Wed
Nov 20 2013 11:00am

These Are the Continuing Voyages: 5 Reasons Why Star Trek: The Animated Series Was Awesome

Star Trek: The Animated Series

It weighed on my heart to hear that Lou Scheimer, founder of Filmation Studios, had died this past October. Like a lot of Gen X’ers I grew up part of the Filmation Generation, in thrall to a studio whose output (along with that of Hanna-Barbera) shaped the landscape of my every Saturday morning: Fat Albert, The Adventures of Batman, The New Adventures of Flash Gordon, and yeah, even He-Man, were all required viewing for me.

But as a dyed in the wool Star Trek fan from almost the moment of conception onwards, number one among these was Star Trek: The Animated Series (or “TAS”), which ran for 22 episodes from 1973 to 1974, after the cancellation of the live-action television show in 1969. It was critically well received (being the first Star Trek show to win an Emmy), but has faded a bit from the popular consciousness of the Star Trek franchise (mine included), maybe owing to a perception that a cartoon adaptation must of course be for children.

I recently revisited the series (all 22 episodes are free and legal to watch at startrek.com), and I’m happy to report that not only does it hold up, but it’s actually good. Really good. In a lot of ways it’s the same show as the original series—it’s saying something when the only thing that really seems “off” is the different theme music. As I watched I made a little list of things that surprised me about the series and made it an awesome revisit, and I share that list here.

 

1. It’s definitely not “just for kids.”

The very first episode features an energy being that’s been living in a derelict alien vessel for 300 million years. When it possesses the Enterprise and all seems lost, Kirk—who is not having any of this nonsense on his ship—momentarily wrestles control from the creature and starts piloting the Enterprise right into the system’s sun. No one’s taking the Enterprise away from James T. Kirk. To save itself, the creature flees back to its derelict prison and the Enterprise warps to a safe distance. Over the com, it quietly and piteously begs the Enterprise not to leave it, as it’s been alone, so alone, for an eternity. Kirk ignores it—doesn’t even respond—and coolly starts plotting the ship’s next destination. THE END. This show doesn’t play.

This is not to say it’s all gritty and Frank Miller, just that it’s written as smartly as the original series, and has the same confidence in the intelligence of its audience, whatever their age.

 

Star Trek: The Animated Series

2. It has the same cast as Star Trek: The Original Series. (Well, almost.)

William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, James Doohan, and Majel Barrett all reprise their characters here. Even when minor original-series characters like Sarek, Cyrano Jones, and Harry Mudd show up, they’re all voiced by the original series actors. The presence of the actors who defined the roles gives the hand-drawn characters a fleshly continuity with the live-action series, and it’s easy to think of the TAS as Star Trek season 4.

The only one who’s left out in the cold is Walter Koenig—poor Pavel Chekhov. Apparently when producers tried to omit Uhura and Sulu from the series, Leonard Nimoy threatened to walk out, insisting that they were critical to the diversity of the show. Chekhov got no such reprieve, however, although Koenig did get to write the seventh episode of the series, The Infinite Vulcan.”

 

Star Trek: The Animated Series

3. It’s mostly written by the same writers.

The animated series features some heavyweight writing talent. David GerroldSamuel PeeplesD.C. Fontana, and Paul Schneider all wrote for the original series (and the non-original writers were pretty substantial: Larry Niven even wrote one episode). The series bible is basically the same as that of the original series (and is apparently still in existence, at the Paskow Science Fiction Collection at Samuel Paley Library, Temple University.) The episodes are only 24 minutes long, so the pacing can be a bit hurried, with fewer of the lovely character digressions of the original series, but that also means the scripts are ruthlessly lean and really know how to keep it moving.

And some episodes stand up to anything else in the franchise. “Yesteryear,” where Spock time-travels to the Vulcan of his youth, and meets his mother, father, and younger self, is deeply moving. I dare you to keep a dry eye as Spock returns just in time to watch his beloved childhood pet die. J.J. Abrams paid homage to this episode in his 2009 Star Trek reboot: the scene where young Spock is bullied and belittled by his peers for being bi-racial comes straight out of “Yesteryear.” If you take a chance on only one episode of the animated series, make it this one.

There’s even a tribbles episode! Written by the guy who wrote the original tribbles episode. Even better, the episode is titled “Mo’ Tribbles, Mo’ Troubles” (well, almost), probably the most apt descriptor ever for the tribble lifecycle.

 

Star Trek: The Animated Series

4. It does things the original series could never afford.

In an animated series, the special effects budget is effectively limitless, and TAS totally takes advantage of not being restricted by cheap skin-paint and rubber suit effects to bring you aliens, aliens, aliens. Seriously, not even kidding, there are a lot of weird-looking aliens and creatures in this show, and many of the backgrounds are far beyond anything that could have been built on the original series’ Culver City soundstages.

Like a lot of Filmation series, the animation can look a little low-rent to a modern viewer, but Filmation’s avoidance of the cost of making things “move” is smartly offset by their solid use of voice-overs and sound to camouflage the fact that often nothing’s really happening on screen. The long, slow tracking shot of the Enterprise orbiting a red planet while an impaired, lovesick Scotty croons Welsh ballads (“The Lorelai Signal”) is one of the most sublime moments in the franchise.

Another neat fact about TAS is that it’s the first Trek show to feature the holodeck (here called, in adorable 1970s fashion, the “rec room”). The wondrous room where characters could participate in virtual reality shenanigans was first conceived for the original series, but was deemed unfeasible and far too expensive.

 

Star Trek: The Animated Series

5. It gave secondary characters big moments.

In the original series, most of the episodes revolved entirely around the holy trinity of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, and while supporting roles like Scotty, Sulu, and Uhura did get some character moments, they were comparatively pretty small. Not so the animated series, which gives the supporting cast more moments to shine.

In “The Lorelai Signal”—the best Uhura story there is—a female medical officer confides in Uhura that the bridge crew have been acting strangely because they’ve been compromised by a mind control signal that only affects the male of the species. Uhura’s response? “Assemble every female security officer on board.” “Why?” “Because I’m taking command of this ship.” And Uhura grabs some phasers and seizes command of the Enterprise, and she takes care of business, and it’s awesome. I mean, right? How could it not be. Hashtag eff yeah Lieutenant Uhura.

 

Live long and you know what. And if you’re a fan of the original series, maybe give this one a shot.


David Moran would pay cash money to watch a show or movie about Uhura or Sulu as starship captains, because those short bits in Star Trek VI weren’t enough. Check him out on Twitter or Tumblr.

19 comments
Kit Case
1. wiredog
I remember watching it when I was 8 or 9, about the same time I discovered ToS.

The novelizations by Alan Dean Foster were pretty good too. Though I have to admit I haven't read them since I was in middle school, back when they were first published.
Church Tucker
2. Church
Love these.

See also the two animated episodes put together by the Starship Farragut folks and NEO f/x.
Christopher Bennett
3. ChristopherLBennett
Great article. There are so many myths that exist today about TAS, such as:

1) It was aimed at kids: No. As revealed in Lou Scheimer: Creating the Filmation Generation by Scheimer and Andy Mangels, the show was actually intended -- and marketed -- as the first Saturday morning animated series geared toward adult audiences. While the sex and violence were relatively dialed back from the live-action series, it was otherwise written on the same level as the original show. Yes, it had some goofy ideas here and there, but so did TOS. A giant Spock clone is no worse than a giant Greek god or a giant black cat.

2) It's no longer considered part of the canon: No. Back in 1989, after Filmation had been dismantled and the ownership of its shows was up in the air, Roddenberry issued a memo distancing the ongoing live-action canon from TAS; but then Roddenberry died and Paramount secured full ownership of TAS, so that policy ceased to apply. Ever since, there have been quite a few references to elements of TAS in the canonical shows -- for instance, DS9 adopted Klothos as the name of Kor's ship. And Kirk's middle name Tiberius was first established in TAS. The tie-in novels and comics are free to reference TAS, and it's counted on StarTrek.com and the "canon-only" Memory Alpha Wiki as being equal in status to live-action Trek. So TAS was declared non-canonical briefly, but that was over two decades ago and it's no longer binding. True, a few of its episodes have been contradicted by later productions, but so have some live-action episodes and films. For instance, both TAS: "The Magicks of Megas-tu" and the film The Final Frontier assume the center of the galaxy can be reached quickly, but the 24th-century shows portrayed it as a journey that would take decades without superadvanced propulsion (see TNG: "The Nth Degree," for example). So there are bits and pieces of TAS that are no longer considered canonical, but the same goes for bits and pieces of other Trek series (e.g. TOS: "The Alternative Factor" and its bizarre portrayal of antimatter, and Voyager: "Threshold," whose own writer disowned it as apocryphal).

3) The animation was bad for its day: No. While it's well below the modern state of the art, it was about par for the course for early-'70s Saturday morning TV animation. Filmation's stock system -- the reuse of standard character poses and movements -- freed them up to devote more of their limited time and resources to creating the beautiful background paintings and designs, and actually achieve more for their limited budget than they otherwise could. The stuff that Hanna-Barbera was doing at the same time had somewhat more variety and movement, but was much more sloppy and error-laden. TAS would've been one of the best-looking shows on Saturday morning at the time.
Phil Duff
4. Phil Duff
David: You make a reference to the Culver City sound stages, but all of the regular production episodes of 'Star Trek' were filmed at Desilu which is now the Paramount lot in Hollywood.
Only the pilots 'The Cage' and 'Where No Man Has Gone Before' were filmed at Culver City.
Edward German
5. Captain48
Great article! My first ever esposure to the Trek universe was thur TAS. I wacthed when it was brodcasted back in the 70's and watched it on reruns after it went off the network. I realy love it when I was a kid. I would not see an ep of TOS untill 3 years latter. I do agree the TAS was a great series and deserves more reconishiion that it has gotton. Yes the amimation was not up to stuff by todays standards but it was all they had to use back then. I thought the amimation was realy cool for its time and I loved the incental music in the show, it as used in other Filmation show as stock music. I have not seen it recently maybe I need to got to the website and take a look.
Mouldy Squid
6. Mouldy_Squid
In one of those weird twists of coincidence, I just finished a long delayed rewatch of TAS just last week. I hadn't seen it since I was a kid, and I was actually quite surprised at the quality of the writing and voice acting. While the animation is certainly dated, I do remember it being one of the best looking cartoons when I was young.

ST:TAS deserves more respect than it gets.
Phil Duff
7. Eugene R.
It took me a little time getting used to having a 3-armed alien navigator (Mr. Arex) sitting where Chekhov did, but I got over it (especially after seeing how cute his younger self looked in "The Counter-Clock Incident"). And I am happy to read that "TAS" is considered canon Trek, even if it is a bit forgotten. Just remind fellow Trekkies/Trekkers where "Tiberius" came from and how they know it's Kirk's middle name, as ChristopherLBennett (@3) points out.
Christopher Bennett
8. ChristopherLBennett
@4: That's right. The TOS soundstages, Desilu's Stages 9 and 10, are now designated Paramount Stages 31 and 32.

@5: I think I discovered TAS only a couple of weeks after I discovered TOS, since that happened while TAS was still in its network run. So as far as I was concerned, Trek was simultaneously a live-action and animated show, and I didn't make much of a distinction between them.
Sky Thibedeau
9. SkylarkThibedeau
TAS introduces the Caitians like Lt. M'ress who my or may not made an appearance with Kirk in TSID. It also caused Larry Niven to be threatened by his publisher for IP violations for using the K'Zinti in the Slaver Weapon.

Lots of fun.

@2 I like the Farragut episodes it follows the same Filmation Animation Techniques. I hear the same team is going to have a new project based on a Federation Dreadnaught from the 70's technical manual next.
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
10. hoopmanjh
4a. Not just aliens that the original series could never afford -- it also has some truly epic alien spaceships and the like that could never have been done in live action.

I was really disappointed that the Abrams reboot didn't include the alien bridge officer (name escapes me) who replaced Chekov in TAS.
Christopher Bennett
11. ChristopherLBennett
@9: The felinoid aliens seen in the Federation Council chambers in The Voyage Home were intended behind-the-scenes to be Caitians, although they didn't have manes like M'Ress. Perhaps Caitians are the inverse of lions in that only the females are maned.
Phil Duff
12. Steven Jacques Roby
Love TAS enough to have bought the whole series on VHS and again on DVD. It has a couple of problems, though: the colour-blind producer who made some very odd choices, and the cast recording their lines separately and occasionally pronouncing words very differently. Overall, though, still a must for classic Trek fans.
David Moran
13. David Moran
3. ChristopherLBennett

You mention a few things I wish I had worked into the article! I love that TAS invented "Tiberius".

4. Phil Duff

HUH! I stand corrected.
David Moran
14. David Moran
5. Captain48

If you're on the fence about re-watching, you should do it! It's totally rewarding.

10. hoopmanjh

Oh yeah, uh, that cat lady? I can't remember her name either.
Christopher Bennett
15. ChristopherLBennett
@10 & 14: The three-armed navigator who replaced Chekov was Lt. Arex (voice of James Doohan), an Edoan (though the species name was never used onscreen, modern Trek has retconned it to "Edosian," and for some reason Peter David's novels referred to Arex as a "Triexian"). The felinoid communications officer was Lt. M'Ress (Majel Barrett), a Caitian. (I don't think her species name was mentioned onscreen either, but it's somehow been more universally accepted than "Edoan").
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
16. hoopmanjh
@14 & 15 -- Yeah, I was thinking of Lt. Arex -- I'd love to see them CGI him into a future movie. There was someone onscreen in the first Abrams Trek who almost looked similar, but wasn't quite. And I'd also be happy to see M'Ress, now that I'm reminded of her, although I'm pretty sure I'd keep flashing on the cat nurses from recent Doctor Who episodes.
Phil Duff
17. Lois Fundis
Yes. The Star Trek animated series never struck me as aimed at kids, but mostly at those of us who loved the original series, although it may have been toned down a little for the Saturday morning demographic. (Possibly the TV Powers That Were thought the original series, being that weird science-fiction stuff, was for kids, despite the fact it had been on late in the evenings.) The plots were great, not silly like most of the other Saturday morning shows of the day! And the animation was average for that period, maybe better -- much less "cartoony" (see my P.S. below) -- and DEFINITELY allowed them to tackle possibilities that live-action shows then (and even to a considerable extent now, for weekly TV at least) could not!

Overall, I'm trying to remember back to those long-ago days and the other Saturday morning series of the era that come to mind are "The Beatles" (animation more cartoony, very goofy plots, NOT the "original cast" -- but funny and the music was great, being of course recordings by "the original cast"!) and "George of the Jungle" (very different and even more cartoony animation, silly but hilarious).

NOTE: By "cartoony" I mean the people and backgrounds were less realistic-looking. Compare in comic pages "Mary Worth" to "Dilbert". The animated Trek was much more realistic-looking than many of the other animated series of its day.
Christopher Bennett
18. ChristopherLBennett
@17: Well, my recollection was that adventure cartoons of the day, like TAS, Lassie's Rescue Rangers, Jonny Quest, Super Friends, and the like used fairly naturalistic character designs, while the comedies like The Flintstones, The Archies, Fat Albert, and the like used more caricatured designs. It wasn't until Batman: The Animated Series in the '90s that we began to see caricatured and stylized character designs used for adventure shows.
Edward German
19. Captain48
14.David Moran I would like to watch TAS again sometime in the future, just very busy with other things right now and there are so many things on the intrernet theses days. Yes you are right, it is diffently worth a rewatch.

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