This fall marks 45 years since the end of Star Trek: The Animated Series.
In the immediate aftermath of the cancellation of the original Star Trek, Paramount and NBC realized they may have made a mistake. There was a fanbase hungry for more of the adventures of Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise.
But how to move forward? Plans for a revived live-action series and a potential feature film were both in the proverbial development hell.
And worse, Leonard Nimoy, who played the series’s most popular character, Mr. Spock, had no intention of donning the pointy ears again.
The answer was with Filmation Studios. They reached a deal with Trek creator Gene Roddenberry to bring the final frontier back to Saturday mornings in the form of Star Trek: The Animated Series.
Debate continues to this day among Trekkies as to whether Star Trek: The Animated Series should be considered canon. But what isn’t in dispute is that the show kept the franchise alive in the years between the end of the original series and the launch of Star Trek as a feature film property.
With Star Trek poised to return to animated form next year with Star Trek: Lower Decks, we thought it’d be fun to look back at the almost-forgotten Trek series.
Here’s our look at the five best episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series, the torchbearer of the Trek franchise.
5. The Counter-Clock Incident
The Enterprise is on a mission to escort Commodore Robert April, the first captain of the Enterprise (pre-dating Captain Pike) to fulfill his final duties before facing mandatory retirement.
En route, the ship is drawn into a pocket universe where time works in reverse. As a result, Kirk and crew begin to revert to earlier stages of life. Eventually, only Spock – who, as a Vulcan, ages more slowly than the rest of the crew – Commodore April, and his wife can take control of the Enterprise and pilot it safely back to their own universe.
This episode is cool just because it manages to be a high-concept sci-fi episode with sophisticated scientific elements while still being accessible to its target audience – children. Little kids may not know a quark from a quart, but they can grasp a concept like aging backwards. It’s a theme we’ll return to with regards to Star Trek: The Animated Series. It truly was a show for all ages.
Also, it establishes Robert April as the Enterprise’s original commanding officer. Whether the series is considered canon or not, this particular element has been referenced in live-action. Most recently, April’s name came up on a list of prominent Starfleet captains in a first-season episode of Star Trek: Discovery.
4. More Tribbles, More Troubles
Oh, tribbles. It seems that no iteration of Star Trek is complete without them. And Star Trek: The Animated Series is no exception.
‘More Tribbles, More Troubles’ serves as a direct sequel to the classic original series episode, ‘The Trouble With Tribbles.’ It’s also written by David Gerrold, who penned the original episode with the prolific fluff balls.
A run-in with a Klingon cruiser testing a new weapon leads the Enterprise to another meeting with Cyrano Jones, the traveling salesman who introduced them to tribbles years earlier.
Jones is insistent that he’s developed a new tribble that doesn’t breed at will when they eat. The trade-off being that they grow to immense sizes.
It’s a fun episode that rewards fans of the original series while still offering something new. And, despite doing it by voiceover, William Shatner gets to deliver the most badass line of Captain Kirk’s career.
“The first Klingon to step aboard this ship will be the last Klingon.”
3. The Pirates Of Orion
An outbreak of a disease with symptoms similar to pneumonia is spreading through the Enterprise. It’s no big deal, until Spock contracts the illness.
As Dr. McCoy reports, the disease is fatal to Vulcans. And again, Star Trek: The Animated Series goes into WAY more detail than you’d expect for a kid’s show. Bones actually runs down what the illness is doing to Spock’s cells and explains that his blood cells are being suffocated.
The Enterprise sets up a rendezvous with another ship that’s carrying the cure, only to find that it’s been attacked by Orion pirates. Kirk, not willing to let his best friend die, chases after the Orions into an asteroid belt and goes hand-to-hand with the Orion captain to get the cure back.
On the surface, there’s nothing particularly special about this episode. Except that it could easily have been an episode of the original series. The theme of Kirk going to extremes to save a single member of his crew (it always happens to be Spock, but whatever) is an old one in Star Trek.
And Star Trek: The Animated Series put together a great episode with genuine tension and real emotion among the trinity of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy.
2. How Sharper Than A Serpent’s Tooth
It was tough trying to decide which episode would take the top spot.
‘How Sharper Than A Serpent’s Tooth’ comes just shy of coming in at number one. The Enterprise is held in stasis with its power being drained by a huge, unknown vessel.
Ensign Walking Bear – hey, it was the 70s, diversity is diversity, and for God’s sake they were trying – recognizes the ship as resembling the ancient Mayan god Kukulkan. Kirk, Walking Bear, Bones, and Scotty are all transported aboard the alien ship.
While Spock works to free the Enterprise from the alien tractor beam, Kirk and company have to solve a riddle involving a massive recreation of an ancient Mayan city. Eventually, the puzzle brings Kukulkan to reveal himself to the crew.
He says that he visited Earth thousands of years earlier and gave humanity the knowledge to grow as a species. But he was heartbroken and angered to find out that humanity has not only forgotten him but the lessons he tried to teach them. The ancient god resolves to return to Earth and basically enslave humanity and to teach them until they get it “right.”
Kirk delivers a speech to Kukulkan that could easily have been a Picard speech on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He explains to Kukulkan that humanity will be forever in his debt, but like all parents, Kukulkan has to let Earth leave the nest and make its own mistakes.
“If children are made totally dependent on their teachers,” Kirk explains, “they will never be anything but children.”
Again, high concept stuff from Star Trek: The Animated Series. And also entirely appropriate, as the target audience was, itself, growing up.
The Enterprise returns to the Guardian of Forever, the time-travel structure that played prominently in the original series episode ‘City on the Edge of Forever.’
Kirk waits for the landing party to emerge from a historical mission. The last traveler, Spock, emerges. But only Kirk remembers him.
Spock deduces that in order to restore the timeline, he has to use the Guardian to travel back to a point in his own past. He arrives on Vulcan years earlier and finds himself meeting with his parents, Sarek and Amanda Grayson.
Eventually, Spock has to intervene in an event from his own past. The younger Spock runs away from home, unable to bear the difficulties of his split heritage. Prime Spock follows him and finds that his younger self is about to be killed by a wild beast.
Luckily, young Spock’s pet selhat (a giant tiger, basically) saves his master’s life. But he’s mortally wounded in the process. And Spock has to explain to his younger self why he needs to put his pet out of his suffering.
Holy crap. There’s a lot packed into this episode from Star Trek: The Animated Series, and all of it is heavy. We’ve got quantum time paradoxes, alternate timelines, and pet euthanasia. Very deep stuff for a kid’s show, but all handled gently enough for children to be able to grasp it.
Star Trek: The Animated Series is a show that doesn’t get nearly enough love from the Trekkie fanbase. Just about any of the episodes above, with a little padding and some more sophisticated dialogue, could easily have been live-action episodes.
The early-to-mid 70s were a dark period for Star Trek, where fans had to fill in their own gaps. Star Trek: The Animated Series, to me, is unquestionably canon. It’s years four and five of the five-year mission.
As we’re finding today with fan backlash to Star Trek: Discovery and the Kelvin-verse films, carrying the torch tends to be a thankless job.
But Star Trek: The Animated Series kept the fire alive in unique, thoughtful, and entertaining fashion.
The full run of Star Trek: The Animated Series is streaming on CBS All Access.
All images courtesy of CBS.