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Saturday, July 16, 2016

Week of Review - In Defense of Star Trek The Animated Series

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Edited by Robert Beach

For day two of my celebration of Star Trek, I thought I’d focus on an obscure and somewhat forgotten chapter in Trek’s history. In 1969, Star Trek concluded its three-season run after budgetary restrictions and dwindling audience interest forced it off the air. Even though the show was a prestigious series in its time, garnering a lot of admiration from doctors and scientist, the ‘60s just wasn’t the age of genre shows on TV. That all changed in the ‘70s when TV took over as the outlet for disposable, high-concept viewing. 

While movies spent the ‘70s getting more challenging and more adult, TV doubled down on the stranger genre elements, giving us major series like Wonder Woman, 6 Million Dollar Man, and The Incredible Hulk as well as forgotten gems like Logan’s Run and the Planet of the Apes series. Seeking to capitalize on this trend, Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry pushed for a new series, yet was met with some resistance due to the cost of creating sets and costumes. Given how much of this new genre television was aimed at younger audience, Rodenberry went to one of the biggest names in cheap, younger entertainment: Hanna-Barbera. Thus, Star Trek: the Animated Series was born. 

The basic idea behind the Star Trek animated series was that it would follow the crew of the Enterprise through the last two years of their initial 5-year mission.  Rodenberry’s hope with the show was that it would prove to be popular enough to warrant a live-action sequel series; the only real problem was that, originally, Star Trek wasn’t really for kids. That’s something that tends to get lost now because so much of TOS is enjoyably hokey by modern standards, but the show wasn’t intended for a younger audience during its initial run. 

The big clue to this is how much of its content was considered too mature for kids of the time. Remember, Kirk’s free love life style might seem quaint now, but in the ‘60s, it was downright scandalous. Consider this: the original Star Trek show featured Kirk having relations with alien women at a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in over half the country. 

Given all that, the animated series had to make some major changes to try to appeal to a younger-skewing audience. The animated series had to doubles down on the more fantastical elements of Trek while also downplaying a lot of the humanist philosophy and political allegory. Even with those changes, there’s not a ton of difference between the animated series and some of the weirder original series episodes. Stuff like ‘A Piece of the Action’ or ‘Operation: Annihilate’ had serious elements to them. And yet, they were also peppered with gangsters, monsters, lasers, wrestling, and all manner of things that would fit a younger audience if their parents let them watch it. 

That great emphasis on funny and unrestrained sci-fi imaginings is a big part of why a lot of Trek fans I know don’t care for the series. They see it as a dilution of the more intelligent elements that elevated the goofiness of the original series. It’s a big part of why so many don’t count the animated series as part of the overall Trek canon, which is odd given that the animated series is all about canon. 
Firstly, the show got back the entire original cast of the show to reprise their roles, which is a major deal for a ‘70s animated sequel show to a ‘60s genre show. What’s more, the animated series is peppered with follow-up episodes to original series stories. We see the return of the time-travel portal from ‘City on the Edge of Forever,’ the fantasy planet from ‘Shore Leave,’ the tribbles from ‘Trouble with Tribbles,’ and the occasional antagonist Harry Mudd. Additionally, the animated series pioneered new elements that would become major parts of Trek like the Orion Pirates, who showed up in Deep Space 9 as the Orion Syndicate, and the holodeck. 

All of which is why I always defend the animated series whenever I get the chance.  There’s something incredibly infectious about the unrestrained nature of the imagination at play in the series. The animation may be incredibly simplistic, but that doesn’t make the stories any lesser, especially the stories penned by major sci-fi names like D.C. Fontana and Walter Koenig. 

If you don’t know her, D.C. Fontana is the woman that made Star Trek what it is and would later go on to work on that Logan’s Run show I praised earlier. She more or less invented Spock as we know him and returned to write an episode of the animated series called ‘Yesteryear’ in which Spock traveled to the past to help himself through his own childhood in one of the more serious animated series episodes. 
Walter Koenig, the original Checkov, wrote a much more ridiculous episode entitled ‘The Infinite Vulcan,’ but it’s also steeped in TOS myth. In this story, the crew stumbles upon Keniclius Five, a gigantic clone of one of the greatest monsters of the Eugenics War.  Keniclius ends up kidnapping Spock and turning him into a giant clone body as well act as his new perfect being. The crew rescues him, and we learn that Spock can actually duplicate his own consciousness into multiple bodies and just creates a second brain inside a normal-sized version of himself. 

It’s one of the most insane stories in all of Star Trek and is a real highlight for the animated series as well as pretty indicative of the stories they’d indulge in. You had episodes with stuff like the rainbow Enterprise, the computer coming to life as a practical joker, ancient alien gods that shaped Earth culture, and the crew meeting Satan in an alternate dimension where magic is real. 

Obviously, if none of that sounds like your thing, or you’ve always gravitated to the more philosophical and character-driven work of later Trek shows, the animated series probably isn’t for you. Additionally, if the very static style of animation the show uses is off-putting or un-engaging, then you probably won’t enjoy the show. If you’re at all on the fence about this series, I cannot recommend it highly enough. Yeah, it’s weird and goofy. Remember, nobody had ever tried anything like this at the time. 

The idea of taking live-action characters from one medium to another was almost completely new at this time and faced with the challenge of setting the example going forward. TAS opted to double down on the unreality of the show and its situations, emphasizing fantasy and whimsy above all else. Even though it’s not as deep as other entries in the franchise, it’s still very much representative of Star Trek’s identity as a series of limitless possibilities. 

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