Fair use rationale for Star Trek: The Animated Series: Low resolution image, discusses the brilliance behind the animation and it doesn’t prevent profit from being made. This publication is currently not for profit.
To Go Where No Cartoon Has Gone Before…
The Curious Case of Niven and Star Trek: The Animated Series
You may not have heard of the 1973-1975 STAR TREK: The Animated Series (ST:TAS). Or you may have seen 3 minutes, and have dismissed it as startlingly boring. If so, you would be missing the essential point. Is it shockingly flat? Yes. Do the tiny and repetitive minutiae-like barest of movements seem incredibly cheap? Oh yeah, they do, and it was.
But ST:TAS was the kind of Trek series that only a true sci-fi nerd, a true Trekkie (pre-Trekker terminology) could appreciate and oddly, sports some very fine writers in its credits. Which makes sense – it’s pretty much just words with some colorform decals laid in over them. But let’s gather our tricorders, and go deeper into the series, and particularly the episode written by Larry Niven, author of Ringworld (1970), winner of Hugo, Locus, Nebula and Ditmar awards, and the 2015 Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award.
First off, note that the visuals for the series are of an extremely limited budget, reflecting the sci-fi industry of the time, and the original classic Star Trek series. But it’s worth mentioning that their best starscapes and planetscapes are reminiscent of Chesley Bonestell. The influence is there, and, unlike in the original live-action series, they can have some fun with alien-heads and body-shapes, adding a winged-member to the bridge crew, running into more reptilian or dog-like aliens. The best panels of this series take advantage of that. That said, the absolute placidness of the characters and ships is troubling. It’s the style that was often mocked by SNL and the Cartoon Network in the 2000s. Heads and eyes are fixed objects, while mouth lines move. Walking is an exercise in which clearly the same animation cel cycles are being re-used, ad infinitum. The advantage to that, however? Is that no one is drawn to this for its flashiness. They’re essentially weeding-down to the true nerd. The die-hard fans whom are there basically merely for the ideas, those drawn to sci-fi concepts, not to special effects. But because it’s snails-pace slow, and effects minimal, as a series it is perhaps best enjoyed while “shrooming” with friends, or micro-dosing LSD, or a combination of those and weed. In an altered state, one is freed to purely enjoy the conceptual nature of the weapon hidden in the ground, in the weirdness of the music – to revel in how odd it is that this series was even made. One can imagine that an Isaac Asimov, or a Samuel Delaney, would get into the series, merely for introducing young people to time paradoxes, giant living planets, and terrible weapons. It’s wordy in the way that the Best Bad Science Fiction novels are awesomely wordy. You’re here for the ideas, not the dazzling language or lovely characterization.
So who did write the show? Famous long-standing lovely Trek writer David Gerrold (Star Trek: The Original Series (ST:TOS), Star Trek: The Next Generation (ST:TNG), Star Trek: New Voyages (ST:NV), some Star Trek novelizations; The Martian Child, The Man Who Folded Time, and creator of the “Sleestacks” on Land of the Lost), got to write his sequel to the amazing The Trouble with Tribbles, for the animated series. One is written by the stellar writer D.C. Fontana – who – at this point, surely deserves her own documentary?
Larry Niven created his own mythology in the Known Space, a universe-consistent series of novels and short-stories. The mythos included the alien beings the Kzinti and the Slavers. It’s wonderful to picture the ST:TAS producers reaching out to Niven, and asking him to adapt his work for the Trekverse. What resulted is an awkward mix of something beautiful, and elements that are – flat? Contrived?
The best aspects of Niven’s “The Slaver Weapon” ep:
Niven didn’t use Kirk. In fact, he used only Spock, Uhura, and Sulu. Arguably,
the best characters on ST:TOS, certainly the most interesting and diverse. By sticking with just them, he doesn’t have to go through the exercise of giving everyone something to do or say. And gets to just not deal with the Kirk bravado.
There’s a real series of weird mythology ideas introduced. Arguably, these are just mere sci-fi concepts being thrown at us – but they’re neat in and of themselves.
The very first shot of the Kzinti looks great, terrifying.
Creates a backstory in which the Kzinti have lost four previous wars with the
Federation, the last 200 years earlier.
The Kzinti have no respect for Vulcans, because Vulcans are vegans. This is
kinda hilariously handled, and comes up several times.
But given how far we’ve come, special-effects-wise, and dynamic-plot-wise, is there reason to watch the ST:TAS? Yes, if you accept that you watch it as much for its weird flaws, as sporadic moments of brilliance. Like classic Doctor Who, one doesn’t watch because now one has a ton of good television and films one can stream at any moment. One watches this precisely because the experience is odd, and slightly disconcerting. One watches to ponder how and why it got made, and to let it wash over one with some kind of oblique piece of music. One watches for sci-fi ideas – to become, momentarily, like a child of the 1970s – with no cable, no internet, no VCR... one is the child who is bored, full of curiosity, and needing a seed-started or ideas to activate the brain, to ponder concepts, and let one’s imagination out-due the object of one’s occupation. One watches out of curiosity.
Matt Lavine is a television producer and writer. If you want to get to know him better follow him on Instagram @reelness