If you've never heard of the animated Star Trek series, never knew that in the 1970's there was an animated spin off of that show with Captain Kirk and Mister Spock, you are not alone. It isn't any wonder even that many people who were around at the time have forgotten that there was such a show, especially considering what kind of turmoil the world was in in 1973. This is the story of the animated Star Trek - the forgotten chapter in Star Trek history.
Hal Sutherland, Lou Scheimer
Late in 1972 Norm Prescott and Lou Scheimer - top executives at Filmation approached Gene Roddenberry and Paramount about obtaining the rights to do an animated version of Star Trek. Lou Scheimer had appreciated the original Star Trek series and thought that the property could thrive as an animated series. Other production companies also sought the rights to produce an animated Star Trek.
Unlike virtually all other Filmation series up to that time, and indeed most Saturday morning animated series, the animated STAR TREK series would not be played for laughs, would not feature young characters, would not feature cute animal sidekicks and would not feature the characters singing in a rock-and-roll band. However, before meeting with Roddenberry, the Filmation staff did up some potential sketches of what some of the Enterprise crew might look like in animated form and some featured kids.
These conceptual illustrations included a set that featured young counterparts to five members of the crew. Once these latter sketches were shown to Gene, however, the idea of kids on the show was immediately withdrawn and never revisited.
Filmation promised to commit their best team of creative artists to the new project and pledged that the show would adhere to the quality of story and characterization of the original and that the look and feel of everything from the Enterprise interiors to the uniforms and props would be authentic. Gene Roddenberry accepted Filmation's proposal to create an animated STAR TREK, but he insisted on maintaining creative control and insisted that D. C. Fontana (pictured left) serve as not only the new show's story editor, as she had done on the original series, but that she assume the duties of producer, although her credits list her as Associate Producer. Gene was the show's executive consultant.
The rights were granted to Filmation, and soon after, NBC bought the series. But although the show was presented as a serious program perfectly suitable for adult viewing in prime time, the NBC executives considered it kiddie fare and relegated the show to Saturday mornings and as a result it has become the forgotten Star Trek. When asked about the maturity level of the animated series during an interview for Show magazine in the early 1970's, Gene Roddenberry responded: "That was one of the reasons I wanted creative control. There are enough limitations just being on Saturday morning. We have to limit some of the violence we might have had on the evening shows. There will probably be no sex element to talk of either. But it will be Star Trek and not a stereotype kids cartoon show."
This new Star Trek show had a lot going for it. Many of the original writers from the original series came back to write new episodes and sequels to their live-action episodes. These included "More Tribbles, More Troubles" by David Gerrold which was a sequel to his "The Trouble With Tribbles" episode. Chuck Menville and Len Janson wrote "Once Upon a Planet", a sequel to "Shore Leave" written by Theodore Sturgeon. Stephan Kandel, author of two Harry Mudd episodes of the original series, returned to pen an animated Mudd tale, "Mudd's Passion". Even actor Walter Koenig, who had portrayed Ensign Pavel Chekov on the original series, wrote a script, "The Infinite Vulcan", which tied in to the original series episode "Space Seed." D. C. Fontana, who had written some of the most memorable episodes of the original Star Trek series, contributed a script which would be recognized as one of the best Trek stories written, "Yesteryear". Fontana selected writers that would be able to maintain the quality and consistency of the Star Trek concepts. Usually such animated projects employ animation writers, which are writers versed in the peculiarities of the TV cartoon art form. But for Star Trek, fine sci-fi writers provided the material. These scripts were then massaged by D. C. Fontana and the Filmation staff to suit the animation technique. The availability of so many excellent writers was partially due to the fact that in early 1973 an eight-month writer's strike was underway. The strike prevented members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) from writing for live action television programs. However, guild rules allowed authors to write one episode of an animated television series. The strike eventually ended in the summer of 1973.
To further embrace the expectations of the fans, the decision was made to make an extraordinary effort to reproduce the likenesses of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Sulu, Uhura and Nurse Chapel. As many of the original actors as possible were brought onboard to reprise their roles by providing the voices of their animated versions. At first, Filmation planned on not having George Takei and Nichelle Nichols come back to do their roles again. But when Leonard Nimoy learned of their exclusion he said that he would "... not be a party to this if two of the minorities who contributed to making Star Trek what it was when we were on television cannot be incorporated." It was due to Nimoy's stand that Sulu and Uhura's characters made it into the animated series. So, DeForest Kelley was portraying McCoy once again. Kelley quipped, "Here we were a bunch of cartoon characters." But he welcomed the work since some of the twenty-two scripts were really very good - especially with D. C. Fontana producing and in the writing mix. Having been birthed in radio, for Kelley, reading dialogue for animation was child's play, and he really enjoyed himself. Eventually Fontana left the show after the first season because as she says, she "wanted to move on to something else, and not get stuck in animation. The business is funny. If you stay too long in one thing, people start to buttonhole you there and say, 'You can't do anything else,' regardless of all your other credits."
Unfortunately with that many star voices, the budget simply didn't allow for Walter Koenig to return as Chekov. Due to an apparent mis-communication between D. C. Fontana and Gene Roddenberry, Koenig was not officially informed that there would be an animated series by either of them, but instead learned of it from a fan at a Star Trek Convention. Koenig would later describe this situation as quite possibly the most embarrassing Star Trek moment he ever had. James Doohan, who is a speech expert of almost limitless talent, provided the voices of a large number of characters and did double duty by doing the voice of Scotty and semi-regular character Lieutenant Arex. On two episodes, "Yesteryear" and "The Ambergris Element", Doohan provided the voices of seven different characters. Majel Barrett similarly voiced numerous female voices including Nurse Chapel, the semi-regular Lieutenant M'Ress and of course the Enterprise computer. George Takei and Nichelle Nichols also occasionally did some guest characters. In an unprecedented way, several other guest star actors from the original series returned to do the voices of their characters, such as Roger C. Carmel (Harry Mudd), Stanley Adams (Cyrano Jones), and Mark Lenard (Sarek). So it was then, that in June 1973 almost the entire original cast of Star Trek were reunited to once again do a Star Trek series!
Due to the demanding schedules of the voice actors during the show's production, it was sometimes necessary for actors to record their dialogue alone away from the other actor's and then send tapes of their performances to the studio where they could be mixed together with the other dialog to form the show's soundtrack. There was even an occasion in which voice recordings had to be sent in from actors all across the country in order to piece together a particular episode. In June 1973, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, De Forest Kelley and all the rest of the cast voiced the first three episodes as an ensemble at the recording studio located near the corner of Sherman Way, just outside of Hollywood. For subsequent episodes, actors would come in and record their lines at different times of the day -- with the actors meeting each other at the studio as one left and the other arrived. The high standards of authenticity and quality drove the production cost to about $75,000 per half-hour episode, making it the most expensive animated series of its time. Filmation took all of this in stride and put forth an admirable effort. The show employed some 75 artists who produced 5,000 to 7,000 separate drawings per show, plus a host of other support personel. The primary problem facing the production company had to do with the ridiculous delivery date handed them by NBC executives. The network waited until April or May 1973 to give the green light for the project which was to air in September of that same year. The initial contract was for sixteen half-hour episodes to begin airing September 1973. After that, six additional episodes were ordered for airing the following year, bringing the total to twenty-two episodes. That meant that eight hours of animation had to be created in just five months. At that time companies like Walt Disney produced two hours of final animation in about two years. But of course in the 1970's animated television shows used what was termed "limited" animation as opposed to "full" animation in which fewer different drawings were used per second of screen time. In full animation upwards of 24 different drawings are used for one second of screen time, whereas limited animation might have as few as 2 drawings per second at its worst, but usually around 6 per second on average. Another cost cutting technique was to only redraw the moving portions of a character. For instance a character's head and body may remain stationary in a scene while only their eyes and lips move.
The animated Star Trek series had its faults mostly due to the limited range of action that could be portrayed given the limited animation employed and the time pressures under which the series was produced. However, one of the series greatest strengths was its ability to show alien life-forms, cities, spaceships and spatial phenomenon that would have been cost prohibitive or downright impossible to do in a live action series. In a way, the animated series was able to soar in the science-fiction universe where the live-action series could only visit planetscapes that could be built on a small soundstage or found on the Paramount backlot, and could only interact with aliens that could be created by applying inexpensive amounts of make-up to human actors.
The animated Star Trek series was a true bridge between the original live-action series and the later movies and series in that the animated series contained several Star Trek firsts. These include the first appearance of a holodeck in "The Practical Joker", the first native American crewmember in "How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth", and the mentioning of Captain Kirk's middle name in "Bem". In the original series the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise had only one exit. In 1973, the animated series featured a bridge with two exits. Six years later, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, showed the bridge of the Enterprise with two exits. Of importance to the Star Trek universe, the animated series not only mentioned, but showed Commodore Robert April, the first commander of the Constitution-class Enterprise.
The series was even awarded an Emmy Award for the Best Children's Series for the 1974-75 season. It was canceled after 22 episodes, even though it was a critical success. Cecil Smith had written in the September 10th, 1973 Los Angeles Times:
"NBC's new animated Star Trek is as out of place in the Saturday morning kiddie ghetto as a
Mercedes in a soapbox derby.
Don't be put off by the fact it's now a cartoon... It is fascinating fare, written, produced and executed with all the imaginative skill, the intellectual flare and the literary level that made Gene Roddenberry's famous old science fiction epic the most avidly followed program in TV history, particularly in high I.Q. circles.
NBC might do well to consider moving it into prime time at mid-series..."
In its initial network run, the show was not seen by most adults due to its early Saturday
morning time slot. In syndication, however, more and more people watched it and they came to
realize that even though it was a cartoon, it added another 22 stories to the Star Trek Universe - a great many of which were superbly crafted tales. In regards to the animated series' demise, Gene Roddenberry would write, "I think one can always wish something was done better, but within the limits of how animation is done in the market today - the speed it's done, the dollars they're able to put into it, and so on - it was a fairly good job. I think the best proof of that is the Emmy it won. Star Trek has a spectacular record of getting awards and special attention either while or after it's been canceled."
Gene would later say that had he thought that there would be a live-action Star Trek, he would never have permitted the animated series. So, years after the animated show aired, Gene Roddenberry instructed Paramount not to consider the series as part of the official Star Trek Universe. This was due to Mr. Roddenberry having had some regrets over some elements of the Animated show. His decision is unfortunate in my opinion, but understandable. Just as portions of the movie Star Trek V: The Final Frontier are considered apocryphal by Gene and Paramount, it does not mean that the stories can no longer be watched and enjoyed. The stamp of "official" or "canon" is only an indication to future writers that they should not look to these adventures as background reference when creating new stories.
I believe that three episodes in particular were responsible for the animated series being deemed "non-canon." These are "The Slaver Weapon", "The Terratin Incident" and "The Infinite Vulcan." "The Slaver Weapon" was an excellent story but was a major crossover with Larry Niven's Known Space Universe. I don't believe that Gene Roddenberry wanted to open the floodgate and let all the technology and races from Niven's work into the Star Trek Universe. "The Terratin Incident" was also a good story but the idea of the entire crew being miniaturized was probably seen as a little too far-fetched and unscientific to be allowed into "canon" even though a Federation runabout would be shrunk in size via a scientific space anomaly in the sixth-season Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "One Little Ship." Similarly, "The Infinite Vulcan" featured giant clones. The reason for the large size of the clones was never revealed in the story. Another animated episode story that may also have influenced his decision was "The Counter-Clock Incident." This story was very important to the Star Trek Universe in that it revealed that the first commanding officer of the Constitution-class U.S.S. Enterprise was Captain Robert April. However, this same episode featured an entire universe which had white space with black stars, where stars were born in a supernova and which had a race of people who were "born" elderly and proceeded to grow young until they presumably returned to the womb. This concept probably seemed too difficult to fold into the presumably more "sensible" stories of the live-action series. Interestingly, an April 1996 Star Trek: Voyager episode by the name of "Innocence" featured a race who grew more childlike in appearance and demeanor as they became older. In either event, these particular episodes may have convinced Mr. Roddenberry to "disown" the animated series, as it were. Since in the 1970's, Saturday morning cartoons were not afforded much respect within the industry - it was probably Gene Roddenberry's desire to keep Star Trek as serious as possible in the minds of Hollywood executives by excising the "kiddie-show" Star Trek as some have termed it. Again, such a pronouncement does not prevent fans from embracing the animated series, and enjoying the episodes over and over again. People should not fault the authors of the Star Trek Chronology and Star Trek Encyclopedia, Mike and Denise Okuda, for omitting the animateds from their books, since they are fans of the show themselves, but were enjoined by their publishers from including the material.
Seems like a lot of fuss to make over a mere eleven hours of Trek out of the currently more than 800 hours of material, but I was 11 years old when the Animated Star Trek series first aired in 1973, and nothing can replace the wonderful memories of watching new Star Trek episodes every week. New episodes filled with new spaceships and cool new characters like Arex and M'Ress and the Andorian Commander Thelin! So to all who visit this shrine to the forgotten Star Trek ...