I've made some disparaging comments about Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973-1974) in the past. In my defense, I had reason to. I'd seen a handful of episodes and been unimpressed by them, and even more damning, I was familiar with Filmation, and all the horrors that come with that name. I've seen their Batman and their Superman, and while that's a small representative of the studio's output, those shows were crummy enough that I never had any interest in expanding my knowledge. Which sounds harsh, and if you've got friends who share a fascination with the compromises needed to bring comic book characters to life on a small budget, The New Adventures of Superman (1966-1967) can make for a fun evening's entertainment. But when it came to my beloved Star Trek, I had no interest in seeing the characters I cared about reduced to badly animated, depth-less caricatures. There's enough terrible live-action Trek out there. Why waste time on something that couldn't even offer attractive women in ridiculous outfits?
Now that I've seen all 22 episodes, though, I'd like to take back some of my criticisms. Well, that's not right, exactly. The complaints I had from what little I'd already seen are still valid, and I'll get to them in a moment. This isn't a forgotten classic, and many of the traditional Filmation flaws are on display. But for fans of the original series, there is a lot more to like than I expected, and while the animated show doesn't quite live up to the live action version, it's a worthy addendum to the franchise. Given the presence of most of the original cast, and the surprising amount of continuity with TOS, this is Trek for fans in the best possible sense: it takes a devotee to get past the roughness, but once you accept that this is never going to be perfect, it's a charming, intelligent reward for everyone who ever wondered just what the hell was going on inside the planet of "Shore Leave," or what Kirk's middle name really was, or what would happen if Kirk and Spock became fish-men. (Everybody wonders that last one, right? It's not just me?)
ST: TAS aired four years after the live-action show went off the air, and the first thing that catches your attention is how little has changed in that time. The theme music is different, but the Enterprise is the same—same bridge, same mission, and largely, the same crew. While the voice acting on the show is problematic, it's hard to find fault with the casting: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, James Doohan, DeForest Kelley, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, and Majel Barett all returned to the roles they originated, and just hearing the actual Kirk, Spock, and McCoy exchanging dialog through their animated avatars grants the show an immeasurable level of authenticity. (Walter Koenig wasn't hired for budget reasons, although he did write the not bad "Infinite Vulcan." Considering that Chekov didn't actually appear until the original show's second season, maybe that just means the animated series takes place around season one?) Cyrano Jones and Harry Mudd also put in appearances, and the clear effort to remain connected with the universe established in the live-action series keeps this from being just a shoddy cash in.
There's a thrilling creativity at work here, as writers, freed from the limits of money and special effects, could come up with outlandish plots without having to worry too much that their vision would get lost in the translation from page to screen. For example, there's "Bem," an episode from the short-lived second season, written by David Gerrold (author, among other things, of "The Trouble With Tribbles" and its animated sequel, "More Tribbles, More Troubles"). The Enterprise is carrying Bem, a representative from the planet Pandro. Bem's job is to observe Kirk and the others, determine if the Federation is worthy enough to have dealings with the Pandronians, and then report back home. He's a little annoying, and has a bad habit of interfering in order to make lives difficult for the crew. When Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beam down to investigate a newly found planet, Bem accompanies them, swaps out their equipment with non-functional forgeries, and ends up getting everyone captured.
After that, we have some oddness then with the planet's god-being (voiced by Nichelle Nichols) becoming upset that her children, the planet's native, primitive population, are being interfered with. Kirk talks his way out of the problem, valuable lessons are learned, Bem apologizes, and there's probably some pie later on. (I like pie.) It's a decent story, and one of my favorites of the show, but the reason I mention it here is while Bem initially appears to be a humanoid (albeit one with green skin and a sort of cat/dog face), the alien is actually a collective that can separate into component parts at will. So you have scenes in the episode where Bem's lower half is wandering around on its own, stretching out small hands while the torso floats freely and the head bobs alongside. On the live action show, this would've looked terrible, but in animation, it's odd looking, but it's just as believable as anything else.
Examples of this abound throughout, including our first two fully alien crew-members, Arex, a orange guy with three arms, and M'Ress, a cat-woman. Neither character does much beyond the occasional line of dialog, but it's good to have some fresh, weird faces on the bridge. (Faces which arguably helped pave the way for Star Trek: The Next Generation.) In "The Terratin Incident," everyone on board the Enterprise starts shrinking, and if imagining that done in "real" life with 1960's effects technology doesn't give you a laughing fit, you're made of sterner stuff than I. And the ambition of series was evident even when it wasn't introducing bizarre new life. Time and again, episodes would manage to cram nearly the same amount of story as you'd expect from an episode of the original show into a clipped 24 minutes. Some characterization is lost, sure, but clearly, the writers were trying, and they succeeded as often as not.
However… well, it's not perfect. Filmation cut a lot of corners, and while the animation here isn't as rife with continuity errors and ugliness as some of their worst shows, it's mixed at best. The characters all look roughly like their real-life counterparts, but shots are often composed at weird, Bergman-esque angles, with faces looming half into frame. Backgrounds are re-used, as are certain basic animations: there are a couple shots of Spock using equipment on the bridge that you'll see maybe a thousand times if you go through all 22 episodes. Worse, the faces of the characters aren't hugely expressive, which becomes a problem whenever a camera cuts to a non-speaker for a reaction shot. There will be a pause, maybe the eyes will widen slightly, and then Spock or Kirk or whoever will duck out of view. (A few aliens get repeated as well. Keep an eye out for the attacking dragon-like flying vegetables from "Infinite Vulcan.")
The series' worst sin, though, is a frustrating lack of energy. Even with all its compressed storytelling, ST:TAS can be frustratingly plodding, and the vocal performances are a large part of that. Whether it's a fault in the direction, or the fact that the cast wasn't familiar with voice acting, or some combination of the two, nobody sounds excited about anything, and rarely does anyone get too passionate. Gone is the hammy, no-scenery-left-unmasticated approach of TOS. Kirk gets a few good rants in, but for the most part, he's so subdued you might imagine him to be as much a Vulcan as Spock. Also, due to the budget, some of the actors filled in additional roles beyond their main one. James Doohan does mostly fine with this, but Majel Barett and Nichelle Nichols just don't have the chops. The lack of energy isn't just an acting problem, either. The pacing and editing here is sloppy and random, with establishing shots that linger too long, and action sequences that rely on repetition to a distracting degree.
What you get out of this series depends on your willingness to put up with these flaws. I'd imagined I wouldn't be able to tolerate them, but while it took me a few episodes to warm to it, I ended as a fan of this version of Star Trek. At its best, it's good writing overcoming shoddy presentation, and at its worst, it's a mediocre children's cartoon. But even then, it's a mediocre children's cartoon with Leonard Nimoy. If that means something to you(and it should), you could do worse.
- Want more proof of Nimoy's awesomeness? According to Wikipedia, the producers of the animated series weren't going to hire Nichelle Nichols and George Takei, but Nimoy insisted, saying that they were an important part of the show's diversity.
- Next week, we ease into the long, strange trip of Star Trek: The Next Generation with "Encounter at Farpoint."