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"Star Trek - The Animated Series" - review: Good scripts, limited animation

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Star Trek: The Animated Series

Rating:
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"Star Trek" (1973-1975)

Also known as: "Star Trek: The Animated Series"

Directed by: Hal Sutherland, Bill Reed

Written by: Margaret Armen, David Gerrold, Walter Koenig, and others

Bates: There is no Vulcan named Spock serving with the Star Fleet in any capacity.

Mr. Spock: [after further discussion] What of Sarek's family: his wife and son?

Bates: [as Amanda's picture appears] Amanda, wife of Sarek. Born on Earth as Amanda Grayson. The couple separated after the death of their son. The wife was killed in a shuttle accident at Lunaport on her way home to Earth. Ambassador Sarek has not remarried.

Mr. Spock: My mother. The son... what was his name and age when he died?

Bates: Spock, age seven.

Although the "Star Trek Renaissance" that heralded the iconic sci-fi series' rebirth is said to have started with 1979's "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," it actually began six years earlier.

On Sept. 8, 1973, NBC premiered Beyond the Farthest Star, the first episode of Filmation’s "Star Trek."

Though it only ran for two seasons, this Emmy-winning Saturday-morning show was the first spin-off of Gene Roddenberry’s classic live action TV series, which aired on NBC from 1966 to 1969.

Produced by Filmation’s Norm Prescott and Lou Scheimer, the series is considered by many "Star Trek" fans to be the “lost fourth season” of "Star Trek: The Original Series."

Most of the cast from the original live-action show provided their voice talents, and "Star Trek" insiders such as Roddenberry, Matt Jeffries, D.C. Fontana, David Gerrold, and Marc Daniels were directly involved behind the scenes as consultants, writers or producers.

The show almost failed to launch when Prescott and Scheimer first pitched it to NBC and Roddenberry. Their concept was to pair each of the main characters with a preteen Starfleet Academy cadet. Mr. Spock, for instance, would be the mentor of a young Vulcan boy.

Paramount liked the idea and tried to convince Roddenberry to sell off his rights as the series’ creator. However, Roddenberry didn’t go along with the “cadets in space” idea and refused Paramount’s offers. Filmation backed off and adapted "Star Trek" in a way which was consistent with the live action show.

Initially, Filmation and Paramount only wanted to hire William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, and James Doohan to provide voices for the animated series. Hiring the supporting cast of Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Majel Barrett, and Walter Koenig was too expensive for the studio. Nimoy thought this was unfair and lobbied hard to add "Star Trek’s" other actors.

Knowing the show wouldn’t work well if Nimoy left, Filmation hired Nichols, Takei, and Barrett. Walter Koenig couldn’t be hired due to the series' limited budget. However, Koenig, who had played Ens. Pavel Chekov on the live action show, wrote the first season episode The Infinite Vulcan.

Though Filmation used its trademark “limited animation” techniques, it treated "Star Trek" as a serious continuation of "Star Trek: The Original Series." It used a Writers’ Guide based closely on the 1966-1969 live action series’ “bible.” The producers also hired many writers who had contributed scripts during The Original Series’ three-season run. Not only did this make "The Animated Series" consistent with its classic forerunner, but it also allowed fans to see follow-ups to The Trouble With Tribbles, Shore Leave, and I. Mudd.

Animation also freed Roddenberry and his creative staff from the limitations of 1960s-era live action TV production. "Star Trek’s" cartoon version was the first to add a second turbolift exit to the Main Bridge, which Roddenberry had wanted to show on The Original Series but couldn’t afford to do.

The Animated Series also featured the franchise’s first holodeck in Season Two’s The Practical Joker. It was called the “Rec Deck” and only shown once, but it inspired the producers of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" when they designed the Enterprise-D in the mid-1980s.

The Animated Series’ format gave Trekkers a more expansive view of Roddenberry’s established universe beyond the confines of the Enterprise. Writers were now able to create truly strange new worlds, life forms, and civilizations.

For instance, in Season One’s The Eye of the Beholder, the Enterprise’s search for a missing science team on Lactra VII places Kirk, Spock, and McCoy in an unusual predicament. They’re captured by the Lactrans, a species of 20-foot-long slugs with incredibly high levels of intelligence – levels that are far higher than that of humans or Vulcans.

In the episode’s text commentary, Star Trek Encyclopedia authors Mike and Denise Okuda explain that Filmation’s super-smart slugs would have been impossible to depict in the live action "Star Trek: The Original Series."

The technology of rendering the Lactrans with puppetry or animation effects either didn’t exist or would have been too expensive. Even the TV and feature film spinoffs would have been hard-pressed to render a few of the aliens seen in The Eye of the Beholder, not to mention their decidedly alien city.

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"Star Trek: The Animated Series" was broadcast on NBC for two seasons from 1973 to 1975. Filmation only produced 22 episodes (16, directed by Hal Sutherland, for Season One and six, directed by Bill Reed, for Season Two), but NBC rotated first-run and rerun episodes to fill the Saturday morning schedule during the series’ run.

During the show’s brief existence, it earned positive reviews from TV critics. In 1975, The Animated Series won an Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Series, the first show in the franchise to be so honored. .

My Take: "Star Trek" (it was renamed "Star Trek: The Animated Series" in the 1990s to differentiate from other TV shows in the franchise) had its original run when I was between 10 and 12 years old.

I wasn’t a "Star Trek" fan at the time, so if I watched it then it didn’t impress me much. I did watch it sporadically when the Sci Fi Channel aired it on reruns back in the 1990s and liked it a little more because I liked the other TV shows and the feature films.

"Star Trek: The Animated Series" has a lot going for it, especially in the quality of its writing.

Before agreeing to sign on as the show’s executive consultant, "Star Trek" creator Roddenberry insisted that Filmation's version would feature stories that would have been fit for "Star Trek: The Original Series." Roddenberry, Dorothy (D.C.) Fontana, David Gerrold, Margaret Armen, and other writers from The Original Series contributed teleplays that were captivating and thought-provoking as any of the live action episodes.

David Gerrold, the writer of the classic episode The Trouble With Tribbles, contributed two scripts for The Animated Series, More Tribbles, More Troubles and Bem. More Tribbles, More Troubles was based on a script Gerrold had pitched to Star Trek: The Original Series producer Fred Freiberger for that show’s third season.

Freiberger rejected it because he didn’t like The Trouble With Tribbles, but Gerrold was able to tweak his teleplay for The Animated Series. Though the episode has a shorter running time than its 1967 live action predecessor, it features the voice talent of The Trouble With Tribbles’ memorable guest star Stanley Adams (Cyrano Jones).

Bem, Gerrold’s contribution to the show’s abbreviated second season, is noteworthy because it revealed that Captain Kirk’s middle name is Tiberius. Though many Star Trek novelists picked up on this and incorporated it into their works, this “fact” did not become canon until "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country’s" release in 1991.

Canon Issues: There is, unfortunately, a question as to whether or not "Star Trek: The Animated Series" is part of the "Star Trek" franchise.

In 1973, "Star Trek’s" Saturday morning show was canon Though Gene Roddenberry wasn’t the show-runner, he did serve as the series’ executive consultant. He oversaw many aspects of the show, especially the scripts and stories. Roddenberry also asked that D.C. Fontana be hired as associate producer to ensure continuity between "The Original Series" and its animated spinoff. Some of the scripts were follow-up stories to episodes from the live action "Star Trek," and major guest stars, including Mark Lenard and Roger C. Carmel, reprised their original roles.

Furthermore, the show featured the voices of most of "Star Trek’s" original cast, including William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, George Takei. James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, and Majel Barrett. (Doohan, Nichols, and Barrett not only performed as Scotty, Uhura, and Nurse Chapel, but they also voiced other characters. Jimmy Doohan reportedly played over 50 roles in The Animated Series.)

Later, though, Roddenberry asked Paramount to consider "Star Trek: The Animated Series'"to be non-canon. He admitted that he had agreed to partner with Filmation because he needed the money. Roddenberry also did not anticipate "Star Trek’s "rebirth as a franchise after the 1979 release of "Star Trek: The Motion Picture."

When Paramount and Roddenberry renegotiated their licensing agreements in 1990, the series’ creator declared that only a few story points from The Animated Series were official Trek lore. Plot points from D.C. Fontana’s Yesteryear, for instance, are present in Vulcan-episodes of various spinoffs. More recently, 2009’s "Star Trek" reboot reused a scene from Yesteryear in which young Spock faces off against a group of Vulcan bullies.

Yesteryear: The best episode in "The Animated Series" is D.C. Fontana’s Yesteryear, a story which blends elements from classic episodes such as The City on the Edge of Forever and Journey to Babel.

In Yesteryear, something goes wrong when a landing party uses the Guardian of Forever to study Federation history. Spock returns with the others to the 23rd Century, but only Capt. Kirk recognizes him. Aboard the Enterprise, an Andorian commander is Kirk’s first officer, and no Vulcan named Spock has served in Starfleet. Eventually, the Enterprise crew’s investigation reveals that Ambassador Sarek did have a son named Spock who had died as a child. Spock must return to Vulcan’s past and repair the damaged timeline.

Yesteryear is a story which works on many levels. Not only is it a classic science fiction story that involves time travel, but it’s a touching and balanced family drama. Yesteryear also gave 1970s era viewers their first look at a Vulcan city, Spock’s difficult childhood and his pet sehlat, I-Chaya.

Limited Animation: Though "Star Trek: The Animated Series" was produced by using Filmation’s relatively inexpensive “limited animation” technique, it is just as good as any of the live action "Star Trek" series and feature films. The animation isn’t the best: the show relies on such “cheats” as the use of long shots of the background elements and reuse of stock character footage.

One trick Filmation uses often in "Star Trek" is to show exterior shots of the Enterprise with voice-overs to tell part of a story without showing the characters.

There are even some really strange color issues, such as the Klingons wearing uniforms partly colored pink. (Hal Sutherland, the series’ principal director, was color blind and couldn’t tell the difference between light gray and pink.)

Nevertheless, Roddenberry’s insistence that "Star Trek: The Animated Series" retain the same creative level as the 1966-1969 classic paid off. The quality of the writing and voice acting compensated for the show’s low-cost animation, and many TV critics of the time gave it positive reviews.

In a 1973 review of the series, the Los Angeles Times reviewer said:

“NBC’s new animated Star Trek is as out of place in the Saturday morning kiddie ghetto as a Mercedes in a soapbox derby.

“Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s now a cartoon….It is fascinating fare, written, produced and executed with all the imaginative skill, the intellectual flare and the literary level that made Gene Roddenberry’s famous old science fiction epic the most avidly followed program in TV history, particularly in high IQ circles.”

The Box Set: "Star Trek: The Animated Series" was released as a four-DVD box set in 2006 by CBS DVD, a year before the release of the remastered edition of "Star Trek: The Original Series’ Season One" box set. Though the outer clamshell has a different color scheme and the multi-disc jewel case is smaller than the Remastered Edition’s DVD holder, there is a resemblance in the packaging design and functionality.

Each of the four DVDs features label art that depicts a senior officer of the Starship Enterprise (Kirk, Spock, Scotty, and “Bones” McCoy). The DVDs hold an average of five episodes each. At least one episode in each DVD comes with a cool extra feature. David Gerrold provides audio commentaries for two episodes he wrote. Additionally, Star Trek Encyclopedia authors Mike and Denise Okuda give viewers trivia and production details about the show in text commentary tracks in selected episodes.

Disc 4 also contains Drawn to the Final Frontier: The Making of Star Trek: The Animated Series, a short documentary featuring interviews with some of the show’s production staff (but none of the cast members). Other extras on this disc include a brief text-only rundown of the show’s history and a series of canon-related clips titled What’s the Star Trek Connection?

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