How Bad Can It Be?: “Star Trek: The Animated Series”
My usual modus operandi with this column — and the reason why its title is phrased as a question — is to look for signs of quality in cultural products for which I have no reasonable expectation of finding it. I’m not even necessarily expecting that Hannah Montana DVD to be bad — I’m just not expecting it to be very good. My hope is always to be pleasantly surprised. Oh, I hear the same word-of-mouth that you all do, and I know the received wisdom as well as anyone else; but usually I can shrug them off and try to approach the work with an open mind, hoping against hope for something good.
There are times, though, when my own prior experiences lead me to approach my subject with a pre-existing anticipation of its crapulence, and that shit is hard to shake. Such is the case with Star Trek: The Animated Series, released in 2006 in a handsome boxed edition, which I have just re-encountered for the first time since seeing it in its original run.
It’s impossible for me to be entirely objective where the original Star Trek is concerned. My first TV-watching memory is of “Arena” playing on a ten-inch black & white set in my parents’ bedroom while helping my mother fold laundry. In those pre-cable days of my childhood, the show was simply always on, somewhere, and I ended up watching it a lot. I wasn’t a devotee per se, any more than I was a devotee of the brown-and-orange carpet in the living room, or of the old striped couch — it was simply always there. I was effected by the cult and critical reputation, of course, but even as a kid I had some sense of what Trek was, in its proper context; a smarter, more ambitious TV show than, say, The Rat Patrol (although the latter had a better theme tune), but still more like it than unlike. If nothing else, Trek was intended to be an entertainment, and mostly it succeeded.
My memories of Star Trek: The Animated Series were vague — it first ran when I was just a nipper, and never achieved the syndicated ubiquity of the original — but I do recall a sense of disappointment. As a child, I was programmed to like cartoons; but these cartoons were somehow less exciting than the live-action program, dull and talky and hard to follow. It failed on the most basic level. It failed to entertain.
I wasn’t alone in my opinion, it seemed. Trek fandom is notorious for its undiscriminating affections, and its appetite for trivia is bottomless — but ST:TAS was a great lacuna in the discourse around the franchise. It’s as if the fannish hordes simply determined, by an effort of will, to simply wish The Animated Series away, in the most impressive act of collective denial this side of the Star Wars Holiday Special.
Denial is usually useless, and at worst harmful. But having now subjected myself to all 22 episodes of the project, I can confirm that denial is, in this case, precisely the correct strategy.
So the question is less How bad can it be? than What went wrong? The entire production was carefully authorized and vetted. Trek creator Gene Roddenberry served as a consultant, and reportedly had a hand in many of the scripts; D.C. Fontana, Trek’s story editor for much of its run, returned as showrunner; virtually the entire cast of the original show came on board to provide voices (with the sole exception of Walter Koenig, but even he got involved with the project as the credited scriptwriter for the episode “The Infinite Vulcan”); a number of A-list writers, including David Gerrold and Larry Niven, provided teleplays. So why is the show so little-loved?
In large part, I think it’s because it looked like this:
Seriously. That’s the show, for large chunks of it. Big giant heads, all over the screen, talking, grimacing, narrowing their eyes in suspicion or doubt. Bad enough. But when they can’t even bother to delineate the whites of the characters’ eyes? It’s gotta be Filmation Productions.
Now, the ’70s were a Brass Age of cheap, lazy animation, and the house style at Filmation was the cheapest and laziest of the bunch. There are some very nice background paintings, some sterling design work, truly alien-looking creatures and architecture — but for long stretches, what we’re seeing is “animation” in theory only. The camera lingers in long pans and zooms over still frames. Wherever possible, characters in motion are presented as silhouettes. Walk and run cycles are repeated endlessly. It makes bottom-of-the-barrel Hanna-Barbera crap like The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan look like fucking Miyazaki, to be frank. And the cheapness shows up in other odd ways, too; the licensing deal apparently didn’t include any of the music, so we mostly get Filmation’s library of stock cues, with Alexander Courage’s iconic theme tune replaced by this knock-off, which sounds like the orchestra has their sheet music upside-down:
I suspect, though, that the underlying conceptual problem was the format itself. Now, in a sense animation is the perfect medium for science fiction. The special effects budget is effectively limitless; alien beings and fantastic worlds that might, in a live action film, require hours of make-up or elaborate sets can be rendered as easily as mundane scenes. In another sense, though, the animated medium will always favor visually-interesting stories over any other kind, and science fiction is also a literature of ideas. The original Trek could take its time to have two or more characters mull over the implications of a scientific or ethical problem and count on the strength of the performances to carry the moment; the animated series didn’t have that option. The performances are quite good, mind you — being alone in the voice-over booth tames Shatner’s worst hambone tendencies — but there’s no visual strategy for rendering ideas except for Big Giant Heads.
And so form determines content. What animation does best is transformation, and many episodes of ST:TAS take advantage of the medium’s inherent plasticity of form. In one episode, a shape-shifting alien boards the Enterprise, transforming into various crewmen by turns; in others, the crew shrink to a height of inches, grow younger, grow older; here, Spock grows to giant-size; now, Kirk and Spock are transformed into fish-men. New ground for Star Trek, perhaps, but old hat for cartoons, even in the 1970s.
Sometimes this works to the show’s advantage, allowing for imaginative character designs beyond the capabilities of even state-of-the-art makeup. TAS finds the bridge crew augmented by the leonine Lt. M’Ress.
M’Ress is voiced by Majel Barrett — Mrs. Gene Roddenberry — and frankly all of her purring and growling made me little uncomfortable; there are some things that a husband shouldn’t encourage his wife to do outside the context of the bedroom. There’s also the red-skinned, six-limbed Lt. Arex, whose three arms are not only helpful at the ship’s helm, but when he’s jammin’ out on his space-lute:
Impromptu musical performances were a bit of a motif with this series. This fan-made “trailer” for the episode “The Lorelei Signal” kicks off with a lovely solo vocal by that noted tenor, Mr. Scott:
This episode also features a race of ageless women who ensnare the menfolk with their beauty, then literally drain their vital life-essences from them. What the fuck, Star Trek? By episode’s end, Lt. Uhura has assumed command of the Enterprise and sent all female security teams — redskirts, if you will — to rescue the silly boys; then, when Kirk is restored to health, she breathlessly tells him that he is “as handsome as ever.” WHAT THE FUCK STAR TREK. And then there’s this pre-credits gag from “The Infinite Vulcan” and I swear before God that this is legit, not some weird-ass fan dub:
“Inscrutable.” For serious. STAR TREK, WHAT THE FUCK?!?
So, yeah, the writing tends to be a little, um uneven. Many of these episodes play like leftover spec scripts for the original Trek, rejiggered for the half-hour format. They race through their plot points briskly and efficiently, but the foreshortened structure leaves no space for character beats or even dramatic tension. As a result, even the best of the stories seem like working notes for a n outstanding hour-long episode. “Yesteryear,” for instance, finds Spock travelling back in time to encounter himself as a child. It’s a killer premise, and fairly well-told — but a longer run-time would have allowed for real pathos, for contrast of the lonely dilemmas of the Spocks young and old — most importantly for suspense. Time and again, the Enterprise is imperiled here, but the danger never feels real — with the plot hurtling ever forward, there’s hardly time to draw the breath that it takes to say “Uh-oh.”
The Animated Series is primarily interesting as an example of what fans sarcastically call continuity porn. Many of these stories act as callbacks to the original series, expanding on themes and concepts introduced earlier on. The Guardian of Forever is back; so are con artist Harry Mudd, and Cyrano Jones and the tribbles. It’s an important bridging document, laying the foundations for future series by playing on the notion of Trek as a self-consistent universe. But most of the innovations introduced by ST:TAS — and we’re talking game-changers here, like a giant-sized Spock-duplicate running loose, proof of the existence of magic, even the folding of Larry Niven’s Known Space timeline into Federation history — were ignored or discarded by future Trek series, partly for legal reasons but mostly because they were, as a rule, pretty fucking stupid.
So farewell, then, animated Star Trek, unloved stepchild of a once-mighty franchise. And thank you, Paramount, for putting all these episodes in such a fine, sturdy box set. That’s where they belong. In a box. Firmly shut, and put away somewhere out of sight.