Published Aug 22, 2023
Before Lower Decks, There Was Star Trek: The Animated Series
Star Trek, but, y’know, weirder.
By Erik Henriksen
Saturday mornings used to be a lot weirder.
While Star Trek: Lower Decks explored new territory as Star Trek’s first comedy, it’s actually the second animated Star Trek series. On Saturday mornings during 1973 to 1974 — years after The Original Series was canceled, and years before Star Trek: The Motion Picture hit theaters — Star Trek: The Animated Series continued the adventures of the Enterprise crew. And those adventures? They were weird! In a good way!
Initially overseen by superstar Star Trek writer D.C. Fontana, TAS featured the voices of nearly the entire TOS cast, and its lo-fi animation eliminated the budgetary hurdles of live-action television. That creative freedom led to some stories that were surprisingly weighty (the melancholy, Fontana-penned “Yesteryear” was nominated for an Emmy), but mostly? Mostly, it led to episodes that were bewilderingly bizarre and utterly, absolutely wild. I love all of them.
In addition to transforming James T. Kirk and Spock into fish-people (“The Ambergris Element”) and forcing the Enterprise crew to throw down with the Mayan dragon-god Quetzlcoatl (“How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth”), TAS introduced wild new characters like the three-armed, three-legged Edosian navigator Arex (voiced by James Doohan) and M’Ress, a catlike Caitian voiced by Majel Barrett Roddenberry (and who paved the way for Lower Decks’ cranky Dr. T’Ana).
But that doesn’t even begin to express how unforgettably weird TAS could get. Normally, this is where I’d say something like “Prepare yourself!” but... can anyone can ever truly be prepared for Star Trek: The Animated Series? Let’s do this.
That Time Everybody on the Enterprise Shrank
(“The Terratin Incident”)
When “spiroid epsilon waves” shrink all organic material on the Enterprise, the crew gets smaller and smaller. But what should be totes adorbs (aww! itty-bitty Spock! itty-bitty Kirk!) is instead a soul-strangling existential nightmare as the crew realizes they’ll suffer slow, excruciating deaths if they can’t reach the ship’s controls — and food and water.
“I can’t reach the dial I turned five minutes ago,” Uhura cries as she crawls across her control panel, shortly before Sulu and Arex build some janky ladders to climb up to the helm. Despite ostensibly being made for small children, “The Terratin Incident” plays out like Jean-Paul Sartre’s version of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. On the upside, the ensigns’ cramped quarters probably felt a lot more spacious.
Behold, the Ultimate Weapon! It Looks Like a Watermelon
(“The Slaver Weapon”)
Adapted by sci-fi author Larry Niven from his 1967 short story “The Soft Weapon,” this episode — one of TAS’ strongest — finds Spock, Sulu, and Uhura fighting the carnivorous Kzinti over the powerful weapon of a long-dead race. “The Slaver Weapon” has neat ideas (like its mysterious “stasis boxes,” in which time never passes), repeated reminders that the Kzinti really want to eat Sulu and Uhura (“None of my crew has yet tasted human meat, as our ancestors did! We would welcome the opportunity!”), and fun trivia, like the fact James Doohan voiced all of the Kzinti, and Majel Barrett Roddenberry voiced the weapon.
Wait! I forgot to tell you the weapon talks! But it only says things like, uh... “Twist my widdershins,” which just slightly diminishes its awe-inspiring power.... And it looks like a watermelon, so that doesn’t help. And the Kzinti all look like Grumpy Cat? Still, this is the best story ever told about Spock, Sulu, and Uhura fighting Grumpy Cats for a talking watermelon.
Giant Spock vs. The Space Nazi
(“The Infinite Vulcan”)
Written by Walter Koenig — the only major TOS actor who didn’t provide a voice for TAS — “The Infinite Vulcan” begins by introducing the plant-people of the planet Phylos and their pet purple pterodactyls, and it only gets goofier from there. Soon we’re introduced to Dr. Stavos Keniclius 5, an evil but excellently named mad scientist who refuses to wear a shirt.
Deciding Spock is a “perfect specimen” for his goal of creating a “master race” that will be a “peace-keeping force through the galaxy,” Keniclius clones Spock, but makes two minor changes. First, he names the clone “Spock 2,” which isn’t very creative, but sure, it gets the job done. Second, he makes Spock 2 50 feet tall! After Kirk convinces the gargantuan Spock 2 to not destroy the galaxy, the Enterprise departs, and Spock 2 stays behind to… spend the rest of his life with Keniclius. Spock 2 could do better.
Meet Bem, the Enterprise’s Worst Passenger Ever
For the classic TOS episode “The Trouble with Tribbles,” writer David Gerrold infested the Enterprise with countless cooing vermin. Years later, he created an even WORSE pest — the green-skinned, red-mohawked, and irredeemably awful Commander Bem. Bem has exactly ONE cool trick; as a “colony creature,” he can separate his head, torso, and limbs, but his chief traits are being obnoxious, passive aggressive, patronizing, insulting, cowardly, and super whiny.
After he invites himself on an away mission, Bem promptly disobeys Kirk’s orders, steals Kirk and Spock’s phasers, runs away, violates the Prime Directive, gets imprisoned by caveman lizards, gets Kirk and Spock imprisoned by those same caveman lizards, and then he sulks because everyone hates him. (I wonder why.) Even Kirk, who generally isn’t a jerk no matter how annoying people are, loses it and calls Bem “extremely abrasive,” which is the understatement of the 23rd Century. Sorry Khan, the Borg Queen, Lore, General Chang, Gul Dukat, and Emperor Georgiou — None of you have anything on Bem, Star Trek’s greatest villain.
Kirk Is a Jerk
(“The Practical Joker”)
Did I just say Kirk isn’t a jerk? I stand corrected! “The Practical Joker” finds the Enterprise’s computer pranking the crew by doing things like writing “KIRK IS A JERK” on the back of Kirk’s uniform, or waiting until Scotty orders a ham on rye from the replicator and then hitting him with an avalanche of produce, chicken wings, eggs, and, naturally, a pie that smacks him in the face. (“Somebody turn off this infernal food factory!” Scotty shouts, perhaps forgetting that, as chief engineer, he should probably know how to turn off infernal food factories.)
While Kirk eventually gets the computer to knock it off already, the ideas in “The Practical Joker” would be revisited by future Trek stories — from those about Data’s cringey attempts at humor to every TNG episode where the holodeck decides it has nothing better to do than mess with people.
Don’t Trust Scotty with the Enterprise
(“The Eye of the Beholder”)
“The Eye of the Beholder” begins with Kirk, Spock, and Bones beaming down to an unknown planet and immediately getting attacked by a dragon, a dinosaur, and screaming bats, and that’s before they’re captured by giant orange telepathic elephant slugs and imprisoned in a zoo.
Does Scotty accidentally beam one of those giant slugs onto the Enterprise? Oh yes, he does! Does Scotty then take that giant slug to the Bridge? Oh yes, he does! And does that giant slug then take control of the Enterprise? “Oh no!” Scotty says, as the giant slug takes control of the Enterprise. Later, Scotty and the giant slug mind-meld and become buddies, and did I mention Star Trek: The Animated Series is absolutely bonkers?
Kirk and Spock Have a Beer with Their New Best Friend, Satan
(“The Magicks of Megas-Tu”)
It’s a tale as old as time — After the Enterprise is pulled into a hallucinogenic “matter-energy whirlwind,” they find themselves face to face with Satan! Sure, Satan says he isn’t Satan (“Call me Lucien! Call me friend!” he bellows. “Never could I abandon those who come to frolic with me!”), but the dude is clearly Satan, as evidenced by his horns, tail, cloven hooves, and goatee. (Plus, he gives Bones an apple. Real subtle, Satan!)
After Spock — or, as Lucien calls him, “my elfin friend” — draws something that looks suspiciously like a pentagram on the deck of the Enterprise, Lucien is prosecuted by his own people, and the trial takes place at… the Salem witch trials? (Look, I don’t know. There’s... a lot going on in this one.) Somehow, Kirk and Spock end up being Lucien’s lawyers, and after they win the case and Satan is set free (uh… hooray?), they’re rewarded with some ice-cold brewskis. “A favorite old Earth custom of mine!” Satan proclaims, using his sinister powers to make huge beer flagons appear in Kirk and Spock’s hands. “A toast… to a new friendship!”
This episode also features a wizard.