Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Bring Your Own Universe To Star Trek: The Animated Series Vol. 6!

The Good: Basic idea of both episodes is not terrible
The Bad: Terrible animation, Vocal presentations are mediocre, Children's stories! Lack of character.
The Basics: When Spock leads another disastrous away mission and Kirk and Spock are transformed into amphibians, adults are likely to roll their eyes as opposed to enjoy!

In the Star Trek fan community, there are few debates that rage quite so fiery than what is truly canon and what is metaphoric. Okay, it's less of a parody than most of us Trekkers would like that two Trekkies can be easily distracted by starting an argument about who the best captain in the franchise is, but fans have legitimate beefs with the franchise for continuity when one considers such things as Star Trek: The Animated Series (or Star Trek: Enterprise, snicker) as part of the same level of work as the other elements of the franchise. With "Volume 6" of Star Trek: The Animated Series, which features "The Slaver Weapon" and "The Ambergris Element," viewers are given real reason to debate. With "The Slaver Weapon," elements from the writer's own science fiction series' and mythology are added to the Star Trek universe and it is not entirely compatible with the rest of the franchise. One is tempted to take the easy out here which is to fall back on Gene Roddenberry's supposed statements that Star Trek: The Animated Series is not quite up with the rest of the franchise as far as continuity.

For those unfamiliar with Star Trek: The Animated Series, the two seasons aired in the early-1970s and acted as a bridge between Star Trek (reviewed here!) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (reviewed here!). These episodes aired in 1973 and represented the attempt on the part of Paramount and Filmation to gauge the interest in new Star Trek material while working around the busy schedules of the principle talent from Star Trek. This series continued the five-year mission of the U.S.S. Enterprise under the command of Captain James T. Kirk and featured the voice talents of most of the Star Trek cast as well as writing from some of the better Star Trek writers.

"The Slaver Weapon" finds Spock, Sulu and Uhura transporting a powerful weapon, a stasis box, through the territory of the Kzinti, a hostile race. The stasis box, created by a race of Slavers, is used as an eternal prison and when Spock, Sulu and Uhura are captured while transporting one, the security implications are truly dire for the Federation and the captives. Unfortunately, the stasis box that Spock is in possession of has an undetonated weapon inside and represents a weapon that the Kzinti, who have an empty stasis box used to lure Spock to them, covet. At the mercy of vicious telepaths, Spock and the others work to survive without any aid from the Enterprise.

"The Ambergris Element" has the U.S.S. Enterprise visiting Argo, a water planet managed by cities underwater. When the aquashuttle is lost with Kirk and Spock aboard, McCoy and Scotty work to find them. When they do find them, however, they discover that both officers have been infected by an element in their blood that is transforming them. They develop the ability to breathe under water and they soon appear unable to exist outside water! While Dr. McCoy works to reverse the effects of the transformations - which also includes webbing on their digits - Spock and Kirk go underwater to meet the Aquans, who loathe air breathers and try to reason their way out of their situation. Sadly, though, the Aquans sentence them to death and it is a race to save their lives!

First the positive: Star Trek: The Animated Series does attempt to do things that it could not do well on Star Trek in a live-action setting. The series would have found it exceptionally prohibitive to do an episode underwater like "The Ambergris Element" did. So, it makes perfect sense that the Animated Series would make use of its unlimited worlds capacity to do that and the Aquans. As for the plot, it's not too dissimilar from the Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes "Identity Crisis" (reviewed here!) or "Genesis" (reviewed here!) so it's hard to complain that the Star Trek: The Animated Series is truly going out on a limb with the plots here.

The problem with both episodes is that they are kid's cartoons more than they are an animated reimagining of Star Trek. For a series that promised sophisticated stories and character development for adults, Star Trek: The Animated Series here degenerates into pretty standard Saturday morning cartoon fare. That is a huge disappointment. Virtually every Saturday morning cartoon does a transformation and/or underwater type episode and seeing Star Trek play into the standards in that way is pretty disappointing. Similarly, the resolution to "The Slaver Weapon" is disappointing as is the execution to some of the concepts. Sure, Spock justifies it with Kzinti culture, but having Uhura take a "sit down and shut up" role just so the telepaths cannot realize she is a threat seems truly cheap.

"The Slaver Weapon" utilizes the Kzinti, which were very much the creation of author Larry Niven. Niven wrote short stories involving this race and their appearance in the Star Trek: The Animated Series opens the door to continuity questions because fans wonder if this means that Niven's works fall within the Star Trek universe. The common answer is "no," but the debate rages in some circles. The Kzinti are characterized rather fully, but that only makes it slightly more problematic. After all, if the Kzin are such a powerful race, why do they not appear in other incarnations of Trek? (This, according to well-publicized rumor, would have been addressed in Star Trek: Enterprise, so either way we're wading in the shallow end of the Star Trek gene pool.) The problem with "The Slaver Weapon" on one front is that a complicated problem is presented which is solved in an insultingly simple manner.

"The Ambergris Element" follows a rather predictable plot format between the infection, the finding the Aquans and the ensuing capture/rescue of Kirk and Spock and the show seems both very cartoonish and very much like children's programming. "The Slaver Weapon" rises above that, but it still uses too many conceits of children's programming and science fiction to be truly engaging for a diverse adult audience. Moreover, the technobabble in the episode - which contradicts with the disappointing characterizations (especially in the Spock/Uhura interactions) is likely to confuse and confound the children who might otherwise enjoy the rest of the episode. So, it's something of a catch-22.

The animation in Star Trek: The Animated Series is pretty terrible and on the videos, it is not cleaned up like it was for the DVD versions. Even on DVD, the animation is choppy and rather generic. Backgrounds are looped in both episodes and the basic character design of the Kzinti and the Aquans is somewhat droll.

The only genuine benefit of the animation comes in the creature design and ability to do interactions with ships like the aquashuttle in "The Ambergris Element," which were not possible in Star Trek. Unfortunately, the Kzin are giant cats walking around like hunchbacks in their pink jumpsuits. The Aquans are little better in the other episode with their very superhero underwater fish people appearance. The aquashuttle - despite being a somewhat ridiculous pretense given how few water missions it appears the Enterprise went on - is rather simple and somewhat silly looking, especially in comparison to the rest of the design of the starships.

The animation is fair at best by today's standards and the look of the series is a little more blockish than reality. As a result, Kirk has more in common with Captain America in terms of physique than the live-action William Shatner Kirk. Similarly, Spock seems surprisingly ripped (though not in a way that is extreme) and Uhura's uniform actually seems a little longer! Sulu finally looks like George Takei's Sulu in "The Slaver Weapon," but that might be in part because there is no Kirk to contrast with! The introduction failure to use things like environmental suits and instead create new technologies like force field belts makes the animated Star Trek seem less real as well. All the animation truly allows this incarnation of Star Trek to do that it could not before is make more interesting alien races and this set fails to capitalize on that.

Neither episode involves genuine character development. Spock finally gets a real chance for a mission in "The Slaver Weapon" and McCoy and Scotty are given pretty strong roles in "The Ambergris Element," but none of the characters truly does anything we have not seen them do before. Instead, they flounder about in ways that make one wonder if they were written by people who were truly familiar with Star Trek. With "The Slaver Weapon," Niven is strong on the science fiction premise, but he does not quite have the characters down to a familiarity. Uhura's willingness to sit down and shut up and not truly become what the Kzin overlook her as (i.e. a worthwhile entity that could thwart them) just feels cheap

The voice acting in these episodes is homogeneously unremarkable. The actors give performances that sometimes feel like straightforward line readings and it is odd to see the minimally expressive animation with the more expressive vocals when they are. Even James Doohan, who voices many of the supporting guest roles, gives a surprisingly inexpressive performance and the result is a bland characterization of the various aliens. Between the blockish animation, the dull voice-overs, the recycled plots and the minimal growth of character, these episodes truly are unremarkable.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek: The Animated Series on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the complete collection here!

"The Slaver Weapon" - 3/10
"The Ambergris Element" - 1.5/10
VHS - 1.5/10

For other Star Trek reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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