Saturday, October 15, 2011

Star Trek's Lame First Cousin: Star Trek: The Animated Series Arrives On DVD!

The Good: One or two vaguely interesting stories
The Bad: Terrible stories, Disappointing animation, "Cartoonish" characters, Unimpressive voice-overs, DVD Bonuses
The Basics: When Star Trek is resurrected on DVD in the form of the '70's Star Trek: The Animated Series, fans are more liable to be disappointed than thrilled.

So, those who read my reviews might note pretty quickly that I am a fan of the Star Trek franchise. Sure, I took some real delight in panning Star Trek: Enterprise and I had some grave doubts about J.J. Abrams cinematic opus Star Trek (reviewed here!) (not the least of which was because in all of the casting announcements, there was no mention of Gary Mitchell being cast!), but I have a great love of the franchise and love it when the franchise gets things right. I mean, if they ever came out with a new boxed set of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (reviewed here!) that had commentaries on the episodes, I'd be right there ready to purchase it, even though I hate when fans like me get screwed by having to double-buy! I love the Star Trek franchise and still I cringe whenever anyone mentions Star Trek: The Animated Series.

Now on DVD to be preserved for all posterity, Paramount and Filmation's Star Trek: The Animated Series The Complete Series preserves all 22 half-hour episodes of the saddest attempt to revive Star Trek ever. In the period before Star Trek: The Motion Picture (reviewed here!) was released and interest in Star Trek continued to grow and grow, fans were clamoring for anything and they ate up the "Animated Series" like termites through driftwood.

Following the continuing adventures of the starship Enterprise on its five-year mission, Captain Kirk and his crew journey to new worlds and new realities that it did not quite make it to during the live action series. As a result, the show journeys to Vulcan for a time-travel adventure where Spock mentors his younger self, encounters Harry Mudd who is peddling a love potion, ends up in an alternate universe "Bermuda Triangle" type place, and revisits the classics by bring back the tribbles. As well, there's an alien whose notable character trait is that his body may separate at the waist and the legs can walk around independent of the trunk and head, the notable appearance of pilgrims, and a very very large Mr. Spock.

And if it sounds more like a children's cartoon than Star Trek, you're at the crux of my problem with this series. There is something vaguely ridiculous about animated tribbles and that type of episode clearly appeals to kids and allows parents to trot out one of the most kid-friendly episodes of Star Trek, "The Trouble With Tribbles."

There is a lot of debate among the fans of Star Trek as to whether or not The Animated Series is considered "cannon" or not; I shall avoid that whole can of worms and just say that it's not terribly thrilling television. I mean, sure, there's the fanfic lust moment of Kirk and Spock getting fresh (I kid you not, it's in here!) that no doubt will thrill some, but for the most part, this series is remarkably child-oriented. It's written by the adults who brought us Star Trek and some of the episodes have deeper social messages - "More Troubles, More Tribbles," for example makes some wonderful points about genetic engineering and the need to keep an environment in balance - but the dialogue is seriously dumbed down for children.

Indeed, much of the episodes has the characters providing straight-out exposition to explain to younger audiences what may be clearly seen on screen by any adult. As a result, it is very hard to take the characters seriously. Instead of being vibrant active characters, often Kirk and Spock narrate the story so the viewer gets what is going on. And, sadly, Star Trek: The Animated Series relies on a number of kid-friendly standards that are liable to bore the more mature Star Trek audience, especially now. There's the "girls vs. boys" storyline of "The Lorelei Signal," wherein the men are all entrapped and aged by women and the women of the Enterprise must rise up to save them. There's a pirate story (yea, space pirates! Though it is nice to see Orions, which were alluded to in the first pilot to Star Trek), a condition that causes everyone to de-age, and a mysterious stranger who is not all he appears to be. In other words, most of the plots have been done before or are simply twists on plots Star Trek did in its live action series - like how "The Counter-Clock Incident" is just a reversal of "The Deadly Years!"

Star Trek: The Animated Series is credited with preserving most of the original Star Trek cast and admittedly, the series uses much more of an ensemble cast than Star Trek did. supporting characters like Scotty, Sulu, and Uhura all get decent airtime, especially considering how truly neglected they were in Star Trek. While money couldn't be dug up to pay Walter Koenig to voice Chekov in the series (apparently Leonard Nimoy personally leveraged his participation to have George Takei and Nichelle Nichols included), Nurse Chapel appears and the bridge is occupied by new characters Lt. Arex and (occasionally) Lt. M'Ress.

To better understand the tenor of this series, here are the principle characters and some of their notable traits in Star Trek: The Animated Series:

Captain James T. Kirk - Commander of the starship Enterprise, he is an explorer who would prefer to use his brains rather than force, though he does shoot off the phasers several times in this series. Of note, he provides his middle name as Tiberius and appears as generally an expert on everything (including every other officer's duties),

Commander Spock - First officer and science officer of the Enterprise, he explains most of the scientific phenomenon that the ship encounters and helps Kirk devise a way to overcome their obstacles. He uses the Guardian of Forever to revisit his childhood,

Dr. Leonard McCoy - Chief Medical Officer of the Enterprise, he explains all things medical to Captain Kirk. He rescues the ship with his medical knowledge a few times over the course of the series,

Lt. Commander Montgomery Scott - "Scotty," the Chief Engineer of the Enterprise, he is responsible for keeping the ship up and running and letting the captain know just how much the ship is straining,

Lt. Sulu - Chief Helmsman of the Enterprise, he flies the ship and follows orders,

Lt. Uhura - Chief Communications Officer of the Enterprise, she opens the hailing frequencies and rescues the men when gender-biased enemies attack! As well, she goes on more missions to planets,

Nurse Chapel - Chief Nurse and assistant to Dr. McCoy, she does her medical thing when McCoy isn't available and helps Uhura against nasty siren-like women. Still pines for Spock,

Lt. Arex - The three-armed, three-legged navigator of the Enterprise, he flies the ship and looks cool,

and Lt. M'Ress - the Catian relief communication's officer, she takes over the communications station when Uhura is off doing other things.

Arex and M'Ress are voiced by James Doohan and Majel Barrett (Scotty and Chapel) and neither one is particularly divergent with the voice acting to make the characters terribly distinctive. It ought to be noted that Doohan provides many of the male voices for aliens and guest shots in the series, though it doesn't take much of an ear to tell that it's Doohan doing the voices. This is not particularly problematic, but a number of the characters end up sounding alike, which is somewhat dulling to the senses when one sits and watches these episodes back to back.

The problem - for fans of Star Trek - is that Star Trek: The Animated Series is a cartoon. The difference, of course, is the difference between Spawn and SuperFriends; the intended audience. Star Trek was a groundbreaking adult drama, Star Trek: The Animated Series is a family-friendly cartoon. The dialogue is generally simple (some of the titles have more sophisticated diction than the actual episodes, with words like "Jihad" and "Ambergris") and everything is neatly explained so that children will understand it. Sadly, I've sat down and watched some of these episodes when children were around and they did not seem terribly interested in it!

Star Trek: The Animated Series looks as good as it can on DVD. With the recent refurbishing of effects, this would have been a far better series to completely overhaul, with it's campy '70s animation and generally poor lip synching. On DVD there are featurettes, text commentaries and even audio commentaries on some of the episodes. I'm baffled by how they could afford audio commentaries for this series, but not any of the other series's in the franchise (to be fair Enterprise has one!).

But ultimately, this is a kid's show and it doesn't seem to interest children any more than it captured me. The series is a collection of mediocre stories, generally geared toward a young audience, with almost no real character development. And I have nothing against animation in general, I just want it to have some standards of quality and this series seriously falls short.

For more details on the specific episodes in this set, please check out my reviews of the episodes at:
More Troubles, More Tribbles / The Infinite Vulcan
Yesteryear / Beyond The Farthest Star
The Survivor / The Lorelei Signal
One Of Our Planets Is Missing / Mudd's Passion
The Magicks Of Megas-Tu / The Time Trap
The Slaver Weapon / The Ambergris Element
The Jihad / The Terratin Incident
The Eye of the Beholder / Once Upon A Planet
Bem / Albatross
The Pirates Of Orion / The Practical Joker
How Sharper Than A Serpent's Tooth / The Counter-Clock Incident


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

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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