Boldly continuing where Star Trek: The Original Series left off, these animated adventures chart the progress of Captain Kirk and his crew in a universe unconstrained by "real-life" cinematography! With all characters voiced by their original actors, join Kirk, Spock, Bones and the crew for 22 new adventures: to boldly go where no animation has gone before!
To the dismay of its many fans, 'Star Trek' was canceled by NBC in 1969 after just three seasons on the air. As we of course know now, the series would be revived starting in 1979 as a very successful feature film franchise. However, the show was not completely stagnant during the decade in between. Its popularity in broadcast syndication built a sizable cult audience hungry for more 'Star Trek'. In the fall of 1973, creator Gene Roddenberry and other key talent found a way to produce more episodes, in the form of a Saturday morning cartoon. No mere cash-in spinoff, 'Star Trek: The Animated Series' was scripted by some of the original show's writers and featured almost the entire cast reprising their iconic roles. Although often forgotten today, it's the closest thing 'Star Trek' got to a legitimate fourth season.
Despite airing Saturday mornings on NBC immediately preceding 'Sigmund and the Sea Monsters', 'The Pink Panther Show' and 'The Jetsons', the animated 'Star Trek' was neither conceived nor executed to be a kids' show. As far as Gene Roddenberry (who sanctioned the series and had a supervisory role) and head writer Dorothy Fontana were concerned, they were simply making more 'Star Trek' as if the original show hadn't been canceled. The majority of episode scripts could well have been produced in live action a few years earlier. The writing level skews more toward adults than children, and is heavy with science technobabble and philosophy. Stories feature many familiar themes and concepts fans will recognize, including time travel, aliens parading as gods, sentient gaseous clouds, and malevolent forces hijacking the U.S.S. Enterprise.
Providing voices are none other than William Shatner as Captain Kirk, Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock, and DeForest Kelley as Dr. McCoy, plus George Takei, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, Majel Barrett and more. The only major Enterprise crewmember not to appear in animated form is Pavel Chekov, whose role was cut for budgetary reasons. (As compensation, Walter Koenig was allowed to write one episode, called 'The Infinite Vulcan'.) From the opening credits, which play with a jazzed-up version of the old theme music, to the framing and blocking of scenes, everything here is designed to closely mimic the original show as much as possible, within the restrictions of a much-reduced budget and limited animation resources.
Unfortunately, the biggest failing to 'Star Trek: The Animated Series' is that the show was produced by Filmation, a very budget-conscious animation studio notorious for its stiff character movements and endless recycling of stock shots and motions. Whenever the visual information in a scene gets too complex, the characters are often reduced to silhouettes moving in front of background plates. Sometimes this is used for interesting stylistic effect, but more often than not the show simply looks cheap. To a certain way of thinking, this might be considered consistent with the dodgy production values of the original live action series, but the absence of whites in any character's eyes is weird and disturbing, and the fact that a small handful of actors voice the majority of supporting and background characters is frequently very distracting. James Doohan generally does a good job of disguising his voice when playing different roles (and he does dozens of them), but the other stars have a much harder time of it. From start to finish, every single female character in the series is played by either Nichelle Nichols or Majel Barrett. They're both fine, talented actresses in their key roles, but neither can hide her voice.
On the other hand, the freedom of animation allowed the show to attempt some ambitious ideas that couldn't have been enacted on a live action series at the time. The Chekov role was replaced with a new navigator named Lt. Arex, an alien with three arms and three legs. Many episodes introduce other bizarre aliens or take us to elaborate planets, including an extended visit to Spock's Vulcan homeworld.
'Star Trek: The Animated Series' includes a number of elements we'd now describe as "fan-service," in the form of references to characters or plots from the live action show. Among these are the Guardian of Forever time travel portal, the shore leave planet, a return visit from those troublesome Tribbles, and a new scam perpetrated by con man Harry Mudd. Some work better than others. The Tribble episode is genuinely funny and a worthy follow-up to the original, but the Harry Mudd episode is a total dog. (The plot essentially amounts to Mudd selling the gullible Nurse Chapel a date rape drug that she doses Spock with.)
Unlike the original show, 'The Animated Series' had relatively little network interference or pressure from NBC, who had minimal expectations for it and largely left the creators to their own devices. Nevertheless, the episode scripting quality varies wildly from near-classics ('Yesteryear', 'The Terratin Incident') to painful duds ('The Magicks of Megas-Tu', 'Mudd's Passion'). To be fair, that puts it about on par with Season 2 or 3 of the old series. Fortunately, the final run of episodes that comprised its shortened second season, from 'The Pirates of Orion' through 'The Counter-Clock Incident', are among the show's strongest.
One of the potential gems, 'The Slaver Weapon' written by 'Ringworld' author Larry Niven, has some great sci-fi ideas but is undercut a little by the goofy animation design of the cat-like alien villains and the pink coloring of their costumes. (As it turns out, the show's main animation director was totally colorblind.)
'Star Trek: The Animated Series' ran for a total of 22 half-hour episodes from September of 1973 to October of 1974. During that time, it was critically acclaimed and won a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Children's Series. Sadly, it didn't much catch on with the actual children who watched Saturday morning cartoons. The show was canceled due to poor ratings shortly after its second season had begun.
Over the years, there has been much debate about whether 'The Animated Series' should be considered canon within the 'Star Trek' franchise. For a long time, even Gene Roddenberry claimed that it wasn't. However, several things introduced here (including James T. Kirk's middle initial standing for "Tiberius" and the holodeck seen in episode 'The Practical Joker') worked their way into the official canon. Nothing – or at least nothing significant – from the animated show overtly contradicts other incarnations of 'Star Trek'. The show was written by real 'Trek' writers, blessed by Gene Roddenberry, and stars William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. In recent years, the sentiment among both fans and other 'Trek' creators has swung toward making it official.
'Star Trek: The Animated Series' comes to Blu-ray from CBS Films, distributed through Paramount Home Entertainment. The show was previously released on DVD back in 2006. The box set contains all 22 episodes of the show's run spread across three Blu-ray discs. All three are stored in a plastic keepcase within a slipcover box. Also included is a folder with 22 art cards (one for each episode) by illustrator Juan Ortiz, whose similar work for the original 'Star Trek' series can be found in the book 'Star Trek: The Art of Juan Ortiz'.
All three discs require you to select a menu language at startup. All three also have a (short) trailer for DTS audio before the menu. Disc 1 is additionally burdened by another forced trailer for the 'Star Trek' franchise's 50th anniversary. Once you finally get to it, the menu itself (identical on all discs) has a fun animated design, but the layout makes it difficult to find the audio and text commentaries without knowing in advance which episodes have them – information not provided anywhere in either the menu or box set packaging. A booklet with a content listing would have gone a long way.
As should be no surprise for a television cartoon of this vintage, 'Star Trek: The Animated Series' was drawn and broadcast at a 4:3 (1.33:1) aspect ratio. Much like the Blu-rays for 'Star Trek: The Original Series' and 'Star Trek: The Next Generation', CBS Films has opted to preserve the original composition. Episodes are pillarboxed in the center of the 16:9 high-def frame with black bars on the sides.
One episode of the series, 'More Tribbles, More Troubles', previously appeared in high definition video as a bonus feature in the 'Star Trek: The Original Series – Season 2' Blu-ray collection. The copy there was covered in dirt and debris, some of which may have been artifacts of the original production. At the time, it was not uncommon in animation (especially quickly-produced television animation) for dirt and hairs to get embedded between the cel layers during photographic compositing and wind up a permanent part of the image. Before watching the new Blu-rays, I expected the entire series to suffer similar problems. To my great surprise and relief, CBS Films has obviously put a lot of work into cleaning up the worst of these issues. Although some specks and damage remain, they're relatively minor and forgivable. The most distracting of the dirt has either been scrubbed from the film elements or digitally painted out.
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode is fairly crisp and colorful. The artwork itself is often limited in the amount of detail drawn into it, and some shots are outright fuzzy due to the way the animation was composited, but the series still looks decidedly better than standard definition. Film grain is present but not overwhelming. Black levels in outer space are respectable and colors are mostly vivid and appealing, though the occasional shot here or there will look faded. Some episodes also exhibit image stability issues. Keeping in mind the age and origin of the program, this is overall a fine and worthy presentation.
By default, the Blu-ray's primary audio option is a 5.1 surround remix encoded in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio format. Fans who consider themselves purists may opt for the original mono mix instead, though that has been relegated to lossy Dolby Digital.
The main benefit of the 5.1 remix is that the show's musical score has been expanded to stereo across the front soundstage. At its best, the music sounds bold, brassy and robust. At other times, it's a little thin.
The remainder of the audio is mostly still monaural. Surround activity is rarely noticeable. Dialogue and sound effects are very clear, but the dynamic range of the track is limited and bass never extends too deep.
In comparison, the pure mono option sounds more centered and constrained, with dialogue that's been pushed forward to dominate over the music and effects. All things considered, I think the 5.1 mixing is quite tastefully done and I found it to be the preferable experience.
All of the bonus features found on the Blu-ray first appeared in the DVD set from 2006.
Regardless of whether you feel that 'Star Trek: The Animated Series' deserves to be treated as part of the official 'Trek' canon or not, the show served a critical purpose in keeping 'Star Trek' alive during a period where it almost disappeared from the public consciousness. That makes it an indispensible part of the franchise's history. Although an uneven show, it's no more uneven than the last couple seasons of the original series.
The Blu-ray box set is a pretty straightforward upgrade from DVD. It doesn't offer any new bonus features, but the video quality gets a decent boost in high-definition. 'Star Trek' fans will find a lot here to savor.