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When Star Trek was cancelled in 1969, it was a dark time not just for fans, but for creator Gene Roddenberry himself. Unable to get another TV series off the ground, Roddenberry was reduced to selling Trek merch and doing the lecture circuit in order to support himself. Meanwhile, William Shatner was living in a camper home and taking any gig he could to get by.
But along the way, something amazing happened: The crew of the USS Enterprise refused to stay cancelled.
“Bringing Star Trek back from what was initially thought to be a failed three-season TV show was a little bit of a miracle, and The Animated Series I think was a big part of that,” John Van Citters, VP, Star Trek Brand Development, tells IGN. “It’s got a really cool look. It’s got a really odd little history to it, but it’s another 22 episodes of Star Trek that I think most Star Trek fans haven’t seen.”
Today, we take the long life and, well, prospering of Star Trek for granted, but back in the early ’70s that was far from the case. And while a variety of factors would combine to eventually beam Captain Kirk and company back onto our screens, it was a low-budget animated series that helped to save the franchise, while also reminding fans of what Star Trek was all about.
This is how a cartoon ensured Star Trek’s survival, with a little help from some fans. And why that animated legacy continues to live on today.
Star Trek: The Animated Series Images
Star Trek, or TOS as we call it these days (“It stands for those old scientists,” you know), was famously almost cancelled after its second season. But a letter-writing campaign by fans got network NBC to blink and bring the show back for a third year of boldly going. Unfortunately, the budget was slashed and Star Trek was consigned to the dreaded Friday night time slot, that dark corner of the TV galaxy where many a sci-fi show has gone to die in the years since. Marc Cushman, author of the behind-the-scenes chronicle of the show These Are the Voyages, speculates that NBC had set the show up for failure in that slot knowing the ratings wouldn’t improve, and therefore a fourth season would never happen. And in fact, it didn’t.
Well, not in the way NBC was thinking, anyway.
Less than five years after it was cancelled, Star Trek was back with most of its original cast and several members of the behind-the-scenes team for Star Trek: The Animated Series.
“I do know that a lot of people consider it like the fourth and fifth seasons of Star Trek because it had all the same writers,” says Casper Kelly, creator of Star Trek: Very Short Treks.
A lot of people consider it like the fourth and fifth seasons of Star Trek because it had all the same writers.
But Star Trek: The Animated Series didn’t just happen in a vacuum. There were other things heating up on the Trek front that would lead to Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest reuniting on the small screen.
Star Trek Is Dead, Long Live Star Trek
These days we take fan campaigns with a grain of space-vampire salt, but they were a pretty new concept back when Star Trek was rescued for its third season. The letter-writing campaign was also key to keeping Trek in the mainstream in the dark years that followed its cancellation, as the addition of Season 3’s 24 episodes brought the show’s run up to a total of 79 hours, which was enough for it to enter into nationwide syndication.
Far from that Friday night at 10pm timeslot that Season 3 had been left to wither away in, syndication meant that stations could run the show whenever they wanted. That included counter-programming against the local news, and after school where many a new young fan discovered the exploits of the USS Enterprise for the first time.
“We were, in the early ’70s, really starting to see the power of fandom and the demand from latchkey kids like me coming home after school and watching Star Trek in syndication,” says Van Citters.
By 1972, three years after it ended, the show was playing in 125 stations in the U.S. as well as 60 foreign countries. And then there were the conventions. Everyone kinda knows what a Comic-Con is these days, but back then these fan gatherings were more of a rarity. The birth of the Star Trek convention was a key component in not just the growth of cons overall in the 1970s, but also in keeping the franchise alive in the years after TOS ended.
“We had already started to see the power of Star Trek fandom in those early years after we had the first fan conventions,” explains Van Citters. “And I think there was a little bit of a move of, ‘Oh, perhaps we made a mistake and perhaps we were a little too hasty in getting rid of Star Trek.’”
But with the sets, props, and costumes for The Original Series long since scrapped or otherwise unavailable, simply launching another live-action TV show wasn’t that easy – or cheap. NBC wanted a new pilot episode before committing to a full show, and Roddenberry claimed in interviews that it would’ve cost three-quarters of a million dollars just to rebuild those assets. That was a no-go for something that might never go to series. But there was a relatively low-cost alternative to test the appetite for new Trek material: Saturday morning animation.
Saturday Morning: The Final Frontier
“The easiest way to get everyone back together and make something happen quickly and easily is certainly not to rebuild sets and pull all the whole cast together for days and days of filming,” says Van Citters. “I think (animation) was a very simple way to bring Star Trek back to the airwaves.”
Roddenberry was able to strike a deal with Paramount, NBC, and animation studio Filmation that allowed him to retain creative control over the proposed animated series. His concern was that the show not devolve into mere kiddie humor and action stories. To that end, he brought in Original Series writer and story editor D.C. Fontana to serve as essentially showrunner, and the pair also hired a variety of scripters from the live-action show.
“I think for them, they all looked at this as a backdoor to continue something that was successful for them and that was beloved by them,” Van Citters says of the writers, a group which included familiar names to fans including Samuel A. Peeples, David Gerrold, Marc Daniels, and Margaret Armen. “And the intent really seems to have been to get the gang back together and continue doing Star Trek in the same mold of what they had done before.”
In 1973, most of the cast reunited for the first time since TOS had gone off the air to record the first batch of episodes of The Animated Series. That included William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, James Doohan, and Majel Barrett. Walter Koenig unfortunately did not return as Chekov due to budget restraints, but he did write an episode of the show. And Doohan and Barrett did double, triple, and quadruple duty voicing many of the show’s secondary characters week to week, though listen closely and you’ll hear Nichols and Takei subbing in here or there as well.
The Animated Series, which was just called Star Trek at the time, debuted on September 8, 1973, coincidentally seven years to the day after The Original Series first aired. With episodes that were roughly half the length of the live-action stories, and with an at least theoretical target audience of children, the animated episodes would prove to be their own particular brand of Star Trek which stood next to, if didn’t quite occupy the same space as the 1960s show.
“Maybe it looks dated,” says Star Trek: Lower Decks supervising director Barry Kelly. “You can tell it’s something that’s old, but those are good likenesses. As an artist, I think it looks fantastic.”
Of course, the restrictions of the Saturday morning animation of the era is obvious, with lots of reused shots and production flubs.
“It is a very different creature and there are some aspects of it that are decidedly not what you would consider to be typical Star Trek and a little bit more out there,” says Van Citters. “But it really provided that core creative team the ability to do some things they couldn’t on the TV show. You were able to take some adventures underwater. You were able to do things with bigger, vaster space vistas, and do creatures in a way that you couldn’t with a live-action show in the ’60s. And I think they took that seriously and tried to stretch a lot of boundaries with that.”
Indeed, it’s an interesting approach that the team took in that they were very careful to match the design of the old show – the ship looks the same, as do the costumes, props, and so on. But they also used the freedom of animation, where drawing an alien Caitian character took the same effort as drawing a regular human. And yes, that’s what new bridge officer M’Ress is – a member of the cat-like race called Caitians.
“The monster design is also more elaborate,” says Casper Kelly. “Something with a bunch of tentacles, that’d be harder to do in a live-action practical way.”
You were able to do things with bigger, vaster space vistas, and do creatures in a way that you couldn’t with a live-action show in the ’60s.
New navigator Arex had three arms and three legs, we got a variety of new starship designs, a Tribble predator showed up, the crew were all shrunk to tiny size, Kirk and Spock became fish-people… the list goes on and on as far as how The Animated Series was able to expand the world of Star Trek.
But perhaps most importantly, the show also had heart.
Spock Goes Home
The highlight of The Animated Series comes in the only episode Fontana actually scripted, “Yesteryear.” The writer had played a key role in Spock’s development on the live-action series with episodes like “This Side of Paradise” and “Journey to Babel,” and in fact “Yesteryear” serves as something of a sequel to that latter story. In it, Spock travels back in time to his home planet Vulcan, where he meets his younger self and some of the seeds of his future relationship with his parents are planted. The segment is a terrific example of telling a story for kids without talking down to them, as it depicts young Spock having to make the sad decision to euthanize his pet sehlat after it’s mortally injured protecting the boy. “It is fitting he dies with peace and dignity,” says the boy, simultaneously not leaving a dry eye in the house.
The show went in lots of different directions in its 22-episode run. Ask a fan and you never know what they might claim to be their favorite episode or character.
“I do really have a soft spot for ‘The Magicks of Megas-tu’ because in many ways that’s the polar opposite of The Animated Series where you have the Salem Witch trials and the devil personified and our crew all coming together in a really bizarre set of circumstances,” laughs Van Citters. “And that one’s just out there, but it’s a lot of fun to watch.”
Barry Kelly recalls renting VHS tapes that had three Animated Series episodes on each.
“I always like the Edosians,” he recalls. “So weird to me. … You’re like, ‘These are two different worlds of design clashing right now with this guy, just with an arbitrary arm just coming out of his chest.’”
“I do love ‘The Practical Joker,’ because that one had the holodeck,” says Casper Kelly. “And that just really blew my mind. And when I watched live-action Star Trek, I was like, ‘Where’s the holodeck?’ And it was so cool that they brought it out in Next Generation.”
That holodeck-like rec room wasn’t the only Trek concept seen here that would eventually show up again: There’s a huge living cloud like V’ger; another Starfleet crew would meet a creature that appears to be the devil; the Spock/Chapel romance that we’re currently seeing in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds plays out here some; the Enterprise’s first captain, Robert April, is introduced; and we even get a dude who has facial hair and wears glasses, predicting both Commander Riker’s beard and Retinax V from Wrath of Khan! (That guy must’ve been allergic to Retinax too.)
There are several sequel episodes to TOS, and guest stars from the old show also returned, including Mark Lenard as Sarek, Roger C. Carmel as Harry Mudd, and Stanley Adams as Cyrano Jones. Other characters and races also recurred, even if the budget precluded bringing back all the original actors who played them. But the attempts to maintain a continuity between The Original Series and what was, after all, a Saturday morning cartoon are pretty remarkable.
In another highpoint for the show, when Kirk and the men are out of commission in “The Lorelei Signal,” Uhura takes command of the Enterprise and Chapel steps in as her second-in-command as the two lead an away team of all-female security officers to save the day.
Are there some stinkers in the 22 animated episodes? Absolutely, but the smarter stories feel like pure Star Trek, as Captain Kirk and his crew’s mission of peace and scientific exploration continues, often with some fun and thrills, and occasionally with a bit of an emotional punch as well.
“I think a basic tenet of Star Trek is … about the value of intelligence and problem-solving, and that problems are fixable,” says Casper Kelly. “And it’s ultimately … a very hopeful show.”
TAS won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Entertainment Children’s Series, the only time that a Star Trek show has won a non-technical Emmy.
The Animated Series received a short second season of just six episodes, but by October, 1974, it had completed its mission and ceased production. The show would go on to win an Emmy Award for Outstanding Entertainment Children’s Series, the only time to date that a Star Trek show has won a non-technical Emmy.
The goal of serving up new Star Trek had been accomplished, and it gave Roddenberry exactly what he needed: proof that a live-action version of the show should be next.
Star Trek… Beyond
In his book Star Trek Movie Memories, William Shatner looked back at the effect of the series like this:
“(The Animated Series) kept (Roddenberry’s) most durable brand name alive, and it served as a lightning rod, rallying the forces to cry, ‘Bring back Star Trek!’ In their minds, and this was carefully groomed by Gene at countless conventions, they won their first battle. The animated Star Trek should be seen not as a reward in and of itself, but as the first step back toward new and improved live-action Treks.”
It’s impossible today to know what really was going on in those conventions in the 1970s, but if we understand anything about fandom, it’s that they’re never satisfied. And Roddenberry certainly knew how to leverage Trekkie influence in a way that would make Zack Snyder proud, so Shatner’s take on things makes a certain amount of sense.
“It was a very important step to getting Star Trek back first through movies and then through more TV shows,” says Van Citters. “I think the earliest James Blish novelizations of the episodes and Alan Dean Foster’s log books of The Animated Series episodes, the first original novels, the making of Star Trek books that were there, the technical manuals… All of those things trickling out over the decade of the ’70s wound up being hugely instrumental to keeping that drumbeat alive.”
Star Trek was most certainly alive. By the spring of 1975, about six months after the last Animated Series episode aired, Roddenberry had signed a deal with Paramount to make a live-action Star Trek movie. That project would have many ups and downs over the years – it even became a new show at one point called Star Trek: Phase II which would’ve been the cornerstone of a brand-new Paramount TV network. But ultimately, Phase II morphed again into Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which truly did bring the crew back to live-action on the big screen in 1979. Of course, the rest is history, as new incarnations of the franchise have continued to be produced in the decades since.
And in recent years, that includes new animation projects too. Star Trek: Lower Decks, Star Trek: Prodigy, Short Treks, and most recently, the Very Short Treks have all followed in the grand tradition of The Animated Series, now 50 years after it debuted. The Very Short Treks are just that – shorts that riff on the look of The Animated Series, but in a distinctly off-the-wall way.
“Think of these almost as if Star Trek had its own SNL and just did Saturday Night Live-type sketches about Star Trek,” laughs Casper Kelly.
Lower Decks, which is now in its fourth season, has become known for its amazing attention to Trek detail, cramming as many Easter eggs in each episode as possible. That frequently includes references to The Animated Series. Creator Mike McMahan is clearly a huge fan of the old show.
“Mike brings a lot of The Animated Series to bear in Lower Decks,” says Van Citters. “Sometimes it’s through very subtle things where its influence pops up. Sometimes it’s much, much more direct when you see certain characters straight out of The Animated Series show up on screen.”
Cartoons are also a way to attract new and younger viewers to what is, after all, an almost 60-year-old franchise.
“You talk about the fact that there’s over 850 episodes of Star Trek and most people are like, I don’t even know where to start with that,” says Van Citters. “I think Lower Decks is a great way for people to learn about Star Trek because in 22 minutes, 25 minutes, there’s so much Star Trek that hits you and you don’t have to get all of it. It’d be unusual if you got all of it, but it’s so much fun and it’s such a great way to experience Star Trek.”
And after you’re done with Lower Decks, you can always put on Star Trek: The Animated Series. It’s been around for 50 years, so why not give it a try?