Review of Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973)

Parts only

This page describes the individual parts of Star Trek: The Animated Series. The work as a whole is reviewed elsewhere.

“Beyond the Farthest Star” (1973Moving picture, 25 minutes)

Seen in 2021.

On a “starcharting” trip literally beyond the farthest star of the Milky Way, the Enterprise encounters a planet that appears to have caught a huge, organic-looking alien ship in its extreme gravity, hundreds of millions of years before.

The setup is good and there is some surprising specificity to the script, but the conclusion is dull. The pacing is bad, moving more than twice as fast as TOS in half the runtime, despite having nowhere interesting to go.

This episode introduces force-field-emitting “life support belts” as a trick to keep the animation cheap in new environments, whereas TOS used space suits in “The Tholian Web” (1968).

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“Yesteryear” (1973Moving picture, 25 minutes)

Seen in 2021.

Using the Guardian from “The City on the Edge of Forever” (1967) to study history, the crew accidentally discovers that Spock is required to have interfered with his own history.

I like that Spock gets to go on his solipsistic quest alone, and Vulcan looks better as a set of painted backdrops with monsters than it ever did in TOS. There is less inspiration from Jewish culture, which helps put the camp factor well below “Spock’s Brain” (1968). The Federation having a policy to use time travel is consistent with “Assignment: Earth” (1968), and it’s a strangely gratifying detail that Spock’s prospectively retroactive replacement as first officer is totally fine with his own history being artificially revoked, despite being a hitherto unknown “warrior”.

Alas, I can’t say the episode makes sense. Sending naval officers travelling through time just to look at stuff is a dumb policy when it will change history without leaving evidence, and taking as a premise—here unstated—that all changes are in fact detectable is too conservative. Spock pretends, poorly, to be a cousin. The child version of him is already extremely rational, yet purebred Vulcan children bully him, in the same obviously emotion-driven way as human bullies. There is no saving the Vulcans as a concept by this time.

References here: “More Tribbles, More Troubles” (1973), “Sarek” (1990), “Firstborn” (1994).

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“One of Our Planets Is Missing” (1973Moving picture, 24 minutes)

Seen in 2021.

Similar in concept to The Black Cloud (1957), but dumber, with the ship caught inside the lower intestine of the smart cloud. The most impressive part is the unusual sincerity of the evacuation effort, but this is voice only; not a penny was spent animating it.

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“The Lorelei Signal” (1973Moving picture, 25 minutes)

Seen in 2021.

The women of the Enterprise avert disaster when the men are lured by punctual and pleasant alien women.

As the name implies, the script is based on the 19th-century motif of Lorelei as a siren, but this is a lotus-eating situation, not Homer’s sirens. Notice the dip in skin-colour diversity for sexual objects.

References here: “The Perfect Mate” (1992), “The Inner Light” (1992).

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“More Tribbles, More Troubles” (1973Moving picture, 24 minutes)

Seen in 2021.

A sequel to “The Trouble with Tribbles” (1967), reprising its human salesman with as much focus as the tribbles themselves. Even so, and even more so than “Yesteryear” (1973) or even “I, Mudd” (1967), this sequel assumes viewer familiarity. In this case, it’s familiarity with the normal behaviour of tribbles, which is subverted here. It makes sense to introduce a biological pest control for them, with a design that wouldn’t have worked in live actioin.

Incidentally, this is the most militarily dense episode of either of the two Star Trek series to date, aided by the ability to show torpedoes in flight and damage to ships on cels more easily than it could be shown on the models in live-action VFX shots. It doesn’t look good, but at least it was made possible.

References here: “Yesterday’s Enterprise” (1990).

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“The Survivor” (1973Moving picture, 23 minutes)

Seen in 2021.

Kitsch animation. The point of interest here is the mere existence of an Andrew Carnegie figure, a human who has gotten personally rich through trade and spent that wealth supporting human colonies.

References here: “The Neutral Zone” (1988), “The Dauphin” (1989).

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“The Infinite Vulcan” (1973Moving picture, 23 minutes)

Seen in 2021.

Mobile plants kidnap Spock.

The pacing is too high in this one, too, but the quality of the animation picks up briefly, probably from xerographic reuse. The sound design is still bad, but not as bad the sharply clattering foley of a falling tribble in the episode before last. It is mainly the cry of those purple swoopers—the Morrowind cliff racers used throughout TAS—that needed more work in the sound department.

The worldbuilding is kitschy, but oh so charming. Lovely matte paintings. Hyperintelligent plants. Way more tentacles than contemporary Japanese animation. The first reference is made to Larry Niven’s kzin, a species imported wholesale from another franchise, though it does not yet appear on screen. There is an extensive callback to “Space Seed” (1967) in that the villain is another product of its eugenics program, but this villain is simply misinformed about the state of galactic politics, not a tyrant. On the other hand, he’s huge, for no apparent reason. He’s also a clone, which doesn’t make sense either.

In the end, McCoy’s grandpa’s recipe for weed killer wins the day, along with plenty of polite conversation, just as it should be. Importantly, the giant clone of Spock is just going to keep working with the villain and everybody’s fine with it, me included.

References here: “The Time Trap” (1973), Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1982), “Up the Long Ladder” (1989), “A Man Alone” (1993), “Second Chances” (1993).

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“The Magicks of Megas-Tu” (1973Moving picture, 23 minutes)

Seen in 2021.

The historical Lucifer lives on a magical planet in the middle of the Milky Way, which is, in this case, the middle of everything.

High post-Tolkien camp, including Captain Kirk using wishful thinking as magic, in a duel. Attributing the Salem witch trials to extraterrestrial demons who must be magical in order to have created the galaxy is even more dumb and vulgar than the “Nazzi” cosplay of “Patterns of Force” (1968).

The “stardate” calendar of Star Trek was created to avoid discussions about plausibility. In this respect, it is similar to “warp” speeds and navigational headings on the show. Because the writers deliberately failed to design a meaningful system, it is not safe to assume that stardates are a monotonic function of future dates in any real calendar, but with that said, this particular episode has a smaller stardate than every episode in TOS, which may imply that it takes place first. That would be even funnier: The whole crew going into all of their other adventures with the knowledge that Kirk is a literal wizard who already saved Satan at the centre of the universe.

References here: “Devil’s Due” (1991), “The Nth Degree” (1991).

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“Once Upon a Planet” (1973Moving picture, 23 minutes)

Seen in 2021.

The crew returns to what Kirk calls the ““Shore Leave” planet”. Its central computer, thought to be devoted to pleasure, is not.

More high camp. It’s full of symptomatically bad ideas, including McCoy dreaming up a Southern plantation for fun in an episode where the confidently incorrect computer assumes Uhura to be a slave, and addresses her as such, while the animators violate copyright for Alice in Wonderland (1951). Seen from space, the clouds on the planet are just smears of poster-colour white and the animation is terrible. Poor Majel Barrett must have been cracking up in the recording booth trying to voice Lieutenant M’Ress, a purring catgirl reimplementing the one in “Assignment: Earth” (1968) more effectively. M’Ress would never be purring this much again.

References here: “The Practical Joker” (1974).

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“Mudd’s Passion” (1973Moving picture, 23 minutes)

Seen in 2021.

Mudd sells a love potion—in solid crystalline form—by having a magical reptile alien pretend to be a woman thus swayed.

Literally classic cartoon material, specifically repeating the premise of “Porky the Rain-Maker” (1936) that an obvious con man’s product actually works. The implementation is gratingly dull, Shatner’s voice-over being particularly flat in this episode.

There is no reason to believe that any thought went into the script, but I still note that there are clear economic implications, including the concept of “Federation vouchers”, a writer’s cop-out to enable Mudd to live for money in a nominally post-scarcity economy where money does not exist and economic power is not a source of social status. Consider also the stereotypically stupid-looking miners in the opening; the writers are transparently recycling their own assumptions about their own time and transposing them to the fantasy setting.

References here: “The Perfect Mate” (1992).

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“The Terratin Incident” (1973Moving picture, 23 minutes)

Seen in 2021.

Apocalypse strikes an old colony named “Terra Ten”, where the people have shrunk.

As in “The Alternative Factor” (1967), a poor script tries adding some new information about dilithium. The general pattern of a planetary colony doomed by sinister local conditions echoes “The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal” (1964) and older SF. It’s poorly done here.

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“The Time Trap” (1973Moving picture, 23 minutes)

Seen in 2021.

An idyllic society of space travellers from many different species, some psychic, marooned and living forever in a bubble from which they cannot escape.

One of the marooned species is the veggies from “The Infinite Vulcan” (1973), which is fun. There are more “klin gons” as pronounced in “The Trouble with Tribbles” (1967), and a “Saragasso Sea”; evidently a flubbed pronunciation of “Sargasso”. Shatner also insists on the pronunciation “sabbatash” while everybody else says “sabotage”. Classic Shat, dull episode.

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“The Ambergris Element” (1973Moving picture, 23 minutes)

Seen in 2021.

Kirk and Spock are surgically altered to breathe only under water.

Kitsch. In the abstract, at the highest level, the setting isn’t bad: A civilization lives under water because their planet has almost no land, a complex relationship to outsiders, and advanced genetic engineering. The problems arise where this setting meets the established characters. I wonder how the director could look at the storyboards and think it’d work.

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“The Slaver Weapon” (1973Moving picture, 23 minutes)

Larry Niven (writer).

Seen in 2021.

Kzin seek a superweapon from a long lost civilization that built “stasis boxes”. The contents do not age.

Adapted from one of Niven’s short stories, which was originally set in Known Space. Uniquely, the rewrite as such is credited on the title screen. Oddly enough, the union of two fictional settings includes the Man-Kzin Wars, described here by Sulu as having taken place 200 years before, which would put them around the 2060s. Fortunately for humans in that regard, the kzin in this episode look stiff and wimpy, quite unlike Niven’s original depiction.

The animation is still bad, but the writing is a step up! It’s a clear and cerebral change of pace from normal Star Trek, but still mostly kid friendly. The script includes a few words normally considered unfit for television, like “repudiate”. There’s a scene where the characters accidentally blow the top off a distant mountain, recalling Last and First Men (1930) and other classic literary SF; the sort of thing that couldn’t happen in live action. Even Sulu seems significantly more intelligent and serious than usual in Niven’s hands—George Takei does a good job of that—and Kirk is absent, which is all for the better.

I wish all of TAS had been like this, that is more like literary SF thought experiments and less like standard TV melodrama. This particular episode is not brilliant by any means, but it’s compelling viewing because of what the franchise as a whole could have been, and the charm of kitsch is still there.

References here: “The Last Outpost” (1987).

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“The Eye of the Beholder” (1974Moving picture, 23 minutes)

Seen in 2021.

A zoo that is manufactured—but somehow not created—has humans in it.

An allegory about the nature of intelligence, with too much telepathy. All of the animation budget went into random monsters; at least Spock enjoys looking at them.

References here: “The Jihad” (1974), “The Ensigns of Command” (1989).

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“The Jihad” (1974Moving picture, 23 minutes)

Seen in 2021.

A small top-secret team of superheroes who don’t know each other is assembled by an anthropomorphic cat because an avian species threatens to multiply and make holy war upon the entire galaxy with 200 billion soldiers if a lost item is not retrieved from a dangerous planet.

Given the origins of TAS in TOS and the ambition to reach broad audiences, it is easy to forget that TAS aired as a “Saturday morning cartoon”, a US cultural institution, traditionally just for children. This was still 10 years before deregulation would turn the last Saturday morning cartoons into formula-driven marketing vehicles, but this episode seems to foreshadow that development. Kirk’s team, consisting of Spock, a sexually assertive amazon scout, and a handful of colourful aliens, looks like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983), to be produced by the same studio (Filmation) for toy merchandising purposes. It’s just a little less hypermasculine. In an alternate universe where I was a kid and the corresponding “action figures” were actually made, I would have bought Em/3/Green; so cute.

The Vedala, the species that assembles the superhero team, is mentioned only here. They are cat people, dressed like the kzin, though perhaps the colour-blind director meant for their clothes to be grey and not pink. Through no fault of his own, he could not tell the difference. Anyway, the Vedala are also not the same as M’Ress’s species, the “Caitians”. Given the total freedom of animation, the people who made Star Trek mainly came up with three different kinds of cats who can talk just like people. This one only has one pose, and it looks so uncomfortable.

The action takes place on an unnamed “mad planet” where the (surface?) temperature ranges from “20 Kelvin” to “204 above” (not 270 as some sources state). 204 Kelvin is -69 °C or -92 °F. Despite the extreme cold, there is still plenty of free-flowing lava and the humans have no problem walking around in their pajama uniforms. This comes immediately after “The Eye of the Beholder” (1974), where a contrast between local biomes is identified as an important clue. Here, nobody cares.

The cat and the temperatures are some of the smaller problems in the script. The entire episode is pure kitsch, written by the same incompetent who wrote all three of the episodes about Harry Mudd. I take pleasure in watching the trainwreck of internal contradictions resulting from the apathy and stupidity of the many workaday professionals who messed this all up from start to finish. Some of them, I am sure, made no mistake other than to shut up and let it happen.

References here: “The Outcast” (1992), “Rightful Heir” (1993), “Force of Nature” (1993).

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“The Pirates of Orion” (1974Moving picture, 23 minutes)

Seen in 2021.

This is so trivial and transparent that it feels like a bottle episode, despite the fact that it establishes the existence of piracy, something Roddenberry had previously refused to include in the setting.

References here: “Gambit: Part 1” (1993).

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“Bem” (1974Moving picture, 25 minutes)

Seen in 2021.

A green colony creature tests the crew.

Implausible and pointless. It’s an odd bit of trivia that the “stardate” of this episode, if taken to be monotonic, would place it long after everything in TOS and after every other episode of TAS.

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“The Practical Joker” (1974Moving picture, 23 minutes)

Seen in 2021.

After a bumpy ride, the ship’s AI develops a cruel sense of humour.

The “food synthesizers” from “By Any Other Name” (1968) feature more heavily here. More importantly, the episode introduces the holodeck and, unfortunately, the motif of being trapped on the holodeck, often to be revisited in the decades that followed. It seems that despite these inventions, the writers had no concept of what an intelligent computer might plausibly be or do, so they patterned it after some sort of boggart. Its interaction with the holodeck makes this episode a remake of “Once Upon a Planet” (1973) at a smaller scale. Indeed, the holodeck of TNG would become a portable “Shore Leave planet”, which in itself is a step in the direction of intelligent worldbuilding.

References here: “The Big Goodbye” (1988), “Emergence” (1994).

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“Albatross” (1974Moving picture, 23 minutes)

Seen in 2021.

Dr. McCoy is charged with starting a planetary genocide of hundreds of aliens, 19 years earlier, and can’t remember whether he did or not.

Hints of vaccine denialism, averted by astrological substitution: The ancient concept of disease from the stars, which is not better. Apart from the colour-coded stages of the disease (those affected turn blue, green and red in that order), which make the animation extra cheap, this is one of those TAS episodes that works much like a radio drama. It’s “limited animation” to the point that the visuals are wholly secondary to the experience, despite the odd-looking aliens and despite the fact that guest actor Lou Scheimer, a veteran who co-founded Filmation and did voices for two other episodes of TAS, botches this one completely. I sense that everyone knew the series wasn’t going to be renewed, and they weren’t going to fight for it.

I’m not sure, but this might be the first time an actual script acknowledges that the role of the ship’s engineers is patterned after that of a steam engine’s fireman, shovelling coal into a firebox on an early-20th-century ship. Scotty says so here, as a joke, but the same joke had been running internally for years. There’s a TOS blooper reel where a production assistant similarly shovels coal. Later series would gradually drop this concept and give the bridge crew somewhat more direct electronic control over a more responsive engine, but the conceptual throwback would still echo in TNG.

References here: “A Man Alone” (1993).

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“How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth” (1974Moving picture, 23 minutes)

Seen in 2021.

Chasing down Kukulkan, the “Feathered Serpent” of Mesoamerican religion.

References here: “Journey’s End” (1994).

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“The Counter-Clock Incident” (1974Moving picture, 22 minutes)

Seen in 2021.

After being dragged into a supernova by a backwards-talking woman, the crew gets gradually younger and forgets how to work the controls.

The woman hails from a mirror universe, more extensive than that of “Mirror, Mirror” (1967), and not morally mirrored, but even more poorly conceived.

References here: “Rascals” (1992).

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