14 years before “Star Trek: The Next Generation” debuted in 1987, there was an earlier Star Trek spinoff series; the often (unfairly) maligned animated Star Trek series, which debuted on Saturday morning television in the fall of 1973.
Star Trek The Animated Series (TAS), a Lou Scheimer/Filmation production, was, in essence a continuation of the prematurely cancelled original series (TOS). It employed the entire original series cast (William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan), save for Walter Koenig (“Chekov”), who would go on to write an episode of TAS (“The Infinite Vulcan”). According to behind-the-scenes lore which I’ve heard repeated at conventions, Leonard Nimoy personally fought to have Nichelle Nichols and George Takei invited back for the series’ revival as well. This was a smart move in my opinion, as it added to the overall legitimacy of TAS.
The spinoff’s legitimacy was also boosted by employing many TOS writers as well. There was Dorothy Fontana, TOS’ story editor and writer of some of its best episodes (“Charlie X” “Tomorrow Is Yesterday” “Journey To Babel” “The Enterprise Incident”). Other returning TOS writers included Samuel Peoples (“Where No Man Has Gone Before”), David Gerrold (“Trouble With Tribbles,”) Margaret Armen (“Gamesters of Triskelion” “Paradise Syndrome”), Stephen Kandel (“Mudd’s Women” “I, Mudd”), Paul Schneider (“Balance of Terror” “Squire of Gothos”) and David Harmon (“A Piece of the Action” “The Deadly Years”).
Sadly TAS episodes would run in thirty minute time-slots instead of a full hour, and it would air on Saturday mornings (a time typically reserved in those days for Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny, the Groovy Ghoulies or Josie & the Pussycats). The overall animation quality would also be somewhat limited as well. But looking past those limitations, many of the stories are actually quite good; and a few of them are on a par with some of the best of Star Trek.
TAS would only run for 22 episodes over a season and a half (1973-1974), but it gave a little more life to Star Trek than was afforded in its original, prematurely cancelled three-year run.
For fans who’ve never seen TAS, it’s like discovering a small treasure trove of lost Star Trek stories… featuring the voices of the original cast, no less.
* Returning to Tomorrow.
Many of the episodes of the first year were direct sequels to TOS episodes, and most were written by those episodes original writers as well. “Yesteryear”, written by Dorothy Fontana, was a sequel to Harlan Ellison’s “City On The Edge Of Forever” as well as a prequel to Fontana’s own “Journey To Babel.” The story sees the original Guardian of Forever time portal being used for Federation historical research. Mr. Spock, doing historical research in Orion’s past, is unavailable to meet an important predestination with his younger self, and therefore dies as a child. Returning to the present, the adult Spock is now an anachronism; no longer belonging to his own present. The Enterprise’s new science officer is an Andorian (voiced by James Doohan), who assists Kirk and McCoy in sending Spock back to Vulcan’s past in order to repair his own timeline. On Vulcan, the half-human Spock relives painful moments from his childhood, as he sees his younger self bullied by racist Vulcan classmates.
Posing as his own cousin Selek, Spock visits his father Sarek (voiced by returning TOS guest star Mark Lenard) and his mother Amanda (voiced by the versatile Majel Barrett) and has a reunion with his bear-like childhood pet sehlat ‘I’Chaya.’ The elder Spock then aids his 7-year old self survive a dangerous trek into the Vulcan wilderness… but at the loss of his beloved I’Chaya. Elder Spock returns to his own present; relieved at belonging there yet again, but saddened for the loss of I’Chaya.
“Yesteryear” serves a dual purpose; it helps its targeted younger audience cope with the pain of loss, and also manages to tell a powerful story for older Star Trek fans as well. “Yesteryear” is a series’ best. It’s my personal favorite of the series.
That isn’t to say the remaining series isn’t worth watching. Far from it, in fact…
“The Trouble With Tribbles” (one of the most popular TOS episodes) got a sequel as well. Shady galactic trader ‘Cyrano Jones’ (voiced by returning TOS guest star/writer Stanley Adams) and his ‘tribbles’ return in “More Tribbles, More Troubles” (also written by David Gerrold, who would also write a later episode “Bem”). While it’s nice to see the tribbles, Klingons and Cyrano Jones return, the episode suffers a bit from an overall feeling of sameness. The only differences being that the tribbles now grow bigger (they’re colony organisms, apparently) and the introduction of a useful predator known as a ‘glommer.’ Beyond those new elements, it’s a familiar story of the Enterprise and Klingon ships being overrun by tribbles…yet again. Good fun, if just a little disappointing.
Another sequel episode was “Once Upon a Planet”; a somewhat more sinister followup to TOS’ “Shore Leave.” The automated ‘amusement planet’ visited previously has lost its humanoid ‘caretaker’ and is now run by a sentient planetary computer system that doesn’t appreciate its robotic offspring being used for the amusement of mere biological beings. TAS’ animated format allows a bit more freedom in revealing the inner workings of the amusement planet, as well as depicting more imaginary robotic creations such as dragons and walking playing cards (!). In a long overdue moment, it is Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and not Capt. Kirk, who persuades the planet’s computer to come to an understanding with the Enterprise’s crew. The episode has some foreshadowings of “Westworld” (both the 1973 cult film and the new HBO reboot TV series) and can be seen as an allegory of slavery. Thematically, it’s a cut above the usual Saturday morning fare of the time.
There is also another ‘Harry Mudd’ episode (again voiced by returning TOS guest actor Roger Carmel) with “Mudd’s Passion” written by TOS Mudd writer Stephen Kandel. This episode sees Mudd peddling a powerful new love potion that causes brief amorous feelings… only to be followed by equally intense periods of animosity afterward. While I’ve never been a particular fan of the Harry Mudd episodes (in TOS, TAS or even Discovery ), I appreciated that “Mudd’s Passion” highlights an underused TOS supporting character; in this case, Nurse Christine Chapel (Majel Barrett). However, I wasn’t terribly impressed with how easily the otherwise competent, intelligent Nurse Chapel was conned by Mudd in the heated pursuit of her crush, Mr. Spock. It’s a terrible stereotype of a lovelorn woman doing anything to win her man’s heart. Ugh…
Despite its horrific femme fatale stereotyping, the episode does deserve points for adding a tiny bit of kindling to the fire of Kirk-Spock slash fiction (at least by the standards of a 1973 children’s cartoon).
* Exploring Strange New Worlds.
There were also some solid all-new episodes as well.
“The Magicks of Megas-Tu” sees the Enterprise drawn to the galactic core, where ‘matter is created.’ There, it encounters a Satanic-looking but seemingly benevolent being named Lucien (voiced by Scotty’s James Doohan) who seems able to reify any wish by will alone. The area of space at the core has unique properties that allow visitors to use psionic power to reshape reality (not too unlike the effects of the galactic barrier in TOS’ “Where No Man Has Gone Before”). The Enterprise officers are soon trapped, along with Lucien, in what appears to be a recreation of Salem, Massachusetts of the late 17th century; the site of the Salem Witchcraft Trials of early America. Lucien is being tried by his people for meddling in human affairs many centuries ago, and repeating his mistake with the Enterprise officers in the present. Lucien simply wanted to share the psionic gifts of the Megans with humanity (thus creating what humans referred to in ancient times as ‘magic’ and ‘witchcraft’).
Kirk, recognizing the good intentions of Lucien, argues on his behalf and winds up literally playing devil’s advocate. Turns out the devil was simply another in a long line of misunderstood alien beings. Stories like this are what Star Trek is all about.
If only “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” had been so clever.
“The Time Trap” is Star Trek’s take on the mythology of the Bermuda Triangle phenomenon, which was very popular in the 1970s (along with Bigfoot, UFOs, astrology and pet rocks). The Enterprise and pursuing Klingons are trapped inside of the “Delta Triangle.” Within the region are fleets of alien and ancient starships; including the very first warp vessel, the USS Bonaventure (nope, not the Phoenix). The crews of the lost ships have joined together and formed a new society based on harmony and cooperation (which the recent Federation and Klingon arrivals threaten). Not one of the greatest of TAS, but enjoyable nevertheless. Also notable for the return of Klingon commander Kor (voiced by James Doohan, and not TOS guest actor John Colicos; who would return as Kor in “Deep Space Nine” many years later).
“The Ambergris Element” was another interesting episode (written by “Paradise Syndrome” writer Margaret Armen) which saw Kirk and Spock temporarily converted to mermen by the undersea inhabitants of an alien planet. This is one of the best examples of the series taking advantage of its animated format, since an underwater episode full of green aquatic beings, giant sea monsters and an amphibious shuttlecraft would’ve been completely undoable in the original series (and would even be a budget buster on a modern Trek show such as Discovery). “The Amergris Element” is an escapist adventure that is uniquely suited to TAS’ more flexible format.
Other standouts from the series include “Eye of the Beholder” (which has the crew trapped in a giant alien youngling’s petting zoo in a throwback to TOS’ “The Cage”). There are some interesting lessons to be gleaned (for kids or adults) about the responsibilities of owning pets, as well as how easily different-looking creatures can be misconstrued as unintelligent beasts.
David Gerrold’s “Bem” is yet another in a long line of humanity-being-tested-by-aliens episodes, but with a unique twist (which, unfortunately, is tipped off a bit too early on in the story). Entertaining and imaginative, at the very least. It also marked the first time we hear the captain’s full name: James Tiberius Kirk (later heard onscreen in the 1991 Star Trek film, “The Undiscovered Country”).
“Ringworld” author Larry Niven’s “The Slaver Weapon” about a galactic scavenger hunt for an ancient deadly alien artifact (not too unlike TNG’s “The Gambit”, though arguably much better). This episode also sees nice use of Lieutenants Sulu (George Takei) and Uhura, both of whom enjoyed more opportunities to shine throughout TAS than they did in TOS.
Writer Russell Bates’ award-winning “How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth?” which is essentially a Mayan-centered remake of TOS’ “Who Mourns For Adonais?” with the main difference being a substitution of the Greek god Apollo for the Mayan serpentine god-being Kukulkan. It also marks the first time we see a fully Native American crewman on the ship (two full decades before “Star Trek: Voyager”‘s Chakotay), and there are many interesting references to the Mayan civilization. Surprisingly rich in cultural value for a ‘Saturday morning cartoon.’
* Occasional malfunctions.
Yes, there was a lot of Star Trek-style goofiness as well…
The episode “The Practical Joker” saw the Enterprise computer developing a prankster personality following a space storm that wreaks havoc with its circuits. Some of its antics included making dribble glasses for the crew, or toying with the ship’s gravity (an effect that would’ve been too expensive to film in live action in 1966). The climax of “The Practical Joker” saw the Enterprise computer create a giant, inflatable Enterprise-shaped balloon in an attempt to fool Romulan pursuers. Yes, that’s pretty silly…but really no more silly than TOS’ “Requiem For Methuselah” when ‘Mr. Flynt’ shrank the Enterprise (and her crew) down to the size of a tabletop model. Otherwise, the episode is a lot of fun; especially when the computer prints “Kirk is a Jerk” on the back of the captain’s uniform (a gag that’s still good for a chuckle…).
Walter Koenig (Chekov) didn’t return as a voice actor for the show, but sadly he ended up writing one of its all-time worst installments, “The Infinite Vulcan.” An embarrassment on multiple levels, the climax of the episode involves a giant Spock clone mind-melding with his dying, tiny, true self in an effort to save his life. Could’ve been retitled “Attack of the 50-Foot Vulcan.” Noteworthy only for its mention of ‘the Eugenics Wars’; the same global conflict in Star Trek history that led to Khan Noonian Singh’s takeover of Earth in an alternate 1990s (see: “Space Seed” “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”).
“The Lorelei Signal” makes an earnest attempt to be feminist, but winds up ridiculously sexist. A ‘siren call’ lures the Enterprise’s male crewmen to a planet of beautiful women who want to drain their life-force. It’s more like “Spock’s Brain” or a bad 1950s B-movie than a good Star Trek story. Noteworthy only for Lt. Uhura and Nurse Chapel and an all-female landing party kicking ass and taking names in the episode’s climax.
“The Terratin Incident” has a series of radioactive volcanic shockwaves reducing the Enterprise crew to the size of their own action figures (hehe). Ridiculous yes, but it’s also another example of the series taking advantage of the freedom of animation; and in hindsight, it’s only slightly more ridiculous than the rapid aging effects of TOS’ “The Deadly Years.” The episode is also a nice nod to Richard Matheson’s 1957 novel (and film of) “The (Incredible) Shrinking Man.” Also noteworthy for showing a forgotten human settlement from the earliest days of the Federation, the long forgotten “Terra Ten” colony, since corrupted into “Terratin.”
Which brings me to the series’ final episode “The Counter-Clock Incident,” which sees retiring first commander of the USS Enterprise Robert April (pre-Capt. Pike) taking command yet again when a time-reversing universe causes the Enterprise crew to rapidly grow younger. Robert April was the name of Roddenberry’s original captain in the earliest drafts of TOS’ series’ bible, before production of “The Cage” (when the character’s name was changed to Christopher Pike). “The Counter-Clock Incident” is pretty much a straight reversal of TOS’ “The Deadly Years” as well as a quasi-remake of TAS’ own “The Terratin Incident.” Though the episode is still noteworthy for slipping the aborted Robert April (voiced by James Doohan) back into Star Trek’s reality. It also introduced April’s wife Sarah (voiced by Nichelle Nichols) into canon as the Enterprise’s retired Chief Medical Officer, a position she held in those earliest drafts of TOS’ series bible.
Capt. April a was recently made ‘official’ in live-action Star Trek when his name appeared on a list of exceptional Starfleet captains during an episode of the new Star Trek series, “Discovery.” Despite the “Star Trek Muppet Babies” premise, it’s fair to say that “Counter-Clock Incident” had a good idea or two.
* Ongoing Issues.
Some of the issues with TAS were things that were beyond its control, considering the limited tools and budget of the time (as Trekspert Michael Okuda once said, “Star Trek has always been a low-budget series” in every incarnation). Lower budgets meant using many of the series’ regular cast (James Doohan, Majel Barrett, Nichelle Nichols and even George Takei) as recurring ‘guest’ voices; sometimes leading to characters talking to themselves. It’s a bit jarring at times to hear Uhura talking to another character who sounds just like Nichelle Nichols. But I can ignore this issue just as I do when I listen to audiobooks that are read by a single actor doing multiple character voices. You either accept it and get into the story, or you don’t.
The limited animation is challenging at times (especially to modern viewers who are used to the quality of modern-day Disney/Lucasfilm, Studio Ghibli, or even Warner DC animation). But this was 1973; and all 22 episodes of TAS had to be entirely hand-drawn either by in-house artists or farmed out to overseas animators. This was a good 20 years before practical CGI could be used for television animation. Sometimes TAS characters will appear only as black specks onscreen, or the image will cut to a static reaction shot during a lengthy character monologue, or characters will run against the same backgrounds over and over again. These I blame to both time constraints and production standards of the time. With rare exceptions (such as all-pink tribbles), they rarely impede my overall appreciation for the stories.
The music of TAS is a nagging issue that impacts overall quality the most, in my opinion. Despite the opening riffs used during Kirk’s “Space… the final frontier” narration, TAS doesn’t employ any of TOS’ iconic music (not even the title theme by Alexander Courage). Instead it unwisely uses generic-sounding musical wallpaper created by Filmation gun-for-hire composer Ray Ellis (wisely working under a pseudonym). This is a huge mistake.
* Legacy of The Animated Series.
Despite its flaws, there is a lot to appreciate and even admire about TAS Star Trek. It wisely uses its less-restrained animated format to introduce many creatures and situations that would’ve been impossible (or at the very least extremely challenging) to execute in 1960s live-action, such as multi-limbed alien navigator Lt. Arex (voiced by James Doohan) or the felinoid “Caitian” relief communications officer Lt. M’Ress (voiced with purring affectations by Majel Barrett).
Another member of the Caitian species would later be seen sitting on the Federation council in “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” (1986).
Both characters could be easily done today with advanced makeups or CGI, though successfully animating multi-limbed Arex’s walk might still be challenging today…
TAS “The Practical Joker” also featured the first ‘holodeck’ (generically referred to as a ‘recreation room’) ever seen in Star Trek; a good 14 years ahead of The Next Generation (or at least a full century in Trek time). The fan film series “Star Trek Continues” would also feature TAS’ recreation-room/holodeck as well.
Some of the alien planets/races mentioned in TAS would get a mention or reference in later incarnations of Star Trek, as would certain characters, such as the earlier-referenced Captain Robert April.
The events of Spock’s bullied childhood, depicted in Dorothy Fontana’s outstanding “Yesteryear,” would also be recreated (more or less) in live-action for the big-screen film, “Star Trek” (2009).
If time, money, resources and studio commitment (as well as the slow, painful death of physical media) were not formidable barriers, I would’ve loved to have seen (or someday see?) a blu-ray release of the Star Trek Animated Series with fully updated CGI animation (something akin to the work seen in Star Wars Rebels, an exceptional animated series), as well as a remixed soundtrack featuring original series’ music; replacing the somewhat lackluster Filmation music.
Granted, it’s only a dream but… to quote Commander Kor from TOS’ “Errand Of Mercy” (and TAS’ “The Time Trap”):
“It would’ve been glorious.”
During the 1980s and into the 1990s, I remember some heated debates in fan circles (and even within the Roddenberry estate) over whether TAS was ‘canon’ or not. To me, this is nothing but historical cherry-picking. TAS used almost all of the original series’ actors as voice talent, employed many of the same writers, and often made direct references to key TOS episodes & events. How could it not be ‘real’ Star Trek?
You either accept all of Star Trek, even its occasional goofiness, or you don’t. Personally, I not only accept TAS as ‘legitimate’ Star Trek, I heartily embrace it. It’s as ‘real’ to me as any other Star Trek, live-action or not.
Here’s to 45 years of the first true Star Trek spinoff series. May it continue to live long and prosper…
… and perhaps even gain some new fans.