The Animated Series (TAS) Season 1 Guest Reviews
Season 1Season 2
Stardate 5521.3: Synopsis in main TAS listing
This episode is a promising initial outing for Star Trek: The Animated Series highlighting some of the medium's strengths and weaknesses. Although designed as a children's cartoon, the episode is more serious than comedic. The plot rather successfully shifts from crisis to mystery and back to crisis again before its resolution. Nevertheless, despite the 24-minute run time, the pacing always seems a little slow, perhaps because of the relatively cheap animation style.
The design of the ancient alien vessel is impressive and represents the kind of model and sets that would have been prohibitively expensive in the live-action original series. It was nice that every part of the vessel had organic design touches and yet no one was tempted to say the cliché Star Trek line: "It's like nothing I've ever seen before, it's almost as if the ship had been organically grown rather than built." The episode includes the debut of "life support belts" which allow the landing party to experience hostile environmental conditions without space suits. These would have been a welcome addition to the roster of standard Star Trek equipment, but they were not continued in later series.
When the landing party finds themselves locked in the alien control room, under imminent attack by whatever creature killed the ancient crew, the tension mounts nicely. As Kirk and Spock try to revive the ancient captain's log and warning, the episode becomes quite reminiscent of TNG's "Booby Trap," which may have taken this episode as one of its sources of inspiration. It is only in the final act when the malevolent alien is revealed to be an energy being which immediately takes possession of the Enterprise and its computer that the story becomes stale: we have seen this plot device one too many times in TOS - the alien's impotent voice even sounds reminiscent of Rejack's from "Wolf in the Fold." Kirk's solution of bluffing the entity into departing the Enterprise by pretending he will destroy it is likewise cliché.
- Remarkable quote: "Danger! Danger! The dead star... we are being drawn to it! Rather than carry this malevolent life form to other worlds, we have decided to destroy our own ship! There is no other answer! If you understand this message, you are protected only for this moment in this room! This thing, it wants..." (Warning of the long-dead captain, later echoed in the log entries of TNG: "Booby Trap").
- Remarkable technology: The life support belt was an interesting alternative to the haphazard array of space suits that are occasionally featured Star Trek series.
Rating: 5 (John Hamer)
Stardate 5373.4: Synopsis in main TAS listing
"Yesteryear" is the one TAS episode the puts all other TAS episodes to shame, and many TOS episodes as well. Not only does the story provide a nice background on Spock, the time travel aspect is fantastic and, in my opinion, was more intelligently thought out compared to most other time travel stories in Star Trek. I like the idea of Spock barely remembering a man named Selek from his childhood, and then to eventually travel back in time and actually fill that role. This paradox is similar to the one in TNG "Time's Arrow", however the paradox there is not quite as well thought out. What event caused the Enterprise to find Data's head and get involved in the whole time loop? Was it the chicken or the egg? In "Yesteryear" the time loop does not have the "chicken or the egg" problem, or at least it is not as apparent. Since Spock's memory of his childhood is not clear, Selek could have been some other Vulcan man.
It is surprising how well this story fits in with the rest of Star Trek while so many other TAS episodes are hard to take seriously. With the Vulcan forge and the Andorian officer, "Yesteryear" reminded me a lot of the fourth season of Enterprise (the GOOD season of Enterprise). I especially enjoyed seeing the Andorian Thelin give Spock the Vulcan hand sign. This gave me that nice warm feeling of unity and racial tolerance that I always enjoy in Star Trek.
- Remarkable pet: Spock's pet sehlat is the first one we see on screen, and the only tame one. We see only one other sehlat in ENT "The Forge".
Rating: 8 (Chris)
Stardate 5373.4: Synopsis in main TAS listing
"Yesteryear" begins with a welcome return to the "planet of the time vortex" that houses the Guardian of Forever (TOS "The City on the Edge of Forever"). We quickly learn that in the time since the Guardian's discovery, the Federation has begun using it for historical research and we see a number of scientists making recordings of Vulcan's recent history, including a member of an avian species (illustrating that more exotic aliens were possible in TAS than in its live-action predecessor).
Meanwhile, Kirk and Spock have traveled through the Guardian to observe ancient Orion history. However, upon their return, they discover that no one recognizes Spock. History has been rewritten and in the now altered timeline, an Andorian named Thelin is first officer of the Enterprise. Research into the new timeline's historical records indicates that Spock died in childhood on Vulcan.
From this information and Spock's memory, it is surmised that adult Spock had originally traveled to the past where he saved his younger self's life, but that the recent use of the Guardian - a combination of Spock being in Orion's past while the historians were taping Vulcan's past - has altered that history. This makes no sense as there's no particular reason why being in Orion's ancient history prevented Spock being in Vulcan's recent history; and, of course, prior to this episode, he hadn't traveled to Vulcan's past at all - even though that intervention was apparently necessary for him to live to adulthood in the first place. (The time change also contradicts the previously established operations of the Guardian; in the original episode, people on the time planet were shielded from the effects of the intervention, but in "Yesteryear" the Federation scientists on the planet are altered along with the rest of the timeline.)
This gaping hole aside, the problem sets up the best conceived story in TAS, as it is decided that Spock must return to the Vulcan of his childhood to correct the timeline. While in past he visits his home town of ShiKahr, beautifully animated, and meets his parents (the voice of Sarek reprised by Mark Leonard). We also see young Spock and the difficulties he has fitting in with a group of young Vulcan bullies, whose teasing seems anything but logical. The background here fits perfectly with Spock's backstory as established in TOS "Amok Time" and "Journey to Babel" and further rounds out our sense of Vulcan culture, at the time the most developed alien race in Star Trek.
- Remarkable continuity: ShiKahr is later pictured in the remastered version of TOS "Amok Time."
Rating: 8 (John Hamer)
Stardate 5392.4: In a direct sequel to TOS: "The Trouble with Tribbles," the Enterprise is escorting two robotic ships carrying grain to Sherman's Planet. They encounter the Klingon battlecruiser Devisor chasing a scout ship registered with the Federation. As Klingons destroy the scout ship, the Enterprise beams aboard its captain and cargo: Cyrano Jones with a large number of tribbles. Jones has genetically altered the tribbles to make them "safe" pets. In addition, he has a predator called a "glommer" that eats tribbles. Klingon Commander Koloth claims that Jones is responsible for causing an ecological disaster on one of their worlds and demands the Enterprise surrender him. Kirk reluctantly refuses because he notes (regrettably) that Jones is a Federation citizen. The Klingons attacks using a new statis-field weapon, which immobilizes the Enterprise, but leaves the Klingons similarly unable to act. Kirk directs the robot grain ships to ram the Devisor, causing the Klingons to break off their attack. After more engagements lead to stalemate, Koloth admits that the Klingons only want to recover the glommer which they genetically engineered to rid their planets of a terrible tribble infestation. In the meantime, it's also learned that Jones' genetic modifications to the tribbles were flawed: they continue to have a hyper-metabolism which causes them to grow to enormous size. Dr. McCoy is able to synthesize a cure that causes the giant tribbles to break apart into their normal-sized constituents, which are finally judged to be safe pets for happy Federation children everywhere.
I'm a life-long Star Trek fan and I'm writing this review in 2020 at age 50. I think I'm one of the rare people who actually became a fan of the franchise starting with Star Trek: The Animated series, which debuted in 1973 when I was 3 years old. "More Tribbles, More Troubles" is an episode I remember seeing when I was 3 or 4 -- one of my earliest memories of television or anything else.
From TAS, I became a fan of TOS in syndication, watching all of the episodes over and over again in syndication. "Star Trek II" came out in 1982 when I was 12. I probably watched or listened to it as many as 100 times on video and audio tape, and I still have most of the words memorized: "Gishu morla, ik banu." - "Qua pria pleek, mon ooklam?" - "Ish beni, Komin!" - "Klingaas lami bafek, Saavikam." (dialogue in Vulcan from "Star Trek II" between Spock and Saavik, written out just now from memory.*) Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted when I was 17 and ready for a more sophisticated series. Star Trek has always been a part of my life, and in some ways, Star Trek grew up with me as I grew up with Star Trek.
Returning to TAS is therefore like returning to my own childhood. "The Trouble with Tribbles" is one of the most beloved -- and best and funniest and most memorable -- episodes of the original series. That's not an easy feat to pull off. It's one thing for a love tragedy like "The City on the Edge of Forever" to rank so high or an action-packed thriller like "Balance of Terror." It's much more difficult and for a comedic romp to fire on every cylinder, but "The Trouble with Tribbles" pulled it off. The episode was ripe for a sequel, and Deep Space Nine's sequel "Trials and Tribble-ations" ended up being one of the best outings of the series.
TAS: "More Tribbles, More Troubles" is a much less successful sequel, despite being written by David Gerrold (who penned the original) and return of Stanley Adams as Cyrano Jones. Nevertheless, as I rewatched it to review, "More Tribbles, More Troubles" is not as bad as I feared, given its generally negative reputation.
In the first place, this is a rare, early example of starship combat in Star Trek, akin to the duel between the Enterprise and the Romulan bird-of-prey in TOS: "The Balance of Terror." Once more, we have asymmetric warfare. The Klingons have a new weapon that can immobilized the Enterprise, but maintaining it completely drains their power, preventing them from exploiting their advantage. Meanwhile, the Enterprise has control of two robotic grain ships that can be operated remotely even while caught in the Klingon's field. In their first encounter, Koloth disables one of the robotic ships before being forced to retreat due to energy depletion.
When Koloth's ship has fully recharged, he returns to the melee. Kirk plans to use the same tactic again, but instead of using his new weapon to immobilize the Enterprise, Koloth attacks and disables the second robotic ship. This is a brilliant strategy, which Kirk failed to anticipate -- effectively the opposite result of the duel in "The Balance of Terror." With both robotic ships immobilized, the Enterprise is again susceptible to the Klingon weapon. However, at this point Kirk makes use of the same ploy Scotty used in "The Trouble with Tribbles," beaming tribbles to the Klingon ship. Left with no alternative, Koloth admits that his only concern is recover of the glommer -- which the Klingons desperately need to fight tribble infestations on their worlds. After the Klingons come clean, Kirk decides to return their stolen property.
*I looked it up just now and the dialogue as written is: "Gishen worla ihk-banut." - "Wakli ak'wikman - ot-lan?" - "Ish-veh ni... komihn." - "Kling akhlami buhfik -- Saavik-kam."
- Remarkable continuity: At the end of "More Tribbles, More Troubles," McCoy's procedure has finally created a "safe" tribble. Although TAS is sometimes not considered canon, safe tribbles later appear in "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock," and they exist as pets on the Enterprise-D in "Star Trek: Generations."
Rating: 4 (John Hamer)
Stardate 5554.4: The Enterprise is exploring Phylos, a world where plant-life has developed intelligence and a sophisticated technology. In the past generation, Dr. Stavos Keniclius 5, a giant clone of a human scientist from the Eugenics Wars, introduced a disease that nearly wiped out the local Phylosian population. Having also provided the cure, the few remaining Phylosians now follow Keniclius' orders. They kidnap Mr. Spock, whom Keniclius clones in order to produce his idea of the universal superman. In the process of creating the first of these, the giant clone "Spock 2," Keniclius has sapped the original Mr. Spock's mind and life force. But Kirk convinces the clone that his only ethical choice is to save his predecessor, which he does using a mind-meld. Spock 2 remains on the planet with Keniclius to help the Phylosians rebuild their society, which is assumed will join the Federation.
If you begin with the shorthand, "the one with the giant Spock clone" - you might imagine this episode is so dumb it should be instantly dismissed. It's definitely a train-wreck, but it's not for lack of ideas and themes. If anything, it's because it's filled with too many ideas to explore in 23 minutes.
Let's begin instead by noting that this is a very rare episode where Mr. Sulu gets significant screen time in the A-plot and Uhura takes the lead in the B-plot. Beginning with TNG, Star Trek became an ensemble series. There are Troi episodes, Geordi episodes, Dr Crusher episodes, Worf episodes, Wesley episodes, etc. But TOS, TAS, and the classic movies of the original cast are not ensemble shows: they are predominantly Kirk/Spock/McCoy shows where the supporting cast rarely emerges beyond bit parts.
Even in their send-off feature, "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country," the tribute scenes planned to show what Scotty, Sulu, Uhura, and Chekov had been up to were cut for reasons of time and budget. Although TOS crossed important thresholds by having an Asian American man and an African American woman in leadership roles, the show's development of Sulu and Uhura was unfortunately limited. Originally both George Takei and Nichelle Nichols were going to be cut from the TAS cast to save money before Leonard Nimoy famously went to bat for them to say he wouldn't be involved without them. (Walter Koenig's character Chekov did get cut from TAS, but the actor made his way into the series here as the episode's writer.)
Mr. Sulu's interest in botany was established in several TOS episodes including "The Man Trap," where he was cultivating a carnivorous plant, whom he called Gertrude. On Phylos, Sulu discovers the fact that the retlaw plants are mobile. When he's later poisoned by one of the retlaws, the sentient Phylosians reveal themselves in order to heal him. Because Mr. Spock spends much of the episode kidnapped off-screen, Sulu takes on most of the tasks like scanning that would have gone to Spock. Even the concluding "humorous" banter this outing is between Kirk and Sulu, although its meaning remains inscrutable.
Although the idea of sentient plants has potential, it's unfortunately not developed. There's really nothing plant-specific about the Phylosians, other than their susceptibility to Dr. McCoy's grandpa's weed spray. They could have just as easily been lobster people as asparagus people.
The treatment of cloning is worse in the it makes no sense. Why are the clones giant? Why should a racist human scientist from the Eugenics Wars find a human/Vulcan hybrid to be the universal superman? Why does Keniclius need to kill the original Mr. Spock to make his duplicates? That's specifically not how cloning works as Kirk himself states, "incredible that a man could take a few cells from his body and reproduce himself time after time." None of these threads are well explained and all of the ideas taken together form a muddle.
Fortunately, the wrap-up is swift as Kirk quickly reasons with the giant Spock-2 clone, who not only saves the original Mr. Spock, he dissuades Keniclius and the Phylosians of the centuries' long ambition to forcibly become the galaxy's self-appointed peacekeepers. In the end, Kirk decides to leave them all to themselves on the planet with their giant war fleet intact. What could go wrong?
- Remarkable analogy: In talking about Keniclius' search for a genetic super-man to clone, Dr McCoy calls him "a modern Diogenes" without explaining further. For a children's cartoon, this is a bizarre mixture of erudition and ignorance. The writers presume that the viewer is familiar with the famous story of Diogenes holding up a lantern in broad daylight and, on being challenged as to why he'd do such a thing, explaining that he was "looking for an honest man." At the same time, the writers are totally unaware of Diogenes' actual intent. Diogenes was a leading proponent of the ancient philosophy of cynicism. His lantern stunt was part of a repertoire of performance art designed to jar Athenians out of their complacency. Comparing Diogenes' lantern to Keniclius' racist, eugenic quest to find a superman to clone is absurd.
Rating: 4 (John Hamer)
Stardate 4978.5: The Enterprise captures Harry Mudd who is attempting to sell love crystals to miners on a colony outside of Federation space. While in Nurse Chapel's custody during a medical examination, Mudd takes advantage of the situation by offering to let her experiment with one of the crystals on Mr. Spock. Later he kidnaps Nurse Chapel, steals a shuttle, and escapes with her as a hostage to an unexplored planet inhabited by giant rock monsters. Operating under the effect of the love crystals, Spock insists on beaming down to the planet with Captain Kirk and a landing team to rescue Nurse Chapel. While everyone on the planet tries to fend off the rock monsters, the crew up on the ship becomes infected and experiences the amorous effects of the crystals. Eventually the effect wears off, Nurse Chapel is saved along with the landing party, and Mudd is sent back to a Federation rehabilitation colony.
Sometimes TAS episodes masquerade as unfilmed TOS episodes whose ideas find their way into the golden era of TNG, DS9, and VOY. But other times, they live up to the name "The Animated Series," and remind us that these were produced and aired as a children's Saturday morning cartoon. "Mudd's Passion" falls squarely in the latter camp.
Harry Mudd was a popular enough character from TOS to inspire a revival in "Star Trek: Discovery." In fact, the sequel episode, TOS: "I, Mudd" was far superior to the flawed, initial outing, TOS: "Mudd's Women." Since TAS actually had the voice of the original actor (Roger C. Carmel), the ingredients were present for at least a humorous episode. Unfortunately, extremely lazy writing left next to nothing for the actors to work with.
"Mudd's Women" ended with the preposterous reveal that Mudd's "Venus drug" was simply a placebo. "Mudd's Passion" turns this around by revealing that the love crystals that Mudd believes are a fraud, actually work. (They cause intense feelings of love, followed by momentary feelings of hatred, before wearing off with an intense hang-over.) In theory, this is clever. In practice, it's boring.
The plot is nonsensical. One of Starfleet's principal ships is sent outside Federation boundaries to pick up a low-end con artist. Once apprehended, Mudd is turned over to Nurse Chapel for a physical without a single security guard to back her up. Mudd convinces her to betray her duty and try the love crystals out on Spock in way that is reminiscent of Lt. Marla McGivers' betrayal of the ship to Khan (TOS: "Space Seed"). For all Star Trek's promise of progressive messaging, sexist portrayals of female officers as weak links are far too frequent.
Mudd's escape plan is bizarre. Having stolen Nurse Chapel's security badge, he's able to make his way to the shuttle bay without being seen at all (is no one on the ship any more?) On the theoretically uninhabited planet, he hopes to get by on further hustling prior to realizing that rock monsters can't be hustled.
I will say that when Captain Kirk calls for an emergency beam out, and we cut momentarily to the transporter room where a male and female crew member are dancing to elevator music, it's just about the silliest thing in Star Trek. I laughed out loud, but I was laughing at the show, not with it.
All in all, this was a real missed opportunity.
Rating: 3 (John Hamer)
Stardate 5267.2: The Enterprise and the Klingon battlecruiser Klothos become trapped in a pocket of space-time. They encounter a "Sargasso Sea" of ancient starships from some 123 species that have been trapped over many centuries. The trapped aliens have formed a multi-cultural society called "Elysium." Rather than resign themselves to the same fate, the crews of the Enterprise and the Klothos must work together before their dilithium crystals deteriorate to the point where escape is impossible. Although the Klingons hope to betray and destroy the Enterprise as the two ships successfully return to normal space, their plot is uncovered and thwarted by Mr. Spock.
A lot of Star Trek fans ignore "Star Trek: The Animated Series," (TAS) and view it as non-canonical except for the supposed one-hit wonder of "Yesteryear." Given the muddled reality of the Star Trek canon post-DS9, I think there's no longer any reason to degrade TAS. Nor is "Yesteryear" its only worthwhile outing, as "The Time Trap" proves handily. Had "The Time Trap" been filmed live-action among the relatively marginal episodes of the original series' third season, it might have easily ranked in the top 5. This is a very satisfying episode that teaches several core Star Trek messages.
The initial concept takes its inspiration from the myth that ships are frequently lost in the so-called "Bermuda Triangle" and the setup has the Enterprise searching an area of space called the "Delta Triangle" to explain the disappearance of numerous starships over the centuries. Although this premise is weak, it's hardly any more goofy than the idea that aliens once visited Earth as Greek gods (TOS: "Who Mourns for Adonais?") or that convergent evolution has created multiple worlds that are nearly identical to Earth in this dimension (TOS: "Miri," "Bread and Circuses," "The Omega Glory").
Immediately after the setup, "The Time Trap" becomes a rather remarkable Star Trek outing. Klingon Commander Kor (TOS: "Errand of Mercy") returns, commanding a 3-ship battlegroup led by the IKS Klothos. Befitting the "Cold War" situation that existed between the Federation and Klingon Empire in the TOS/TAS era (enforced by the Organian Peace Treaty), Kor uses the Delta Triangle's conditions to hide his battle group and hopes to seize or destroy the Enterprise in a location where its loss will be chalked up to one more ship going missing in the mysterious region of space.
Instead of ambushing the Enterprise, the Klothos is accidentally pulled into a pocket of space-time. To evade the other two Klingon warships, Kirk decides to follow the Klothos into the unknown rift. Having crossed the threshold and entered the space-time pocket, the Enterprise discovers a graveyard of ships from across time and space, including the USS Bonaventure, said to be the first Earth ship with warp drive.
The Klothos is hiding among the derelicts and the two ships attempt to resume their fight only to find themselves stopped by long-term residents of the time pocket. Kirk and Kor are transported to a chamber where they meet a council led by the leaders of the various ships trapped in the pocket. The inhabitants have built a peaceful society that they have named "Elysia." Elysia has existed for over 1,000 years and is comprised of representatives of 123 races. As Devna, the keeper of the laws, explains, "during this time, these diverse races, many of whom were enemies on the outside, have learned to live together because they must."
This is a wonderful Star Trek message of diverse people (including enemies) creating a successful multi-cultural society together. Visibly the ruling council includes a Romulan (Xerius), a green Orion woman, a Klingon, a Kzin (TAS: "The Slaver Weapon"), an Andorian, a member of an unknown insectoid race, a Phylosian (TAS: "The Ultimate Vulcan"), a woman from an unknown race that requires a breathing helmet, a Vulcan, a Tellarite, a human woman in an archaic Starfleet uniform, and a Gorn. The council also works with a telepathic woman named Magen, whose abilities are similar to the women of Argelius II (TOS: "Wolf in the Fold").
This is a much more optimistic view of sentient beings generally than the outcome portrayed in a similar situation in Star Trek: Voyager. In VOY: "The Void," the USS Voyager is sucked into a pocket of space devoid of stars, a premise that was probably lifted from "The Time Trap." However, unlike Elysium, the many ships and races that inhabit the Void continually rob and prey on one another and it is up to Captain Janeway to found an alliance that can fight off the hostile marauders.
Unfortunately, due to the shortened length of each TAS episode, we do not get much of a sense of how Elysia operates. Apparently time operates differently in the dimensional pocket: individuals are apparently able to live extraordinarily long lives while presumably requiring less energy and perhaps even less food to sustain their peaceful, if seemingly idle lives. Had this been a full-length TOS episode, more time would have been available to develop Elysium. If so, there might have been some temptation for some on the Enterprise to begin to accept their fate (harkening back to TOS: "This Side of Paradise"). Instead, all remain committed to the plan for breaking out.
The idea that the Klothos and the Enterprise would have to work together to escape is a good one. The only thing that undercuts the overall message of the episode is the fact that the Klingons are so incorrigibly duplicitous that they immediately seize on the joint plan as an opportunity to betray and destroy the Enterprise. Unfortunately, this means that at the end of the episode, we aren't left with enemies that learned new admiration for one another through a shared ordeal. Instead, the Federation has new proof that the Klingons can't be trusted.
Nevertheless, "The Time Trap" fits well within the established canon of Star Trek, illustrating why TAS has more to offer than the single episode "Yesteryear."
- Remarkable battlegroup: This is the first time we see a battlegroup of three D-7 cruisers operated by Klingons. This configuration later became famous in the Klingon's encounter with V'Ger at the beginning of "Star Trek: The Motion Picture." The same footage was re-used in the Kobyashi Maru test in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." A similar D-7 battlegroup was previously operated by Romulans in "TOS: The Enterprise Incident," but in TOS-R, one of the Klingon-designed warships was creatively replaced with a traditional Romulan Bird of Prey.
- Remarkable starship: The USS Bonaventure is said to be "the first ship with warp drive." All TOS and TAS episodes that make similar claims are confused. The Bonaventure is designed to look like the class of starship that is the immediate predecessor of the Constitution class. Therefore, what's meant here is not the first ship with warp drive (later established as the "Phoenix" in "Star Trek: First Contact"), but the first ship with the new type of warp drive that the Constitution class employs.
- Remarkable leader: Devna, the Interpreter of Laws for Elysia is a green Orion woman. Previously, Orion women have been represented as sex slaves (TOS "The Cage") and seductresses (TOS "Whom Gods Destroy"). In multi-cultural Elysia, Devna has been able to rise to a respected position on the ruling council.
Rating: 8 (John Hamer)
Stardate 5499.9: The Enterprise is studying Argo, a water world believed to be uninhabited whose previous continents have largely become submerged due to violent seismic disturbances. A landing team surveys the planet's oceans in an "aquashuttle," which is attacked and destroyed by a massive, alien sea monster. Kirk and Spock are thrown clear of the wreckage and lost. When they are recovered after 5 days of searching, McCoy determines that a sophisticated alien medical procedure has been employed to adapt them to breath under water. The Federation lacks the technology to reverse the procedure, so Kirk and Spock decide to return to the planet's oceans to find the undersea aliens responsible. They encounter the Aquans, a highly advanced but xenophobic people. With the help of the younger and less conservative Aquans, the Enterprise crew are able to acquire the "anti-toxin" needed to cure Kirk and Spock.
This relatively complex outing for a children's cartoon illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of "Star Trek: The Animated Series." As many writers including D.C. Fontana have pointed out, the sea monsters, the Aquans, their underwater city, and even Kirk and Spock's many scenes swimming underwater could never have been filmed in TOS. Unfortunately, the episode's short time-frame and lack of guest stars hinder its basic story-telling.
The episode's writer, Margaret Armen, wrote three TOS episodes ("The Paradise Syndrome," "The Gamesters of Triskelion," and "The Cloud Minders") and one other TAS episode ("The Lorelei Signal"). These are all fairly memorable, if not particularly successful. "The Ambergris Element" reminds me the most of "The Cloud Minders." In both cases, the Enterprise encounters a complex society experiencing social strains. Ardana is divided racially between the surface-dwelling Troglytes and the Stratos City Dwellers who literally live in the clouds. The under-water dwelling Aquans on the planet Argo are experiencing a generational revolution. The older generation remembers an ancient conflict with surface-dwellers which has left them conservative and xenophobic. Meanwhile the younger Aquans long to transcend these customary bounds and are open to learning more about surface-dwellers from another world.
On Ardana, we are able get a sense of the conflict because we are introduced to well developed characters on both sides: Plasus and Droxine arguing on behalf of Stratos and Vanna as a spokesperson for the Troglytes. On Argo, we're introduced to a large number of Aquans - Rila, Cadmar, Cheeron, Domar, Lemus, and Nephro, plus more that speak but are unnamed - but all are voiced by James Doohan, Majel Barrett, and the show's staff. The Aquans more or less all look alike, preventing the audience from appreciating (or even becoming interested in) their society's conflict.
Gleaning through various remarks from the Aquans, their backstory is that all natives to Argo originally breathed air on the surface. At an unknown time in the past, some of the surface-dwellers adapted via a sophisticated medical technique to be able to breathe underwater. These were the ancestors of the Aquans. Thereafter, for an unknown period of time, the planet was divided between the remaining surface-dwellers and the Aquans, who were in bitter conflict. Prior to the arrival of the Enterprise, the surface-dwellers have gone extinct for an unknown reason, apparently without the awareness of the Aquans. By the end of the episode, because of their interaction with surface-dwelling Kirk and Spock, the younger Aquans have committed to leave their society's old biases behind. They even propose that some of their number will move back to the surface to rebuild and inhabit the ruined cities there.
This is a reasonable "Star Trek" message, but it mostly happens in the extreme background, while the foreground narrative is taken up by repeated fights with giant sea-monsters, the search for Kirk and Spock when they go missing, and finally the attempt to understand why Kirk and Spock have adapted to breathing under water, and whether they can be restored. All of these foreground stories are fairly simple and are reminiscent of Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi's adventures under the sea in "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace." Indeed, if we ever wondered what Kirk and Spock swimming around in their full uniforms under water would look like in a live-action sequence, we need look no further than the two Jedi who do the same on their approach to the underwater city of the Gungans. Like the Enterprise crew in "The Ambergris Element," the Jedi also have an aquashuttle and engage in at least one too many fights with giant sea-monsters.
- Remarkable name: Although the planet is called "Argo," its inhabitants are called "Aquans" because they live under water. This must be the work of the universal translator because the same word is used to name the Enterprise's "aqua-shuttle."
- Remarkable medical chamber: In addition to the medical decompression chamber, seen in TOS: "Space Seed," the Enterprise's Sick Bay includes a sea water aquarium tank.
- Remarkable shuttlecraft: Although it doesn't stand up well in this fight, the aquashuttle was the first armed Starfleet support craft to appear on screen. Given the preposterous number of shuttle accidents experienced in Star Trek, future series set in the post-"Star Trek: Picard" era would do well to have starships include armed support craft (like Voyager's home-made "Delta Flyer") as part of their standard complement.
Rating: 5 (John Hamer)
The Slaver Weapon
Stardate not given: Synopsis in main TAS listing
Perhaps the most baffling thing about this episode is that, aside from completely ignoring the established Star Trek canon and characterization, it's actually pretty good.
It's paced, there's a pretty good amount of dialogue, the premise operates on basic logic rather than technobabble, we see racist aliens which is a first for TAS and the Kzinti at least get some kind of characterization, even if it is sort of needlessly evil.
Even if the Kzinti are rather overtly villainous, they do seem to be pretty competent for the first part of the story, showing more intelligence than even the early era TNG Klingons. Consider the scrap of meat found in the slaver box, how many Trek aliens would have immediately bitten into it and dropped dead? The lead Kzinti even remembers that Human women are intelligent, something that Spock goes out of his way to try and use as a ploy, which demonstrates remarkable pragmatism versus the whole racism issue the episode presented beforehand.
Overall, the Kzinti come off as at least vaguely threatening. There's a lot of dialogue that's kind of dry but at least it more or less makes sense, something that contrasts quite a bit with Trek's later love for technobabble.
The saddest thing of all about this story is really that it's not terribly good on an objective level. Compared to Trek classics, even ones that beat you over the head with their message like "Day of the Dove", it's pretty limp and could have been drawn out a bit better. Sure, in comparison to 99% of TAS it's a bloody masterpiece and way higher quality that you'd expect after watching "The Magicks of Megas-Tu" or "Bem".
The thing is, despite how basic the story is, it avoids a ton of Trek clichés, even ones that were present in TOS. Compared to much of Voyager, some of TNG and even a few of the later movies, I'd rather just watch this episode. It's a pretty sobering comparison between Trek and conventional classic Sci-Fi, especially consider it's just an adaptation of a Larry Niven story.
At the end of the day, I'm willing to at least give it points for being interesting.
- Remarkable uniforms: Everybody seems to have a problem with the pink in this episode, but I find it kind of entertaining that an evil warrior race would pick pink as their uniforms. It looks funny to us, but would you say that to a six foot tall cat-bear thing? Then again, maybe the treaty forced them to switch to pink to humiliate them.
- Remarkable mistake: Hal Sutherland claims he didn't notice all the pink because he was colourblind, but did nobody actually stop and ask the guy about it? How fast did this episode get made? It's not like they spilled paint on one of the drawings and then just went with it because Hal didn't notice.
- Remarkable character designs: Generally in TAS, aliens are just copypasted versions of each other, probably for budgetary reasons, but for some reason there's at least three facially distinct Kzinti in this episode. It's possible the presence of Larry Niven made the crew put in some extra effort.
Rating: 6 (Hanzou)
Stardate 4187.3: While ferrying a priceless stasis box from the planet Kzin back to the Federation in a shuttlecraft, indications that a second box is nearby cause Mr. Spock to alter course to investigate. Having been lured into a rather obvious trap, Spock, Sulu, and Uhura, are taken prisoner by a group of Kzinti warriors. The Kzinti open the stasis box and find an ancient super-weapon; if they can get it back to Kzin and duplicate the technology, they will be able to conquer the Federation. Instead, the Kzinti trigger the artifact's self-destruct mechanism and are destroyed along with it.
This is a very unusual episode, as it does not include Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, or even the Enterprise! The action is entirely confined to Mr. Spock, Mr. Sulu, and Lt. Uhura aboard the shuttlecraft Copernicus and the Kzinti they encounter on an ice planet around Beta Lyrae. As a result, much more dialogue and action are afforded Sulu and Uhura than any TOS episode. Uhura is remarkably unafraid to face the giant, carnivorous warrior cats, and it's Sulu (rather than Spock) who comes to the conclusion that the Slaver Weapon must have been designed for use in espionage.
A substantial proportion of this episode's 23 minutes is given over to the lengthy exposition required to write components of Larry Niven's "Known Space" universe into the chronology of Star Trek. We are told that 1 billion years ago an ancient alien race known as the Slavers became masters of all other intelligent species in the Milky Way galaxy. The Slaver Empire achieved a level of technology that far exceeds anything the Federation or its contemporaries can produce. An unnamed subject race led a rebellion against the Slaver Empire, and in the resulting Slaver War, all intelligent species in the galaxy were exterminated. Everywhere in the Milky Way, sentience was forced to evolve again from scratch. (This timeline was subsequently invalidated by TNG: "The Chase" which indicated that a race of progenitor humanoids began to seed various planets in our galaxy as early as 4.5 billion years ago.)
Everything that is known about the Slavers comes from stasis boxes - the only artifacts from their era to have survived to the present. Stasis boxes have two qualities: (1) they stop the passage of time for anything contained within them, and (2) they glow in the presence of another stasis box. These artifacts are extremely rare, but they are potentially priceless given the technological wonders they might contain. The Federation has found several boxes over the centuries. At least one contained an ancient flying belt that led to the development of artificial gravity technology.
The episode also introduces us to the Kzinti, a race of felinoid warriors. We are told that Earth defeated the Kzinti in four wars, the most recent of which ended 200 years before the present, which would place all four wars between the launch of the Phoenix (Star Trek: First Contact) and the launch of the NX-01 Enterprise (ENT: "Broken Bow"). By the terms of the Treaty of Sirius, the Kzinti were disarmed other than defensive police craft. We also learn that the Kzinti are carnivores who long to eat human flesh, that they look down on vegetarians, and that Kzinti females are "dumb animals." We also learn that a minority of Kzinti males are powerful telepaths, but that these are invariably unhappy and neurotic.
Despite the lengthy exposition, the pacing of the episode is rather good. The initial shuttle ride and exploration of the ice planet are leisurely, the Kzinti ambush is unexpected. Chuft-captain, the Kzinti leader claims to be a pirate on a rogue operation, but Mr. Sulu quickly realizes that they are actually working for the Kzinti government and the pirate story is only a cover if the Kzinti get caught.
The Kzinti have a rather smart plot. It is revealed that their archaeologists had actually discovered two stasis boxes on Kzin. One was turned over to the Federation, but the other was kept back in the hopes that it contained a weapon. When the Kzinti's box proved empty, they determined to use it as a lure to get back the box they'd given the Federation. That Mr. Spock fell directly into their trap, was an embarrassing lapse of his logic, as he explains in his First Officer's log: "I must take full responsibility for this event. Instead of being warned by the highly unlikely coincidence of a second stasis box, I allowed its possible value to influence my judgement."
The Kzinti also prove clever. In addition to containing a picture of a Slaver and the potential weapon they seek, the stasis box they seize contains raw meat. However, rather than digging right in, they analyze it and find out it is poisonous. Spock hopes the Kzinti will ignore Uhura because their own females are non-sentient, but when she escapes Chuft-captain is very aware that human women are intelligent and a threat.
The rest of the plot continues to be suspenseful, as Spock and Sulu escape with the weapon and determine that it actually is too dangerous to leave in Kzinti hands, before being recaptured. All in all, if the Kzinti and Slavers had been original creations for "The Slaver Weapon," this might have been remembered as an odd, but good TAS outing. However, the fact that they both are taken directly from the well-established universe of "Known Space" makes the episode into something of a weird crossover farce, akin to the "Star Trek vs. Transformers" and other comic book crossover series.
Rating: 6 (John Hamer)