Saturday, June 08, 2013

Star Trek: The Animated Series

I meant to sit and revisit this series a long time back, between my posts about Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation, so it kind of fell by the wayside for a little while. I honestly didn't remember a lot about this series, and even though it had relatively few episodes, I knew I hadn't seen every one. My only real experiences with the show were through a brief period of time in the 80s when Nickelodeon aired it on Saturday mornings, and reading Alan Dean Foster's novelizations in the Star Trek Log series (books my Mom had; she also had James Blish's novelizations of the original series). "Yesteryear," being the one episode I remember really, really liking, was the only one I'd seen since I was 10. And since this was the only Star Trek series left that I had yet to see all of, I figured it was time to sit down and take a look at it. After this, I'm pretty well caught up.

The series, of course, has a reputation for being pretty cheap, and I know it's not really well-regarded. I'll discuss my impressions of the season as a whole after I go through the initial episodes, though. Of course, all of the cast came back, except Walter Koenig as Chekov (a cost-saving measure, which also saw James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, Majel Barrett and sometimes George Takei doing many of the guest voices), and the show's very much in the vein of TOS, though the episodes are a half-hour long.

The episodes:

1. Beyond the Farthest Star (my rating: 3/5)
It's neat to see this show going right away for big, alien sights that would have been impossible to realize in live action at the time. One of the key differences between TAS and TOS is that the stories will feature more aliens and more space phenomena that give the Trek universe a more diverse and weird (in the old-fashioned pulp sci-fi sense) feel. I really, really like that weirdness. The story itself, involving an ancient derelict pod ship and one of the many malevolent entities floating around out there, is pretty good, thought the entity taking over the ship was a bit silly (but in a very Gene Roddenberry sort of way--after the third TOS season it's nice having his presence back, and Dorothy Fontana's especially). I like the innovation of the crew having life support belts, enabling them to survive in an alien environment without having to put bulky suits on.

2. Yesteryear (5/5)
I've mentioned before, particularly in my posts about TOS and Enterprise, that I love this episode and this view of Vulcan. This one really got to me when I was a kid, because of the death of Spock's childhood pet. People always talk about canon issues with this show (I'll talk about that later, too), but all of this stuff about Spock's childhood and the bullying and the kahs-wan has really worked its way into canon. It's a very emotional episode, though, very sensitive about the death of a pet, and it's wonderful that Mark Lenard played Sarek again.

It also features Aleek-oom, the Aurelian scientist, who is one of the coolest aliens ever.

That's pretty fuckin' neat-o.

3. One of Our Planets Is Missing (3/5)
Already back to the sentient clouds in space. Some of the drama is pretty good, but it hasn't dated incredibly well. Lots of Trek fallbacks, like sentient clouds in space. Scotty has a lot to do in this one, and I have to say, Scotty's alright, but going through the show again and everything, I have to admit he's pretty incidental to my enjoyment of Star Trek. I don't hate the guy, I just don't care about him too much.

4. The Lorelei Signal (2/5)
I'm a little torn on this one, because it falls back on some of the sexism you see in a lot of science fiction, and the men rapidly aging again (like in "The Deadly Years") is just as lame in animation as it is in live action, but I really love the bit where Lt. Uhura takes command of the ship in order to save everyone. That was just awesome. But the plot is a little "Spock's Brain."

5. More Tribbles, More Troubles (4/5)
I still think "The Trouble with Tribbles" was a cute-but-overvalued episode. I'm not sure it needed a sequel, but it was... well, it was cute. The big super-tribbles were funny, and I enjoyed Stanley Adams as Cyrano Jones again. I have to ask, though: after two starvations now, who the hell wants to live on Sherman's Planet?

6. The Survivor (3/5)
The Enterprise makes contact with the missing leader of a scientific expedition, and you can tell something's not above-board because he dresses like he's in a Hammer period piece and he's going to one of those types of parties.
He does turn out to be an alien taking the man's identity to study humans, but I really like the way they resolve the ending with sensitivity and curiosity. It was a surprising, thoughtful way to end it.

7. The Infinite Vulcan (3/5)
Pretty neat story involving plant people and a giant Spock. Skiffy weirdness from episode writer Walter Koening, who went from this to write for Land of the Lost (including my favorite episode of Land of the Lost, which introduces Enik, my favorite character from Land of the Lost).

8. The Magicks of Megas-tu (5/5)
This is my second favorite episode of the entire series. At first it seems like another one of those silly episodes where a Q/Trelane type character comes in and is just a gadfly doing magic at inappropriate times to be menacing. But this episode goes so much further, first exploring the idea of magic as a scientific energy, and then doing the whole Roddenberry religious exploration number, but not in a tiresome way. This episode surprised me the whole way through with its discussions of ethics and science and its attempts to reconcile the fantastic with the rational. Great stuff.

9. Once Upon a Planet (4/5)
The "Shore Leave" planet goes crazy again. It's not a bad episode at all, but sometimes this series relies a little too much on doing sequels to earlier episodes. Uhura is quite good in this one. Kirk talks down another computer here, but it works. And I like Spock very much in this episode. Spock is pretty much my favorite fictional character of all time.

10. Mudd's Passion (4/5)
Well, you knew they'd bring him back, too (and Roger C. Carmel does the voice, which makes me happy). This episode is pretty delightful, and written by Stephen Kandel, who wrote the other Mudd episodes. Majel Barrett has a lot to do as Christine Chapel in this episode. Actually, this is the last time the Spock/Chapel relationship ever gets explored. She must have gotten over him after the events of this episode.

Love it.

11. The Terratin Incident (2/5)
I actually forgot about this episode until I looked it up online. It's the one where everybody starts shrinking. I guess it's not my favorite.

12. The Time Trap (4/5)
Commander Kor really would have made the archenemy for Captain Kirk. It's a shame they could never get John Colicos back until Deep Space Nine (even here he's voiced by James Doohan). I like this episode, where Kor and Kirk and their crews have to work together to get out of another space anomaly, this one a vortex that traps the two ships in a dimension with no time. Lots of interesting aliens in this one. We don't see the Klingons again in the series, unfortunately.

13. The Ambergris Element (3/5)
I love all of the underwater stuff with the Aquans of Argo (and the sea monster, of course). That's the kind of cool adventure stuff they couldn't do in live action. It's such a different environment for Star Trek. This is another episode where Kirk's physiology is changed. I hope Starfleet has a really great healthcare plan, because he's always getting aged or turned into something. They should explore more often what that stuff does to the human body.

(An aside: I wonder how long Captain Kirk could have lived. I was thinking about this recently when I watched the 2009 Star Trek movie and Scotty mentions Admiral Archer. By that time, Jonathan Archer would have had to have been 145 years old, but with time dilation, I suppose that's possible, the way everyone keeps warping around. I'd like to see someone comment a little more on how humans really age in the Star Trek universe if they work in space as much as people on exploration missions seem to. Does this mean Kirk would have lived to be 200 or more? I never really considered that.)

14. The Slaver Weapon (2/5)
I just got a little bored with this one and layering on all of the Larry Niven Man-Kzin stuff. The Kzinti were kind of lame.

15. The Eye of the Beholder (3/5)
Okay, the Lactrans were also kind of lame, but they were so weird and different that I didn't really care. Another skiffy cliche (human zoo), but still kind of a neat episode.

16. The Jihad (4/5)
Sort of Mission: Impossible with Kirk and Spock and a diverse group of aliens attempting to recover a religious relic that could ignite a holy war. Pretty good action episode, but where it really shines is in its sensitive, ethical treatment of mental illness and even religious zealotry. I always like to see science fiction stories--and any stories, really--come down on the side of understanding and reaching out with empathy rather than moral judgment. It's not a bad end to the season.

Overall, I found the animated series involving, consistent, and engrossing. I know this series isn't thought fondly of, but I think it needs to be reassessed. I know there are people, too, who dismiss it because it's not strictly canon, but you've probably been reading my blog long enough to know that I don't really give a hang about what's strictly canon and what isn't. As fans, we create our own personal canon, especially with something like Star Trek, which has had so many forays into novels and comic books and other media that you can sort of pick and choose what elements you like and make them part of what you love about Star Trek. For me, this (and the following season) are combined (along with some decent comic books I've read) the fourth year of the Enterprise's five-year mission. Frankly, I liked this a lot better than the third season of the original series.

Is the animation cheap? You can tell it's on a budget, and there are many well-documented production errors. But on the whole, those are inconsequential. What matters is that the stories are there. The scripts are generally very good, and the actors are committed to reprising their roles and really acting their parts. The animation is interesting, and offers a different look for Star Trek that doesn't wildly conflict with what's been established. It really feels like Star Trek, end of story.

This series also fulfills a lot of the desires I always have in Star Trek for more biodiversity and just more general weirdness. I love the alien crewmembers, like M'Ress and the helmsman, Arex.

This guy's fantastic. (In some of the IDW comics, they made him a telepath and gave him an interesting mentor-student relationship with Spock.) I honestly didn't miss Chekov. If I'm ambivalent towards Scotty, I just flat out don't care for Chekov. I like Arex better. I wish we'd gotten to see him play a more central role occasionally.

I also wish they'd give Christine Chapel more to do. It's a little bit annoying to me how we've got this reboot/alternate universe and they shove in Chekov and don't even think about finding a new Chapel (reducing her instead to a throwaway line in the new movie). Like, Chapel's not integral, but Chekov somehow is? Well, not to me. But that's me. That's my personal Star Trek canon. Honestly, I find Ilia more interesting than Chekov.

That's part of being a fan.

I'll have the short second season up tomorrow or more likely Monday.

Seriously, if you're a Trekker and you haven't given this series a chance, check out a couple of episodes.


M. D. Jackson said...

Yeah, completely agree with your assessment (a really good, BTW) of this series. It does not get the respect or the attention it deserves.

Filmation did animation on the cheap. According to David Gerrold the guy who chose the colors for the series was, in fact, color blind!

david_b said...

That's correct.. That's why the Klingon uniforms looked purple-ish..

As for the animation, it's quite good. I like it more for the subtle style it invokes when it's cutting corners, such as the extensive use of black silhouette instead of painting miniature figures.

This technique reportedly stretched the animation budget far enough to incorporate ALL the lush colorful planetside backgrounds and monsters, and it worked quite effectively.

An overall excellent entry into the franchise. Canon..? YES, but for those naysayers.., who really cares.

(Sure beats most of Original Trek's 3rd season, Next Gen's 2nd season, etc, etc..)

GarrettCRW said...

Forgive the necro-posting, but Filmation's animation wasn't so much "cheap" as it was "not outsourced". The stock footage, the silhouettes, all of that was because Lou Scheimer utterly refused to cheap out and send the show to Australia (which is where The New Scooby-Doo Movies and Super Friends, both contemporaries of TAS, were at least partially animated).

The funny thing is that this show (in addition to the various Tarzan/Batman/Zorro/Lone Ranger and the Super 7 series and Flash Gordon) helped build a solid adult fan base for Filmation that held into the '80s (JMS-yes, *that* JMS-went to WorldCon in 1984 and found a lot of fans of He-Man and Filmation in general). As soon as L'Oreal shut the place down and the Filmation library dropped off the air (which led to most of it only being sold nowadays in time-compressed form), the hate started to grow, largely as bitter ex-employees like Kricfalusi decided to slag the studio and Lou Scheimer.