Sunday, September 08, 2013

Nostalgia Theater: Star Trek's Animation Enterprise

Today marks the 47th anniversary of the debut of the original Star Trek TV series on NBC. By coincidence it also marks exactly 40 years since the second Trek series premiered, this time as part of NBC's Saturday morning lineup. That's right, we're talking about the Star Trek cartoon, which brought Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and the Enterprise back to the small screen, and kept the franchise's lights on after the original show's cancellation in '69, and before the first big budget flick warped into theaters in '79.

Produced by Filmation, king of the hill when it came to kidvid of that era, the animated Trek premiered in 1973, and had the distinction of being supervised by series creator Gene Roddenberry himself (who famously turned down a sizable payoff to reduce his creative involvement). In addition, it had scripts by many of the same folks who wrote for the live action show (David Gerrold, Samuel Peeples, etc.), and featured (most of) the TV cast reprising their characters, giving a bit more "legitimacy" than most other animated spin-offs of the time. Here's the intro:

Now, while the cartoon did feature the vocal stylings of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, and the rest of the original crew (all except for poor Walter Koenig, whose Chekov apparently got left at Spacedock thanks to the limited casting budget), none of the actors were present at the same time. Rather, they'd lay down vocals wherever they were, and whenever it was convenient, leading to some notably detached, barely-interested readings from the Shat (trying like heck to beat typecasting during this phase of his career). Observe this clip from "The Practical Joker":

(FYI, that's Doohan doing double-voice duty as the alien Lt. Arex. And Roddenberry's wife Majel Barrett, in addition to reprising her role as Nurse Christine Chapel, also provided the purrs for cat-like Lt. M'ress.)

Clearly not helping matters on this front was Filmation's legendary propensity for using stock animation and catalogue music at every opportunity to keep costs down (unlike many other studios, Filmation didn't outsource their work overseas, so they had to cut corners where they could). While the format of animation should theoretically have allowed the Enterprise to traverse the kinds of new frontiers that would have been unimaginable in the pre-CGI wilderness of the first live action show, the cartoon incarnation often ended up looking even chintzier in comparison.

Nonetheless, even with some notable debits on the production side, there's no doubting that Saturday AM Star Trek still managed to stand head-and-shoulders above a lot of contemporaneous fare of the time (much of it also from Filmation, by the way) thanks to the earnestness and quality of its storytelling (I'll just look the other way as you mention the one with the giant Mr. Spock clone, in an ep penned by Koenig, no less. It's like he was trying to sabotage the show as revenge for ditching him!). It lasted for two seasons and twenty-two episodes, even snared a few daytime Emmys before leaving the air in October '74.

However, once the Enterprise was reborn on the big screen with The Motion Picture in 1979 (and especially after The Next Generation cemented his role as the franchise's guiding light), Roddenberry did his level best to distance himself from the cartoon, deeming it "non-canon" late in his life. This always struck me as a little silly, as content-wise it wasn't any goofier than some of the stuff we got in the third season of Trek's first TV run. And with so many key creatives (and cast) coming back to play, it was at least as "valid" as anything that came before (or since).

It's obvious I wasn't the only one who felt this way either, as elements of the cartoon drip-drip-dripped their way into "real" Trek after Roddenerry's death in 1991, to the point where the whole question of canon has effectively become moot (especially in the wake of J.J. Abrams' alternate-reality shenanigans in the current feature films). Today, like every other TV incarnation of the franchise, animated Star Trek can be found on home vid and instant viewing online (for now, anyway) via Netflix, and it serves as an enjoyable extension of the brand that's likely gone unseen for many.

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