Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 22, 2006)
Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in! After 10 movies and hundreds of live-action episodes, I thought I was finally done with new Star Trek product. Oh sure, Paramount would put out the occasional “greatest hits” compendium, but those only included programs I’d already seen – there wasn’t anything new to be found.
With Star Trek: The Animated Series, I discover that I’m not finished with unreleased Trek after all. Originally aired in 1973-74, Animated lasted 22 half-hour episodes, all of which appear in this four-DVD set. I’ll examine them in the order broadcast, which is how they appear through the discs.
Beyond the Farthest Star: “Pulled toward an imploded negative star mass, the Enterprise encounters a strange starship inhabited by a shapeless evil being. When the creature takes control of his ship, Captain Kirk (voiced by William Shatner) uses bold tactics to convince the creature that it is being lured to its death.”
Some aspects of Animated make it tough to dig right into the stories. Primarily, the cheap visuals and cheesy music come across as off-putting, though I’m sure I’ll get accustomed to both pretty quickly. I’ll never like those problems, but I’ll probably be able to ignore them.
If “Beyond” is a harbinger of shows to come, it looks like the series will be worth the effort. Although Animated was created for Saturday morning TV, you won’t find any pandering simplicity from this episode. Indeed, “Beyond” really feels like an extension of the original series. It creates an interesting dilemma – one that foreshadows the much-maligned Star Trek V, in fact – and forms a solid show. It even maintains a Trek tradition of sympathetic “villains”, a factor that makes the episode’s ending quite haunting. “Beyond” provides a very good start to the series.
Yesteryear: “Following a venture with the powerful Guardian of Forever, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is removed from history despite being very much present aboard the Enterprise! A distant memory allows the Vulcan to formulate a plan to restore himself to this timeline by pretending to be his own cousin in the past.”
This episode uses an odd timeline discrepancy as an excuse to show Spock’s childhood. That serves the show well, for the episode opens up his history in an interesting manner. The young actor who plays little Spock isn’t very good, but the program’s intriguing tale makes it worthwhile. It’s also nice to hear Mark Lenard reprise his role as Sarek.
One of Our Planets Is Missing: “A massive planet-destroying cloud threatens to destroy every planet in the galaxy. Pulled inside the cloud, the Enterprise crew realizes that this entity is in fact a sentient being. While Kirk speculates that the only way forward may be to kill the creature, Spock employs a more Vulcan approach.”
Trek always stood out from standard sci-fi in its willingness and desire to explore non-aggressive forms of resolution. “Planets” brings that focus to the forefront as it gives us an interesting view of alternate life forms. Though the show gets a little goofy when Spock mind-melds with the cloud, but this remains a generally solid show.
The Lorelei Signal: “In an uncharted region of space where Federation and Klingon vessels have been reported missing every 27 years, the male crewmembers are seduced by hallucinations of beautiful women. With the menfolk rendered unconscious or ineffective by the sirens, Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) assembles an all-female party to take control of the situation.”
I like the concept that Uhura gets something to do for once, but “Lorelei” suffers from too many logic problems. Frankly, the story’s something of a mess, and parts of it make little sense. This is a mediocre episode with only a few shining moments.
More Tribbles, More Troubles: “Returning to the famine-stricken Sherman’s Planet, the Enterprise discovers that trader Cyrano Jones is being held captive by Klingon Captain Koloth. Although Kirk manages to rescue Jones, he discovers that the trader is carrying a new breed of tribbles which makes the troubles caused by the previous breed seem tiny by comparison.”
Animated revisits the original series’ most popular moment in this adventure. Rather than simply reiterate the story from the prior episode, this one goes onto some fun tangents. It doesn’t totally reinvent the Tribble wheel, but it creates a good side story and offers more fun than usual.
The Survivor: “When a long-lost philanthropist is discovered on board a damaged one-man vessel, his fiancée is delighted. However, when the returnee turns out to be a shape-shifting alien who later impersonates Kirk and orders the Enterprise into the dangerous Romulan Neutral Zone, the situation takes a turn for the worse.”
“Survivor” proves entertaining. It provides an interesting new species and a decent little action plot. An emphasis on brains over brawn is good most of the time, but it’s nice to get the occasional show that emphasizes adrenaline.
The Infinite Vulcan: “Visiting a recently discovered planet, Sulu (George Takei) is poisoned by one of its plant-like beings. Investigating, the crew find that the poison was brought to the planet by a scientist whose clone has now taken his place. When the cloned scientist cripples Spock by trying to clone him, Kirk resorts to philosophy.”
Apparently the series’ producers couldn’t afford to hire Walter Koenig as an actor, but he did get the assignment to write this episode. I wish I could report that he offered a classic piece of Trek, but the emphasis of “Vulcan” on plant-people makes it awfully silly at times. That means that the more compelling parts falter due to the program’s inherent goofiness.
The Magicks of Megas-Tu: “Pulled to the center of the galaxy while investigating the theory of creation, the Enterprise encounters a devil-like creature which leads the crew to experiment with magic. Taking exception to this, the inhabitants of the nearby planet Megas-Tu begin a witch hunt.”
At least “Megas-Tu” lets us know that the witch trials of prior centuries had a logical cause! This trippy episode mixes history with fantasy in a clever manner. It’s an unpredictable and entertaining ride. Where else will you see Captain Kirk apparently defend Satan?
Once Upon a Planet: “Returning to the amusement planet, the crew are put in danger when their fantasies take on a violent edge. Although everyone is recalled to Enterprise, Uhura is captured and trapped on the surface. While Kirk and Spock try to trick their way to her, Uhura attempts to outwit the planet’s master computer.”
Another reflection of the Original Series comes here, as the episode echoes “Shore Leave”. Although it acts as another show that allows Uhura to come to the forefront, it doesn’t stand out as terribly memorable in other ways. Despite a few decent moments, this one seems lackluster.
Mudd’s Passion: “Ordered to find and retrieve Harry Mudd, a Federation outlaw, the Enterprise crew discover him selling love potions to miners on the planet Motherlode. When the potion turns out to be a fake, the miners attack the trickster, as does Nurse Chapel (Majel Barrett), with surprising consequences.”
And here comes another throwback show! Harry Mudd actually showed up more than once during the run of the Original Series, a factor that made him unusual. This meant he was a good candidate for resuscitation during the Animated Series, and Harry doesn’t disappoint in this fun show. Like the Tribble programs, “Passion” gives us a playful sense of humor, and it’s nice to see Chapel get a little more to do than usual.
The Terratin Incident: “Exploring a dead supernova, Enterprise discovers a garbled message containing one comprehensible word: ‘terratin’. Shortly thereafter, a strange flash of light paralyzes the entire Enterprise crew and everyone aboard begins to shrink. Although Kirk finds a way to restore himself to full size, he returns to the ship to find his crew gone.”
This series’ animated format allowed for some stories that wouldn’t have worked in the live-action setting. An attempt to make all the actors tiny – or all the sets and props huge – would have been cost-prohibitive for a live-action series, but it’s not a problem at all for animation.
In this case, I’m not sure that’s a good thing. On the positive side, “Terratin” takes a reasonably intelligent approach to its “little Trek” concept; it doesn’t submerge itself in goofy “everything’s so big!” nonsense. However, it has a bit more fun with that side of things than I’d like, a factor that makes the show inconsistent. It ends up as a mediocre episode.
The Time Trap: “In an area of space where many starships have disappeared, the Enterprise is attacked by several Klingon vessels and slips with one of the aggressors through a space-time warp into a dimension where weapons are neutralized and both ships are put on trial.”
12 shows into the series, I must admit that the cheapness of the animation is getting to me. I thought I’d become accustomed to it by now, but instead, I grow tired of the tacky visuals. This reaches a peak here since Klingon Commander Kiri looks exactly like Koloth from the tribble show.
This episode highlights one of my main problems with Animated: the voice acting for new characters. The series used many of the old Trek actors in the other parts; you’ll hear James Doohan about a million times. To generate so many new characters, the performers resort to a lot of goofy voices. They sound like the kind of so-so talent you’d expect from a Saturday morning show, replete with cartoony voices and over-acting. They stand in stark contrast to the more realistic tones used for the Trek original characters.
Once I get past these off-putting nuisances, “Trap” provides a pretty good show. It’s always good to find a confrontation with the Klingons, and it throws the Enterprise into a classic Trek dilemma with a seemingly impossible task. I think this is one of the more interesting Animated programs.
The Ambergris Element: “On a water-based planet, Kirk and Spock are trapped by a sea monster and turned into water breathers. Although their crewmates attempt a rescue, the aquatic aliens panic and sentence the two officers to death, a sentence which can only be avoided by successfully completing momentous tasks.”
Kirk and Spock turn into fish? This is the kind of episode I feared when I went into the Animated Series. It’s not a terrible show, but it seems goofier than most of its brethren, especially when we meet the underwater aliens; they have a very Saturday morning feel to them. This is one of the series’ weaker outings.
The Slaver Weapon: “Delivering a rare artifact of the Slaver culture, a time-arresting stasis box, Spock, Uhura and Sulu are alerted to the presence of a similar object nearby. When the other object turns out to be guarded by hostile Kzinti intent on recovering their box, the Starfleet officers engage in a deadly battle.”
Big cats in space suits? That’s not a pleasing sight for someone who fears the cartoony excesses that marred “Ambergris”. Despite those issues, “Slaver” manages to be interesting. The Kzinti are unusual critters, and they help make a reasonably clever tale a little more intriguing.
The Eye of the Beholder: “Following up on the disappearance of a scientific team near Lactra VII, the Enterprise encounters a species of 20-foot slugs with intelligence that outstrips that of humans and even Vulcans. When the crew are captured by the creatures, they are left with a humbling message to take back to Earth.”
I like “Eye” since it gives us a then-rare show that focuses almost solely on the classic Kirk/Spock/McCoy relationship. Sure, it throws them amongst many bugs and beasties, but we still get the flavor of what made that grouping so interesting. The story itself isn’t exceptional, but it’s workable and keeps us going.
The Jihad: “When a religious artifact that could ignite a galaxy-wide holy war is stolen, Kirk and Spick are briefed to investigate. Their mission leads them to the ‘mad planet’, where they encounter bizarre aggressors, treachery and an unusual request…”
I won’t bother to compare “Jihad” to current world events, though the temptation exists. For the most part, the episode is a basic treasure hunt made more interesting by the presence of some unusual alien personalities. The characters added here prove more interesting than usual, especially with ballsy huntress Lara. She gives the series its only chance for Kirk to get laid, though to match the Saturday morning milieu, he passes on her charms. There’s not much to the show beyond simple adventure, but that proves sufficient.
The Pirates of Orion: “Infected by a terrible disease fatal only to Vulcans, Spock is left with three days to live, the only cure being on a planet at least four days away. Although Starfleet assembles a pony express of starships to get the medicine to Spock in time, Orion pirates attack the couriers.”
One interesting aspects of “Orion” comes from the fact that significant portions take place on another ship. That’s unusual for Animated and offers a nice twist. The episode’s actual plot is nothing surprising or innovative, but it works acceptably well. The show musters enough drama to make it watchable, and I like the depiction of Kirk’s devotion to Spock.
Bem: “On a planet peopled by pre-industrial aborigines, a Starfleet landing party is put at risk by a pacifist Federation observer who has secretly replaced their weapons with non-functioning ones. When the Starfleet officers begin to be captured by the natives, the observer is forced to face the consequences of his idealism.”
If nothing else, the title character of “Bem” stands as one of the series’ more irritating personalities. I kept hoping Kirk would just beat the crap out of the detachable pacifist. I admit that he adds an odd spark to this interesting and unusual show, however.
The Practical Joker: “To avoid an encounter with three Romulan ships, the Enterprise hides in a gaseous energy field. Unfortunately, the field penetrates the ship’s computer, causing it to act like a practical joker. The ensuing chaos proves to be amusing but extremely dangerous.”
“Joker” throws us an intriguing concept and exploits it pretty well. The show musters a number of fun moments and ends with a typically clever solution to the Enterprise’s problem. Toss in the first-ever appearance of a holodeck and you get a solid episode.
Albatross: “Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) is arrested for mass slaughter and imprisoned for his part in creating a plague which almost wiped out the population of an entire planet 19 years earlier. Attempting to prove their comrade’s innocence, Kirk and Spock track down a survivor who manages to infect the entire Enterprise crew with the plague.”
The Original series didn’t often refer to events in the crew’s lives prior to their arrival on the Enterprise, so that makes stories like “Albatross” all the more interesting. Though this episode gets a little cartoony at times, it delves into an interesting mystery. This keeps us involved in the tale and satisfies.
How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth: “Tracking a mysterious probe that is acting suspiciously within Federation space, the Enterprise encounters an alien vessel which transforms itself into an ancient Mayan-Aztec deity. Upset at being forgotten by humans, the deity gives Kirk and his crew a task they must complete successfully or face death.”
What coincidence that the Enterprise introduces an Indian crewmember just when the story needs one! That’s just one problem with “Tooth”. In addition, it suffers from a preachy plot and weak vocal work for Kukulkan. These issues mar the program and make it less effective.
The Counter-Clock Incident: “When the Enterprise latches onto a ship traveling at Warp 36, it is pulled into an alternate universe where time runs backwards. Although the crew befriend an inhabitant of the alternate universe who may be able to help, they also discover that they are growing younger by the minute!”
Another interesting expansion of Trek lore occurs here, as we meet the first captain of the Enterprise. He’s a neat addition and gets a good role, though it’s another big coincidence that he’s there just when most needed. The program itself offers a clever tale that predates Mork from Ork’s backward aging. It also shows advantages of animation, as the format allows the characters to grow young in a much more believable manner than would have occurred with live-action actors. “Incident” ends the Animated Series on a high note.
One can nit-pick Star Trek: The Animated Series, as it probably doesn’t quite compare to the Original Series. The animation is absolutely atrocious – it’s worse than even the usual Saturday morning fare – and other production elements like score and many vocal performances are weak.
That said, there’s a whole lot to like about Animated. It certainly greatly excels what one would expect of Saturday morning cartoons, and the series maintains an almost shocking level of intricacy and intelligence. Clearly those behind it refused to dumb down the product for the kiddies.
In addition to the intelligence of the scripts, I feel very happy that the series didn’t feel compelled to throw out cutesy kiddie elements. There’s no wacky sidekicks or adorable alien pals. Yeah, the non-human crewmembers almost become silly – mostly due to poor vocal performances – but they stay pretty straight and don’t make the series goofy. The programs boast an adherence to the tone and nature of the Original Series.
And the inclusion of so many original cast members really adds to the series. Though their work as additional characters is usually weak, as their main roles, they lend a tone of credibility to the whole project. It’s too bad the producers were too cheap to hire Walter Koenig, but at least they simply dropped the character and didn’t recast Chekov.
Overall, I find much more to like about Star Trek: The Animated Series than to criticize. This is pretty solid Trek and fun to watch.