Wednesday, September 07, 2011

From the Archive: Star Trek - The Animated Series: "Yesteryear"

The blockbuster J.J. Abrams' Star Trek film (2009) is not the first (or only...) Trek installment over the years to alter the franchise time line in some fashion (or, more accurately, create a separate or alternate time line). In fact, this kind of temporal tweaking was occurring in the series as early as 1973. September 15, 1973, to be precise.

That's the air date of story-editor D.C. Fontana's "Yesteryear." It was the second episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series broadcast on CBS in most U.S. cities, and -- not entirely unlike the popular Abrams' film -- it was heavily Spock-centric in nature.

"My ideas were these," Fontana told me in an interview for Filmfax Magazine in 2001: "Can we see Vulcan? What kind of story can I tell there? And can I involve Spock?" In answering those questions, Fontana created what is undeniably the most popular episode of the animated series, and one that is also regarded as "canon" by most Star Trek fans.

"Yesteryear" opens at the planet of the Guardian of Forever (as seen in "City on the Edge of Forever.") A group of Federation scientists stand watch at the mysterious time portal as Kirk and Spock return from a visit to Orion's past.

However, something strange has occurred in their absence. The scientists don't appear to remember Spock at all. A baffled Captain Kirk hails the Enterprise, and Scotty has no memory of the half-Vulcan science-officer either. "Something appears to have changed in the time line as we know it," Spock suggests.

Indeed, this is an accurate supposition, and the first officer of the starship Enterprise in this "new" time line is now an Andorian, Mr. Thelin. Upon returning to the starship, Spock also learns that in this universe, he died at age seven, during a dangerous Vulcan rite of "maturity" called the Kahs-wan. Equally as troubling, Spock's death at a young age caused the dissolution of Sarek and Amanda's marriage, and Amanda was subsequently killed in a shuttle accident on her way home to Earth.

Again, I thought reflexively of the 2009 Star Trek film, which also makes Amanda a casualty in an alternate time line.

Kirk and Spock soon realize that, in their original timeline, Spock must have actually traveled back in Vulcan history and saved his younger self from dying on Vulcan's Forge during the Kahs-wan, a ritual involving 10 days in the desert without food, water, or weapons.

However, when the Federation scientists "replayed" that part of Vulcan history (some twenty-to-thirty years prior...), Spock was unavailable -- in Orion's past with Kirk -- and therefore unable to return to Vulcan and save his younger self. Got that?

In hopes of restoring himself and the timeline, Spock masquerades as Sarek's (Mark Lenard's) cousin "Selik," and returns to Vulcan in the past, near the city of ShiKahr.

There, he comes to the assistance of his younger self as the seven-year old Spock and his pet sehlat, I-Chaya, are attacked by a Vulcan dragon called a le-matya. Fans of Godzilla will recognize the roar of the le-matya as being that of their favorite Toho monster, by the way...

Unfortunately, I-Chaya is poisoned by the dragon and young Spock seeks help from a local healer, braving Vulcan's Forge and thereby passing the Vulcan rite of adulthood. For his beloved pet, however, it is too late, and the healer offers Spock a choice. The sehlat's life can be prolonged for a time -- but the animal will feel terrible pain, or the healer can release the beloved pet from all his suffering...and end his life now.

Young Spock makes the decision to end his pet's suffering, and in doing so decides that the path of his own life will follow in the Vulcan way: logic and the total repression of all emotion.

When elder Spock returns to the present on the Planet of the Guardian of Forever, he informs a waiting Kirk that the timeline has indeed been altered (or a new one created...). "One small thing was changed...a pet died," Spock informs his Captain. "Times change..." he concludes later, and in a way, that could be a tag-line for the new Star Trek too.

"Yesteryear" has always been one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series, in part because of the difficult but valuable message about pets, and caring for pets. When young Spock asks whether it is right to mourn the loss of his pet, his older self notes with compassion that "every life comes to an end when the time demands it," and thus there is no need to be sad about it. What is sad, Spock insists, is a life that has not been lived well.

Frankly, I'm amazed that a pet's (on-screen...) death made it past the censors and onto network television, on Saturday mornings, no less, in the 1970s.

Filmation's Lou Scheimer, producer of the Star Trek cartoon, told me in an interview in 2001 that "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."

When I interviewed Fontana, she told me that there was indeed a "worry about the death of the sehlat," but that "Gene Roddenberry told the networks" that she -- Fontana -- would "take care of it," in a way that acceptable. It was a story, that Fontana put "so much" of herself into...and it certainly shows, even today. If you've ever lost a beloved pet -- or worse, had to make the choice of life for death for a beloved pet -- you will find yourself quite moved by the last act of "Yesteryear."

Watching this episode again brought me right back to a terrible Thursday in April 2003, and the death of my first cat, Lulu. Our doctor offered us a similar choice: a short-term respite (through a difficult blood transfusion), or a merciful "passing" right there...and thus an end to suffering. We chose the latter option and it was - and remains - devastating, but I've always believed we made the right choice for her; the same choice Spock makes for his pet in this Star Trek episode. Maybe Vulcans and humans are quite alike after all...
Another intriguing aspect of "Yesteryear," especially in light of the new film, is a scene involving young Spock being bullied by other Vulcan children about his human half. Although in the cartoon (again, a Saturday morning show...) nobody calls Amanda "a whore," the insults are still pretty harsh. One child tells Spock that Sarek brought shame to Vulcan by marrying a human. Another tells Spock that he can never be a "real Vulcan." This scene -- with different costumes and sets -- is played out almost exactly -- quite faithfully, really -- in the Abrams film. (And indeed, it was a moment mentioned in passing by Amanda as early as the Fontana live-action episode "Journey to Babel.")

Another reason to admire "Yesteryear" is the scope of the story. Before Abrams' film, this cartoon segment probably represented the best view of Vulcan we were afforded in Trek history. In "Yesteryear," we see the interior of Sarek and Amanda's home, the deserts of Vulcan's Forge, and a futuristic metropolis (not to mention some hover cars). These things were possible only because of animation...a live-action series of 1973 could simply never have afforded so many varied sets, props or locations.

In light of the newest chapter of the Star Trek story, "Yesteryear" looks even more fascinating -- to a coin a phrase -- than ever. In it, we see how a time line is changed permanently (if only in regards to a pet's destiny...), get more than a passing glimpse of Vulcan, and once more delve into the difficult choices Spock made in childhood: the selection between Vulcan or human philosophy.

All in all, this may be Star Trek: The Animated Series' finest hour.


  1. I guess I didn't learn my Star Trek lessons very well. Several years ago, my wife and I had a beloved cat who developed bone cancer. It was first detected in his back left leg, so we had it amputated. He was fine for awhile, but a tumor was detected in his skull. We then put him through a series of crazy treatments while he only got worse. In the end, we finally faced up to the inevitable and put him to sleep. Afterward, I realized that we were torturing the poor creature because we were not prepared to let him go. It's a painful lesson, but one that I took to heart when his brother finally became very ill.

    Despite the limited animation, The Animated Series opened up Star Trek not only visually but in the types of stories that could be told. It's amazing it ever made it onto Saturday morning TV.

  2. Neal: We all deal with a death in different ways, and no one answer or approach is perfect.

    It sounds like you loved and cared for your cat very, very deeply, and did everything possible for that pet. The bottom line is: you acted from the heart and cared deeply for the animal and the animal's well-being. There's never anything wrong with that.

    And when I lost Lulu, I felt guilty for a long, long time, about putting her to sleep. I knew her prognosis was hopeless, but I wonder sometimes if I should have waited, thought more, and acted differently. It's always a tough call...

    All my best,

  3. I watched the animated series when it came out long ago, but have rarely revisited it. Your fine post shows me that it's time to crack open the complete DVD series I have in my library. Thanks, John.

  4. John.

    Such a lovely post. I have this DVD set and need to get to it.

    Fontana was indeed a special force in Star Trek. She did some wonderful things. In fact, I'm jumping passed your Enterprise Incident entry by her and look forward to going back to that one tomorrow.

    Like Roddenberry said, she would handle it.

    You know it's funny, sometimes I am surprised what got passed censors in the 70s and what gets passed them today. On the other hand, I'm sometimes blown away by some of the things that made television back in the 70s that would never be passed today, but rather deemed politically incorrect. A sign of the times to be sure, but you know what I mean.

    I can't wait to watch this series.

    Now onto your poignant thought about Lulu and likewise Neal P's candid honesty. I couldn't agree with you both more on how difficult these kinds of decisions are.

    And as you mentioned John, I agree, there isn't realy right and wrong when intentions are just.

    A few years ago my Cocker Spaniel, Chloe, had cancer [external]. It was one of those things we got by with for a short bit, but I had to take her in that inevitable, fateful day. I had the family say goodbye, maybe because my gut knew something that I wasn't mentally prepared for. I intended on bringing her home, but everyone knew.

    That night, I went in, and like you both, I was faced with those dreadful choices. I really wanted to keep her going with an operation, but the vet said it would just come back eventually. It didn't sound good and I just couldn't do it, not just for the reasons Neal shared, because that's certainly a concern, but for selfish reasons.

    I went in there and it was agnoizing to face that choice and ultimately make the call and I knew there was no way I could go back and do that all over again. It was just too damn painful.

    Anyway, I put her down. Loads of tears from the kids and myself and buried her. But I'll tell you, that was tough and it was a decision that was one of the hardest. Saying goodbye before that moment was heart-wrenching and it's tough just thinking about it now. But like you John, I always wonder and think about that day and if I made the right decision and I ultimately always think I did, but there's always that thought that I would have enjoyed seeing her longer.

    Thanks for the thoughtful entry and making the point that we're not alone out there. Tough stuff. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Le0pard13: Crack open that DVD set! :) Seriously, you're in for a treat. The episodes, for the most part, are very good. After the second episode or so, you'll make an adjustmet to watching Star Trek as an animated series, and just really get into the stories!

    SFF: Stories such as yours and Neal P.'s just always make me weep. They take me back to that time, that room, that decision.

    But, Gordon, you must know that you made the best call, in the absolute best way you could, in an extremely difficult and emotional moment. Losing a pet is so hard, but I think, in the final analysis, it's better to see them go, then see them suffer. I know that's where we all try to "get," but how we reach that destination is different for each of us.

    You and Neal P. are good people. I think that your pets were blessed to have you both in their lives. If they could have, they would have said those words to you.

    I hope Lulu would have felt the same way about me...