Friday, October 21, 2011

Women's Lib Lives (But So Does A Pretty Obvious Creature) On Star Trek: The Animated Series Vol. 3!

The Good: Message of parts of "The Lorelei Signal," Basic plots
The Bad: Terrible animation, Vocal presentations are mediocre, Stories are a bit dumbed down, Conceits of plots
The Basics: When Uhura is put in charge of the Enterprise and an alien invader puts the Enterprise on edge near the Romulans, two unremarkable Star Trek: The Animated Series episodes result.

Star Trek: The Animated Series is, for some, the grail of the Star Trek experiences; they covet is as the lost chapters of the U.S.S. Enterprise and they recall with zeal how the series came at a time when Star Trek needed something new. For a while before the advent of DVD, Paramount released episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series on VHS with two half-hour episodes per tape. Given the expense of the series on DVD, finding the old videos for a song may be a great, inexpensive way to get into the show before committing to the whole set. The problem, of course, with reviewing the two-episode tapes is that often the episodes might be radically different. Fortunately with "Volume 3," the episodes are entirely mediocre, with little general difference in quality between the two episodes, which are "The Survivor" and "The Lorelei Signal." One is a pretty straightforward rewrite of previous Star Trek episodes, the other is a chance for Star Trek: The Animated Series to do what the regular Star Trek never truly had the guts to do, which was not focus on Kirk and Spock. Unfortunately, the execution of the noble idea falls down a bit with the latter episode, leaving yet another set that Star Trek fans will have no problem skipping over.

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 Survivor" has the Enterprise recovering the famed Carter Winston, who has been on a humanitarian mission near the Romulan Neutral Zone for about five years. Aboard the Enterprise is Lieutenant Nored, who is Winston's fiance, and the strong desire to protect him. Almost immediately, Kirk and Spock become suspicious of his identity based upon his actions aboard the Enterprise. He is soon revealed to be quite different from who he claims to be and Kirk and Spock must figure out what to do with the being they have aboard without setting off a war with the Romulans!

"The Lorelei Signal" puts Kirk, Spock and McCoy in jeopardy when the Enterprise is intercepted by a radical matriarchy on Taurus II. Radio type waves emanating from Taurus II lure the men down to the surface and leave a degenerating Scotty in command of the Enterprise. Uhura relieves Scotty of command and leads an all woman away team to the surface. There they find their men being drained of energy using . . . headbands.

Yeah, it's hard not to shudder through the conceits of either episode in some ways. "The Survivor" is powerfully derivative of "The Man Trap" (reviewed here!) and the idea of a creature that uses illusion to mask itself is very much overdone in Star Trek, so it's disappointing that this early in the Star Trek: The Animated Series that the show is already using that crutch. Moreover, the idea of an Enterprise crewwoman quickly getting involved with the strange new man was done early on in the series as well. The result is much of "The Survivor" feels cheap and recycled. The plot is so simple that it's hard to flesh it out beyond the basics and not give away the ending.

In contrast, on its surface, "The Lorelei Signal" seems to be an episode that challenges the limitations of Star Trek. The series finale to Star Trek: The Original Series offered a troubling sexism to StarFleet and the Federation that never truly made sense. So "The Lorelei Signal," wherein Uhura takes command and is efficient, correct and undeniably in charge, seems like a great growth for the series and the characters. Unfortunately, the message of women's liberation and the power and equality of women is somewhat gutted by the fact that for all of the heroism of Uhura and Chapel and their team, the villains they are fighting are women as well.

In many ways, the episode would have been far more poignant if it were more obvious and actually challenged gender roles. However, traditionally on American television men fight men, women fight women and as infrequently as the two cross over, the more comfortable the censors are. A far better message here might have been if the signal had come from men (or robots) that only considered men a threat, therefore they discounted the contribution of the women and thus the women were able to outsmart and outmaneuver them because of their ignorance and prejudice. As it is, Kirk and his crew end up in the valley of the leggy blondes and they must defeat them and their *shudder* energy-draining, rapid aging headbands but they only survive because the Enterprise women are able to defeat the Taurean women.

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 Taurean women is almost insulting in its simplicity.

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. The series takes advantage of this with the creature in "The Survivor."

The creature/Carter Winston from "The Survivor" represents the benefit of utilizing animation over the live action. The tentacled creature would have been very difficult to pull off with the technology of the day on television and the result would have been campy. Fortunately, the creature - despite being two-dimensional like most of the animation - looks pretty decent and it is pulled off with consistency to make it real within the context of the Star Trek: The Animated Series.

"The Survivor" involves almost no character development. Captain Kirk must heroically save the galaxy and prevent a war but that is pretty familiar. As well, Spock and McCoy are relegated to supporting players and McCoy is quite underutilized. Moreover, the lack of references to prior similar situations makes the characters seem very flat and stale. For sure, they are aware of their proximity to the Romulan Neutral Zone and what that means, but characters like McCoy ought to make analogies between the obvious entity and the similar ones the ship previously encountered.

In many ways, "The Lorelei Signal" has a pretty generic kid's cartoon plot version of the "women are equal and can be in power" concept. Sadly, the big twist in this episode is the villains and the saviors are all women and while that's mildly interesting, it falls rather flat upon multiple viewings. Star Trek: The Next Generation did an abysmal episode entitled "Angel One" (reviewed here!) wherein the whole twist was that Riker, Troi and Yar had to deal with a matriarchal society. It was not much better executed than the animated episode and at least the Star Trek: The Animated Series episode allows Uhura and Chapel to rise to their potential. The women of the Enterprise are strong and smart and they are prepared for the confrontation they are involved in. If only Uhura were allowed to grow and change as a result of the episode - i.e. deciding to pursue a command track position after getting a taste for the big chair! But this series is possibly the least serialized of any in the Star Trek franchise and as a result, by the episode's end, normalcy is restored.

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 Nichelle Nichols, who voices Lieutenant Uhura gives a surprisingly inexpressive performance and the result is a bland characterization of what is supposed to be an efficient woman in charge. The result is something troublingly more robotic than that. Between the blockish animation, the dull voice-overs, the recycled plots and the minimal growth of character, these episodes truly are unremarkable.

Star Trek fans looking for something safe for their children to watch without having to vet it, these episodes would do; but for fans looking for adult entertainment, this is a video that will more likely disappoint.

[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 Survivor" - 6.5/10
"The Lorelei Signal" - 2/10
VHS - 4/10

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

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

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