Star Trek: The Animated Series Review
Although much has been made over the years of Star Trek’s phoenix-like rise from the ashes of cancellation in the late Sixties to billion-dollar franchise three decades later, very little consideration has ever been given to its first step on that long road to recovery. Very much the runt of the litter, for much of the past thirty years Star Trek: The Animated Series (TAS) has been the forgotten child of the family, a half-remembered sidestep that was of little significance even when it was first being broadcast in 1973. Rarely repeated and even more rarely discussed, most fans have never been given a solid opportunity to appraise the series in bulk in the same way that they have with the live-action instalments. Although both released on video and novelised in the Seventies by noted sci-fi author Alan Dean Foster it’s been unloved and uncherished, and it’s unsurprising that Paramount have only now just got around to releasing the episodes onto DVD, long after the rest of the various series (and even then with a certain reluctance, demonstrated by the fact that for a time it looked as though it would be issued with no extras). Now that they have, I think there has been more discussion about these twenty-two episodes in the past month or so than in all the past thirty-three years combined as fans are able finally to look in detail at the series and decide whether the show was a worthy continuation of the original five year mission in The Original Series (TOS) or an unnecessary sidestep well deserving its essential oblivion.
On the face of it there should be much to recommend TAS. When animation companies first approached Gene Roddenberry with the idea of making a cartoon version of his moribund series, he agreed only on the condition that he be given full creative control on the project. Roping in TOS script editor DC Fontana as associate producer. he was determined that, despite the limitations that the format would place on the series (Filmation, the company who eventually got the gig, intended the finished product to be shown on Saturday morning kid’s TV) it would continue to espouse the high quality ethic that had made the live action series what it was. These new shows would be, he said at the time, the official next season of the adventures of Captain Kirk and his adventurers, with the only difference being that we were seeing them in two dimensions rather than three, a claim substantiated by the fact that all the original crew (with the exception of an understandably miffed Walter Koenig) reprised their roles. What could go wrong?
Answer: nothing much. But nothing goes particularly right either. Indeed, it’s very difficult to work up any sort of enthusiasm or antipathy for the series one way or the other as the main emotion these dull episodes provoke is boredom, their slow pace and uninspiring artwork inducing a lethargy which makes most of the twenty-six minutes feel equally as long as TOS’s hour-long episodes. Although the scripts are not of the best, a lot of this is down to the rotten Filmation animation techniques, which even in those days looked dated and cheap. Everything is static, with characters showing little sign of life and many scenes composed entirely of two characters staring lifelessly at each other while their lips move every couple of seconds in a vague approximation of the dialogue. The likenesses are not bad, although the women all seem to have oddly angled swan necks, and Uhura comes off quite badly, having a permanently-indignant look on her face (when she’s not apparently sprawling across her station). When the figures do move - even when they run - it feels as though they are wading through treacle, and there’s so very little actual animation in any of the episodes that calling it such would seem to be dangerously close to violating the official trades description act. There’s much use of stock footage, with shots of the Enterprise being re-used time and again (not so much of a problem when watching just one episode, a bit more annoying when one sees several at once) as well as the same (strangely painful) music cues cropping up all the time - after a while, one becomes hypnotised by the sheer repetition of what one is watching. It’s only when the crew beam down onto an alien world that things brighten up, and even then the improvement is only temporary. One of the main attractions of the show, it was said at the time, would be that freed from the budget of the live action series the makers would be able to show truly alien and exotic worlds and creatures; with the exception of a few nicely-painted backdrops, these are invariably disappointing and, while the aliens are suitably exotic, there isn’t a huge amount of variety between them. After a while, they all start looking much of a type, a shame given the potential and something which shows a relatively surprising lack of imagination.
But, of course, in this day and age TOS doesn’t look all that much cop either (hence the George Lucas-ing of the shows currently being aired), and on this side of the Atlantic science-fiction viewers have known for years that cheap effects do not necessarily spoil a great story. The thing is, though, that these Treks are really not up to much in the old script department either. Some are downright awful, others are simple knockabouts, and, despite a fair few reasonably good ideas being sprinkled about that ultimately promise far more than they deliver, very few if any manage to get close to equalling the winning combination of philosophic musing and wham-bam space action that TOS the success (in quality, if not in ratings) that it was. At the time the scripts were being commissioned there was a writer’s strike in Hollywood which meant that Roddenberry could get several of the respected writers who had worked on TOS - including Sam Peeples, David Gerrold, and, of course, Fontana herself - to contribute scripts to a series that, being animated, didn’t figure in the strike negotiations, which makes the final results even more disappointing. A lot of the stories look exactly like what they are: cheap filler for a Saturday morning cartoon, ordinary when they could have extraordinary, and, while the stated purpose at the time to make TAS TOS Season Four is a nice idea, in practise if some of these scripts had been live action then it’s entirely possible we wouldn’t be talking about Spock’s Brain and The Way To Eden as the worst Kirk-era instalments. That said, there’s nothing here that would stop the series being “canon”, that fannish term meaning that the events shown are part of the same universe as the rest of TOS, even though Roddenberry later asked for the show to be excised from the official Trek history - there’s nothing here that would contradict what went before or since. Indeed, there are some innovations that would later become Trek staples: we see a holodeck for the first time, for example, and Kirk gets given his middle name of Tiberius. Also, for fans there are plenty of sequels to TOS episodes: you’ll find follow-ups to The Trouble With Tribbles, Shore Leave, Mudd’s Women, Journey to Babel and so on, with many characters returning and being voiced by their original actors (most notably Mark Lenard as Spock’s father Sarek.) Because of these, and the odd decent show, the series isn't a dead loss in the story department, but it's hard work to find the nuggets of gold.
The mediocrity extends to the voice acting. The regulars reprise their roles with mixed success, and indeed it is the secondary actors Takei and Nichols (Sulu and Uhura) who show most life (ironic given that originally the makers were only going to use the principal four and Barrett; Nimoy put his foot down and insisted that if Takei and Nichols weren’t involved he wasn’t going to be either as he wanted the original crew - ie, everyone who had been in TOS Season One - to star. As Koenig only appeared in Seasons Two and Three he got left out, although by way of compensation he actually wrote an episode). As Kirk, Shatner often appears to be phoning it in, while Nimoy is variable, making DeForest Kelley as Dr McCoy the one reliable member of the triumvirate. It doesn’t help that the characters they are playing have been essentially reduced to caricatures (something, to be fair, that was already beginning to happen in TOS’s Season Three): Spock raises his eyebrow and says “Illogical” at least once every three minutes (possibly, again, as a way to save money, I don’t know), Bones bickers and complains, and so on. Perhaps to counter this, and also because they felt she deserved it, the writers determinedly gave Nichelle Nichols a bigger bite of the cherry than she’d ever had in TOS, with one episode even seeing Uhura taking command of the ship and, despite the cross look the animation gives her, she plays the character well, and gives it real enthusiasm. Perhaps not as much, though, as crafty old James Doohan, who can be heard working a bit of a scam throughout the run. In the rules of the time, actors would be paid one fee if they voiced either one or two characters per episode (you can often hear Majel “Nurse Chapel” Barrett also giving voice to any female aliens the crew encounter) but as soon as a third voice was added the fee doubled. Doohan thus made sure that for as many of the episodes as he could he got three or more voices, which was no doubt good for his bank balance but has the unfortunate effect that most of the alien menaces the Enterprise encounter sound exactly like James Doohan. He’s often cited as having been a master of accents: this series sadly puts paid to that, with the actor recognisable (and at times, seemingly making no attempt even to try and sound different) no matter who he is.
Ultimately, it’s a show whose very premise was flawed. Caught between the two very different audiences of Saturday morning television and hard core fans it satisfies neither, being too boring for the kids and too unsatisfying for the Trekkers. It suffers from the paradox of trying to look more expensive than TOS but somehow looking far, far cheaper, and while some of the individual stories have merit the vast majority are slow moving, dull and hardly worth the time. It also proved a bit of a false dawn: after two seasons the cartoon was cancelled in 1974 and Roddenberry then spent four largely fruitless years trying to revive his ailing franchise, although at least TAS showed that Trek could be brought back, and kept it, if only temporarily, in the public eye. It’s not a complete waste (interestingly, the six episodes that make up its slender second season show significant signs of improvement) but it’s never more than a passing interest. If you want a selection of the best (and, in fairness, it’s a relative term: none of these shows hold up to a City on the Edge of Forever) then Yesteryear, More Tribbles, More Trouble, The Terratin Incident, Bem and The Counter-Clock Incident are not terrible, but in general this set is far more of a chore to sit through than this reviewer, certainly, was expecting. If you’re not a fan stay away: if you are, buy it but be prepared to discover that for once this is a series that deserved its obscurity.
But it’s still better than Voyager.
All twenty-two episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series are presented on four dual-layered single-sided discs. The box holding them is broadly similar to those which held the complete seasons of TOS, a sturdy plastic case which pivots open and holds within a small envelope that in turn holds the plastic case with the four discs inside. Also contained within is a small fold-out booklet with details about all the episodes - not, it would seem, one written by a dedicated Trekker as at one point Dr Spock is reported to appear in an episode (couldn’t spot him myself). The outer case has a translucent section through which you can see the interior booklet and it’s all done up in an attractive white and orange combination, and comes with an option cardboard stand with details on the back about the set. As one of the few people who actually liked the TOS cases (okay, the booklets quickly became shredded but the actual boxes were stylish) this makes a very nice repository, and is indeed an improvement on those earlier designs, being more sturdy.
The discs themselves are each illustrated with the faces of one of the main characters and lists the episodes, stardates and transmission dates on their face. After getting past the studio logo, Disc One gives you the option to either skip to the Main Menu or watch some previews (for the other Trek series, and Season Two of The 4400). The menu system needlessly splits the Episode Selection Screen apart from the Set Up menu (Set Up leading to audio and subtitle options) but are otherwise sensibly arranged. The Episode Selection screen lists the episodes on that disc as well as the all-important Play All button, and each episode has its own submenu with any optional extras. All are illustrated throughout with pictures from the show. The extras, with the exception of those episode-specific, are to be found on Disc Four.
The episodes themselves and all extras (including the commentaries) are subtitled, with the exception of the Preview trailer on Disc One.
Decent for what it is. The colours are bright and clear, but there’s a bit of digital artefacting which breaks in very occasionally, albeit not to any significant degree. All the animation flaws can be clearly seen, and there’s a bit of muck to be seen as well as some grain, resulting in a picture that looks pretty good (as good, in my limited experience, as I’ve seen these episodes) but doesn’t come close to more modern animation transfers.
However, be warned: there are some reports, which I can't confirm, that suggest there has been some alteration to some of the images, most noticeably a background in The Time Trap, during the graveyard scene which, if true, is guaranteed to annoy the purists.
The nowadays apparently obligatory 5.1 remix is no great shakes - this is a show with tinny music and weedy sound effects, and nothing one does to it is going have any effect. All round, aurally the show isn’t at its strongest, with dialogue never pinsharp and sometimes sounding relatively muffled. It never comes close being indiscernable, but one again the cheap quality of what one is watching is underlined.
A disappointment of the TOS DVD sets was the lack of any spoken commentaries, so it’s a nice thing that two of the writers involved in this series have been included here, giving us a brief insight into what working for the series way back when was like. Both David Gerrold, talking over his episodes More Tribbles, More Trouble and Bem, and David Wise, talking over How Sharper Than A Serpent’s Tooth, make engaging, informative companions who pack into the short running times plenty of trivia about their time working on the show. Both take their work seriously and have apparently superb memories of their time on the show, combining analysis of their stories with wider anecdotes about Roddenberry and co. As a result, and surprisingly, these are among the best commentaries you’ll hear on a Trek DVD.
As with all other Trek DVDs, Michael and Denise Okuda provide a collection of onscreen commentaries for selected episodes, in this case Yesteryear, The Eye of the Beholder and The Counter-Clock Incident. Mainly made up of trivia such as production credits and Trek folklore, I’m not sure whether I should find it worrying or not that, for the first time, a majority of the data to be read here I already knew.
Drawn to the Final Frontier: The Making of Star Trek: The Animated Series (24:20)
Gathering together an impressive number of people involved in the making of the series, including Head of Filmation Lou Scheimer, director Hal Sutherland and several of the writers, and featuring contributions from those who have made more recent contributions to the franchise on Star Trek: Enterprise (and snuck in some references from TAS) this is a very enjoyable, gentle retrospective. There’s no sign of the actual actors, but it’s difficult to imagine they could have brought the same level of enthusiasm for the show that the contributors here do.
What’s the Star Trek Connection? (5:44)
Nice little featurette that highlights the many references in the other Trek series to elements from TAS. One has the option to watch all of them at once (there are ten) or one at a time, and each one ends with a handy advert informing you the other series are still available to buy. The Trek fan in me insists I point out that the narrator doesn’t know how to pronounce “Orion” properly.
A whole host of original storyboards from the episode The Infinite Vulcan are available to peruse through. The drawings are not the most detailed, but the scans are nice and clear and there’s a goodly number, which the viewer has to manually skip through.
Padding which reveals nothing the Making Of doesn’t cover, this is a four page account of the series which can’t run for more than a couple of hundred words.
If you can ignore the admittedly not-unimportant fact that the episodes themselves are often not up to much, this is a splendid package and does full justice to the series. Although the extras are not as numerous as on some releases, they still cover TAS in just about as much detail as you’d want, with the Making Of and audio commentaries making a perfect companion to the show itself. There’s the odd minor mistake but overall I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked the actual set, and how disappointed I was in the actual episodes, the exact opposite of the reaction I was expecting. And it really is better than Voyager.