The black sheep of the Star Trek family – a series review of ST:TAS

Every family has its black sheep, the Phish-head brother who never calls or the “tarnished Pagan jewel in a Catholic family crown.” In a strange way, the “family” of Star Trek drama has a mirror to that family structure, the short-running, but critically acclaimed Star Trek: The Animated Series. Prior to the 40th Anniversary release of the DVD package for TAS, many markets hadn’t seen the animated series since 1974 when it aired on the NBC Saturday morning line-up for 22 episodes, in the process winning an Emmy for best children’s show.

TAS Box SetIts status as the black sheep is not entirely undeserved. Having the chance to revisit these episodes so many years after first watching them as a child, I was able to bring a new perspective to the shows. There are places where, more than simply being true to Star Trek, the animated series actually pushes new ground … Yesteryear, where we explore Spock’s past through the Guardian of Forever, a reference to the City on the Edge of Forever episode of the original series, does an excellent job of expanding the general Star Trek story while remaining true its essence. But in other places, its clear the animated series pushed too far into uncharted new territory. In episodes like The Magicks of Megas-tu and How Sharper than a Serpent’s Tooth, they went back to the lands first explored in original series shows like Who Mourns for Adonais. Unfortunately, in the half-hour format of a Saturday morning cartoon, the result of these, and other episodes, was a cliched attempt to deal with significant subjects (as a modern viewer, I cringed at the sudden appearance of Walking Bear in Serpent’s Tooth, just in time to be able to give historic information on the Mayans and Kukulkan, for example, especially in light of the fact that it would have been seen as an example of inclusiveness in its day), and a casualness with science that plagued the original live action series as well.

Everything I’ve said so far is largely what i expected to find when I revisited these episodes. My memory of them was good enough to remember many of the themes I mention above, many of the difficulties that make TAS a separate piece of Star Trek lore, a piece that exists outside official canon. But what truly surprised me, stunned me even, was some of the artwork of the Filmation animation work. I remembered a clumsily animated show, where humans were poorly represented, talking looked funny, and people moved in strange, cardboard ways … what I didn’t remember was the stunning examples of 1970’s SF artwork going on in the background of many of the shots. One thing the format of animation did afford was unlimited alien vistas, and the artists did an incredible job of setting scene in the background in many cases. Drawing on the fantastical imagery of pulp SF artwork from the Golden Age, but bringing it forward to the post-Vietnam cultural landscape, the artists took full advantage of the ability to go beyond the limitations of costume and set to give us some truly unique and amazing landscapes of stark beauty and colour.

One specific area where the animated format shines is in the ability to depict alien cities in a detail that was impossible in a live action show in the days before computer animation. Many of the city-scapes are highly reminiscent of Golden-Age artwork, like that of Frank R Paul, and you can see elements of The Jetsons and John Sutherland’s science propaganda work, but with a character that makes it into a unique view.

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A variety of fantastic cityscape’s from ST:TAS; from left to right (and top to bottom), The Main hall of Justice from The Albatross, the alien cities from The Eye of the Beholder, The Infinite Vulcan, and Mudd’s Passion

Really, where the format of animation truly excelled was in the expansive sorts of shots that were impossible in live-action in those days, and are still only possible through expensive computer animation merged into the real footage. This can apply inside as well as outside, however, and the ST:TAS artists truly seemed to revel in alien laboratories. Where high-tech alien gadgetry could only be hinted at with real, live-action props, in animation there was free reign to design expansive and intricate interior environments. In different ways, they are as striking as the cityscape’s.

disc01-beyondthefartheststar-02.jpg disc2-onceuponaplanet-01.jpg disc2-theinfinitevulcun-02.jpg disc01-yesteryear-04.jpg
Alien laboratories and interiors from ST:TAS; from left to right, from first broadcast episode Beyond the Farthest Star, the underground lab from Once Upon a Planet, the lab from Infinite Vulcan, and the fountain near Spock’s ancestral home from Yesteryear

A final luxury that the animated format allows is more interesting and fluid aliens. Live action SF has always had the problem of using human actors to portray non-human aliens, or having to come up with difficult and expensive alternatives like puppetry, animatronics, and computer animation today. Even today, the computer animated precision isn’t necessarily a replacement for the warmth and fluidity of the aliens and their environments in ST:TAS. Certainly, for their day, the ST:TAS aliens represented the state of the art, and ideas and concepts impossible to achieve in a live action format.

disc03-theambergriselement-02.jpg disc03-theeyeofthebeholder-03.jpg disc04-thealbatross-03.jpg M'Ress
A variety of aliens from ST:TAS; the monster from The Ambergris Element, the zookeepers from The Eye of the Beholder, a Dramian stands with Kirk and Spock on a battle-scarred Dramia II from The Albatross, M’Ress and Arex are the animated Enterprise’ alien bridge crew

There’s no question that ST:TAS will be have a valued place in my DVD collection, and I expect that’s true of most hardcore Star Trek fans. But I also recommend that fans of science fiction art in general revisit the series as well. As many difficulties as the shows often have in story and dialogue, there are a few things that come through very clearly. First, for Star Trek fans, while the series is non-canon, it is the basis of much that is canon, in terms of elements from many episodes that were woven into the fabric of later episodes (one of the more esoteric being Dr. Flox on Enterprise keeping Edosian slugs on-board, a reference to the home planet of Lt. Arex, the tri-lateral navigator/2nd science officer of the animated Enterprise). Second, for the fan of science fiction in general, there are a couple of stories, such as The Eye of the Beholder, and Yesteryear, which stand very well on their own, including a collaboration with Larry Niven in The Slaver Weapon where the Star Trek universe briefly merges with the universe of Niven’s short stories in some small way with the introduction of the Kzinti. Other than the unfortunate pink colouring of the spaceship and spacesuits of the ferocious Kzinti, it was one of the stronger stories in the series. Finally, fans of science fiction art will find wonderful gems spread throughout the series, scenes that both call back to more classic images and push forward into new territory.

It was those last two things that struck me so strongly as I watched the shows again. In many ways, for me, it all came together in The Eye of the Beholder, an episode where some of the Enterprise crew are help captive in an alien zoo. It was a strong story, perhaps one of the best of the who series, but it also contains some of the most striking artwork from the entire series, in my opinion. I’ll end this post with a couple of images from that episode … some final examples, if the above hasn’t been enough evidence already, of incredible futuristic imagery of ST:TAS …

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Copyright Note: All images are the property of Star Trek and CBS/Paramount and used here as fair use for illustration and review.

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