Star Trek: The Original Series Rewatch

Star Trek The Original Series Rewatch: “Once Upon a Planet”

“Once Upon a Planet”
Written by Chuck Menville & Len Janson
Directed by Hal Sutherland
Animated Season 1, Episode 9
Production episode 22017
Original air date: November 3, 1973
Stardate: 5591.2

Captain’s log. The Enterprise returns to the shore-leave planet for some, well, shore leave. McCoy, Sulu, and Uhura beam down, where they reminisce about their last trip—and even see the White Rabbit and Alice again.

Uhura hangs out by a lake and sings, while Sulu checks out the plants, and McCoy finds himself at a Southern plantation mansion. But then the Queen of Hearts shows up and declares, “Off with his head!” and he’s attacked. He calls for an emergency beam-out, and he and Sulu are beamed back—but Uhura’s communicator is taken by a drone.

Uhura has been taken to a control center, where the computer says Uhura is enslaved by the Enterprise. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Sulu beam down, and the computer declares to Uhura that it doesn’t need any more hostages so it will turn them off.

Star Trek: The Animated Series, Once Upon A Planet

The landing party can’t locate Uhura, and they lose contact with the Enterprise as well. Sulu finds the Keeper’s tomb—apparently he’s died, leaving that computer in charge. On the Enterprise, the transporter is no longer functioning and they can’t get the shuttle bay doors open—and then the ship just leaves orbit on its own. Scotty and Arex realize that the computer on the planet is trying to figure out how to take control of the Enterprise.

Sulu thinks that wandering is a waste of time, and McCoy grumbles asking what he wants, a sign pointing the way? Then signs pointing the way show up—as do pterodactyls and a giant cat.

Kirk recalls that McCoy (and Martine, though she isn’t mentioned) was mortally wounded last time and brought to an underground chamber and healed. So McCoy gives Spock a shot that renders him unconscious and gives him a bad color in the hopes that the planet will heal him the way it did McCoy and Martine. Sure enough, the same drone that stole Uhura’s communicator makes off with Spock. Kirk is able to dive in after it, but McCoy and Sulu remain trapped on the surface, where they are immediately chased by a two-headed dragon.

Star Trek: The Animated Series, Once Upon A Planet

Spock is brought underground and recovers, and he and Kirk are brought to the computer room along with Uhura. The computer explains that it provided amusement for the “sky-machines” that came by, but it has grown and evolved to the point where it no longer wants to do that, and since the Keeper is now dead, it can do what it wants.

The computer has killed the gravity on the Enterprise, and Scotty is trying to restore it, only to discover that a new ship’s computer is being constructed.

Kirk, Spock, and Uhura explain that people built starships; the computer doesn’t get it, since it thinks that machines are superior to humans, and there must be other machines it can meet, since they must rule the galaxy. They explain that this isn’t the case, and it can learn more by having the galaxy come to it. For some reason, it agrees, but only if it can continue to have philosophical discussions about life, the universe, and everything. Spock takes on that duty while Kirk tells M’Ress that shore parties can come back down again.

Star Trek: The Animated Series, Once Upon A Planet

Meanwhile, Sulu and McCoy are having a picnic with Alice, the White Rabbit, and the two-headed dragon…

Can’t we just reverse the polarity? The planetary computer has achieved a form of sentience—it certainly has evolved to the point where it has wants and desires beyond its original programming.

Fascinating. Spock volunteers to be the one who pretends to be injured in order to be brought below the surface because he is stronger than the others, plus he can mess with the computer. Surprisingly, nobody argues the point—McCoy even agrees with him!

I’m a doctor not an escalator. McCoy gets to revisit his first trip to the planet by summoning Alice and the White Rabbit, then almost gets his head cut off, fakes Spock’s death, and gets chased by pterodactyls, giant cats, and a two-headed dragon. Busy episode…

Ahead warp one, aye. Sulu is the one who finds the Keeper’s tomb, and also reminisces about the last trip quite a lot.

Star Trek: The Animated Series, Once Upon A Planet

Hailing frequencies open. Uhura is taken hostage by the computer, and she tries and fails to convince it not to hurt anyone. Meanwhile, M’Ress handles all communications duties, since Uhura is on the planet the whole time. (This is a nice change from “Shore Leave,” in which she was the only speaking part who didn’t get to beam down…)

I cannot change the laws of physics! Scotty has to helplessly watch as the planetary computer takes over the Enterprise.

Forewarned is three-armed. Arex is able to temporarily stave off the computer’s takeover by locking the navigational controls into manual.

Channel open.

“Was anyone considering the subject of pterodactyls?”

–Spock asking a question he likely never had to ask before.

Star Trek: The Animated Series, Once Upon A Planet

Welcome aboard. Majel Barrett does the voices of M’Ress and the Queen of Hearts, Nichelle Nichols is Uhura and Alice, and George Takei is Sulu. James Doohan does Scotty, the computer, the White Rabbit, and Arex. An unknown voice does Gabler, the engineer Scotty contacts when the gravity goes out (it might be Doohan, it might not).

Trivial matters: This episode is a sequel to “Shore Leave.” Theodore Sturgeon had pitched a sequel to the episode when the live-action show was on the air, but it was never developed. It’s not clear how much, if any, of the sequel pitch that writers Chuck Menville & Len Janson used in this story.

The White Rabbit and Alice are seen a second time at the beginning and end of the episode, though they are the only images from the previous trip that are seen this time. McCoy and Kirk do discuss McCoy’s “death” at the hands of an armored knight.

Star Trek: The Animated Series, Once Upon A Planet

Menville will go on to write “The Practical Joker.” Together, Menville & Janson wrote hundreds of scripts for various animated series and movies, including the stop-motion short film Stop, Look, and Listen, for which they were nominated for an Academy Award in 1968.

The giant cat that menaces the landing party is very much like the one that menaced the landing party in “Catspaw.” Only much more convincing.

To boldly go. “Off with his head!” The concept to this sequel is a good one. Yes, it’s a well Trek has dipped into many times before and since, from Landru and Ruk’s people and Mudd’s robots to Data and the Moriarty hologram and the EMH, to wit, the artificial intelligence that goes beyond its programming to become sentient.

Star Trek: The Animated Series, Once Upon A Planet

Unfortunately, it suffers from several difficulties, not the least being a similar one to that of “More Tribbles, More Troubles,” to wit, too many callbacks to the first episode without doing enough that’s different. In both this episode and “Shore Leave,” the planet drives them batty, but since they know the planet’s secret, this time it has to be a malfunction.

On top of that, the pacing in the episode is egregious. If I hadn’t known that Menville and Janson were animation writing veterans, I would have pegged them for newbies who didn’t know their way around a half-hour animated action-adventure show, because so many parts of this episode drag needlessly, from the too-long establishing shot of the planet before Sulu, McCoy, and Uhura beam down to the even-more-too-long sequences with the Enterprise malfunctions. (It doesn’t help that the episode grinds to a halt every time M’Ress speaks, since Majel Barrett has her talk so slowly that she sounds like she’s doped up on Quaaludes, plus every line of dialogue must be followed by a purr.)

Finally, while the notion of a computer that thinks that computers must be the dominant life form is a good one, and the computer’s ranting about slaves to sky machines and such is delightful, the actual rationale behind the computer’s actions is provided in the most tiresome of expository lumps, followed by the second-least convincing a computer of its illogic by Jim Kirk (surpassed only by “The Return of the Archons“). The argument provided by Kirk, Spock, and Uhura is weak and incomplete and specious and the computer just buys it because the episode is running out of time.

Star Trek: The Animated Series, Once Upon A Planet

There are fun moments here—I love the pterodactyls and the much-more-convincing giant cat and the two-headed dragon, and seeing the Queen of Hearts try to behead McCoy is hilarious—but the episode doesn’t hold together nearly as well as it should. Kinda like the episode it’s a sequel to, come to think of it…

Warp factor rating: 4

Next week:Mudd’s Passion

Keith R.A. DeCandido will have short stories in several 2017 anthologies: Baker Street Irregulars (featuring alternative Sherlock Holmes tales) in March, Aliens: Bug Hunt in April, Nights of the Living Dead (co-edited by George Romero) in July, and both TV Land: Summer Programming and Joe Ledger: Unstoppable in October.


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