50 years?! Star Trek: The Animated Series

For American children growing up in the late sixties and early seventies, Saturday began with a bowl of cereal while watching cartoons. So too did the Trek Track’s Saturday evening panel celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek: The Animated Series. StarPodTrek hosts Kavura and Nyr took the audience in the Hilton Galleria 2-3 back in time (after handing out bags of cereal) to contextualize what became the second chapter in the Star Trek franchise saga.

This period was the age of the Bugs Bunny Show, Space Ghost, and Scooby Doo Where are You? It also saw the productions of the Krofft brothers, Sid and Marty, brought innovative mixed media tools to their work in such shows as H.R. Pufnstuf, Sigmund and the Seamonster, and Land of the Lost (1974–1976). This landscape offered an opportunity for Gene Roddenberry to take advantage of the interest and market already created by the syndication of Star Trek after its cancellation in 1969. Discussions about an animated children’s show had been going on since 1969 but because of the differences separating Roddenberry and Paramount, it took until 1973 for a deal to be concluded.

Budget concerns and issues have been a constant force in the franchise’s history, and the animated series was no exception. To save money, the producers did not want to bring in the full cast from the original series. Originally, they focused on “the big three,” William Shatner (Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (Spock), and DeForest Kelly (Dr. McCoy). They brought James Doohan and Majel Barrett aboard to voice not only their original roles (Mr. Scott and nurse Chapel) but other characters as well. When Nimoy learned that they planned was to exclude George Takei (Sulu) and Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) he protested and threatened to walk away from the project. Nimoy pointed out that the producers were excluding the only two ethnic minority actors in the original cast. He was also sensitive to the financial difficulties many of his cast members had struggled with since the original series’ cancellation. The producers recognized their mistake and brought Takei and Nichols onto the show. The only remaining original series actor, Walter Koenig, did not get a spot, but the producers instead purchased one of his scripts for the series (“The Infinite Vulcan”). The creators also introduced two alien species officers to the show: an Edosian named Lt. Arex, who took Chekov’s position at the helm, and Lt. M’Ress, a Caitian who often manned the communications station. These characters were performed by Doohan and Barrett.

Several writers from the original series contributed episodes to the animated series, including D.C. Fontana, David Gerrold, and Larry Niven. Gerrold and Fontana have likened the animated series to a fourth season of the original. Theirs is some of the most critically acclaimed work of the entire 22 episode run. Gerrold wrote “The Trouble with Tribbles” for the original series and in season one of this series, authored the episode “More Tribbles, More Trouble.” D.C. Fontana’s episode “Yesteryear” provides Star Trek canon with a great deal of information about the planet Vulcan as well as the Guardian of Forever. Elements drawn from this episode alone can be found in both later films and episodes of series. Larry Niven, a major science fiction author in his day, adapted one of his short stories into the episode entitled “The Slaver Weapon.”

It was the animated series that garnered the franchise its first Emmy. After earning a nomination for Outstanding Children’s Series in the 1974 Daytime Emmys, Star Trek won in the award in 1975. The judges specifically recognized Russell Bates and David Wise’s episode “How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth,” which was the 21st of the 22-episode series run.

While the children watching the animated Star Trek didn’t realize it at the time, what they were enjoying was the creation of characters and stories that became part of the franchise’s canon and lore. These animated episodes had been written by some of the best science fiction authors of their day. It was ahead of its time, and only now can we fully appreciate the series and its legacy.

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