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STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION: "ENCOUNTER AT FARPOINT."Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Wil Wheaton, Michael Dorn, Denise Crosby, Marina Sirtis, Brent Spiner. D: Corey Allen. 1987. 96 min. Paramount, $19.95.

Star Trek, the flop that wouldn't stay dead, is 25 this year. Conceived in 1964 by ex-cop-show writer Gene Roddenberry, the sci-fi series about the U.S.S. Enterprise, a huge spaceship in the 23rd Century, is indestructible: airing only 79 episodes, it nevertheless became a hit in reruns, returning as an Emmy-winning cartoon show; as a six-film, big-budget movie series; and now as Star Trek: The Next Generation, an update that takes place 70 years after the original. Certainly Roddenberry and his team broke new territory, using the science fiction format as an excuse to discuss such TV-taboo topics as racism, women's rights, and peace in our time.

In the new series, the producers have attempted to keep Trek's basic appeal, while upgrading the special effects and weeding out the most talked-about flaws (why, for instance, did Captain Kirk and his chief officers always go on the dangerous missions away from the ship? After all, do commanders of aircraft carriers fly the jets?) Times have changed, too: the original's evil aliens, the Klingons, are now savage good guys, while women -- only tokens in the first series -- have key roles.

Yet classic Trek's strongest feature -- its well-written, often witty characters -- is missing from the new program's earliest episodes, as the new crew (a blind helmsman, a humanoid robot, and a psychic psychologist, all led by Captain Picard, a balding, humorless figure) gets its sea legs. Awkward clumps of expository dialogue litter the stories and a lot of the initial programs ("The Naked Now") are simply retreads of superior episodes from the original ("The Naked Time").

Nonetheless, the pilot episode, "Encounter at Farpoint" has enough of its own quirks to hold even a non-Trekkie's interest (Picard's cold demeanor is scary; the computer-man's attempts to be human endearing). As pilots do, a lot of time is spent introducing characters, with a double-length plot that the original series might have disposed of in 30 minutes (an alien tests the crew, with humanity at stake. Ho-hum). The best moment occurs when the old show reaches out and blesses the new in the form of the original's Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley), who turns up as a 137-year-old admiral visiting the ship. His comment about the Enterprise is touching ("Treat her like a lady and she'll always bring you home"), although another character's comment is more apt: "I'll learn to do better, sir." About 40 episodes later, they did. Beam me up, Scotty. 1991


THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. COLLECTION Volume 1: 1964-67. Robert Vaughn, David McCallum, Leo G. Carroll, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Cesar Romero, Joan Collins, Joan Crawford, Angela Lansbury, Kim Darby, Telly Savalas, Nancy Sinatra, Barbara Feldon, and Joan Collins; dir. various. Digital sound, 776 min. CLV, 4 discs, 8 sides. MGM/UA. $100.

Cry UNCLE! Why, oh, why, does MGM/UA go to all the trouble of compiling a mammoth laser disc collection of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and then select from the worst episodes of the 1964-68 series? In its day, U.N.C.L.E. (that's United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) defined the word phenomena: a near-flop in its first months, it became a monster hit and national fad in its second season. Fan clubs, press attention, TV parodies (Get Smart), imitators (Wild Wild West), and an offshoot (The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.) abounded, but no one could match the original for its deft mixture of humor and suspense. Its heroes – suave Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and moody Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) – epitomized the three Cs: Competent, Clever, and Cool. Oh, so cool.

U.N.C.L.E.was a phenomenon in another way – it managed to, in one wag's words, to "snatch defeat from the jaws of victory." When it emphasized silly humor over sly suspense in its last years, the series burned out with such incredible rapidity that it didn't even finish its fourth year. This beautifully transferred laser collection is an apt showcase. The best is seen the least – two wonderful black and white episodes (one featuring a pre–Star Trek William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy) that spotlight the show's strengths: wit, suspense, verve, and such graceful, menacing villains as Cesar Romero in "The Never Never Affair." The worst is in abundance, as well: bad jokes, confusing plotlines, pointless violence, and embarrassments like a Keystone Kops routine in the abysmal "Five Daughters Affair," possibly the series' nadir. In typical fashion, MGM/UA has selected episodes for star power alone. By that measure, this collection is aces. By any other, it's a Disc from D.U.D. 1992



I SPY1965/1966. Robert Culp, Bill Cosby, Gene Hackman, Carroll O'Connor; dir. Richard Sarafian, Earl Bellamy, Robert Butler. Two tapes, 100 min. each; $19.95 each. United American Video.

Long before Dr. Cliff Huxtable and those Jello commercials made Bill Cosby a multi-millionaire, he was appearing as Alexander Scott, partner to Kelly Robinson (Robert Culp) in the groundbreaking spy series I Spy. The show, about two globe-trotting CIA men, is unique among the 1960s crop of James Bond TV clones: it was actually filmed in the foreign locations the agents visited and it paired a black and a white man as equal partners.

Besides that, the series is appealing for its fast-paced action and clever stories, and the easy rapport and insolent cool of Culp and Cosby, who often improvised their rambling exchanges. "Life is good," says Culp in one. "It's better than that, man," replies Cosby. "On a day like today there's a wonderfulness from the sky and the sea and the people that kisses you all over the neck and nose." Culp: "Name another day when such a report to the Pentagon was written by two fine American spies." The four episodes represented here, primarily from the series' first season, are hardly representative of the show's humor and clever plotting or even its globe-hopping, since three take place in Mexico. Nonetheless, there are intrigue, beautiful photography, the snazzy "I Spy" theme tune, and the chance – "It's All Done With Mirrors" – to see Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) as a Communist agent. Now that's a trip, man. 1993


COLUMBO: MURDER BY THE BOOK 1971. Peter Falk, Jack Cassidy; dir. Steven Spielberg. Mono. (NR). 76 min. $14.95. MCA/Universal. THE ROCKFORD FILES: THE KIRKOFF CASE 1974. James Garner, Julie Sommers, James Woods; dir. Lou Antonio. Mono. (NR) 50 min. $14.95. MCA/Universal. 


Columbo and The Rockford Files epitomized a 1970s television trend: detectives with a difference. Blind, bald or crippled, the gumshoes still got their man. Columbo's gimmick is inversion. Unlike traditional whodunits, the murderer is known; the interest lies in how sloppy, apologetic Lt. Columbo breaks down the alibi of the upper-crust, ohso-smug murderer. Played with rumpled perfection by Peter Falk, Columbo is the detective as everyman.

The Rockford Files features the detective as average man. Breaking genre cliches, P.l. Jim Rockford (Garner) doesn't work in a seedy office but a beachfront trailer. He isn't a loner-he has a crusty father who keeps after him to change careers. And he hates guns, keeping his own in a cookie jar.

These were the first regularly scheduled episodes of each series. "Murder By The Book" has two future stars guiding it: Steve Boccho (pre-Hill Street Blues) wrote the tale, about a mystery writer who kills his partner, and Steven Spielberg (pre-Jaws) directs in a flashy style inconsistent with' the material. "The Kirkoff Case," featuring a convoluted plot in which a killer wants to be unmasked, includes a winning performance by Garner, the master of charming exasperation. As escapism goes, you could do a lot worse.