“The Animated Series was the first real demonstration that Star Trek had a life beyond The Original Series. It was the beginning of a huge period of Trek merchandise and fan interest that eventually paved the way for the Trek movies and subsequent TV shows, and it was an Emmy-winning program that brought some of Trek's sophistication to Saturday morning.” — Jeff Bond, co-author of Star Trek: The Motion Picture—Inside the Art & Visual Effects
The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this retrospective commemorating the 50th anniversary of Star Trek: The Animated Series, the first “sequel” show to Gene Roddenberry’s legendary 1960s science-fiction series.
For the occasion, The Bits has reached out to several Treksperts and animation authorities and even an original Trek writer, each of whom reflects on the series, its virtues, and where it stands in the Trek franchise. [Read on here...]
THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY
Jerry Beck (animation historian): Filmation's Star Trek: The Animated Series was perhaps the first "smart" Saturday morning cartoon; the first intelligently written science fiction TV cartoon to emerge from that era. The animation itself is indeed simplistic, but the character design (beyond the principal human cast), and the show's "strange new worlds" are as imaginative as any in subsequent Trek series. The show was unique in its day—and has stood the test of time. Canon or not—ST:TAS has left an indelible mark on Star Trek fandom and the movies and shows to follow. I'm a fan.
Michael and Denise Okuda (authors, The Star Trek Encyclopedia: A Reference Guide to the Future): In the dark days of the early 1970s, when it seemed impossible that Star Trek would ever return, the animated Star Trek series was a small miracle. It was led by the great Dorothy Fontana, and with a team of legendary science fiction writers—many of whom had worked on the original series—plus most of the original cast, not to mention Gene Roddenberry himself. One could almost pretend it was a missing season of what is, for us, the greatest science fiction series of all time.
Jeff Bond (co-author, Star Trek: The Motion Picture—Inside the Art & Visual Effects): I think The Animated Series was the first real demonstration that Star Trek had a life beyond The Original Series. It was the beginning of a huge period of Trek merchandise and fan interest that eventually paved the way for the Trek movies and subsequent TV shows, and it was an Emmy-winning program that brought some of Trek's sophistication to Saturday morning.
Scott Mantz (co-host, Enterprise Incidents): If there was ever a time that The Animated Series should not only be remembered, but also appreciated, celebrated and hailed for being the great Star Trek series that it is, it has to be on its 50th anniversary! For far too long, TAS has been unfairly overlooked in the realm of Star Trek history, merely because it was an animated show that didn’t last very long (only twenty-two episodes over two seasons).
David Gerrold (writer, “The Trouble with Tribbles,” “More Tribbles, More Troubles”): The best thing about the animated series was the opportunity to work with D.C. Fontana. She was a remarkable story editor on the original series and a great producer for the animated series. She did the heavy-lifting on that show, she made it work. Her instructions to the writers were simple. Write Star Trek, write a prime-time story that we can show on Saturday morning. She deserves more credit than she has ever been given for her contributions to Star Trek: The Original Series, The Animated Series, and Next Generation.
Mark A. Altman (co-host, Inglorious Treksperts): The animated Star Trek is actually incredibly notable for a myriad reasons. In an era of Saturday morning kidvid in which Gilligan got stranded in outer space and Superman saved The Brady Bunch, Star Trek actually retained the serious, largely grounded approach to science fiction of the original with only a few concessions to the fact that it was children’s television. Sure, there was the occasional giant monster fight like in “Mudd’s Passion” or the episode where the crew is shrunk (“The Terratin Incident’) or turned into kids in “The Counter Clock Incident” (although admittedly many years later TNG would do the same thing in live action in “Rascals”), but it largely eschewed the goofier elements of Saturday morning cartoons to tell meaningful and compelling sci-fi adventures laden with allegory and metaphor much as TOS did so it can almost be considered the fourth and fifth season of the live-action series.
Scott Mantz: The fact is that The Animated Series was more than just a worthy successor to The Original Series—it was a great Star Trek series, period. And fifty years later, it still holds up. In addition to being produced by Gene Roddenberry himself, TAS was also overseen by the great Dorothy “D.C.” Fontana, who served as its story editor and wrote what is inarguably the finest episode of the series, if not one of the best Star Trek episodes of all time, “Yesteryear.” And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, since TAS featured many other writers who previously contributed to TOS, including Margaret Armen, David Gerrold, Samuel A. Peeples and Stephen Kandel. Plus, Marc Daniels wrote the TAS episode “One of Our Planets is Missing” after directing a whopping fourteen episodes of TOS, and even though Walter Koenig was unfairly passed over to return as the voice of Chekov, he did become the first Star Trek actor to write an episode of any Star Trek series with “The Infinite Vulcan.” And then there’s the Peabody Award and the 1975 Emmy Award TAS won for the episode “How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth,” which continued the Star Trek tradition of diversity by featuring the first Native American member of the Enterprise crew.
Daren Dochterman (co-host, Inglorious Treksperts): The two shorter seasons of Star Trek: The Aminated Series should, in my opinion, be considered the fourth season of the original Star Trek series. The show has an unquestioned pedigree written by several TOS writers, produced by Gene Roddenberry himself, and starring nearly all the original actors from the series. It took a bold stance to aim the series not at the children, but at the adult fans of the original show and the fact that it did garner a huge audience of those under eighteen gave the fandom of Star Trek a younger infusion, guaranteeing its lifetime for at least an additional twenty years.
W.R. Miller (author, The Animated Voice: Interviews with Voice Actors): [Star Trek: The Animated Series ought to be remembered on its 50th anniversary for the following:] (1) As a noble effort to keep the Star Trek franchise alive until a better incarnation came along. (2) For expanding the potential of Star Trek in the medium of animation, allowing for extensive use of nonhumans, exotic worlds and wondrous starships (“Beyond the Farthest Star”). (3) For its cheap production values. (4) For introducing new concepts into Star Trek canon—such as the holodeck (called a “rec deck” here), visualizing Spock’s pet sehlat, Robert April as the first captain of the Enterprise, and David Gerrold identifying the “T” in James T. Kirk: “Tiberius.” (5) For continuing the Enterprise’s five-year mission. (Though, does Captain Pike’s tenure count or was that a separate five-year mission?) (6) For daring to tell mature stories on Saturday morning. Well, some more than others. Some characters actually died. (7) For keeping American animation artists employed. This was a time when American studios—other than Filmation—started sending animation work overseas. Star Trek: The Animated Series was an early credit for Glen Keane, who served as a layout artist. He later joined Disney and became one of their top animators. (8) Showcasing James Doohan’s talent as a voiceover actor, performing multiple roles including Lt. Arex. He had done voiceovers as well in the original series. He would later play Commander Canarvin in the first season of Filmation’s Jason of Star Command. (9) For continuing Gene Roddenberry’s philosophies torn from the pages of The National Enquirer: that Outer Space Aliens visited Earth, masqueraded as deities and gave us culture, and that mankind will one day evolve into Giant Space Slugs. (10) As the only Star Trek series to win an Emmy Award in a non-technical category.
Jeff Bond: I was still into Saturday morning shows at the time and Star Trek was very much at the top of what I was looking forward to when it debuted in 1973. And I remember immediately being impressed by the artwork and imagination of "Beyond the Farthest Star," the first episode aired. It was very clear that the animation format stretched what was capable of being shown in terms of action, aliens, environments and spacecraft, so the show really expanded the Star Trek universe.
Mark A. Altman: It's possible, although I can’t be quite sure, that it was my original introduction to Star Trek as a kid. But such memories are hazy, lost to the vagaries of time. That said, I remember really rediscovering it many years later when it re-aired on Nickelodeon in the 90s and as a superb LaserDisc set which collected all the episodes in one box and finally realizing how special the show was. It was the first time I really went back and watched all the episodes from beginning to end and found myself largely impressed with what Gene and Dorothy had accomplished despite the limitations of time, budget and censorship that it was dealing with at the time.
W.R. Miller: I caught Star Trek when it began its run in syndication. Ignoring the “bad” episodes (most from the third season), I thought Star Trek was still a great concept and fun to watch. There was even rumors that it could be revived—and so it was, albeit as a cartoon. Okay. I’d watch it. Though I knew the animation would be limited, it still boasted the names of the cast and writers. And there was a chance it wouldn’t cater to what Stan Lee called The Bubblegum Brigade. “Beyond the Farthest Star” was certainly intriguing. A vast alien spaceship! A bridge defense mechanism! Personal forcefield belts! A tripedal creature navigating the Enterprise! Nice! The story was written by Samuel A. Peeples, who had written Star Trek’s second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” But this was a dirt-cheap production. What happened to the classic Alexander Courage theme, and the themes used in the live-action version? Why did the Enterprise move so … flat? Why did the phasers sound so tinny? What happened to Mr. Chekov? What’s with the cheesy sound effects? And the constant canned music? And the cut-rate animation angles? Argh!
Daren Dochterman: I saw it on its premiere. When I was seven years old. That Saturday morning was a conglomeration of various shows that I would watch every week, but this new Star Trek show was something that I immediately found appealing. The strangeness and otherworldliness of “Beyond the Farthest Star” was a slightly frightening, but certainly interesting adventure to start out with. I hadn’t actually seen the live-action television show yet. So in retrospect, I realized I had seen the show in passing when my grandfather was viewing it one time I was well through the first season of the animated show before I got to see the live-action show, and was very surprised at the different opening to the show, the music being completely different.
Scott Mantz: I first discovered the original Star Trek in syndication when it was airing five nights a week on WPHL Channel 17 in my hometown of Philadelphia. It was late 1974, and I was six years old. The first episode I ever saw was “Mirror, Mirror,” and I was hooked! What’s interesting is that it was an atypical episode of Star Trek, because it mostly took place in the “Mirror” universe, but of course, we all know how great that episode is! Around this time, I happened upon The Animated Series, which was still running on Saturday mornings. The first episode of TAS I ever saw was “The Magicks of Megas-tu,” which in my young mind I thought if as “the one where Captain Kirk” meets the devil.” But because I was essentially “discovering” both TOS and TAS at the same time, I never thought if of the shows as being any different. They both featured the names of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley during the opening credits, so it didn’t matter to me if it was live action or animated—it was still Star Trek. And since I was recording episodes of both shows on my little tape recorder, I couldn’t even tell the difference when I listened back to them!
Daren Dochterman: The show was a bold expanse of the original television show. It did something that had never really been done before taking a show that was ostensibly for adults, and, not only making it appealing to younger kids, but actually expanding the scope and design of the original show into the realm that live action could simply not afford. The fact that the original cast was included was simply without precedent.
Scott Mantz: To this date, The Animated Series remains the only Star Trek series to win an “above the line” Emmy Award, which alone makes it a standout among all the Star Trek shows.
Jeff Bond: It's significant in that it employed writers and actors from the original show and real science fiction authors like Larry Niven ("The Slaver Weapon") and it certainly added to the Star Trek mythos.
Scott Mantz: You also have to keep in mind that in the early 1970s, that’s when Star Trek really found its audience and got very popular, thanks to the syndication of The Original Series and the rise of the Star Trek conventions. But this was a time when The Original Series was all we had, and you can only watch those seventy-nine episodes so many times before you want something new. The Animated Series was that “something new,” and it delivered the goods on so many levels. It also kept Star Trek alive and served as a buffer until the movie series finally started in 1979 with Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Mark A. Altman: One of the things that’s really impressive are the novelizations by Alan Dean Foster which added a lot of depth to the episodes and were far superior to the James Blish adaptations of the original series. Foster, a Star Trek and lifelong sci-fi fan, was able to enrich the stories and characters in his books that made them really memorable and helped weave them into Trek canon skillfully. And despite the clunky, limited animation of the episodes, people forget how much the fandom was outraged when Gene first announced the animated series fearing it would torpedo any chance of a live-action resurrection. It was only when they screened the new title sequence at a convention that they were able to quiet the naysayers when they saw this wasn’t going to be teenage space cadets with zap guns as Gene might say, but that it looked and sounded like the Star Trek we knew and loved. And more than that, in addition to Gene and Dorothy’s involvement, thanks to the Writers Guild strike at the time, there were a ton of great TV writers and sci-fi notables involved from David Gerrold to Larry Brody to Sam Peeples to Larry Niven and Margaret Armen among others. It’s also worthy of note that the holodeck which becomes such an important part of Trek lore in subsequent series was first introduced in the animated series in “Practical Joker.” For all intents and purposes, it’s the only significant piece of Trek universe technology not introduced in the original series.
Scott Mantz: The Animated Series is noteworthy for many reasons, the biggest of which is that after all these decades, we can see with perspective that it was vintage Star Trek. In addition to using the actors and many of the writers from The Original Series, TAS featured strong stories that were as strong and as thought-provoking as they were on TOS, and there was a big reason for that: Roddenberry and Fontana gave TAS writers the mandate to just write for Star Trek. Don’t dumb it down, don’t cater to the young Saturday morning audience, but by all means feel free to explore themes that might challenge them to rise to the level reached by Star Trek. That’s why you have standout episodes featuring euthanasia, a plague, God and the devil.
W.R. Miller: Filmation was a studio known for its stock animation system, reusing designs, animation and music to amortize costs. Star Trek: The Animated Series reduced movement to bare minimum, such as using eye shifts, half-screen close-ups, running silhouettes in long shots, as well as nonstop canned music and hokey sound effects apart from the live-action version. Oddly, there were several different alarm klaxons for the “red alerts.” In 2022, Gazelle Automations replicated the Filmation style for Star Trek: The Next Generation (https://youtu.be/Jyz2pVqrEkI) and Star Trek: Voyager (https://youtu.be/luEDui2zAUw).
Jeff Bond: The Animated Series gets a lot of flak now for its limited animation style, but this was very much in line with what was on Saturday morning at the time. In fact, Saturday morning shows were moving away from the "action" format kicked off by Hanna-Barbera and FIlmation in the 1960s and going more for comedy shows like Scooby-Doo, and the action format was leaning more in the direction of live action with some of the Sid and Marty Krofft shows like Land of the Lost or FIlmation's Ark II. So TAS was one of the few "serious" shows on Saturday morning and the realistic rendering of the characters and detailed and authentic backgrounds of the Enterprise interiors and planet surfaces was eye-grabbing at the time and still is in some respects. Obviously the animation was very limited but this was also very much a part of television animation—most stories involved characters speaking to each other and mouth movement was all that was required. And even the reuse of animation elements that stands out now was part of the process going back to The Flintstones and other H-B shows where you'd see the same background scrolling behind the characters.