Remembering Star Trek: The Animated Series
In the months ahead, sci-fi TV fans can anticipate two new initiatives re-framing genre favorites. Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, recently announced his plans to produce an animated version of the popular TV series, one that follows the Slayer's early adventures in high school. And the next chapter of Star Trek's future history is being conceived at this very moment, as Rick Berman and Paramount Studios prepare the live-action Star Trek: Enterprise for its premiere in autumn of 2001.
But let's time warp to the early 1970s for a moment. Even in those bygone days of Watergate and the Energy Crisis, Star Trek was a popular property. The original series was reaching more viewers in syndication than it had on network television, and fan conventions were routinely drawing thousands of enthusiastic "Trekkers." In 1973, Filmation Studios, the animation house responsible for popular Saturday morning cartoons such as Journey to the Center of the Earth and Fantastic Voyage, joined forces with legendary series creator Gene Roddenberry to continue the adventure. Together they produced a program that, even today, remains one of the most imaginative installments in Trek's long history: The Animated Series (1973-74).
So, before Buffy goes all "animated" on us, and before a revised Federation starship warps away on a new video voyage, let's remember the trials and tribulations of this particular cartoon enterprise. As Whedon and Berman are no doubt aware, genre fans do not always respond with enthusiasm when a popular franchise undergoes a transition to new forms, and The Animated Series faced that very dilemma nearly 30 years ago. By remembering the history of this trail-blazing venture in animation (and in Star Trek lore...) perhaps the new efforts will face smoother sailing, and avoid some pitfalls.
"It was 1972 or 1973, and I thought it would be a great time to do an animated Star Trek," recalls Lou Scheimer, then-president of Filmation. "Gene loved the idea, but there had been some problems between Roddenberry, Paramount, and NBC, and basically they weren't speaking to each other."
The root of the problem was simple: creative control. "In those days, it was difficult to deal with networks on Saturday morning shows without them getting involved creatively," Scheimer explains.
But, according to series director Hal Sutherland, a veteran animator who oversaw more than 20 episodes of The Animated Series, the Great Bird of the Galaxy emerged victorious from this particular pissing contest, and nabbed "carte blanche" creative control of Star Trek's first TV resurrection..
With that issue settled, Roddenberry manned his new starship and recruited Dorothy Fontana, author of many of the live-action Trek's most popular episodes, as his first officer: the series associate producer and story editor. Although at first Fontana expressed reservations about animation, because "it's usually for children, and there are certain stories you can't tell," she also felt it offered an opportunity to visit places never envisioned by live-action Trek. All sorts of "new life forms and new civilizations" could appear cheaply, without the limitation of building expensive sets or applying costly make-up.
But despite animation's potential, there was an immediate problem. The show's budget was minimal, and that meant there had to be cuts in the cast. In other words, the crew of the Starship Enterprise was about to be downsized. Though William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, De Forest Kelly, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Jimmy Doohan and Majel Barrett Roddenberry all returned to the bridge of the Enterprise, there was one casualty, and he didn't even wear a red shirt.
"There was only so much money to spend, and we couldn't afford everybody." Fontana laments. The axe fell on Walter Koenig, whose character, Pavel Chekov, was eliminated from the format. "We said to Walter, you're not forgotten," Fontana explains, and the actor was hired to write an episode of the first season instead ("The Infinite Vulcan.")
Adjusting to the world of animation was a difficult task for some Trek veterans, even after casting issues were resolved. Sutherland describes the dilemma. "Filmation was extremely busy and Roddenberry never knew when to quit. At one point on the first episode, we had just three days to start production and meet our deadline, and Gene kept pushing for improvements. I finally said, 'Gene, we're locked into a deadline, we've got to do this.' To his credit, he stepped back, and said 'okay, we're done.'"
The schedule remained tight, and while most animated series enjoy a year of development time, Trek had barely six months to get off the launching pad. With a staff of just 30 people, that meant commencing a new episode every six weeks. "There wasn't much time for mistakes." Sutherland comments.
The challenges were many, but Filmation labored to produce a quality Star Trek nonetheless "I had an office at Filmation," Fontana describes, "and I was in the same building where the animation was done. Unlike many companies, they didn't farm out their work to foreign countries. Everything was done in-house, and the artists and recording studio were all together." This closeness resulted in a complex but orderly process of episode assembly.
Scheimer outlines the routine. "Dorothy and her writers wrote the script, Gene would offer his input, and then it was storyboarded."
Next, as Sutherland relates, the director stepped in. "After reading the script, I'd create instructions for the animators, working from storyboards. More often than not, I'd work well into the night, sometimes at the office, sometimes in my dining room at 3:00 am."
From there, Trek's experienced cast beamed into the party. "People are surprised that you record the actors' voices before you start animating." Scheimer reveals. "Everyone thinks the voices are added later, but the animator wouldn't know how to do it. He needs to hear the voices before he knows what the emotion is. So we'd record the voices from the storyboards, which are basically illustrated bibles. Then, we'd do the full animation."
And painstaking animation it was, too, at least by Scheimer's estimation. "Everything was done by hand," he emphasizes. "There were no computer graphics, and we did a lot of stock scenes of the characters walking and talking. We re-utilized that material in different settings and different combinations."
But if re-creating the physical universe of Star Trek proved a hardship, working with the cast was a dream.
"De [Kelley] was one of the sweetest human beings I ever met, and Jimmy [Doohan] was highly versatile," says Scheimer. "Jimmy worked with Filmation again on Jason of Star Command. On Star Trek, Jimmy and Majel [Roddenberry] did a lot of voices for us."
Actress Majel Roddenberry, for one, enjoyed her transformation into Star Trek's weird and wild animated characters. "It's like seeing a caricature of yourself" she relates. In addition to resurrecting Nurse Chapel, the actress gave voice to the new alien crewmember, Lt. M'Ress, and a dozen other guest roles. "I was the wind, the trees, a mountaintop, and anything that spoke," she laughs.
And what was it like conveying emotions, personality and character with only your voice as a tool? "It was very imaginative. You almost couldn't give a bad performance."
Yet even as Trek was lovingly resurrected behind the closed doors at Filmation, word about the series was leaking out, and fan response was surprisingly hostile. "Lou [Scheimer] took a hit from the fans," Sutherland confides. "They had no concept of the agony or effort that went into that show."
Remembering an unpleasant confrontation with a fan at a convention, Scheimer just laughs it off. "Let's just say the fans were very...concerned."
But concern quickly morphed to enthusiasm when footage of the animated series was finally unveiled on the convention circuit. "I went to the World Science Fiction Con in Toronto," Fontana recollects, "and I had a reel of the opening, of the Enterprise flyby. There were skeptics, but when we ran the reel, the fans cheered. From that little clip, they realized it was really going to be Star Trek. It was a triumphant moment after months of hearing it wouldn't be any good."
In fact, fans were so enthusiastic it was actually became a security problem for Filmation. "We had Trekkie invaders at the studio all the time." Sutherland remarks. "Trekkies showed up pretending to be fire inspectors or janitors, and we'd discover them searching through our waste baskets."
Such enthusiasm was an understandable reaction, however, since animated Trek often went where no Trek had gone before, even "boldly' touring a Vulcan metropolis in "Yesteryear." "I had wanted to see Vulcan in "Journey to Babel" with a matte shot but it got cut out." Fontana explains. "So I went back to the description from that script and said, 'let's do this now.' I wanted to see a city with parkways and trees, with growing things, and with unique spires. And we achieved that with animation."
"Yesteryear" also referenced the popular live-action episode "City on the Edge of Forever" by showcasing a journey through the Guardian of Forever time portal. On this occasion, time travel inadvertently robbed Mr. Spock of his very existence, leaving a puzzled science officer to correct the time-line. In order to repair his reality, Spock had to return to his home world, Vulcan, and confront a boyhood version of himself. Along the way, Spock's beloved pet Sehlat was to lose his life...
Shockingly, "Yesteryear" broke a long-standing TV taboo by depicting the death of that pet. Scheimer thought it was a beautiful and courageous decision. "A pet's death had never been done on a children's program, and it was touching and provocative. Dorothy was instrumental in making it so creative."
Another episode, "The Time Trap," by Joyce Perry, reflected the politics of the day, specifically détente. "I had this idea that a Klingon ship and the Enterprise would get trapped in a Sargasso Sea of space, and have to cooperate to escape." Perry describes of the memorable tale. Her only problem was getting the former enemies out of the crisis. "I remember telling Gene this bizarre notion that two ships could combine engines, and become more powerful as one than they were separately. I explained it with a straight face, but was afraid he might laugh me out of his office. Instead, he was quiet for about 30 seconds, then said, "that's pretty good, do it!" And, in the finest Trek tradition, a story about cooperation was forged.
Writer Larry Brody contributed another interesting tale to the animated Star Trek, "The Magicks of Megas-Tu." In this adventure, the Enterprise crew traveled to an alternate universe and encountered Lucifer. The author had initially wanted Kirk and Company to encounter God instead, but the network quickly shot down that provocative notion.
"I was producer of a series called Police Story and it often showcased the home lives of cops. Anytime we had a cop and his wife in bed together, holding one another, we had to take it out. The network would not allow married people to be in bed together. On the other hand, if the episode was about a cop and a mistress having sex in bed together, that was perfectly okay to show, as long as if, by the end, they broke up to show that having sex wasn't right. If you can show immoral sex instead of moral sex on TV, you can also show Satan instead of God on Star Trek, I guess."
Even though Brody's original concept didn't survive network interference, he was happy with the creative process behind-the-scenes "I did the story a couple of times, and I asked Dorothy to see the final draft. She said 'Gene's re-writing it, but it has nothing to do with you. He always re-writes.' But the story wasn't changed, and if there were clever jokes, they remained in. The changes mostly involved dialogue."
Though Star Trek: The Animated Series was well-received, even winning an Emmy Award, the production team had a hard time keeping up with the demand to produce new episodes. More than anything else, the rigorous schedule may have been the cause of the series' demise after 2 seasons and 22 episodes.
"In animation, they order a set number to begin with, like 16, and that's your first year." Fontana explains. "If you're going to do more, it's in increments of six, and then they rerun the liver out of the earlier episodes. That's because of the time lag. Animation takes longer than live-action, and you have to write a year ahead."
Still, Scheimer is adamant that the Saturday morning series could have lived long and prospered had it been given just a little tender loving care from parent network, NBC. "If it aired today with the same ratings, it would be considered a whopping hit. But little kids didn't watch it. They weren't our audience. I always hoped it would have aired at night. But Star Trek was difficult, because it had limited budgets, loads of story, and several characters to juggle in 22 minutes."
Barrett Roddenberry, who is currently developing her own animated TV series with Stan Lee, entitled Gene Roddenberry's Starship, seconds the opinion that re-framing Star Trek in animated form -- within the hectic confines of television production -- was problematic. "We wanted characters on the order of Disney rather than what we got, but the show featured some of the best stories of any Star Trek series."
Brody, who produced HBO's Spawn and The Silver Surfer cartoons, isn't shy with his praise for the 1970s animated enterprise. "It was a grown-up show that talked about important topics without compromise. I appreciate that because I work in animation now, and it's not that way. Today, Saturday morning programs are infomercials for toys."
Fontana concurs. "There's this tendency to put down animated work as kid's stuff, but you have to consider the artistry that went into it; not just the writer, but the actors who made themselves available. And the artists who drew the show were really good."
Ironically, with the original Trek actors now aging well into their "Deadly Years," animation may represent the only 21st century venue capable of featuring them in the roles they popularized more than 30 years ago. "Animation is a way to do the original series without worrying about how old the actors are, or what they look like." Fontana acknowledges.
And that's an idea Scheimer appreciates. In fact, he already pitched it. "I called Gene a few months before his death and said, 'Gene, it's time. How about another animated Star Trek?' He agreed it was time, and was very enthusiastic, but that's as far as it went..."
Looking back, the hurdles involved in creating an animated chapter of Star Trek were many. There were worried fans, interfering networks, and concerns about which characters and cast members would be included. Will the Buffy the Vampire Slayer cartoon feature the voices of Sarah Michelle Gellar and cohorts? Will any of the Scoobie Gang be left behind (a la poor Mr. Chekov)? And if someone is left out, or a new performer gives voice to an established character, will fans dismiss the series as not being canon? And what of Star Trek: Enterprise? Like the animated Trek of the 1970s, it faces the challenge of living up to previous chapters of a legend. If Enterprise revises Star Trek's well-studied history too boldly, is it doomed to encounter the wrath of angry fans? Only time will answer for sure, but the interesting journey of Star Trek: The Animated Series reminds us what might be at stake as the next chapters of two popular franchises are forged.
Content Copyright © John Kenneth Muir 1998-2007 All Rights Reserved.