Saturday, September 10, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Week: "Beyond the Farthest Star."

In 1973, Filmation presented Star Trek: The Animated Series, one of the lesser-celebrated but no less worthwhile jewels in the Star Trek crown.

Filmation's Lou Scheimer had Gene Roddenberry on board as an executive consultant, and Dorothy Fontana served as the series story editor. The entire cast, save for Walter Koenig (Chekov), returned to provide the voices for their characters, the crew of the original starship Enterprise.

The first episode, "Beyond the Farthest Star" (by Samuel A. Peeples; directed by Hal Sutherland), starts routinely with the opening credits, a nice, if rough approximation or re-creation of the live-action series credits. Only with "starring the voices of" as the legend, rather than simply "starring." 

As the half-hour opening installment begins, the Enterprise is cruising on the "outer fringe" of the galaxy en route to "Quasar M-17," when a strange "radio emission" is intercepted by the crew. A sudden increase of gravity (or "hyper-gravity") drags the Federation starship off course, and it promptly falls into the gravity well of a dead star. The Enterprise manages an orbital insertion in the nick of time, and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) soon detects a strange alien starship also trapped in orbit. He determines that it has been locked there, trapped, on the magnitude of "300 million years."

An investigation of the ship (which boasts a biological, organic design; presaging many 1970s productions such as Alien [1979]), reveals that aliens destroyed their own vessel because they had accidentally taken on a malevolent, formless life form who was seeking escape...into the heart of the galaxy. This creature, a "magnetic organism without mass," makes it back to the Enterprise with the landing party, and begins to run wild there. Captain Kirk (William Shatner) seemingly chooses suicide and certain destruction rather than freeing this evil life form from its ages-old captivity...

As you can tell from this brief synopsis, there are many familiar elements here; or rather, some elements that would one day become familiar to Trek-dom. 

From the original series, we have an age-old, formless entity of pure evil, like Redjac in "The Wolf in the Fold." And future Treks, including Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, would also involve an alien entity hoping to escape a planetary prison via a starship. 

Like Star Trek efforts including "Where No Man Has Gone Before," Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Next Gen's "The Nth Degree," a definable landmark in the galaxy is visited by the Federation in this story; here the outer rim; (in other cases, it's the edge of the galaxy or the center of the galaxy). 

So, generally, how does Star Trek: The Animated Series compare to original Trek? It is clearly designed for children (it is a Saturday morning series, after all), but to utilize a common phrase, it is "light years" ahead of other Saturday morning fare from the same decade. On Star Trek -- as early as this first episode -- one detects the ideas at work. The Animated Series is not so much simplified as streamlined. And, it's immensely entertaining.

But anyway, Filmation has done a remarkable job of recreating the original Enterprise interiors, costumes and production design. In this episode, there are several nice insert shots of classic Federation hardware such as tricorders and communicators...and they look just right. The transporter console is familiar too, and the bridge looks great. The level of fidelity is more than's astonishing.

What's different? Well, interestingly, you can already detect how Gene Roddenberry was incorporating new and fascinating ideas into the franchise; updating the Trek universe. For instance, a pan across the bridge of the Enterprise reveals a second turbo lift (to the left of the view screen; to the right of Engineering). We would next see a second turbo lift on the bridge next in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Satisfying the curiosity of many, this episode also reveals for the first time some of the details of what specifically Spock sees inside the "blue glow" of his library computer viewer. At one point it's just a sine wave, signifying the "heart beat" of the alien, but it's still a neat glimpse. .

What's changed? Well, first and foremost, there's an alien navigator, the three-armed Mr. Arex, sitting in Mr. Chekov's spot. He's a little bit gimmicky for my taste (three arms; three legs), but at least he isn't designed and executed to be a joke.

More genuinely fascinating, Federation technology has been updated. It now includes "life support belts" which eliminate the need for space suits in inhospitable environments. I like this idea a great deal, and think it's both inventive and keeping in the spirit of the original Trek's vision of the future. It seems that personal force fields generated by small belts is not only a nice cheap expedient (like the transporter...) for getting into and out of weird environments, but I kind of think the belts tart up the uniforms nicely. To me, Star Trek isn't truly about the hard days of early space travel (leave that to another favorite, Space:1999, please...), but rather the era wherein man has tamed technology and it is easy, simple-to-use and -- again -- streamlined. 

Perhaps life support belts aren't inherently dramatic (like space suits); but then again neither is the transporter. A shuttle launching and landing is much more interesting, isn't it? That's okay, though, belts and transporters feel "Trekkish," and get us into environments where otherwise it would be hard to go.

Uniquely, the bridge is now equipped with an "automatic bridge defense system," a turret that lowers from the bridge ceiling in times of danger and can target any object in the room with a phaser array. Although this turret is hijacked by the evil alien in "Beyond the Farthest Star," it perhaps should have stayed in the live-action franchise. I got tired in The Next Generation (in episodes like "The High Ground" and "Best of Both Worlds") of watching Lt. Worf leap over a furniture barrier between his station and Captain Picard when confronted with unfriendly interlopers on the command deck. Any alien could apparently just beam onto the bridge and punch crewmen or hijack them off the ship.  An automatic defense system might have actually come in handy. An intruder beams in - zap 'em! It's easier on the legs than jumping hurdles.

Another change: We see Engineering, and it looks familiar enough, save for the new "engineering core." That's different terminology than we've been accustomed to on Star Trek. It's really just a giant glowing hatch in the Engineering deck floor, ostensibly leading down into the anti-matter/matter reactor.

"Beyond the Farthest Star" is a colorful episode, and an advantage of animation is that alien spaceship designs and planets are not restricted by live-action budgetary constraints. Here, the alien ship is organic in design, consisting of individual cells or pods that have been "burst open," (again, think Alien...). The scale of this alien ship is something that couldn't be accomplished back in the day of the original Trek; and the landing party's tour of the derelict reminded me a little of the Krell tour in Forbidden Planet.

"Beyond the Farthest Star" isn't a favorite fan installment of the animated series, but it gets the job done, and is overall very impressive. Watching this episode now, it's clear that future Star Treks would have benefited from incorporating more, not less, of this series.

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