Now I bet some of you are asking “Joe, why are you covering a Star Trek show for Off the Beaten Path? Dune based posts are one thing, what with Dune not (yet) having many high profile adaptations for the screen, but Star Trek is one of the most famous science fiction franchises in television history.” Well, you’re not wrong. All you need to see is the whole section devoted to the franchise on Paramount +, including the onrush of new Star Trek content, to see it’s still a moneymaker despite being a nearly 60-year-old franchise. That, or you know, you’ve interacted with some kind of pop culture over the last 60 years. That said, if there’s any exception to this, it would be Star Trek: The Animated Series. Plus, I’ve been watching Star Trek: The Original Series for the first time (by the time this goes live I’ll be into the early episodes of season 3) so I figured why the hell not.
The first spin-off of Star Trek: The Original Series and the only animated Star Trek show until Star Trek: Lower Decks premiered back in December of 2020, Star Trek: The Animated Series ran for two seasons from 1973 to 1974. It was an animated continuation of the original series, following the exploits of Captain Jim Kirk, Science Officer Spock, Chief Medical Officer Bones, and the whole gang as they continue their 5 year mission from the original series. Here’s the thing though. Compared to all of the other series and movies, Star Trek: The Animated Series was largely forgotten, thrown into the limbo of questionable canon along with having by far the shortest episode run, and it took until well into the 2010’s to be vindicated as a bonafide Star Trek show.
Now, in terms of what I thought of the first season, it is solid Star Trek through and through, though not the best of the Star Trek franchise by any means largely due to the nature of the tv animated medium in the 1970’s.
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Maintaining the feel of Star Trek: The Original Series
Now before I start complaining about the flaws (that’ll come in due time) I wanted to mention the single best aspect of Star Trek: The Animated Series S1; maintaining the feel of Star Trek: The Original Series.
On paper, this isn’t surprising. On the acting side, every member of the original crew barring Walter Koenig (Pavel Chekov) came back to voice their animated counterparts, with Koenig not returning due solely to budgetary issues. On the production side, Gene Roddenberry stayed on as a producer while original series writer and script editor D.C. Fontana was hired as the series story editor and associate producer, along with bringing back many of the individual episode writers like Mark Daniels and Paul Schneider.
But again, that’s all on paper. That doesn’t mean the actual product will feel like the original live-action show. For one, they could have added a multitude of kid sidekicks like so many other animated spin-offs of live-action shows did back then. They could have removed that special cerebral quality of the original series. They could have done a whole multitude of things.
Now while the transition from live-action to animation isn’t seamless by any means (I’ll get into that later), it is more successful than I thought going in. In fact, the first season of the animated series feels remarkably similar to the original series. Each episode, whether it’s a wholly new idea or a sequel to an original series episode, revolves around our intrepid crew finding new worlds and new beings, getting into all sorts of heady sci-fi shenanigans, and escaping/saving the day through quick wit and the power of make-believe science, just like before. Plus, there are some episodes that feature great character moments that transcend individual shows. In Yesteryear, we not only get a great glimpse at the hardships young Spock faced as a vulcan-human hybrid but also an expanded look at vulcan society. In The Lorelei Signal, Uhura assumes command of the Enterprise and the following rescue operation for the first (and last) time.
Before you keep reading, keep this in mind. Despite all the complaining I’m about to do, Star Trek: The Animated Series is still worth a watch if you’re a fan of the original series. No matter the transitional difficulties, these are bonafide Star Trek episodes, not pale imitators.
Getting Wacked by the Limited Animation Stick
Now that I’ve talked about the outright strengths of Star Trek: The Animated Series S1, it’s time we address the elephant in the room; the animation.
If you aren’t familiar with animation history, Star Trek: The Animated Series came out near the tail end of the Dark Age of Animation. During this time (from the late 50s following the fall of the studio system to the early 80s), the bulk of animation that wasn’t Disney moved from the theaters to tv, which resulted in studios like Hanna-Barbera and Filmation coming to prominence. During this era of Saturday morning cartoons, limited animation was the rule of the land, with studios churning out cheaply animated cartoons that often amounted to little more than illustrated radio made on an assembly line with cookie-cutter plots and animation one-step away from being stock footage. While this is not to say that all animation was mediocre at the time, it’s safe to say most of the animation from that time is best left in the ash heap of history.
Up till now, I had never sat down and watched an animated show from this time period in any organized capacity. Maybe a few shorts back in the day of my childhood and some parodies on Adult Swim, but nothing as consistent as sitting down and watching a whole season. Well, Star Trek: The Animated Series S1 changed that, and man it became a struggle. One of the premier shows from Filmation, Star Trek: The Animated Series highlighted all the faults of tv animation at the time. Shots of characters and aliens are constantly reused – special mention goes to those bat-like aliens from The Immortal Vulcan that keep showing up looking and sounding exactly the same. The characters also had no dynamic or expressive animation. Oftentimes whole shots involved watching a reused shot of some face or profile with only the lips providing any kind of motion. When there was action it paradoxically felt slower than being still; for example, whenever Kirk started running, the animation of him springing into action somehow looks slower than if he walked over. Sure, it’s not like the original series was by any means kinetic. That said, going back and forth between Star Trek: The Original Series and Star Trek: The Animated Series made the live-action episodes feel like Star Trek (2009) in comparison. Like, would it have been so hard for one patented Kirk-style peak 60’s TV fight? You know, those fights where people leap at each other feet first and hit each other with both fists. Hell, I’d take another fight against the Gorn.
While this didn’t bother me as much at first, as the season went along the animation shortcomings very quickly wore down my patience. While in the first few episodes I was marveling at some of the visuals and situations on screen, before long it got to the point where I’d crave some sort of kineticism over cerebral sci-fi plotting. It got to the point where episodes like The Ambergris Element became my favorites because they at least attempted having on-screen energy despite having convoluted plots. Conversely, some of the more sci-fi rich episodes near the end of the season like The Slaver Weapon fared worse for me because they lacked on-screen energy.
That said, the animation wasn’t all bad. Due to the nature of the sci-fi subject matter, Star Trek as a franchise has always had the potential for some great animation, and here when it works it works. My favorite examples include the plant beings in The Immortal Vulcan, the abandoned ship in Beyond the Farthest Star, the changeling in The Survivor, and the aquatic civilization and underwater sequences of The Ambergris Element. Beyond those 4 examples, every episode makes use of some concept or creates some character impossible to replicate in live-action with the special effects of the time. Hell, since they couldn’t bring back Chekov due to the budget, they replaced him with Lt. Arix, a tripedal being with a third arm sticking out his chest, and Uhura is sometimes switched out with Lt. M’Ress, a cat lady who looks only slightly more realistic than the cats from Cats. Granted, a lot of the sheer potential, both with new characters and concepts, is ignored, but I’ll give credit where credit is due. Maybe if I had seen this as it came out I wouldn’t feel as jaded about the animation, but after watching animated masterpieces like Undone, FLCL, and both seasons of Love, Death & Robots, it’s hard not to be left wanting even with the historical context in mind.
Some Side-Effects from Getting Wacked by the Limited Animation Stick
Ok, so I have harped on the animation enough, what else there to harp on? I mean the animation can’t be the only thing wrong with Star Trek: The Animated Series. Well, while the animation isn’t the sole flaw, it certainly is the crux for the other flaws I have in mind. Namely, these are the flaws that come from the transition from live-action to animation.
On a pure story level, the move to animation meant the runtimes were cut in half from hour-long programming to half-hour programming. While this predictably meant the pacing sped up, the issue was with the dialogue. Since the episodes only had half the time to tell their stories and the animation was so static, the driving force of the story was dialogue. Lots and lots of exposition-filled dialogue that leads to dialogue-heavy story resolutions to episodes already lighter on conflict. The biggest offender here was Spock, whose role most of the time devolved into an exposition device, solely delivering scientific analysis and conclusions while not elaborating on how he arrived at said conclusions.
Speaking of dialogue, the show would have been much more tolerable to me if the voice acting was filled with all that missing on-screen energy. Alas, that’s not the case. What we get are emotionally muted performances that almost match the tenor of the on-screen action. Again, going back and forth between animated series episodes and original series episodes, it sounded like the cast was sleepwalking through the animated episodes. While Spock is a big offender, but Kirk is also hobbled by this more than the bulk of the cast. I mean, as the original series goes on, you see Kirk exhibit a wide array of emotions, filled with peaks and valleys. Here, those peaks and valleys of high emotion are all sandblasted away, leaving a Kirk who reacts more or less with the same energy to everything. And it’s not limited to Kirk and Spock; everyone sounds at least half asleep. I’m not sure if it’s just the cast being (then) untrained voice actors, the recording conditions – Shatner and Nimoy apparently recorded their parts in their off-time while they were touring with theater productions – or maybe it’s just the general level of Saturday morning kids cartoons back then. In the end, it’s just another energy damper on an already low-energy show.
So those are my thoughts on Star Trek: The Animated Series S1. In essence, I think this show is worthy of being part of the greater Star Trek canon by being a solid companion piece to Star Trek: The Original Series, but is hampered by the realities of animation and animation production standards at the time. If you’re a fan of the original series, it’s worth checking this out despite the dated animation, cause I mean, it’s more adventures with the OG Enterprise crew.
My Recommendation: Recommend
Individual Episode Recommendations
- Beyond the Farthest Star – Recommend
- Yesteryear – Recommend
- One of Our Planets is Missing – Recommend with Caveats
- The Lorelei Signal – Recommend
- More Tribbles, More Troubles – Recommend
- The Survivor – Recommend
- The Infinite Vulcan – Recommend
- The Magicks of Megas-tu – Recommend with Caveats
- Once Upon a Planet – Recommend
- Mudd’s Passion – Recommend with Caveats
- The Time Trap – Recommend
- The Terratin Incident – Recommend with Caveats
- The Ambergris Element – Recommend
- The Slaver Weapon – Recommend
- The Eye of the Beholder – Recommend
- The Jihad – Recommend with Caveats
In Case You’re Interested in Watching Star Trek: The Animated Series S1?
If you’re interested in watching Star Trek: The Animated Series S1, you can find it on Paramount+.