Warp Factor Silly, Mr Sulu! Star Trek: The Animated Series Review


Let’s face it; we’re all Star Trek fans here. Well, okay, maybe not the Star Wars fans in the back, but most of us either love Star Trek or at least have gleaned enough about it from popular culture to know the basics of the classic original series: Kirk, Spock, McCoy, the Enterprise. But did you know there was an animated series as well?

Produced by Filmation and running from 1973-75, Star Trek: The Animated Series (aka ST:TAS or just Star Trek as it was called at the time) is a bit of an enigma in the Star Trek canon… namely, no one can agree on whether it IS canon or not. Gene Roddenberry stated that it was not supposed to be canon, and yet it introduced many elements that are considered canon by screenwriters, novelists and fans to this day: Kirk’s middle name, the Vulcan city ShiKahr, the first appearance of the holodeck, personal force fields, Spock’s mother’s maiden name, etc. A lot of Trek lore we take for granted comes from this series. But what is the series itself actually like?

Fascinating.”

Let’s give credit where credit is due; for all its strengths AND flaws, Star Trek: The Animated Series is not “Star Trek In Name Only.” In fact, it remains doggedly faithful to everything that was good and bad about the original, with a few new touches of its own. The original cast is (almost) all there, with the exception of Chekhov (the producers did not have enough money to hire everyone and decided to cut Walter Koenig). Added to the regular cast are Lieutenant Arex, a three-armed Edosian navigator and Lieutenant M’Ress, a purring catwoman who sometimes fills in for Uhura on communications.

Like the original series, the episode quality is a mixed bag, with some truly outstanding works and some that seem like they got crapped out by Spock’s Brain. On one end of the spectrum, we have Yesteryear, one of the most celebrated and widely-referenced episodes in the run. It focuses on Spock having to travel back in time (via a certain Guardian on the Edge of Forever) and save his child self from an untimely end. What sounds like a silly premise ends up having real emotional weight thanks to longtime Star Trek writer D.C. Fontana. The scenes between Sarek and Spock (both versions) are poignant and really evoke the bittersweet nature of their relationship as well as how Spock has grown over time. Another really interesting episode, The Slaver Weapon, was actually written by Larry Niven and adapted almost exactly from one of his own short stories. The influence is clear, as it has all the hallmarks of a classic sci-fi story: references to advanced precursors that are only hinted at, technology that must be “puzzled out” by intuition and logic rather than a computer, and aliens who must be dealt with on an entirely different cultural level, acting in ways that humans do not understand. Other episodes refer to old favorites from the original series, like Mudd’s Passion (featuring what is probably THE most hilariously slash-tastic Kirk/Spock scene ever) and of course, More Tribble More Troubles, featuring the triumphant return of Cyrano Jones, the most adorable and neatest carnivore ever, and of course giant tribbles. There are plenty of other interesting episodes as well, from the one about an alien zoo to the one where Uhura, at long last, gets a chance at commanding the Enterprise.

On the other hand, we have truly terrible episodes like The Infinite Vulcan (intelligent plant people make a giant Spock!) and Bem (the most obnoxious alien diplomat in the galaxy messes around with primitive lizard men). And there are a host of other episodes that, while not exactly horrible, veer a bit too far into the goofy. The Enterprise crew starts shrinking! They start aging backwards and turn into kids! The computer becomes a practical joker! Spock and Kirk learn magic and defend Satan against alien villagers from Salem (I swear to god I’m not making this up)! Still, it all manages to stay within the realm of enjoyably cheesy.

The one thing almost all the episodes, good and bad, suffer from is lack of time and over-padding. A lot of the stories would be better developed if they had a full hour episode to devote to the narrative, rather than just 22 minutes. It’s made worse by the fact that, in order to save budget on animation, a lot of padding is added to draw out the story while still reusing animation, resulting in random scenes of running or fighting in place of a more gradual buildup of tension. I was left at the end of many episodes with the sense that I had just seen a strong and interesting story skeleton that needed to be built on. Still, some series can’t even boast a good skeleton, so Star Trek is already ahead of the curve. And if nothing else, it’s cool to see all the interesting tech and concepts they played with.

I’m a Doctor, Not a Voice Actor!

Casting live-action actors as voice actors for a cartoon can often be an exercise fraught with peril (not to mention a topic for a future anime industry reality check column!). Luckily, ST:TAS does quite well on this front, with all our favorite actors on fine form as our intrepid crew. Of course, it probably helps that they are playing the same characters as the television series, ensuring that they are all comfortable playing their animated selves as well. Their delivery is decent and there’s very little to complain about, at least as far as the main cast goes. Other classic Star Trek characters like Cyrano Jones, Harry Mudd and Sarek also feature their original actors and do a wonderful job of making the series feel like a genuine extension of the Star Trek franchise rather than just a cheap knockoff.

Having said that, there is a bit too much of a good thing. It seems that, having spent their budget on landing the full cast, they decided to get their money’s worth and ended up casting them in almost every role in the series. If you want to enjoy a fun drinking game with friends (and end up with cirrhosis of the liver), try a game of Spot the Scotty, i.e. Take a drink every time James Doohan voices a character. You will be passed out in a few episodes. The female characters are even worse, as they are all voiced by either Nichelle Nichols or Majel Barrett. To be fair, both actresses do their best to give different qualities and sounds to their voices, switching from beautiful sirens to catgirls to old women, but their voices are so distinctive that it’s nearly impossible to cover them up, and it’s really noticeable. One episode in particular had Nichols playing no fewer than three women in the same scene: Uhura, an elderly ex-Starfleet officer and a random alien woman. Talk about talking to yourself!

It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before, Keptin.”

Like its famous ancestor, ST:TAS suffers from a budget so low you couldn’t use it to pay for a cup of coffee, and it shows. As anyone has seen He-Man, She-Ra, or other Filmation titles can attest, these guys are masters at reusing stock animation. By the end of 22 episodes, you will have seen the following sequences so many times they’ll be burned into your eyeballs:

  • Kirk (or other male crew member) running/lunging forwards with elbows out akimbo
  • Kirk (or other male crew member) running across random alien landscape, back ramrod straight
  • Spock hunched over his viewfinder, head swivelling back and forth as he talks to Kirk
  • Uhura with her dang iPod, hand to ear, eyes looking back and forth
  • etc etc

Having said that, ST:TAS does have one thing that blows TOS out of the water: some truly creative designs for ships, aliens and planets. Whereas TOS’s budget meant nothing but blocky “simple” spaceships and human-looking aliens with rubber foreheads, TAS artists were free to draw whatever weird and wonderful thing they pleased, budget be damned. The first episode, Beyond the Farthest Star, is a perfect example of this, with an amazing organic ship that looks like a mix between an insect hive, a thorny bramble and a spray of coral and seaweed. We also see a great, if goofy, mix of aliens that we’ve never seen before, including tall and statuesque birdmen, slug-like creatures with huge trunks, short insectoids and several varieties of cat-like aliens. It makes the Star Trek universe feel much more diverse than the usual parade of human lookalikes (Horta notwithstanding)

Any Sign of Intelligent Life?

In the end, Star Trek: The Animated Series really is a must see for anyone interested in the Star Trek franchise. It really is a perfect microcosm of everything that was good, bad, classic and cheesy about the classic series, and despite some low budget animation and goofy concepts, has enough of a core to keep you intrigued, just like every good Trek series should.

Now if only they could take the original audio and re-animate the series in modern anime style…

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