|Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973)
Starring: voices of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Majel Barrett
To the mainstream public, the animated version of “Star Trek” falls somewhere between a footnote and an obscurity. It was only on the air for two years – 1973-1974 – and, even then, it was on Saturday mornings; as such, it might as well have been just another cartoon. To fans, however, it’s a much-loved piece of the “Trek” universe, and one that’s long overdue for release on DVD.
It’s amazing that everyone from the original cast returned to provide their own voices…well, everyone but Chekov, that is. Poor Walter Koenig fell victim to the show’s limited budget – an issue which led to James Doohan (Scotty), Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), and Majel Barrett (Nurse Chapel) playing multiple voices in various episodes – and Chekov was written out of the show. (Koenig did, however, end up writing an episode for the series.) It was also fortuitous that a Writer’s Guild strike was going on at the time the show began production; since the strike didn’t apply to animation, it resulted in many talented folks looking for work and chiming in with a script or two.
The beauty of transforming “Star Trek” into an animated series was that it provided the show with the opportunity to visit a wider variety of environments, like the underwater civilization in “The Ambergris Element”; it also meant that the show’s writers could finally explore more alien life forms without having to worry about the end result looking like a $4.99 costume bought at Toys ‘R’ Us. The bridge crew of the Enterprise took on two new aliens as a result: Lieutenant M’Ress, who hailed from a race of feline humanoids, and Lieutenant Arex, who – with three arms and three legs – would never have looked even remotely believable in live-action form.
A few of the animated episodes are sequels to original-series episodes, most notably “Mudd’s Passion,” which features Roger C. Carmel reprising the role of intergalactic con artist Harry Mudd, and “More Tribbles, More Troubles,” where everyone’s favorite furballs return for further infestation. (The writer of the original “Tribbles” episode, David Gerrold, returned to pen the sequel as well.) “Yesteryear,” while not a true sequel, continued a thread from “City on the Edge of Forever” by bringing the crew of the Enterprise back to use the Guardian of Forever, a sentient time portal; the episode provides a look at the planet Vulcan that’s almost as educational as “Amok Time,” and many of its elements have found their way into episodes of other “Trek” shows, like “Enterprise.”
Despite the last sentence, there’s considerable debate amongst the fans as to whether the animated series is considered to be part of the “Trek” canon. Before his death, Gene Roddenberry said it wasn’t. Fortunately, most of the writers for the various “Trek” series have been well-versed in the show, and, as far as they’re concerned, these adventures are just as valid as anything live-action. That is wise. The writers were just as good as those on the original series, and these episodes fill in several blanks in “Trek” history, like the first captain of the Enterprise (Robert April), Spock’s mother’s maiden name (Grayson), and Captain Kirk’s middle name (Tiberius, of course).
“Star Trek: The Animated Series” was, despite its Saturday morning timeslot, never intended for children, and its lack of popularity among the pre-teen set may well have been why it only lasted for the two seasons. (You just know that most of the people watching it were hung-over or stoned college kids.) Nonetheless, if you can get past the stilted Filmation animation – the backgrounds are great, but there ain’t too much motion going on – you’ll find 22 half-hour episodes that, for the most part, hold up with the best of the live-action series.Special Features: There are commentaries on several episodes – audio from writer David Gerrold, text from Michael and Denise Okuda – but it’s disappointing that Gerrold was the only person willing to step up to the plate and do an audio commentary. Fortunately, there’s a featurette, “Drawn to the Final Frontier,” where other “Trek” writers like D.C. Fontana chime in, but it’s a shame Fontana didn’t sit down and chat about her fantastic Spock-centric episode, “Yesteryear.” It’s also notable that nowhere, not even in the featurette, do we ever get a comment from any cast member. Surely it was neither so awful nor so unmemorable an experience that they didn’t have anything at all to say! If you’re thinking about picking up this set to introduce your kids to “Trek,” there’s a neat feature called “What’s the ‘Star Trek Connection,” which shows how elements from the animated series tie into the other “Trek” shows from throughout the years. Also included are storyboards for the episode “The Infinite Vulcan.”