Star Trek: The Animated Series Round-Up: The First Four Episodes

startrekheaderThese days there’s a lot of Star Trek out there.   At last count, there were over 700 episodes from the various series plus a dozen movies.*

*If you add in the fan-made productions, it only increases the number.

I guess you could say that if you’re a Star Trek fan, you have a lot to choose from.   Given the size of the buffet, it’s easy to get caught up in only going back for your favorite course again and again — in my case, this would be the original (and still the best) Star Trek.   Even within the original three year run, there are  certain runs that I’m more familiar with or re-visit more often than others.**  And as with an smorguboard, there are going to be some areas that you neglect, don’t visit or maybe overlook.

**To combat this, I did a re-watch of the third season a few years ago and found I enjoyed it.

One of those blind spots in my Star Trek fandom is the Animated Series.   I’ve seen a sampling of episodes in repeats and from picking up the commercial VHS releases on clearance back in the day.  And like the completist that I am, I’ve purchased the DVD set and have it sitting on my shelf with the rest of episodic Trek.   When it first came out, I had every intention of watching the entire run, though that quickly got sidetracked.

I’ve read a smattering of the Alan Dean Foster adaptations of the episodes and found them a bit more satisfying than than the actual episodes themselves.

And so, I’ve had this gap in my Trek fandom for a while now.

Enter the Mission Log Podcast, which for the past year and a half has been turning a critical eye to every episode of the original series and determining the morals, messages and meanings as well as looking at whether or not the episodes stand the test of time.    With the original series in the books, the podcast has turned to looking at the animated series and it’s given me a good excuse to sit down and finally take in the animated series.

So far, we’re two Mission Logs into the lookback at animated Trek and four episodes into the animated run.

And, of course, I’ve got a few thoughts on things.

As I said when I started looking at season three, I often wonder what it must have been like to be a Trek fan back when these first aired.   To have new Star Trek coming to the screen on a (semi) regular basis after only having the original 79 in syndication for four to five years.   I can imagine there was some excitement, enthusiasm and a spirit of hopefulness to this series that could fill in the final two years of the original five year mission.

And that like the reaction to “Spock’s Brain” I have to wonder if fans went — huh, so I waited and hoped all this time for this?!?

It’s not that the animated Star Trek is a terrible, mind you.   Part of my bias is in a world where we have animated series that so easily appeal to both young viewers and adults (aka Batman: The Animated Series), TAS just doesn’t seem quite as sophisticated, compelling or re-watchable.  The stories (for the most  part) through four episodes are pretty good, though there are times when it feels like the writers don’t quite have a grasp on pacing for a thirty-minute installment as opposed to the full-hour slot.   There are some points where things feel rushed and others where it feels like we’re treading water for a long period of time.

In most cases, these first four episodes from TAS would be decent third season episodes from the classic run.   But I wouldn’t quite hold them up in the pantheon of great episodes from the original run or the entire franchise.

One of the big criticisms leveled at the series is the animation.   And I get that it’s done on a budget from Filmmation which means we get a lot of recycled footage and the music is used over and over again (if you thought the original series was bad for re-purposing music, it has nothing on TAS).  But I sort of expected this based on my experience with other Filmmation product from my younger days (for example, it didn’t take me long as a kid to notice that HeMan threw the exact same boulder in just about every episodes and it could do anything from plugging a small leak in a dam to capping a volcano).

But it’s the episodes themselves that can be hit or miss.  Here are some random thoughts on the first four.

spock-forge-yesteryear“Beyond The Farthest Star”  — Samuel A. Peeples, who wrote Trek‘s second pilot “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” returns to get this series off the ground.  The Enterprise finds a huge, ancient starship floating in space and decides to beam aboard to check things out.   While there, they release an entity that can take over the ship and wants to head out to reproduce and take over other ships.  Kirk won’t have this and they fight off the entity by setting the ship to crash into a dead planet nearby.  The entity jumps ship to the planet and the crew warps away before it can jump back on board.  It pleads with the crew to come back because it’s so lonely but the pleas fall on deaf ears.

Of the first four installments, this one feels like the pacing is the most off.   You can almost see the creative crew getting a chance to show off what can be done via animation with the huge and completely alien starship.  But it’s once the entity comes on board the ship that things slow down and start to fall apart.  The crew is very quick to decide we have to get rid of the alien and would rather die than allow it continue its taking over the ship ways.   It seems odd we take the word of the dead civilization on the alien and don’t at least attempt to contact said alien to find out it’s point of view or reason for what it’s done.  Maybe I’m thinking too modern Trek here though — similar to things in “Silicon Avatar” where while we know the Crystalline Entity is tearing up planets and killing people, we still want to understand why it’s doing it and if there’s another way to stop it besides destroying it.

“Yesteryear”  — Written by long-time Trek writer D.C. Fontana, I understand that this one was intended to go along with the original NBC mandate of having younger versions of the Enterprise crew members in certain stories to appeal to the kids.***   This one goes back in time to when Spock was a kid and gives us a larger view of Vulcan than we saw in “Amok Time.”   Again, this is one that feels like the pacing is off a bit — part of it could be the child actor who voices young Spock.  He’s not bad, but he’s not great either.  And it feels like things in the Vulcan desert are really stretched out a bit — almost like everyone is saying “Oh look at all the cool stuff we can show you now that we couldn’t before!”   There is some interesting character stuff in there and I’ve heard this is one of the better regarded installments of TAS and one of the few that Gene Roddenberry later stated was canon.   But that still doesn’t mean I love it.  Of course, I think “The Trouble With Tribbles” is good, but a bit overrated as well.

*** This idea of seeing the crew in their younger days is one that kicks around for close to forty years when we finally get the big-screen reboot. 

It does bring up an interesting idea that the time line we know is, in fact, an altered one.   If Spock is originally supposed to die as a young boy, then his going back and saving himself means that we’re in the alternate timeline.

lorelei1“One of Our Planets Is Missing” — This one is a hybrid of “The Doomsday Machine” and “The Immunity Syndrome.”   A giant cloud in space is wandering along, consuming planets.  In its wake is a planet with a population of 80 million or so.   As the Enterprise goes inside the creature and charts it, the crew only has a limited amount of time to stop the giant organism or see the entire planet destroyed.  Just as Kirk is about to self-destruct the ship to save the planet (once he finds that auto destruct button, I guess he’s going to use it!),  Spock is able to communicate with the organism and get it turn back just in time.  And did I mention this alien has anti-matter inside it?   That will come in handy during the episode as keeping the shields up drains the ship’s anti-matter.   Overall, this one has better pacing that the first two and feels more like Trek than “Farthest Star.”  But it’s still not much to write home about.

“The Lorelia Signal”  — Every 27 years, a ship has gone into a certain region of space and vanished.  So, what does the Enterprise do but head to the region on the day it’s supposed to happen and get lured to a planet ruled by women.  The males on the ship are in the thrall of the women from the planet while the female crew members don’t see what the big deal is.   Kirk and company beam down and are given head bands that apparently zap their lifeforce and keep the women of the planet young.  Included on the planet is this screen that if you ask it a question, it will give you the answer….which is all well and good except when the crew escapes and is hiding out in a giant urn, the women don’t think to use it find them!   Oh sure, they do later once Uhura and Chapel suggest it…but really why wouldn’t they use it earlier?!?”   And why is it when Spock goes back to find the communicators that he doesn’t request immediate beam up to get away from the threat and try to find a way to rescue his friends…or point the Enterprise in the right direction to find them and beam them up?!?   The episode doesn’t say (or it did I missed it) why we can’t beam the crew up or that the transporter is blocked.  And surely the Enterprise crew is capable enough to lock onto Kirk and beam them up.

This episode also starts a modern Trek trend of “the transporter can magically cure anything.”   In this case, it revitalizes the landing party after they age ten years a day under the planet’s influence.    Now it seems to me that if such a side effect exists from using the transporter is out there that people in the 23rd century might just use it.   Not everyone mind you, but I could see the Kardashians using it to stay young and inflict their horrible reality shows on us forever and ever.  It’s one of those interesting avenues that could be explored but isn’t.  Instead it feels more like a “huh, we have to reverse this somehow” moment by the writing staff.

And don’t even get me started on Uhura’s comment once Kirk is restored that he’s “as handsome as ever.”   It immediately negates the twenty or so previous minutes where we saw Uhura take charge and command when it’s abundantly clear the men are under some kind of thrall and shouldn’t be put in charge of things.

So, that’s my thoughts on the first four installments.  I expect I’ll try and do more of these as things go along.    This should be interesting.

I’d also like to point out that while I’ve listened to the podcast for the first two installments I pontificated upon here, I’ve not listened to the latest episode on the next two yet.  I’m intrigued to see what the guys will say about the episodes  — in particular “The Lorelai Signal.”

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