Saturday, May 18, 2013

Series Primer: Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973 - 1974)

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 the Great Bird of the Galaxy, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, to continue the Star Trek mythos.   Together, these two powerhouses of the genre produced a program that, even today, remains one of the most imaginative installments in Star Trek's long history: The Animated Series (1973-1974).

"It was 1972 or 1973, and I thought it would be a great time to do an animated Star Trek,"  Lou Scheimer, then-president of Filmation, told me in an interview in the year 2000.  "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 Star Trek: The Animated SeriesRoddenberry emerged victorious and nabbed "carte blanche" creative control of Star Trek's first TV resurrection.

With the issue of creative control settled, Roddenberry manned the helm of his new starship and recruited a first officer in Dorothy Fontana, author of many of the live-action Trek's most popular episodes (including "Journey to Babel"). 

Serving as series associate producer and story editor, Fontana initially expressed some reservations about animation, because it "is usually for children, and there are certain stories you can't tell."  She also felt, however, that animation offered the potential to visit places never envisioned by live-action Trek.  All kinds of "new life forms and new civilizations" could appear cheaply, without the limitation of building expensive sets or applying costly make-up.

Despite animation's potential, budget was an immediate problem.  The production had woefully little money to spend, and that meant there had to be cuts in the cast.  Accordingly, the crew of the Starship Enterprise was downsized.  Though William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Jimmy Doohan and Majel Barrett Roddenberry all returned to the bridge, 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 recounted to me.  The axe fell on Walter Koenig, whose character, Lt. Pavel Chekov, was eliminated from the format.  "We said to Walter, you're not forgotten," Fontana explains, and the actor was hired to pen an episode of the first season instead ("The Infinite Vulcan").

Adjusting to the world of animation was a difficult task for some
 Star Trek veterans, even after the 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 the deadline, we've got to do this!'  To his credit, he stepped back and said 'okay, we're done.'"

The schedule remained tight, however, and Filmation labored to produce a quality 
Star Trek.  "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 complicated but orderly process of episode assembly.  Scheimer outlines the routine:.  "Dorothy and her writers wrote the scripts, Gene would offer his input, and then it was story-boarded."

Next, as Sutherland relates, the director took the reins. "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 my office, sometimes in my dining room at 3:00 am."

From there, 
Trek's cast beamed in.  "People are surprised that you record the actors' voices before you start animating,"  Scheimer notes.   "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 recreating the physical universe of
 Star Trek proved a hardship, working with the experienced cast was a dream.  "De [Kelley] was one of the sweetest human beings I ever met, and Jimmy [Doohan] was highly versatile," remembers 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."

The late 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 related to me during a telephone interview in 2000 for Cinescape. In addition to resurrecting Nurse Christine Chapel, the actress gave voice to the new alien crew-member, Lt. M'Ress, and more than 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 
Star 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 into enthusiasm when footage of 
Star Trek: 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,their excitement 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 Harlan Ellison), by showcasing a journey through the Guardian of Forever time portal. On this occasion, time travel robbed the beloved Mr. Spock of his very existence, leaving a puzzled science officer to correct the corrupted time line. In order to repair his reality, Spock returned home to his planet, Vulcan, to confront a boyhood version of himself. Along the way, Spock's beloved pet Sehlat was destined to lose his life.  Shockingly, "Yesteryear" broke a long-standing TV taboo by depicting the death of a 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
 detente.   "I had this idea that a Klingon ship and the Enterprise would get trapped in a Sargasso Sea of space and be forced to cooperate to escape,"  she describes the memorable tale.  Perry's 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 became 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, and 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, it 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 did not 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 rewriting it, but it has nothing to do with you. He always does rewrites.' But the story wasn't changed, and if there were clever jokes, they remained in. The changes mostly involved dialogue."

Star Trek: The Animated Series was very well-received, even winning an Emmy Award, the production team had a difficult 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 twenty-two 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 is 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 audiences.  I always hoped it would air at night. But 
Star Trek was difficult because it had limited budgets, loads of story, and several characters to juggle in 22 minutes."

"Majel Roddenberry 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 later 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 is 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..."

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous9:49 PM

    I first saw Star Trek:The Animated Series as a young boy in 1973-1974 during it's first-run. It will always be the extremely intelligent completion of the five year mission began on the 1966-1969 live action series.



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