Friday, April 26, 2013

Getting Animated: A Secret STAR TREK

For me one of the great pleasures of streaming services like Netflix Instant (or Amazon Prime) is the ability to quickly indulge a nostalgic twinge by calling up a favorite episode of a fondly remembered TV show—say, The Twilight Zone or Columbo or Star Trek. If you're a Star Trek fan you already know what a godsend these sites are to Trekkies: all five live-action series can be found there—in HD, no less—with every episode available to be queued and streamed quicker than Scotty can beam down a redshirt to his untimely demise. (True ST fans, of course, already own their series of choice in at least one DVD edition, and would rather mix matter with antimatter than give up their slick Starfleet packaging and requisite bonus features.)

The crew returns (minus Chekov, plus a couple of weird aliens)
But what a lot of fans of old-school Trek may not realize is that there was another Star Trek, one that holds its own with much of the existing canon but gets little recognition outside of hardcore ST:TOS fans (that's Star Trek: The Original Series, for you non-Trekkies). This was Star Trek: The Animated Series,—a.k.a. ST:TAS. Produced for Saturday morning TV in 1973 and 1974 to placate the growing base of increasingly rabid fans, it utilized the voices of nearly all the original cast. Kirk, Spock, Bones and the rest were back, ready to complete the Enterprise's aborted five-year mission. Only Walter Koenig as Chekov was M.I.A. (one actor too many for the show's tight budget), replaced by an odd, long-necked creature named Lt. Arex.

In one episode, Uhura takes over
Despite its place alongside weekend cartoons, the show made little effort to dumb itself down for kids (who didn't much take to it, possibly due to such lines as, "Practicality does suggest capitulation, Captain"). Using the original show's character bible and much of its creative team, the animated version did its best to pick up where the live-action series left off. According to D.C. Fontana, who was a writer and producer on both shows, "We worked very hard to do original Star Trek stories and concepts at all times in the animated series." That meant not only reprising popular characters and elements (Harry Mudd, tribbles, Spock's home planet) but delving into areas of the show left unexplored in the first series.

For the most part, they did a bang-up job. Unlike many of the later movies and shows, this truly feels like first-generation Trek. That's helped not only by the strong efforts of the original cast, but by intelligent sci-fi storylines that would have been right at home in the original series. Adding a further layer of authenticity is the show's music (minus Alexander Courage's opening theme). And while Gene Roddenberry didn't consider these characters and events to be "official," many of the show's elements found their way into the Star Trek universe (including Kirk's middle name, Tiberius). Callbacks to the animated series are found throughout the many Trek iterations, including a scene from Spock's childhood recreated for the most recent Star Trek movie.

Setting cartoon phasers on stun
Given the spotty quality of ST:TOS's third and final season ("Spock's Brain," anyone?), you could easily argue that The Animated Series offered consistently stronger, more Trek-appropriate episodes (with at least one script an unproduced holdover from the earlier show). Sure, the animation wasn't the most sophisticated, and the brisk half-hour format necessitated occasionally jarring storytelling shortcuts and fewer character grace notes (especially within the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triangle). But given the talent involved—this was the first Star Trek series to win an Emmy—and the show's ability to explore creatures and settings technically impossible with live action, watching these 22 episodes is a real treat for anyone left feeling a jones for Kirk, Spock and the days when redshirts really were red shirts.

(For those who don't have Netflix, the series is now also available at Amazon Prime.)


Anonymous said...

positively divine.

Guy Smiley said...

There were a few good episodes of animated Trek, but apart from "Yesteryear" I wouldn't call any of them essential. I think the half-hour format just didn't work well, although I give the writers credit for trying ideas that would've been impossible to create (at that time) for live-action Trek.

The Trek that people need to see, whether they missed it the first time or gave up early and never gave it a fair shake, is Deep Space Nine. Because it was often seen as "the dark Trek" and because it broke away from the formula of TOS and TNG, a lot of people never warmed up to DS9. Their mistake.

The first season moves slowly, but from the start DS9 was a stronger, more complex show than TNG was in its first two seasons and the characters much more flawed and interesting. By the time season one winds down, with the back-to-back gems "Duet" and "In the Hands of the Prophets," the show begins to find its identity and it just got better and better with each season. By season three, it's the best, most thrilling Trek series of them all.

DS9 took chances by becoming a more serialized show at a time where few series were doing that, by not being the neat, tidy setting or having the perfect, always harmonious characters of the Treks, and addressing real world problems that TNG rarely acknowledged. DS9 had its share of clunker episodes (avoid "Profit and Lace" at all costs, for instance) but what Trek series didn't? Thankfully, DS9's duds were relatively few.

Two decades later, DS9 still holds up as show ahead of its time in terms of content, diversity in its casting, and the more serialized nature of the later seasons. One of the most underrated shows ever.

David Speranza said...

Yes, DS9 had some very good episodes and I certainly appreciated the internal conflicts among characters after Roddenberry chose to eradicate that starting with TNG. But for various reasons I never quite took to the show, the most obvious being that I grew up on the bold colors and flying leg kicks of the Kirk era, and every iteration since has just seemed me. That's probably why I'm such a big fan of all the mirror universe episodes, which amp up the conflict to TOS levels. To me ST was always adventure + message, and too often in the later series I felt the adventure aspect was replaced by a lot of smug civility and technobabble. Not to say there aren't many great regular episodes of TNG and DS9, but on the whole I'll take Spock and McCoy sniping at each other while Kirk kicks someone's ass over Riker giving Picard pained looks while Troi feels their pain. ;-) But on that matter I think we're in agreement.

And not to sound heretical, but Firefly and the rebooted BSG both mopped the floor with pretty much every follow-up version of Trek, in my opinion. On the latter, of course, Ron Moore finally got to do all the things he'd wanted to do while working on DS9 and Voyager. Now that's what I call internal conflict!

Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Hope to see you around these parts again.