone (who was still alive) got their older versions featured on the cover - definitely the early days of photoshop and I remember being shocked at how bad it looked.

Don't get me wrong, it was exciting to get to the shop to see what was featured on the box and what clues you could work out from the stills but some of them were just bad. The worst offender was the season one volume which featured The Last Outpost - someone forgot to pick the image with the blue screen edited to the swirling atmosphere of the alien world Riker is standing on...! Another classic blunder had to be the cover for Descent which totally gave away the big cliffhanger. Well done, CIC. It also seemed they got the blurriest of screenshots possible to produce the videos but in the 80's and 90's it was all about working out what might be happening...!

When  the series was re-released I didn't purchase any of the volumes which had four episodes per cassette (that's a lot of fast forwarding to get to the one you want to watch if it's the last one!) and the box art was more graphic artist than photo as seen here with the first volume of the show. While more expressive of the stories contained and less reliant on a headshot which was a favourite of the original run, they just seemed a bit wrong, outdated and out of place. 

While I was having a sort out I also found two magazine/flyers for one of the box sets that pervaded The Next Generation universe following its departure from TV in 1994 (there was also a Data box set I have failed to mention). Of all the series that came and went, this was probably the one most plundered for VHS re-releases over the years after. There is a second - the compressed movie box set - shown here but it was a dire release which meant that the even numbered films were all second on the tapes aside from First Contact which got its own volume. Bad planning there! Anyway, this set focused on two episodes from each of the main cast as a celebration of 10 years of the show (1997). There are a couple of clunkers in here to fill up the space but on the whole this is very much a best of The Next Generation. As with a lot of the special editions it seemed to be more about shifting boxes than it was about presentation (see the movie box set here for additional proof). Very basic packaging and artwork with non of the splendour we were seeing at this time on Deep Space Nine. Also note the error on the Riker volume - the second episode was The Pegasus and not a second helping of The Next Phase! What you did get extra was a Patrick Stewart documentary. On that I can't comment as I've never seen it but I doubt it was directly linked to the series. Please don't try and order as I suspect the lines have been closed for a couple of years at the very least...

When Deep Space Nine came along it was a big change. Gone were the dodgy headshot stills from the episodes, replaced by classier shots of the crew (for season one) blended with the wormhole and a third of the eponymous space station. Beyond the Final Frontier and From the Makers of The Next Generation were the accompanying slogans which almost seemed to be begging you to purchase them and seemingly apologising for their nature in the same phrase. Anyway, this wasn't everything that was great about the Deep Space Nine cases. The backs now carried a cast shot of the crew and the movie style Starfleet delta badge (to season three) alongside the two episode synopses. An additional piece and something I had a list of a while back in more annoraky days, was a quote from one of the episodes. I can only now remember "It is the unknown that defines our existence" from Emissary. Not bad after 20 years mind. That wasn't the end to it though.

Each of the Deep Space Nine volumes was more than just a cover. When all the volumes were lined up from Emissary to What You Leave Behind there was one long scene that featured planets, ships and the station. Cracking open the case, each box also featured a character profile of someone starring in one of the two featured stories including some minor stats on first appearance and stardates. Emissary and Way of the Warrior however were different - the former was also released with a special ten page collectors booklet while Worf's arrival was marked by not just a fundamental design change but also a foldout cover with information on the Klingons and Cardassians. There seemed to be a lot more thought in the design of these sleeves and the whole experience of getting new Star Trek, even down to some of the rather poor posters you could collect tokens to buy during the season (three and four mainly) or sign up to the newsletter which provided news on upcoming releases (I'll talk about them next time).

Seasons one to five added stardates to the front of every case, some of which were made up as not every episode included one, leading to Our Man, Bashir being held on 49300.7 (work it out!). Aside from the random switch to season/volume numbering from The Search, the design remained very similar for six years bar a change in the angle of the station and shades of blue/black/grey around the featured character. The back too remained the same on the whole although the cast photo was updated and the film era badge (odd choice to begin with) was replaced by the First Contact combadge. Season six saw the removal of the stardate from the front of the cases as Voyager also got a VHS makeover. 

The final season did away with almost everything and I wasn't a big fan however stunning some of the images created were. CIC introduced a bizarre triple photo of Sisko, Worf and Kira that made no logical sense. Each volume from 7.1 to 7.12 including the aforementioned artistic image related to one of the two episodes included that had no recurring thematic element except the triple portrait and series title. The interior of each box retained the individual profile layout of the previous six seasons although the final volume, 7.13, had a reversible cover to give either a "movie style" one-off image or retain the themed picture as shown above. Of all the series box art they produced, the Deep Space Nine volumes were easily the best because of the extra information and the more unusual ones that occasionally cropped up in the first six seasons - each of the final year was a unique pic and so not quite as awe inspiring when you saw it!

My favourites from the run have to be the images selected for Trials and Tribble-ations,  Call to Arms and Sacrifice of Angels. At some point at least two of those have ended up as phone wallpapers or lockscreens. Minor note on volume 5.3 above which you can't see is that they got the science and support services badges the wrong way round. These were great images and the times when there was an unusual picture you knew it was for a special reason or a season highlight (also see Tears of the Prophets). Anyway, I had a lot of the Deep Space Nine volumes piled up and they got a lot of watching over the years. Of all the shows it's the one I connected to the most and easily spent the most on. Scary to think that each one cost as much as a full box set now and we were only getting 88 minutes of Star Trek for the price - but that was the cost of seeing it first!

Sensibly before I parted with them a year or so back, I managed to scan a few of the interior sleeves in to show the character profiles they contained. Here are a couple I selected. The detail inside was usually confined specifically to the featured stories which only gave away what might be involved. It was almost like a written trailer for the episodes.
Season One Duet inner sleeve focusing on episode character
Season Four Our Man Bashir inner sleeve
What The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine did have in common was that they both carried (for some time) a good five minute trailer for Star Trek including clips from The Original Series, the movies as well as Picard and Sisko's era. It was always a challenge to work out which episodes managed to get snipped to feature in this. I think it faded out in the middle of season three of Deep Space Nine to be replaced by a trailer for Star Trek: Generations and whatever else they happened to find that was franchise related thereafter, namely Star Trek First Contact and Insurrection I think which was the last Star Trek movie I purchased on VHS the same day as I bought What You Leave Behind - even worse I think it was a couple of days after Christmas. Strange how you remember these things after a few years...

In Part 2 of this special Trekollections I'll be looking over Voyager and Enterprise as well as the Paramount Home Entertainment newsletter.

This article was originally published on United Federation of Planets and is shown in updated format here.

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