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"Star Trek: The Animated Series": Trek in All the Ways that Matter

by on March 8, 2007

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before.

She canna' take much more o'this, Cap'n!With those words, Captain James T. Kirk launched one of the most enduring franchises in American entertainment history. Star Trek has long since outstripped its original pitch as “Wagon Train to the stars,” exploding into a multi-generational phenomenon that has inspired five separate TV shows, ten feature films, multiple computer games, several different toy lines, at least one full-fledged language, and countless books and comics. Among its many spinoffs was a Saturday morning children’s cartoon that aired between 1973 and 1974. That series is now available in a marvelous four-disc DVD set that will be sure to satisfy all but the most anal Trek fans.

For those newly emerging from under a pop culture rock, Star Trek centers on the interstellar voyages of the U.S.S. Enterprise, helmed by Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner), who takes the business of command quite seriously despite his seemingly reckless and devil-may-care demeanor. His science officer and second-in-command is the Vulcan Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who claims to be in total control of his emotions and driven purely by logic and reason. This attitude often puts Spock at odds with the wildly emotional Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley). These three form the emotional core of Star Trek, as the crew hops throughout the universe in search of the strange new worlds mentioned in the title narration.

Lt. Arex and Mr. Sulu, with Capt. Kirk in the big chairAt the time, animation was perhaps the best medium for Star Trek, since the show could capitalize on one of animation’s greatest strengths: since everything on screen is artificial, nothing ever has to look fake. Such crew members as the three-armed Lt. Arex and the feline Lt. M’Ress (who were added to the animated series) would have been impossible to bring to convincing live-action life on the original series. Alien environments and architecture could be as lavish, strange, and intricate as the animators could afford to make them. Freed from the limitations of model-making, spaceships could be insanely alien, from the amoeba-like craft in the pilot “Beyond the Farthest Star” to the strangely layered craft from an alternate dimension in “The Counter-Clock Incident,” which closes the set.

Given the potentials of an animated Star Trek, it’s a bit of a shame that the show is sometimes brought low by budgetary constraints. Nobody fondly remembers a Filmation cartoon for its animation quality, and this series abounds with such infamous Filmation tricks and techniques as incessantly recycled animation and “pan-imation,” where movement is created by moving the camera over a static painted background. It is safe to say that, on a technical level, nearly every animated show on the air today improves on the animated Star Trek.

But it is also not really the point. The original Trek didn’t endure because of the quality of its special effects, but because of the quality of the writing. It is no small compliment to say that the stories of the animated Trek fit in perfectly with those of the original show. A dearth of outer-space nookie for Captain Kirk (and even then “The Jihad” comes close to giving him some) is seemingly the show’s only concession to the target Saturday morning audience. In fact, the cartoon’s thirty-minute running time demands tremendous story-telling efficiency, and the show’s writers rose to the challenge admirably. The subplots and plot red herrings that could drag a live-action episode to its knees are excised entirely, and the animated episodes are stronger for it.

A most illogical display of emotionAbout half of the best Star Trek episodes are meditations on the human condition cloaked in fantastic trappings. Ironically, one of the best such episodes in this set is the Spock-centric episode “Yesteryear,” a time-travel story framing a surprisingly sensitive and emotional coming-of-age tale. The rest of the best Trek is rousing high adventure in open space, with the crew digging their way out of holes through liberal use of technobabble and phaser-based diplomacy. Episodes like “The Time Trap” and “The Pirates of Orion” provide fine instances of both. The show also demonstrates more daring than do many shows today, with surprisingly explicit religious or political themes driving episodes like “The Magics of Megas-Tu,” “The Ambergris Element,” and “The Jihad.” It doesn’t hurt that the show seems to have a good sense of when to leaven the otherwise serious proceedings with a laugh, usually slipped in as an offhand comment but sometimes in fully comedic episodes like “More Tribbles, More Troubles” or “Mudd’s Passion.”

The reuse of the original cast is another factor that ensures the success of the animated show. It wouldn’t be Star Trek without the familiar line readings of Shatner, Nimoy, or the late Kelley. However, the animated show seems to provide more opportunity for the secondary characters to shine than the original show did. Despite the shorter running times, Lt. Uhura, Nurse Chapel, Mr. Sulu, and Scotty all seem to be more active participants than they were on the live-action show. One also hopes that the late James Doohan (Scotty) was paid by the role, since he seems to voice every male supporting character on the show. We are also treated to several fan-favorite guest stars, such as tribble-wrangler Cyrano Jones, con-man Harcourt Fenton Mudd, Spock’s parents Sarek and Amanda, and frequent Klingon foe Captain Kor. Add in some imaginative aliens and inventive plot lines and you get a terrific old-school Trek smorgasbord in 22 episodes.

Paramount’s home video division must be singled out for exceptional praise for this release, which truly sets the gold standard for TV shows on DVD. The quality of the episodes is as good as can be expected, given the limitations of the source material. In addition to a digital remastering, the episodes have been given a remixed 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, with mono and Spanish-language soundtracks available as options. Multiple language subtitles are available as options, both for the episodes and any audio commentary tracks. Each episode gets multiple chapter stops and there are no forced trailers to endure. DVD menus, written in the original Star Trek font, are sensible and easy to navigate, omitting flashy animations and those interminable music loops that can drive you mad.

I'm a doctor, not a xenoarchitect, Jim!Six of the 22 episodes receive commentary tracks: four with full-length audio commentaries by series writers and two with pop-up text commentaries by long-time Trek contributors Michael and Denise Okuda. One other episode, “The Infinite Vulcan,” receives a production art gallery. Rounding out the special features are “Drawn to the Final Frontier,” a 24-minute documentary where many of the writers and Filmation producers talk about making the show; “What’s the Star Trek Connection?” which links events on the show to past episodes of the original series and references made in later shows; and a text show history. The accompanying booklet also contains a brief history of the show and short but detailed episode synopses. Taken in sum, this set is a nearly flawless exemplar on how to do a TV series boxed set. This should really be the baseline for TV-on-DVD, not a high-water mark.

If there is a complaint to be made, it is probably in the packaging, which will no doubt inspire powerful love/hate reactions. The set’s four DVDs are stored in an ingenious plastic portfolio that is barely thicker than a single DVD Amaray case. This portfolio is then encased with the booklet in a glossy paper sleeve that contains each episode’s Stardate and original Terran air date. Unfortunately, this model of packaging efficiency is then housed in an enormously wasteful white plastic box. On the plus side, the box does look pretty cool, with a retro-future design that looks like it would fit in on the original Star Trek show. On the minus side, it seems like a tremendous waste of resources and is a terrible fit on any DVD shelf, even alongside the other Star Trek DVD releases.

If you’re not a Star Trek fan, there is nothing here that will make you change your mind about the show. However, Trek fans of all stripes can find plenty to enjoy in this set, as long as one takes the animation quality with a grain of salt. Or maybe a good dose of Romulan ale. Still, a whirl on the Enterprise with Kirk and the gang has always been one of the most pleasant nostalgia trips you can take, and the animated Star Trek proves no exception.

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