Friday, October 28, 2011

Mildly Interesting "Bem" Drags Down The Surprisingly Intense "Albatross" On Star Trek: The Animated Adventures - Volume 9!

The Good: Some interesting conceptual ideas, Plot of "Albatross."
The Bad: Terrible animation, Vocal presentations are mediocre, Lack of scientific basis makes one a children's story!
The Basics: When McCoy is put on trial for genocide and a creature of the week who can split himself in two arrives, viewers just shudder at the Star Trek: The Animated Adventures.

There is something of an irony in the history of Star Trek in that the Star Trek: The Animated Series was fairly easily renewed for a second season while fans had to fight so very hard for each season of the original, live action Star Trek (reviewed here!). Sure, the second season of the animated version was canceled far quicker and more definitively, but that it had the smooth sailing of a renewal before that is either laughable or indicates a seriously deep game going on in the mind of the executives in charge of the show. This is further ironic because there are so few episodes of the twenty-two minute per episode Star Trek: The Animated Series that one might consider worth watching, especially as an adult. While some episodes rise above being simplistic and childish recreations of Star Trek, some of them are just children's programming. And those tend to be pretty unremarkable, if not outright terrible kid's programming.

With the "Volume 9" VHS of the Star Trek: The Animated Series, "Bem" and "Albatross" subject viewers to one of the most disconcerting pairings of episodes on the volumes of the series. "Bem" is in many ways a silly children's story, while "Albatross" is far too intense and realististic for most children. The result is a viewing experience that will leave neither group satisfied.

"Bem" finds the Enterprise in orbit around a primitive planet where they have been establishing monitoring posts of the natives. A Federation special ambassador, Bem, insists on accompanying Kirk, Spock, Sulu and Scotty down to the planet, despite Kirk's protests. Bem swaps out the phasers and communicators with fakes and essentially strands Kirk and Spock. On the planet, Bem does all he can to escape or defy the Enterprise crew and in the process, he makes contacts with the native life forms and their god.

"Albatross" puts Dr. McCoy on trial for genocide when the Dramians arrest him following a successful mission performed by the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. McCoy, having visited the planet Dramia almost twenty years earlier on an inoculation mission is being charged with killing, rather than inoculating, the Dramians. The plague that wiped out many of them puts Kirk in the position of distrusting the Dramians and their courts and leaves Dr. McCoy swinging in the wind.

First the positive: "Albatross" has some genuine tension to it and it is a surprisingly strong idea for the Animated Series. Dr. McCoy is put in a legal dilemma and there are no simple answers, despite the certainty in the mind of the viewers that McCoy could not possibly have tried to commit genocide. That the Prime Directive is brought to bear even in the less sophisticated animated adventures makes for better television than one might expect.

Second, in "Bem" there is a refreshing moment when Uhura, essentially in command, orders Scotty to return to the Enterprise. It is her leadership and assertiveness that we so seldom were privileged to see in the show that comes shining through and it is a refreshing thing.

What these two episodes share is a strong sense of moral . . . sort of. "Albatross" is big on the "we must respect different cultures" concept. It's good to know children in the early '70s were being taught that genocide was wrong, too! "Bem," one wants to believe, has a similarly honorable moral, but the problem is it is not executed that way. Instead, the novelty of Bem being a creature that can disassemble itself is what the episode becomes preoccupied with.

Yes, to be clear, the big gimmick of "Bem" is that his torso can detach and go off to do one thing (like pick Kirk and Spock's pockets with little hands stored inside the torso) while the upper half is hanging around appearing to be intact. Bem is apparently made up of little self-sufficient bits, like a colony, but no one knew that prior to the mission. There is no scientific or pseudo scientific explanation of the character or his abilities and as a result, it is wiped away as a children's cartoon conceit.

The problem with "Bem" is that it is a 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. Especially in comparison to the more verbose "Albatross," "Bem" seems largely silly and childish.

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. The only genuine benefit of the animation comes in the creature design and ability to do some actual starship battles, which were not possible in Star Trek. While there are no significant starship actions in these episodes, there is a decent use of character design in both.

The Dramians and Bem would have been difficult to pull off with Star Trek on the live action show, as their design is fairly complicated. Now, by "fairly complicated," I mean that they with Bem splitting in two and having a little creature arms doing things it would have been tough to have had people in suits or puppets to make it work for a live-action episode. The Dramians are basically creatures with big, lizard-like heads and they might have been possible, like the Gorn from "Arena" (reviewed here!) to do, but it seems unlikely they could have done it well. Sadly, the creatures in both episodes are still pretty clunky 70's animation.

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! 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 does that, even if they still look somewhat off.

Neither episode involves genuine character development. Uhura has the chance to step up while in command of the Enterprise, so it's not all bad. But the episodes do not enhance or progress Kirk, Spock, McCoy or any of the supplemental characters' character. Indeed, there is never a moment that the viewer doubts Dr. McCoy in "Albatross" and the preoccupation with "Bem" in his episode makes for little or no time to focus on the genius of our recurring protagonists.

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!

"Bem" - 2/10
"Albatross" - 4/10
VHS - 2.5/10

For other television reviews, please 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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