Could AI be the key to a Deep Space Nine and Voyager remaster?

The most popular article I’ve written here on the website is about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager, and how neither series has been remastered. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, The Original Series and The Next Generation were given a complete overhaul and rebroadcast, then re-released on Blu-ray (and HD DVD, if anyone remembers that failed format!)

For a number of reasons, though, The Next Generation in particular didn’t see great sales numbers on Blu-ray. Because of the significant cost involved in upscaling and remastering it, and the lack of a significant return on that investment, ViacomCBS hasn’t been willing to spend money on Deep Space Nine or Voyager. As a result, both series remain in “standard definition,” a.k.a. DVD quality. On today’s ever-larger television screens, the difference between a remastered episode of The Next Generation and a non-remastered episode of Deep Space Nine is incredibly noticeable.

Captain Picard in The Next Generation remaster (left) and Deep Space Nine DVD quality (right). Even allowing for image compression, the difference in quality is easy to spot.

Star Trek has been one of the big franchises that ViacomCBS has used to push its rebranded Paramount+ streaming service. Paramount+ is now the digital home of all things Star Trek – yet two of its flagship series that many folks remember with fondness from the 1990s don’t look great. As I noted last time, that’s a problem. It makes Paramount+ look cheap, as though ViacomCBS simply can’t be bothered to put in the effort.

Netflix runs some shows in DVD quality, but by far the majority of its content is in high definition. As Paramount+ attempts to position itself as a competitor to Netflix, Disney+, and other platforms in a very crowded market, having two big flagship shows in low quality standard definition is not a good look, and it’s something that needs to be addressed.

But last time the company made a significant investment in remastering Star Trek it didn’t pay off, so how should they proceed?

The Next Generation did not sell particularly well on Blu-ray.

There are a few factors at play here. The first is that ViacomCBS (and its predecessor, CBS) measured the success of the remastered Star Trek series purely by Blu-ray sales. The problem with this approach is that, even by the early 2010s, optical media in general was in decline. Fewer people had made the switch to Blu-ray than DVD, and with the rise of on-demand streaming platforms it seemed only a matter of time before Star Trek would be available to watch. I owned a number of The Next Generation stories on VHS, I’d also bought the entire series on DVD, and in the early 2010s I just wasn’t prepared to spend that money all over again on the same show – especially when it seemed inevitable that eventually the series would be available online. I was right.

Physical media sales are a poor measure of success in the days of on-demand streaming, and the value in investing in any project – be it a remaster or the commissioning of a new series – is less about pure sales numbers and more about the number of subscribers it will drive to your streaming platform. ViacomCBS has invested in Paramount+, so why not go the extra mile and remaster these classic shows for the service too?

One of the commercials for Paramount+ focused on Star Trek.

That’s the first aspect of this issue – the business side and how to calculate a return on investment. Raw sales numbers are less and less valid as a metric of success in a world that’s moved on to streaming, so making that calculation isn’t easy. But I bet that remastering Deep Space Nine and Voyager would drive new subscribers to Paramount+, as well as convince wavering subscribers that it’s worth sticking around. Both of those things are what any streaming service needs to survive.

The second point to consider is that the cost of remastering any television series is dropping all the time. There is software that uses AI that can produce creditable results from DVD-quality sources, such as the existing versions of Deep Space Nine and Voyager. Consumer-grade versions of this software exist, and can be bought for less than $100. You can even find homemade upscaled clips of Deep Space Nine and Voyager on YouTube and elsewhere online – and they look pretty darn good.

There are many fan-made upscales of clips from Deep Space Nine and Voyager online.

As software continues to improve and come down in price, the cost of a project like this drops dramatically, and we may only be a few years away from fans being able to fully upscale their DVD collections at home. In some ways, we’re arguably there already. Rather than ViacomCBS having to spend huge sums of money recruiting new artists and animators to recreate whole sequences from scratch, it’s going to be possible to run entire episodes of the show through software and just have a small team of people make tweaks on the resultant upscaled version to knock it into shape. It’s far less of a project than it was ten years ago – so there are fewer and fewer reasons not to do it.

With ViacomCBS having the original tapes of these shows, it should be even easier to get a good result than it is for someone using the DVD version. I’m not saying it can all be done from home for a few dollars – the project will still cost money – but it’s a far less significant expense than it was last time the company chose to send Star Trek to the remastering suite, and waiting even just a couple of years could see those costs fall yet further.

Sisko and O’Brien in Emissary, the Deep Space Nine premiere.

I really hope that ViacomCBS will consider giving both shows a proper remaster at some point in the future. It’s something that would undoubtedly provide Paramount+ a boost, especially if the service were the only place to access the newly-upgraded shows. And it surely would be, because why bother with a Blu-ray release? Physical media continues its decline, with fewer people than ever upgrading to the latest 4K Blu-ray standard, so there’s almost no point. Remaster the shows, stick them on Paramount+, and enjoy a nice subscriber boost.

I truly believe AI and software offer a path to remastering these shows – and a lot of others, too. There are a few other series from the ’80s and ’90s that are yet to be properly remastered, and the same solution potentially exists for those as well. I’m not a tech expert, but I think the results speak for themselves. When I’ve seen upscaled clips online, created incredibly inexpensively by amateurs using commercially-available software, it really feels like ViacomCBS is missing a trick. Maybe upscaling the series this way wouldn’t be as good as spending huge amounts of money to do it from scratch, but it would be something – and the result would almost certainly be a better-looking show than the currently-available SD version.

Paramount+ would get a boost if both shows were remastered.

As I mentioned at the beginning, the most popular article I’ve written is about Deep Space Nine and Voyager needing a remaster – so there is clearly huge interest there from both Trekkies and casual fans. People who watched the shows years ago may want to rewatch them. New Star Trek fans who’ve joined the fandom since the release of the Kelvin films or Discovery may want to go back and watch older Star Trek shows. And of course us Trekkies would love nothing more than to see the two series get an overhaul. There’s a sizeable audience out here asking for a remaster, an upscaling, or whatever you want to call it. AI could be a good solution – saving money while giving fans what we’ve been asking for for years!

At the very least, I think it’s worth considering. And if ViacomCBS never does it… maybe someone else will. These pieces of software get better and cheaper all the time, and we could be in a position in a very short span of time where fan-made remasters of whole episodes, not just clips, will be widely available.

Deep Space Nine and Voyager were a big part of Star Trek’s most successful era to date, and a lot of casual viewers and Trekkies remember them with fondness. While there’s nothing wrong with the DVD versions, as screen technology improves and televisions get larger, what viewers expect from their programming has changed. For a lot of people in 2021, standard definition isn’t good enough – especially on a streaming service that costs $9.99 per month. If ViacomCBS is serious about continuing to invest in the Star Trek franchise, a portion of that investment needs to be directed backward, to remastering these two shows that have been sidelined. Part of the marketing for Paramount+ highlighted that it was the place to watch every episode of Star Trek – some fans will have been disappointed to learn that over 300 of those episodes don’t look great.

AI and software offer a solution to this problem, one ViacomCBS should take advantage of as soon as possible.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager are available to stream now (in SD quality only) on Paramount+ in the United States, and on Netflix in the UK and other countries and territories. Both series are also available on DVD. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.