Best Episode Ever # 29: ‘Star Trek: The Animated Series’
Fred Topel has handed the reigns of Best Episode Ever to Witney Seibold, CraveOnline's resident Trekkie, to explore the high points of all six 'Star Trek' series. This week, he talks about the little-talked-about animated 'Star Trek' series.
There is some debate in the Trekkie community (and yes, we are a community) as to whether or not the “Star Trek: The Animated Series” (alternately known as “The Animated Adventures of Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek” to cite its original, more ungainly title, or merely “Star Trek” to add confusion to the mix) actually counts as proper “Star Trek” canon. Bear in mind: it was probably Trekkies who invented the notion of “sci-fi canon” in the first place; That is to say: Trekkies invented the notion that more is happening in a sci-fi show than the viewers get to see. All the episodes interconnect and are historically contingent on one another. The universe wherein the characters live is vaster and more complex than anything that is dramatized on the show.
“Star Trek: The Animated Series,” which ran from 1973 to 1975 (perhaps completing the Enterprise's famous five-year mission) is, I openly declare, canonical with the rest of the “Star Trek” universe. It has the same cast (sans Walter Koenig), a lot of the same writers, and a lot of Trek notions that carried into other series. “The Animated Series” saw the introduction of a holodeck, and it was the first time we learned what the “T” in James T. Kirk stood for (It's Tiberius). It doesn't matter that shows were now only a half-hour, and they skewed a lot more kid-friendly. It's also still never received the same acclaim as any of the other shows, relegating it to cult status. Despite that, though, it was still the same show as the 1966 original in many respects.
“Star Trek” was produced by an animation studio called Filmation, the same company that would go on to make shows like “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.” As you might guess, it's about as cheap as stodgy as “He-Man.” The animation is comparatively crude, and long portions of the show would elapse without much movement at all; only mouths would move a little bit, and maybe an eyebrow. Indeed, the episode I'm about to cite as the best in the series features a single, elongated, static shot of Earth that accompanies some exposition. The shot continues for a good nine or ten seconds without anything happening at all. This is what we call, in animation parlance, “cutting corners.”
What's more, the series' colorist was, as it was learned years after the fact, completely colorblind. As such, a lot of the ships and aliens featured therein were wrapped in swaths of bright pink. It looks odd and even a little ugly, but I would argue that it was just an aesthetic angle that the series happened to adopt.
But overall, “Star Trek: The Animated Series” did strike a similar pseudo-philosophical tone to its immediate predecessor, and the animated form allowed writers to explore bigger concepts and wilder aliens than a live-action show would have permitted. Over the course of the show, we got to see intelligent plant beings, a three-armed alien working on the bridge of the Enterprise, a semi-regular cat woman character, a planet covered completely in water, giant monsters, pink Tribbles, and elaborate space phenomenon that at least looked vaster than anything the live-action show managed to do.
The best episode of this fun little cult oddity comes from the first season. It aired on October 27th, 1973. It was called “The Magicks of Megas-Tu.”
The story of this episode is eerily similar to that of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. The crew of The Enterprise travels to the very center of the galaxy to find what might be the origin of life. As they get nearer and nearer, they find reality sort of bending. The rules of geometry warp around them, and they find themselves disoriented and lost. Suddenly a satyr (!) calling himself Lucien appears on their ship and teleports them to his home planet of Megas-Tu. On Megas-Tu, Lucien explains, magic is common. Not the cheap sci-fi cop-out “advanced technology looks like magic to the primitive,” but actual magic. Something about this planet allows will and belief to become manifest. Symbols and hexes are a real part of everyday life.
How does Spock (Leonard Nimoy) react to this? As any scientist would: with acceptance of the evidence presented to him. If it seems to work, then there must be something to it. It stands contrary to scientific principles, but the rules seem to work differently on Megas-Tu. Spock can move things with his mind. Sulu (George Takei) creates a phantom babe to make out with.
Lucien explains that some of the people of Megas-Tu did once visit Earth, and that most of the witches and magical beings of Earth lore were actually magicians from his homeworld. The crew's use of magic, however, attracts the attention of other Megans, and Lucien is unexpectedly apprehended. It turns out that Lucien is the only Megan to love Earthlings, and that other Megans were driven from Earth in 1691 during the Salem witch trials. A Megan judge puts humanity on trial for their crass and “let's hang them witches” attitudes of centuries in the past. As such, the Megans recreate a 1691 witch tribunal and put humanity and Lucien on trial.
It's up to Kirk (William Shatner) to defend humanity, and to defend Lucien. Having a supreme alien race put humanity on trial for barbarism is not an original concept in “Star Trek” (it was done by Q, by Trelane, the Squire of Gothos, by The Prophets of “Deep Space Nine”), but it's nice to see this notion being tackled by a Saturday morning cartoon. What's more, the Salem Witch Trials is a pretty heady time in history for little kids, and “The Magicks of Megas-Tu” makes it seem accessible and complex at the same time.
But it gets more complex. It's revealed that Lucien the satyr was known by a different name on Earth. On our world, he was called Lucifer. This means Kirk not only has to defend humanity, but is put in the unusual position for having to defend the right of Satan as a living individual. Kirk has been so charmed by Lucien, and is so resolute in is moral imperative to defend any and all living beings, that he defends the magical creature will all his acumen. Eventually Kirk convinces the Megans that Lucien should live, but not before a pretty awesome magic fight, wherein Kirk unleashes lightning from his hands. No matter how cheap the show may have been, the sight of Captain Kirk casting magic spells is a pretty thrilling one. The Enterprise is set free under the condition that they never return to Megas-Tu.
“The Magicks of Megas-Tu” has everything that one could want from any “Star Trek” episode. It has bizarre space phenomenon, calling to mind the “space is larger than you think” notions that many “Star Trek” episodes shoot for. It has a bizarre alien race of magicians and satyrs. It has a challenge to scientific thinking. It has a rather complex moral dilemma; can Satan reform himself? Does the most evil creature in existence deserve rights as an individual? Especially once they've atoned? Is humanity still as barbaric as we once were? It has a cool sci-fi revision of human history; Those are always fun; I like when sci-fi heroes go back in time and meet famous people (in this case, they meet essentially Cotton Mather). And on top of all that, we get a really cool action sequence wherein Captain Kirk, one of pop culture's most celebrated badasses, fires lightning out of his hands. All over the course of 30 minutes.
Seeing as “Star Trek: The Animated Series” was intended for kids, it doesn't ring quite as heady as its live-action counterpart. But there is most certainly something purer, more direct about this show. Something that was more conceptual and fantastical. More properly sci-fi. “Star Trek” has always been about using sci-fi iconography as codes for factes of the human condition, and “The Animated Series” allowed those codes to look and to be entertainingly outlandish. Individual episodes may feel comparatively trifling, but overall, there were some good classics in the jumble, as “The Magicks of Megas-Tu” proves.
The series can be found on DVD. You can buy it. Have a piece of cult TV history.
Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles Trolling, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.