If you watch an old TV show, you'll be shocked that we ever put up with standard definition. Every episode of Star Trek looks like a cheap community theater project. If someone sneezed on your television, you just assumed that was the five-dimensional blur beast Mulder and Scully were fighting on The X-Files that week. But thanks to the miracle of modern technology, we can bring all the greatest and most marketable shows of decades past to live in the righteous light of high definition.
Why, just look at how the beloved Buffy The Vampire Slayer was ushered into modernity with its 2014 remaster. Here's a shot from the original:
And here it is in the stunning HD that really gives it that contemporary Pornhub feel:
That's the result of taking a show that was shot in the standard ratio of the day, 4:3, and cramming it into the now-ubiquitous 16:9 format. If you're not seeing the problem, here's a shot in which the remaster made the crew visible:
Attempts to touch up the lighting created its own issues. In this shot, one of the show's 80,000 vampire villains is supposed to have vanished into the dark while Buffy, the famed Person Who Inconveniences the Undead, searches for him:
No vampires there, right? Let's look at it again, now it's basked in the glorious light of HD:
Yeah, the villain's just standing there, making Buffy's attempt to "find" him look like a sad game played by a teenager struck down far too soon by dementia. None of this is news if you're a Buffy fan. The list of complaints on the Buffy wiki goes on and on, and many of the issues are notable even to people who don't habitually visit the Buffy wiki.
A few of the most egregious problems were fixed, but fans who want to revisit the series are forced to choose between watching the HD versions that have been foisted on streaming services (and therefore get pulled out of the experience by weird zooms, odd filters, and the occasional sight of the production crew), or track down old SD DVD sets and watch through the cataracts simulator that '90s television looks like today (or turn to piracy). Fans are still debating the problem five years later, and if you'd like to learn more, you can check out this 20-minute analysis.
But what if, like a tasteful person, you think that Buffy is overrated? Are there other shows to be concerned about? HD remasters, like so many things in life, can be done either quickly or well. The precise technical reasons take thousands of words to explain, but doing the job properly means that you somehow need to make a lot of money from physical media sales in an age when most fans are happy to just fire up Netflix.
Star Trek: The Next Generation received an excellent remaster that showed tremendous attention to detail, even in the episode where Wesley is sentenced to death for stepping on a plant. But the process cost $12 million, and even the most hardcore Trek fans are not buying a collective $12 million worth of Next Gen Blu-rays when they could stream the show instead. So if you're holding out for a (theoretically even more expensive) remaster of Deep Space Nine, or if you're a villain who wants to inflict a remaster of Voyager upon a world just starting to heal those wounds, you're out of luck. You'll have to watch Avery Brooks punch John de Lancie right in his smug face in boring old SD.
It's also possible the reason these shows feel disappointing now is that they were always ... well ... sorta dumb.
Relatively grounded shows with a lack of special effects can be remastered more efficiently -- like The Wire, which rarely featured exploding photon torpedoes. But if we're generally stuck between "This looks like literal garbage that's ruining my fond memories" and "Please buy four copies of our beautiful masterpiece, or our efforts will have been in vain and our families will disown us," then why are we even remastering all these old shows at all? To keep the cottage industry of analyzing, arguing, and generally complaining about them afloat?
Because oh man, is there no shortage of complaints. The remaster of Predator turned Arnold into a shiny wax figure. The Simpsons crops its shots. Raiders Of The Lost Ark added a CGI jeep that looks worse than what they filmed in 1982 because of how glaringly obvious it is. Raiders is also now so crisp that viewers can pick up on the fact that one supposedly Asian gang member is a white dude in tacky prosthetics. If you're so desperate to revisit your childhood that you sit down to watch the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it becomes difficult not to spot the horrific human mouths hiding within the turtle mouths. Here's a half-year-long debate about the color tint in The Matrix remaster. Fans found issues with the goddamn Baywatch remaster. Even The Wire was supposedly made an inferior experience by looking too good. The early '00s were fuzzy, man!
New Line Cinema
Judge for yourself which of those issues are legitimate and which are nerdy enough to make glasses spontaneously appear on you just so they can be pushed up your nose. Either way, you might have noticed that most of those complaints revolve around media from the '80s and '90s. We accept that old movies are, well, old. No one's demanding that Tarzan's New York Adventure look like it was filmed last week. In fact, old films that get cleaned up too much look weird. Fans aren't clamoring for a 4K remaster of the 1960s Dennis The Menace where you can really look into the eyes of Jay North and catch a glimpse of the beatings he was getting.
Classics like Casablanca, Ben Hur, and Abbott And Costello Meet The Mummy get nice touch-ups, but "fix" them up too much, and the complaints come out again. Hell, beloved black-and-white movies were briefly colorized in a misguided attempt to profit from them all over again, until fans and critics took up arms.
But there's a sweet spot where we either want to see a show from the '80s and '90s remastered or we want to complain about the inferior quality of its direct transfer to Blu-ray or whichever of the 147 streaming services carries it. Some good remasters are so subtle that viewers barely notice the changes, but we're always one lazy cash grab away from another Buffy debacle, unless we accept that older shows had their flaws and appreciate them as part of experiencing a product of their day.
Otherwise, Hollywood is never going to stop trying to make us watch and buy new versions of shows we've already practically memorized. Breaking Bad got a 4K Ultra HD remaster, and when the show is beamed directly into our eye sockets 20 years from now, we're probably going to complain that the embedded ocular experience makes it too obvious that the meth is fake.
For more, check out How George Lucas Almost Accidentally Made A Masterpiece - A Better Way To Watch:
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