Star Trek

Star Trek

Monday, November 16, 2015

Series Overview for Star Trek: The Animated Series

This week in Trek news, The Shat has his knickers in a twist because the 50th anniversary for Star Trek is coming up, and the people at Paramount and CBS haven't announced plans for anything or contacted him at all. He wants to do some kind of musical. Anybody else see him suddenly trying to snuggle up to Georgie again?



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So here we are, doing another series overview, and it seems like that took no time at all. Probably because it didn't. Back in the day, a season was 26 episodes or there abouts, running on approximately the same schedule as the average school year. Then I found out that cartoon shows have a sixteen-episode season, running September through the end of December, and then January through whenever.
In the last few years, a season runs for however long the maker decides it should run, from the traditional 26 episodes, to three episodes. (Seriously: WTF, Sherlock?) Here, we got one and a partial seasons. And that partial season only existed because the show won a Daytime Emmy. 
(TOS won two Hugos and an NAACP award, but the first Star Trek Emmy went to TAS. By contrast, TNG won 19 Primetime Emmy awards over the life of the show, and was nominated for another 39. The comparison I'm giving here is not so much about the qualities of the shows, but an illustration of what happens in the earlier years of a fandom. By the time TNG arrived on the scene, the fandom was fully established, and had received multiple films, as well as having a good presence at conventions. The franchise was doing well, and CBS was willing to throw money at the new show, as opposed to TOS, which kept having its budget cut.) 


So we got 22 episodes, which is less than a typical season of Star Trek, but more than your average Saturday morning cartoon show. We've talked a bit about how we got this show ("kids in space"? whut?), what got nixed right away (Jimmy Doohan doing pretty much all of the voices, Chekov) and what became the status quo (Jimmy Doohan doing all of the voices, Arax at the helm).
Let's look at the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the Animated Series, shall we?

First up: the animation

Gonna be blunt: the animation sucks. It suffers from low cell count, which is not just a medical issue. When I talk to people about TAS, they either have never heard of it, or didn't bother to watch, because they heard it was terrible. What's terrible is the animation. It was done by the Filmation animation house, which was known for uber-cheap Saturday morning shows (mostly animated, but some live-action as well). There were often times when they recycled shots. For instance...


This is the most common shot of the series. How do I know? It generally shows up once during each episode, sometimes multiple times. Basically, most times when Kirk is talking to Spock on the bridge. 
The second-most common shot?


It's the same shot, with Bones added in. On occasion, someone else will be standing there instead of Bones, but generally, it's Bones. If the trio is chatting on the bridge, this pops up without fail. It was even used in an episode where Spock passes out, and they removed Spock from the extreme left and placed him along the bottom edge. 



The motto at Filmation seems to have been "quantity over quality," though there were definitely times when you can tell that they were trying harder to make better quality stuff. They rotoscoped some parts, which is an inexpensive way of getting decent animation quickly and easily. (Quick description of rotoscoping: tracing. No, I don't consider this to be cheating. Frankly, I don't consider tracing to be cheating ever, but no one needs to know my strong opinions on tracing. They got the job done quickly and cheaply, so I'm not gonna throw stones at it.)

Kirk and Spock's swimming scenes from "The Ambergris Element"
were rotoscoped from episodes of Aquaman, which was also made
by Filmation.

Something else Filmation was known for: long, panning sweeps across terrains or landscapes. There was no actual animation involved (just moving the camera over a static image), so it was inexpensive and killed some time. This absolutely happened in TAS. Often, shots of the Enterprise were used as a background while someone else gave a log recitation, or to just kill time between scenes. More than once, a scene on a planet surface would end, we would go to commercial, and return from break to a shot of the E... sometimes several long seconds of the E. Then we would go right back to the planet again. Sometimes we would get a tiny bit of animation, where the starburst patterns on the front of the engines would spin, but a lot of the time, it was just static shots of the ship.


The places where the animation would be redeemed were definitely the background and establishing shots. I was floored by the artistry of these shots, and often asked myself if I was watching the same show.
"The Ambergris Element"

"The Lorelei Signal"

"Once Upon a Planet"

"The Pirates of Orion"

"The Practical Joker"

"Yesteryear"

Whoever was doing the background and still shots on this show clearly had some skillz - the kind you pay bills with. This was not unusual for Filmation, who seems to have made a regular habit of pairing lovely backgrounds with crap movement. A lot of the credit for that was given to background department head Erv Kaplan, who worked as color director on TAS. (Another TAS alum, as layout artist, is Glen Keane. I'm sure the average reader doesn't care, but I had a squealy fangirl moment when I saw him listed under Mr Kaplan. For those less obsessed with animation than I am, Glen Keane is a lead animator for Disney, and probably animated your favorite Disney film characters.)

The difference between the animated and live shows

There were two things I wondered about going into this series: How would the stories change, and how would the visuals change?
In the first case (story), I wanted to know how a typical Star Trek story could be pared down from 60 minutes to 30. While there is such a thing as a 60-minute animated show, it's not a weekly thing. They generally exist as 30 minutes (weekly show), 60 minutes (holiday specials), and 90 minutes (theatrical release or made-for-tv movies). Why are they always 30 minutes for weekly shows? Because it takes months to produce a hand-drawn, animated show. Theatrical films like Disneys take four years, pre-planning through finish.
So you know that CBS and Filmation were not going to just take whatever completed scripts they had lying around and just animate the action instead. They were also concerned because in moving Star Trek from prime time to Saturday morning, they were banking on an audience of only children. This was not the case, as adult fans of Star Trek were continuing to watch, but now that it was considered to be more "family friendly" certain things were not going to fly.
They could not have Kirk bed every cute alien that came his way.


In the case of Kirk and his extraterrestrial affairs, this went out the window and stayed there, with the exception of one episode: "The Jihad." In the final episode of season one,  a human huntress named Lara suggests to Kirk that they hook up and "make some green memories." Despite her aggressive flirting, Kirk turns her down, and it's actually pretty tame compared to some other Trek fare.


In fact, the only other romantic moment I recall from this series is in the final episode of season two, when Robert April kisses his wife, and it's pretty chaste.


So TAS is TOS minus the overt sexuality.
Okay, what else?
Well, with half the run-time, we missed out on a lot of interpersonal relationship moments. I didn't realize how much I missed the Spock-Bones ribbing until it showed up again, fifteen episodes in, on "The Eye of the Beholder."


Also missed and rarely addressed: the relationships of the bridge crew. There were small moments in TOS where we got to see the others relating to one another without the help of the Golden Trio, and you know they genuinely cared for one another and worked well as a team. There really isn't much of it here, which is a shame, because I kind of liked Arax and I wanted to see how he might have formed friendships with the others. 

Surprisingly, the remainder of the stories stayed intact. They all struck me as very Star Trek, and the plots themselves did not seem to suffer from a lack in time in which to tell them. Some of the unused TOS scripts were even rewritten to fit within the construct of the animated series ("More Tribbles, More Troubles"). True to form, a few of these episodes were fantastic, some really just sucked, but most were okay.

"More Tribbles, More Troubles"

And how about them visuals?

We made out like bandits on the visuals. Because we essentially nixed being uncomfortably close to Kirk's love life, we also ditched most of the ridiculous outfits that the Girl du Jour wears. That's a bit of a mixed bag for me, because while I hated so many of those costumes, I did enjoy making fun of them. But in exchange, we got those gorgeous backgrounds that I was raving about earlier, plus our storytellers were allowed to pretty much write whatever the hell kind of story they wanted, based on the fact that drawing complicated alien cities (and the people that inhabit them) is quicker, easier and cheaper than building the sets and costumes. The Boldly Going was made all the more believable because none of the aliens needed to be humanoid. They didn't even need to breathe air.


Freed from the constraints of a live-action show, Star Trek lost no time in replacing the navigator with an alien with six appendages.


And adding another communications officer.




The very first episode  ("Beyond the Farthest Star") featured not only Arax and M'Ress, but also a ship that could not have been easily produced with models, and a non-humanoid alien.




And they just kept getting better...

"Albatross"

"The Infinite Vulcan"

"The Jihad"

"The Slaver Weapon"

And can we just talk about some of these Gojira-type monsters? Feels like Gene Rod was standing in the background saying, "Can we get bigger? Scarier? More teeth?"

"The Ambergris Element"

"Eye of the Beholder"

"Mudd's Passion"

Variations on this dragon-thing showed up in multiple episodes

"Once Upon a Planet"

"How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth"

"Yesteryear"



Let's take a look at some actual episodes...

Command Gold Star Awards


Kirk and Spock discover that something has been changed in Spock's timeline, so he uses the Guardian of Forever to go back in time to fix it, posing as his own older cousin. When little Spock runs off in the wilderness to prove himself, his pet sehlat is fatally injured and he makes the tough decision to put him down. The network thought the outcome was too dark and wanted to change it to a happier ending, but Gene Rod put his foot down. He felt to alter it would cheapen the episode and insult the intelligence of the audience. He was right. The episode, though feelsy, is excellent because the ending was allowed to stand.



This is the second time that an episode of Star Trek has felt like a good science fiction story was translated into Star Trek terms (the first being a TOS season one flop, "The Alternative Factor"). The earlier episode felt as though the story existed by itself, and Trek characters had been slotted it. It also translated to a live-action show in the worst way possible. Here, the feeling of solid, non-Trek science fiction is the same, but a better job was done in making the two mesh. Writer Larry Niven had a series of stories with characters similar to Spock, Sulu, and Uhura, and simply altered things to make them fit. In the episode, our trio encounters a hostile race that takes them hostage, and a mysterious weapon with a mind of its own. Three of my favorite characters get to take center stage in an excellent story.



This one was not quite as good as the previous two, and it did have some issues, but I like the fact that Star Trek decided to do an episode that featured an underwater environment. It lent itself nicely to several special effects lenses that have been used in other episodes with less success. It has a large monster, a sunken city, and some sketchy surgery that leads to Kirk and Spock living in a large water tank on the E. It ends with a bit of interplanetary politics and some iffy science, but there were more things that I liked about this episode than not.




"Are You High, Star Trek?"

The episodes that I hated the most in this series all seemed to surround stories too off the wall to work, or visuals that looked like bad acid trips.


Some a-hole alien is onboard the E, observing how Starfleet operates in action. He gets them kidnapped by hostile Prime Directive aliens, and is later revealed to be a "colony creature" or, lots of dudes stacked one on top of another, like Vincent Adultman from Bojack Horseman. From the start, I hated Bem. Not only is he a complete dick from the start, but them he breaks into different parts to pick-pocket Kirk and Spock, setting them up to fail in the freakiest way ever. I wanted to punch Bem the whole time. Even at the end, when he suggested that he commit his people's version of suicide.




I really tried to like this one. I really did. It's written by our beloved Chekov, and it starts out pretty good. But it was plagued by constant rewrites, and Gene Rod bugging Walter Koenig to include things that he wanted. What we ended up with was two stories stitched oddly together.
The E ends up on a planet inhabited by plant people. They have mostly died out due to plague, but were rescued by some human dude who turns out to be one of those meglo-maniacal assholes from Khan's sleeper ship. He intends to use the plant people as his army, and will wage war over the galaxy. But first he kidnaps Spock and makes a giant copy to use as some kind of general or some shit. This episode was a mess. I look forward to getting Chekov back and never having to watch "The Infinite Vulcan" again.





This is my least favorite episode of this series. They wanted to do a story about the E meeting God, which had been pitched to TOS and nixed by the network, so they tried it again for TAS. Also nixed. But the network said they could meet the Devil. And thus did this episode become "the one where they meet the Devil." So why do I hate this episode? It's ridiculous, start to finish. The E encounters some hole in space or something, which is then followed by several minutes of visual vomit that probably are really cool when viewed on mushrooms. The crew meets the Devil. Then it turns out that his people are aliens who went to Earth a long time ago, and were then put on trial in Salem for witchcraft. The E crew is then put on trial as well. The whole thing is just awful.



So what's the bottomest of the Bottom Lines?

Again, when I mention this show to people, they either don't remember it, or think it's awful and don't bother to watch the whole thing. It could for one of many reasons, or it could be all of them. Its differences to TOS and its descendants may point to the reason why no one watches this series:

- It was relegated to Saturday mornings, so unless you were a fan of the original, were a kid at the time, or made the time to tune in then, you probably didn't see it.
- The animation sucks. Like, a lot. Trust me, I do not watch shitty animation, and if your show boasts a low cell count, I will turn it off. So I understand that complaint.
- The animated series was denounced as canon at the end of season one TNG, despite the fact that some of that TAS canon was cherry-picked to keep. However, in 2006 it was reinstated as canon. The idea doesn't seem to have taken right away, but things mentioned in TAS started showing up in Voyager and Enterprise, and it is considered canon by Memory Alpha, the Star Trek wiki.

"Soooo, should I watch this, or what?"

YES!
Despite the shitty animation quality, the stories are just shorter Star Trek faire, often with the same kinds of themes and campiness. Guest stars from TOS episodes pop up from time to time, including Mark Lenard as Sarek and Roger Carmel as Harcourt Fenton Mudd, There are some irksome things (why does Spock become the Magic Vulcan?), but it retains most of the charm of the original series,  is good for a few laughs here and there, and includes some scenarios that would not have been possible on TOS.
If you want to skip the crap and just view the best of the animated series, check out "The Slaver Weapon" and "Yesteryear," as those seem to get the best reviews across the board. Everything else gets mixed reviews at best, and be sure to check out my votes for worst if you're in the mood to scream "WTF, Star Trek?" at your viewscreen.

Next week we start films, so grab your popcorn, because that shit is a roller coaster.



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So a few weeks ago when I bought that first Teas' Tea, I bought another flavor, the green tea. I was excited. I love green tea. Much like "The Infinite Vulcan," I wanted to like this tea. I really did. But it was not good. Being that it was unsweetened, I added sugar. That did not help.
"Oh, that's my favorite tea," said Roomie cheerfully.
"It's gross," I reported.
"I'll take the rest," she volunteered.
She took a pull... then she pulled a face. "That doesn't taste right. Maybe it's a bad bottle."
Bottle looked fine. She drank the rest and did not get sick, so we guessed it had not gone bad.
This week I bought another bottle from a different store entirely.
I took a sip. "Same. Not good."
"Bad batch?" suggested Roomie. "New recipe?"
"Possibly," I replied. "Either/or. Do I keep buying bottles at different stores, hoping that someday it'll taste better?"
"Dunno," said Roomie.
So, I don't recommend this week's tea. Maybe it is just a bad batch and I'll get a good bottle later. I really don't have a good answer.









Uhura and Bratty



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