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STAR TREK At 50: THE ANIMATED SERIES (1973-1974)

We continue our celebration of Star Trek's 50th anniversary with a look at the animated spin-off '70s series.


Words by Nick Sauer (@njsauer)




Star Trek: The Animated Series was, as the title suggests, an animated version of Star Trek broadcast on Saturday mornings on NBC from 1973 to 1974. This was the first spin off Star Trek series and, even today, probably remains the least well known of the six Star Trek television franchises. For those unfamiliar with American television practices during this time period, Saturday mornings were dedicated to children’s programming by all three of the U.S networks. Most animated TV series in the U.S at this time were viewed as children’s programs. While this show was nominally a children’s program, it was still very much targeted at an older audience. The animated series consists of 22 episodes over two seasons of 16 and six episodes respectively. If you are puzzled by how these seasons actually work, don’t worry, as I have an explanation below.
Filmation was the production company that produced the series in partnership with Paramount Pictures. While they wanted to avoid the standard comedic kids' television programming of the day, they originally did want to include child characters in the series. Their idea was to have an intern for each of the main characters to give child viewers someone to relate to, and, as a result, hopefully increase the show’s appeal to a younger audience. Roddenberry was the executive producer for the series and immediately killed the concept. The animated Star Trek ultimately ended up using the same writer’s guidelines (called a writer’s bible) as the original series, and Roddenberry brought over a number of the original writers as well.
While the starting point remained roughly the same as the classic series, there were a number of differences, the largest being the step down to a half hour format. This meant that most of the episode was focused on advancing the story-line, which left less room for character development. The opening theme and incidental music are also completely different from the original series. On the more positive side, the animated format allowed for greater freedom in the visual effects department. The animated series featured many more space ship designs than were seen in the original series. Two episodes also featured scenes that took place in zero-gravity. Finally, more and very different alien species were introduced, two of them being regular bridge crew. Lt. Arex was a tripedal Edoan navigator and Lt. M’Ress was a felinoid Caitian communications officer who would substitute for Lt. Uhura occasionally. The two new characters were voice acted by James Doohan and Majel Barrett, respectively. While the animated format allowed unlimited freedom with the ship and alien creations, the animation staff showed a good combination of restraint as well as respect for the original series in that every new thing they introduced looked like it fit into the original Star Trek universe.
Even with their reduced length, the episodes of the animated series successfully capture the feel of Star Trek. Two of the episodes are sequels to original series stories. Once Upon a Planet takes us back to the same world we first encountered in the episode Shore Leave. More Tribbles, More Troubles is, of course, a sequel to The Trouble With Tribbles, including the return of Cyrano Jones who, while not credited, was voiced by the original actor Stanley Adams. The final sequel to this classic episode would appear during the fifth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Even with the unlimited visual effects capabilities offered by animation, the two episodes Practical Joker and One of Our Planets is Missing take place entirely aboard the Enterprise, which was a classic way of reducing an episode’s cost for the original live action series and would also be used for similar reasons during The Next Generation's run. The two best episodes of the series are easily Yesteryear and The Slaver Weapon. In the former, a journey into the past through the Guardian of Forever results in Spock being erased from history, forcing him to return to his own childhood on Vulcan to correct his own time line. The Slaver Weapon is written by the famous science fiction writer Larry Niven and is an adaptation of his previously published short story The Soft Weapon, replacing the original three characters with Spock, Sulu and Uhura. I would also recommend the episodes Time Trap and Eye of the Beholder.
The animation style, while ground breaking at the time, has aged poorly compared to every other aspect of the series. I would generously describe it as serviceable by today’s animation standards. While it doesn’t make the series unwatchable, the awkward primitiveness of the style does stand out a bit.  
The principle reason this series is largely forgotten is that Roddenberry declared it non-canonical when Star Trek: The Next Generation began. Articles written currently seem to indicate that Roddenberry made this official at the end of the first season of The Next Generation but, having lived through the period, my recollection is that he had made the statement around the same time that the pilot, Encounter at Farpoint, had aired, if not earlier. Roddenberry has also been quoted as saying that, had he known that a live action Star Trek would return to television, he never would have made the animated series in the first place. Regardless of all this, I think the whole point is mute as a number of elements from Star Trek: The Animated Series have made their way into subsequent Trek series and movies. The two most famous examples are the holodeck, a major feature of The Next Generation, introduced in the animated episode Practical Joker, and Kirk’s middle name being Tiberius, both of which were established in the animated series. I would guess that the principle reason for Roddenberry’s dismissal of the animated series was specifically the episode The Infinite Vulcan, written by Walter Koenig, which leaves a 20 foot tall clone of Spock on the planet Phylos, which I’m sure Roddenberry, or anyone else for that matter, did not want to have to address in any of the later series.
Another groundbreaking aspect of Star Trek: The Animated Series was that it won the Star Trek franchise its first Emmy award. This is what explains the second season. The first season of the series consisted of only 16 episodes and, while the ratings were low due to the series not drawing in enough children, the Emmy award caused Filmation to add six new episodes in the following fall for a total of 22 episodes for the series. Fans of the original Star Trek should definitely check out the animated series.


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