50 Years Ago—A Reflection On Star Trek: The Animated Series

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What were you doing in September 1973? Were you listening to Art Garfunkel’s first solo album? Watching Billie Jean King beat loud-mouth Bobby Riggs in straight sets? Or how about cheering as the Oakland Raiders’ Ken Stabler threw the winning touchdown pass to give the hated Miami Dolphins their first loss in 18 games?

Well, if you were me, you excitedly anticipated the realization of what you spent years waiting for: the first airing of a new Star Trek episode.

Of course, this would be an animated episode, but at least it would feature the voices of the original crew (except for Chekhov, that is).

Diligently watching the series also presented one of my first moral dilemmas. There was only one thing I liked better than Star Trek (and astronomy and the space program). It was football.

Yes, I paid attention to current events. Spiro Agnew would resign in October, and, a week later, the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre” launched the Watergate fiasco. Still, I spent my free time consuming all I could about Star Trek (and astronomy and the space program) and playing football.

The two would come to a head on Saturday, September 8, 1973. The first episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series (or “TAS” as it is referred to today) was to air at 10:30am. I had to go to Vince Lombardi football practice at the same time.

It was the last practice before Sunday’s game. If you didn’t attend, Coach Bill Breon said you couldn’t play in the game.

Coach Breon was old school. He was also coach of the Rochester Mustangs, a Semi-Pro Football team. He was tough. Coach Breon treated his “A” team youth just as rough as he treated his adult team. He once offered us a crisp one-dollar bill if, during a tackling drill, we hit the other guy so hard we would break our helmet.

Not the other guy’s helmet. Our helmet. Can you say “concussion”?

Only one kid broke his helmet. It was Coach Breon’s namesake son and our starting quarterback, Billy Breon. I was back-up quarterback. Coach Breon said I had “perfect” quarterback-sized hands. He always said I was the best natural quarterback on the team.

I never played a game at quarterback. In fact, I rarely played in any games. Me and the rest of the boys whose fathers were not coaches or in the “in” crowd. This upset my father more than me. He almost pulled me from the program. He didn’t because my brother Kenny was a starter for the “B” team. Even though it was a different coach, Coach Breon really ran the program. My father didn’t want to jeopardize Kenny’s football career.

It was a wise decision. Kenny would be a full-time starter through high school. I was designated as the opposing team quarterback during practice (i.e., cannon fodder for the first team defense) and a second-string linebacker.

But, despite my lower status, my love of the game kept me coming back for more.

Hence, the dilemma.

I had to go to football practice. I also wanted to watch TAS.

It turns out it was a moot point. Practice let out early, and we got home in time to watch “Beyond the Farthest Star,” the first episode of TAS. Samuel A. Peeples wrote the script. He also wrote the script for Star Trek: The Original Series (“TOS” for Trekkers) “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”

Incidentally, Coach Breon may have made the right move in calling practice early. All the teams of his Chili Lions—from A to C—defeated the Livonia Vikings the next day, with my own A Team winning by the score of 8-6 (of course, it was Billy Breon who scored the game’s only touchdown).

I watched the entire run of TAS as a budding teenager when they first aired. I enjoyed them like I enjoyed TOS—no more, no less. The joy of seeing the original cast reunited for the first time was enough to satiate my inner (and outer) Trekker.

Fast forward fifty years. TAS had long been considered the ugly stepchild of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, in part because he, himself, considered it so. He refused to allow it into the official Star Trek canon. I didn’t think twice about it, except maybe as a novelty.

Then I binge watched the entire four seasons of Star Trek: Lower Decks. Itself an animated series, it references many of the (now many) previous Star Trek series, including TAS. That sparked a certain curiosity within me. That curiosity urged me to rewatch the two seasons of TAS.

Funny thing, but two seasons of TAS equals only 22 episodes—sixteen in the first and only six in the second. Even though I watch them all in 1973 and 1974, I never kept count. I thought there were more.

Here’s something I rediscovered when rewatching them a half century later: they were good. Very good.

And that made sense. You see, there was a Hollywood strike going on at that time. The strike didn’t apply to animated shows, so TAS had access to the cream of the crop of writers, including a few who, like Peeples, wrote scripts for TOS.

Now, I’ve watched TOS episodes many more times than I’ve watched TAS episodes. Yet, seeing TAS for the first time in a long time, I realized how their morality lessons had stuck with me. These Saturday morning cartoons weren’t written for kids, they were written for older Star Trek fans (and the ratings confirmed this). As a much older version of myself today, when I saw these episodes, I said to myself, “Oh, that’s where I got that idea from.”

Understand this is going on as I watch each episode. “What will this show reveal to me about myself?”

Or about Star Trek.

This last thing didn’t hit me until the series ending episode, “The Counter-Clock Incident.” I don’t know if the writers and cast planned it, but it represents the perfect finale for both TOS and TAS. In it, the crew of the Enterprise and all those on board go through a time warp that reverses their aging. By the final act, they’re all babies.

Fortunately, Robert April (the first Captain of the Enterprise) and his wife Sarah (the first doctor on the Enterprise) were on board. They began the episode at age 75, Star Fleet’s mandatory retirement age. The two are reluctant to retire as they feel they can still offer something.

By the end of the show, they were in their 40s and the only adults on board. Given their knowledge of the ship, they were able to guide it back to safety and restore everyone to their proper age using the transporter.

When it comes to their turn to return to their proper age, Sarah says to Robert, “But what about us? We don’t have to use the transporter. We can remain young, live our lives over again. You could command a starship once more.”

Her husband looks kindly at her and says, “What a blessing to be able to live one’s life over again, if the life you’ve led has left you unfulfilled. No Sarah, I don’t want to live it all over again. I couldn’t improve one bit on what we’ve had together.”

In a way, Robert April’s same words could have been said of the actors, writers, and crew of the show.

It was a perfect way to close that first act of the Star Trek story arc.

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  1. […] when you revisit those lessons in their original form? Read this week’s Carosa Commentary “50 Years Ago—A Reflection On Star Trek: The Animated Series,” to see how, even a half-century later, those old lessons can still teach you something […]

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