Sunday, December 8, 2013

“ eternity is to time”: Beyond the Farthest Star

"Whoa, guys. Just...Just seriously. Don't drop acid before studying termite mounds."

"Enterprise log, Captain James Kirk commanding. We are leaving that vast cloud of stars and planets which we call our galaxy. Behind us, Earth, Mars, Venus, even our Sun, are specks of dust. The question: What is out there in the black void beyond? Until now our mission has been that of space law regulation, contact with Earth colonies and investigation of alien life. But now, a new task: A probe out into where no man has gone before."

The canonicity, and thus ultimate legacy, of Star Trek: The Animated Series has been a point of contention amongst fans and creative personnel since just about the day it premiered. While I've outlined my thoughts on Star Trek “canon” previously (in brief, I think it's largely hogwash) it's important to consider the general reception works like this attain, as doing so allows us to understand the ebb and flow of the overall work that is Star Trek over time.

If anything has the right to be called Star Trek though, it's surely Star Trek: The Animated Series, isn't it? It served as a reunion for almost the entire creative team from the Original Series, with the exception of Gene Roddenberry, Gene Coon, Walter Koenig, John Meredyth Lucas and the Season Three team (The show couldn't afford Koenig, Coon was, erm, dead, Roddenberry wasn't interested, Lucas was busy on Insight and I really can't say I miss Arthur Singer) and D.C Fontana herself personally spearheaded the project. Fontana stands behind the show to this day, firmly stating that her and her team always tried to make the best possible Star Trek they could under the circumstances, which I think is actually truer here than it was throughout the majority of the Original Series. In fact, Fontana considers Star Trek: The Animated Series the official fourth year of the Enterprise's famous five-year mission, and I'm not really one to disagree with D.C. Fontana.

But in spite of her convictions, Fontana's claim has not only not gone unchallenged but it's been largely ignored. Despite the occasional in-joke or reference in future series and the more relaxed attitude of places like the Memory Alpha wiki, Trekkers seem to have a very hard time accepting Star Trek: The Animated Series into their hearts. In the years and decades since it was made, there have been countless attempts to tell the story of those infamous “last two” years of the five-year mission, completely disregarding the existence of the Animated Series. There have been number of tie-in novels and comic books, not to mention the video games Star Trek: 25th Anniversary, Star Trek: Judgment Rights and the as of this writing forthcoming fan production Star Trek Continues that all purport to tell the story The Animated Series has ostensibly already told.

This is highly unusual for Star Trek fans, who usually hang off of the words of creators as if they come down from On High. Dave Gerrold, who also worked on this show, reasons it has something to do with a character who we'll talk a bit more about once the 1980s roll around: The franchise's official “archivist” and “continuity advisor”, who apparently hated this show. Roddenberry himself seemed ambivalent about the project in general (not that it stopped him putting his name on the show and taking a paycheck from it, of course). But, as we've established previously, Roddenberry was never all that interested in “canon” either: That's something only the fans really care about. That Star Trek fans are far more willing to take Gene Roddenberry's waffling and the words of a promoted fanboy to heart over those of someone like D.C. Fontana...Well, I'll leave you to put the pieces together there. I'd rather talk about the episode at hand, “Beyond the Farthest Star”, which is, as it so happens, absolutely brilliant.

"Captain's log, Stardate 1312.4. The impossible has happened. From directly ahead, we're picking up a recorded distress signal, the call letters of a vessel which has been missing for over two centuries. Did another Earth ship probe out of the galaxy as we intend to do? What happened to it out there? Is this some warning they've left behind?"

“Beyond the Farthest Star” is the work of Samuel A. Peeples, whose previous Star Trek contribution was nothing less than “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, the second pilot for the Original Series. Not that this was any coincidence: Both Gene Roddenberry and D.C. Fontana thought it would be neat if Peeples wrote the first Animated Star Trek episode as he'd already done the first live-action one, and Peeples agreed. Perhaps understandably, “Beyond the Farthest Star” echoes and mirrors “Where No Man Has Gone Before” in its basic structure: The Enterprise crew is beginning a bold new mission of exploration beyond the Milky Way and encounters something unexpected and dangerous at the edge of the galaxy. This time, it's a deserted starship that's been in orbit around a dead sun for 300 million years. Beaming aboard, Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Scotty discover the starship's construction resembles Terran insect colonies, and its metal seems to have been spun like it was spider silk. The landing party soon discovers the ship was abandoned because it had been infected by a hostile non-corporal life form, which proceeds to jump the transporter beam and commandeer the Enterprise with the intention to drive it to the centre of the galaxy with an army of similarly infected starships.

But despite its superficial similarities to “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, “Beyond the Farthest Star” is unquestionably its own story and it's an unabashedly superior one on top of that. This is a stunning debut for our new kind of Star Trek. Just in terms of basic narrative form this is the best episode of Star Trek I've seen in an extremely long time, and it's a contender for the hands-down best story featuring the Original Series crew I've seen yet. I was truly impressed with how effortlessly the cast slipped back into their roles after four years: There's no discernible difference between the characters we see here and the ones from the Original Series. Actually, I take that back. There is: The characters we see in “Beyond the Farthest Stars” are far more developed, effective and memorable.

Predictably, a lot of this is thanks to the acting: The cast is energized here in a way we really haven't seen before, and it reiterates what a strong cast this actually was. Acting in live-action TV and doing vocieover work are two very different skill sets, and just being good at one doesn't mean you'll be good in the other. But everyone slips effortlessly into their roles here, even William Shatner, who is such a visual and expressive actor you'd think it might be tough for hm to adapt to animation (although upon reflection, he *is* best at spoken word poetry: Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised.). In fact, some of the cast even come across *stronger* here than they did in the Original Series: Both DeForest Kelley and Nichelle Nichols almost seem like they're playing entirely new versions of their characters, and for the better.

But the real standout is James Doohan, who is absolutely phenomenal. As Scotty, he comes across as more nuanced and defined than he ever has before, and his performance is wonderfully multi-layered and charming. But it's with Star Trek: The Animated Series where we really get to see what a range he had: As the show was so cash-starved it couldn't afford any other actors aside from the core seven except in very special circumstances, Doohan has to play just about every male guest and incidental character in the entire show, and he's terrific at it, making each and every one feel distinct, unique and memorable. His performance as the magnetic organism in this episode is at once commanding and threatening, but also touching: We feel terribly sorry for it once Kirk is forced to shove it out of the ship and maroon it again on the dead sun. Doohan makes the creature's loneliness and desperation palpable and heart-wrenching.

As good as the actors are though, the primary reason they seem so excited and enthusiastic here has got to be the material they have to work with. Once again proving how badly Star Trek needed D.C. Fontana, “Beyond the Farthest Star” just sings with her in the driver's seat. It's not an especially deep or overreaching story, it's ultimately a simple little space adventure plot, but it's so perfectly put together it positively transcends its genre. Given how weighed down “Where No Man Has Gone Before” was with ugly and unnecessary gender role problems, it's a revelation to see how deftly and flawlessly this one works. Though Nurse Chapel and Lieutenant M'Ress, The Animated Series' two other main female characters, don't appear in this episode, Uhura is marvelous. Nichelle Nichols is given more to work with in this one episode than I think she was in the entire three years of her tenure on the Original Series and she runs a marathon with it. Uhura is treated as every bit an equal as her colleagues and Kirk regularly turns to her expertise in communications technology and internal ship operations for advice. Given that and knowing how involved Roddenberry was in the first twelve episodes of the Original Series, not to mention how he's missing in action here...Well, I know correlation doesn't imply causation, but let's just say I'm unbelievably happy Fontana is now showrunner.

And it's not just Uhura: Every single character gets a moment to shine here: Just like the gang in Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, each officer has an important role to play in Kirk's crew: Spock makes observations and advises in matters concerning the physical sciences and Scotty uses his knowledge of metallurgy, space drive technology and engineering to help the crew figure out how the deserted starship works and how to get the magnetic organism to leave the Enterprise. Along with Uhura, Sulu is firmly established as the one who runs the ship when the landing party is away and McCoy is no longer the arbiter of Bristling Unchecked Passion, he's now the person who asks questions and makes common sense conjectures, which is very much appreciated.

I was more than impressed with the animation on “Beyond the Farthest Star”: Filmation has a not undeserved reputation for looking painfully cheap and phoned-in, and the 1970s were a notoriously poor decade for animation in general. And certainly, when turning this show on the first time, it's forgivable to be taken aback by the blatant overuse of limited animation. Limited animation is the name given to the technique of drawing a handful of cels and backgrounds and just reusing them over and over again: It's most famously associated with Hanna-Barbera shows (in particular the various Scooby-Doo incarnations), but Star Trek: The Animated Series simply pushes the boundary of what limited animation can do-I don't think I've ever seen so many reused action poses. It's very revealing to sit down with a Filmation show, as it drives home that no matter the reputation Hanna-Barbera has for cheapness, they always managed to avoid letting their shows drop below a certain baseline of visual quality.

But even so, “Beyond the Farthest Star” still manages to look breathtaking. It's visual style is nowhere near as creative, ambitious and evocative as Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, but even so this is hands-down the best looking Filmation show I've ever seen, and it may well be the best looking cartoon I've seen from the 1970s period. The insectoid ship where the Enterprise crew discover the magnetic organism is one of the most unique and stunningly gorgeous images in the history of Star Trek, and it was only possible because this was a cartoon. Even the Enterprise herself looks achingly gorgeous: I don't think this ship has ever looked as good as it does now in acrylic. After three years of cardboard, plywood and overly-shiny botched CGI attempts at “realism”, the lush and evocative hand-painted space-scapes of “Beyond the Farthest Star” and Star Trek: The Animated Series are like a breath of fresh air. Everything about this episode is demonstrative of a production team charged with creative energy and resolutely determined to make the best possible show they can in the environment they have to work with, and then some.

And this is perhaps why “Beyond the Farthest Star” can be read as not just an echo of “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, but a reiteration of it. This episode is about beginning Star Trek anew, and endeavouring to not repeat the same mistakes a second time. The biggest threat to the Enterprise here is firstly being dragged into the core of the dead sun because of its hypergravitational pull, and secondly, that the magnetic organism will assume the form of the Enterprise to raise an army of sentient starships to choke out the galaxy. And also recall the magnetic organism wishes to travel to the centre of the galaxy, to, in essence go backward, while the Enterprise crew wants to depart it, to move forward. The danger here is that Star Trek will be mired once again by its unworkably contradictory nature (the dead sun, a literal dead end) or succumb to its darker predilections and become a monster (or destroy itself, as the insectoid ship was forced to do): Spock says the magnetic organism has in essence “become” the Enterprise: This isn't a demonic possession like we've seen with entities like Redjack; this entity has actually manged to temporarily *supplant* and take the place of the Enterprise. So, the battle isn't just to regain control of the ship, it's to reclaim Star Trek's identity. But, through working together and respecting each other, the Enterprise crew manages to defeat the entity and avoid hampering Star Trek with another non-starter. And tellingly, once this is done, the Enterprise is free to continue its journey outside the galaxy towards further enlightenment.

Star Trek has finally returned. And, with “Beyond the Farthest Star”, it's finally proven to itself as much as to us that it's capable of journeying forever.

"Enterprise log, Captain James Kirk commanding. We are leaving that vast cloud of stars and planets which we call our galaxy. Behind us, Earth, Mars, Venus, even our Sun, are specks of dust. The question: What is out there in the black void beyond? Until now our mission has been that of space law regulation, contact with Earth colonies and investigation of alien life. But now, a new task: A probe out into where no man has gone before."


  1. I absolutely adore The Animated Series and I can't wait to see some exploration of it here. It's criminally underrated in Trek circles, and I've yet to come across anyone seriously discussing it other than to say it's fun or make fun of it.

    This episode is magnificent ... and presses all of my nostalgia buttons. I adore the look of this ... limited animation and all ... as you say, it's quite beautiful, and I think uniquely fits Trek in a surreal, comic book, Saturday morning kind-of-way. I wish they'd made a 1970s Doctor Who Pertwee/Baker cartoon in this style.

    Anyway, I think TAS is where Star Trek really takes off. The best is yet to come...

  2. I'll admit, I've watched TAS a couple times (I picked up the DVD set when it was released a few years ago) but never totally got into it. I remember being quite impressed with this episode - your enthusiastic review here seems to confirm my foggy memory of its quality - but only a few other episodes are really standing out in my mind right now.

    I look forward to seeing TAS get an in-depth treatment.

  3. Thank god TAS is on NetFlix. The only episode I've really seen in full was the big Spock/Vulcan/Guardian of Forever one, and I found it brief but memorable, with little superfluous fluff. I anticipate the rest of the episodes will also feature punchy stories and little wasted space.

    The voice cast impressed me big-time. It is jarring, the disconnectedness of those voices dubbing in a studio - that technical bit always makes it hard for me to get into TAS - but never the ease in which the actors maintained their characters.

  4. I recently watched this first episode for the first time since being a child and it stirred such feelings of nostalgia. Love that you are writing about it. Looking forwards to rediscovering TAS with you.

  5. Gotta say - LOVE the english transporter operator.