Each and every episode of Gene Roddenberry‘s Star Trek began with William Shatner‘s Captain James T. Kirk waxing philosophical about the voyages of the starship Enterprise, and its five year mission. Now, we know, that the mission ended on television after 80 episodes and only three years. And, let’s be fair, the third season–itself a stay of execution following massive write-in protests from fans–was pretty lacking in the storytelling department. Luckily for Trek fans, the early ’70s gave us Star Trek: The Animated Series, now out on Blu-ray, and it’s got the kind of writing we deserved for live-action.
For many years, it seemed to me that The Animated Series was the bastard, unloved sibling to the original series, doing little more than bridge a gap until the movie series began in 1979. Paramount has given it a Blu-ray release, which means I’ve had reason to watch it more than as a casual curiosity. Guys, it’s truly terrific. Produced by Filmation, the show which has the unruly official name of Star Trek The Animated Series: The Animated Adventures of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek brought together many of the writers of the original series, and most of the cast as well, to give us further adventures where no man has gone before.
I say most of the cast; famously, Filmation and Paramount didn’t want to spend the money for everybody, so the series contains no Chekhov. However, Walter Koenig was given the opportunity to write an episode–“The Infinite Vulcan”–which makes up for the slight somewhat. In fact, because William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, and Majel Barrett were all brought in to reprise their roles in the series, there wasn’t much budget for other voices. Save a few guest stars for larger parts, Doohan, Nichols, Barrett, and Takei all played multiple characters. Doohan and Barrett even did double regular duty as both their original characters of Scotty and Nurse Chapel, and new alien crew members Arex (the three-armed, three-legged helmsman), and M’Ress (the feline engineering officer), respectively.
Having the cast there to reprise their roles gives STTAS:TAAOGRST a verisimilitude it might not otherwise–cartoon spinoffs of the era were notoriously shoddy–but what really makes the show feel like legitimate Star Trek are the stellar (pun intended) scripts. Star Trek: TOS‘ script editor D.C. Fontana was brought in as Associate Producer and script editor for the animated adventures, and there’s a very real sense of trying to continue the same show in another medium. She also wrote the series’ second episode, “Yesteryear,” which is one of the best episodes of Star Trek, in any series or medium.
“Yesteryear” begins with Kirk and Spock returning from another time-travel research mission with the help of the Guardian of Forever (seen in the season one episode, “City on the Edge of Forever,” the second best episode ever IMO) to find that none of the crew remembers Spock at all, and indeed the Enterprise has a new first officer, the Andorian Commander Thelin. After some research, it’s revealed that whatever their expedition did, it resulted in Spock dying at the age of 7 in an accident our Spock remembers being rescued from. He decides to go back through the Guardian to Vulcan and see if he can save himself from death, under the guise of a relative, Selek.
This is a legitimately beautiful episode and introduced many concepts and visuals around Spock’s childhood that were reused later in other media. And while “Yesteryear” stands out as the only true masterpiece of the bunch, other follow-ups, like “More Tribbles, More Troubles,” and “Mudd’s Passion,” are worthy continuations of their live-action storylines. Furthermore, the animated series was able to do many things live-action couldn’t for budgetary reasons. The episode “The Survivor” has the crew finding a long-missing starfleet hero, only to learn that he’s an alien shapeshifter, who in reality looks like a floating squid. “The Infinite Vulcan” has our heroes meeting a 40-foot-tall version of Spock, created by sentient plants; “The Magicks of Megas-tu” has the crew come face to face with Lucien, an alien entity who is the actual precursor to humanity’s vision of the Devil himself. These are big ideas, and most succeed admirably in a way most of Star Trek season three didn’t.
The Blu-ray set has each of the episodes looking and sounding absolutely pristine. The colors pop and the transfer is clean and crisp. The downside of the set is that all of the extras are SD ports over from the DVD release several years ago, and none of those were great to begin with. So, while there are still some good audio commentaries and very informative text commentaries, the 25-minute making-of and a brief thing about how TAS connects to other series are, despite being fine for a decade ago, feel like more of a throwaway.
That said, I could not have been more impressed by the actual episodes in Star Trek: The Animated Series, and they were the perfect respite to some of the more unsavory things happening in the world. It reminds us that there can be positive, uplifting, and forward-thinking science fiction series, amid all the bleak apocalypse narratives out there. Star Trek is us at our most curious, most tolerant, and most together, and for a show aimed at a Saturday morning kids crowd, The Animated Series gives us all we could hope for.
4 burritos out of 5