Saturday, June 15, 2024

The Survivor by: James Schmerer and directed by: Hal Sutherland

 


“The Survivor” is written by: James Schmerer and is directed by: Hal Sutherland.  It was produced under production code 22005, was the 6th episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series, and was broadcast on October 13, 1973.

 

James Schmerer was a writer who worked on several high profile shows of the 1970s and 1980s, and when watching “The Survivor”, his only contribution to Star Trek as a franchise, there is a sense of this script being commissioned because of the 1973 Writer’s Guild of America Strike.  The strike meant that writers could not write for live action series, but animation was exempt from the strike and this greatly increased the pool of writers submitting to Star Trek: The Animated Series for its 22 episode run.  You can tell Schmerer isn’t really equipped to handle a 22 minute piece of animation, this is an episode that opens with several minutes of exposition about Carter Winston, a philanthropist who used his fortune to guide people through misfortune when the Federation was unable to.  He has been missing for five years and his fiancĂ©, Ann Nored, happens to be serving on the Enterprise and they can easily reignite their relationship.  Except they don’t, because this is Star Trek, something is wrong: the Enterprise is on the edge of the Romulan Neutral Zone and Captain Kirk orders a change of course into the Neutral Zone.  Carter is actually a shape-shifting alien called a Vendorian, Romulans show up threatening the Enterprise and Ann is able to convince the alien which has taken on some of Winston’s personality, saves the day.  “The Survivor” has the big problem of largely becoming a runaround on the Enterprise with very little of actual substance there.

 

Schmerer’s script tries to build this episode around the idea of this romance: there is a moment where Nored cannot bring herself to shoot the love of her life, even if she knows that it’s a shapeshifting alien.  Nichelle Nichols voices Ann Nored, and the voice she puts on for the role is particularly high pitch which while not grating comes very close to it.  Nichols is also trying to give something with the performance, but the material isn’t actually there.  The only amusement really comes when the shapeshifting nature of the Vendorian actually comes into play, turning into inanimate objects that would have been more effective in a live action setting and not the animation where backgrounds can be already inconsistent.  It doesn’t help that Schmerer’s characterization of the main crew, especially in tackling the Spock/Bones dynamic which is more antagonistic than ever.  The quips are particularly harsh and it really doesn’t feel like they work even as coworkers.  The exposition of the episode at the top also feels incredibly forced to fit into the format instead of letting it come out naturally.

 

Overall, “The Survivor” suffers from being an almost entirely uninteresting script from a one-off writer that has very little of substance.  The substance that is there is nothing that hasn’t already been done before on Star Trek and better elsewhere, coupled with uninteresting characterization makes for the first bad episode for Star Trek: The Animated Series. 4/10.

Saturday, June 8, 2024

More Tribbles, More Troubles by: David Gerrold and directed by: Hal Sutherland

 


“More Tribbles, More Troubles” is written by: David Gerrold and is directed by: Hal Sutherland.  It was produced under production code 22001, was the 5th episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series, and was broadcast on October 6, 1973.

 

“The Trouble with Tribbles” was one of the best episodes of the original series of Star Trek, so it isn’t surprising that David Gerrold revisited the idea for Star Trek: The Animated Series.  “More Tribbles, More Troubles” despite being aired fifth, was actually the first animated episode to enter production, something that makes sense when you think about it.  It’s a follow-up to a popular, light-hearted episode that could easily ease the cast into the work of voicing animated counterparts to their live action characters.  “More Tribbles, More Troubles” is Gerrold attempting a sequel to a story and it feels as if much of this one was mandated to have specific callbacks to the original episode: the ending included Kirk and a Klingon both in separate piles of Tribbles, the multiplication problem makes it slightly easier to animate how many of the Tribbles there are, and the tension between the crew of the Enterprise and the Klingons. This leads to an episode that could never really capture the same imagination or ingenuity of the original episode, as is often the problems with sequels.  Gerrold makes this a direct sequel, it’s got a similar setting and the Enterprise is also delivering grain to the same system as in the original episode, but at least now the Enterprise and the Klingons know that Cyrano Jones is a conman, Stanley Adams returning to the episode in the role which is a very nice slice of camp for the performance.  Gerrold is able to elevate the script by having Jones genetically modify the Tribbles so they won’t multiply and has apparently developed a Tribbles eater, a glommer.  Gerrold's script is honestly the best thing about the episode, despite being derivative it's perhaps the most engaging episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series outside of "Yesteryear".

 

This is clearly an episode where the Tribbles are going to be a problem, instead of multiplying they eat the grain and begin to get bigger.  No doubt this was done to save on animation as it is easier to animate a growing Tribble over the multiplying variety.  The animation in this episode, while still of the same quality of the other episodes I have discussed thus far, is actually quite suited for the outright comedic style of the script.  There’s this genuinely funny visual gag where Kirk cannot sit in the captain’s chair because a giant Tribble is there.  It also helps that like “The Trouble with Tribbles”, “More Tribbles, More Troubles” has a strong conflict with the Klingons, even if that conflict is only one Klingon character because of budget and cast constraints (he is played by James Doohan.  The big twist is that the glommer wasn’t developed by Cyrano Jones,  but the Klingons and Kirk’s decision to give it back is one motivated by its uselessness against the larger Tribbles.  Shatner is clearly having fun running circles around the Klingon, even if it’s also clear this was an early episode that was recorded.  In fact the rest of the cast while helping still has that sense of getting used to voiceover with even Leonard Nimoy being a little off.  Somehow it is actually DeForest Kelley as Bones who while is still in a supporting role seems to be understanding the type of comedy episode he is in.

 

Overall, what saves and ultimately elevates “More Tribbles, More Troubles” is not originality, but the sheer quality of David Gerrold’s script as a writer.  It does the basic need of moving a sequel episode forward while slightly over relying on the aspects that worked the best in the original episode.  It’s when the visual callbacks happen that the episode doesn’t work as well as it could have, because even with that Gerrold is a writer who just captivates the audience throughout the 25 minutes that I once again would have loved to see this as a live action episode.  8/10.

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

The Medusa Effect by: Justin Richards

 

Is there a name for the trope where characters become possessed by people from the past and are forced to reenact the circumstances of their death?  Buffy the Vampire Slayer employed this one in “I Only Have Eyes for You” in its second season and I’m fairly certain Supernatural probably did it at some point.  Yet before Buffy the Vampire Slayer attempted it Justin Richards wrote The Medusa Effect, one of the New Adventures novels featuring Bernice Summerfield, predating “I Only Have Eyes for You” by nearly a month complete with its own science fiction trappings.  Now, I don’t believe Richards is originating the trope, nor was Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Stephen King’s The Shining, both the book and Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation, could be considered an adaptation of the trope to a degree and demonic possession stories dot human history in general, though William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist features the idea specifically.  The variation on the trope on effect here in The Medusa Effect, is a melancholic affair when all is said and done.  It concerns the reappearance of the experimental ship Medusa, a ship missing for twenty years after its maiden voyage, appearing back on Dellah empty as St. Oscar’s Advanced Research Department puts together a team to investigate the ship and discover what exactly happened twenty years ago.

 

The Medusa Effect is a novel where Richards is intentional in writing a novel where Benny is meant to feel out of place.  Much of the preamble of the novel to the point where the Medusa reappears is from Benny’s perspective and is used to really bring out how the Advanced Research Department is an organization that would clearly be under the thumb of Irving Braxiatel, except it isn’t.  Braxiatel is in the novel, Richards being the character’s creator means that he is characterized at his best, especially in the final pages of the novel where he and Benny have this utterly devastating conversation.  Brax is a character who clearly has his own agenda, but his care for Benny is genuine, in its own way and he doesn’t actually seem to like the ordeal she has gone through.  Benny herself is intentionally portrayed as the odd woman out on the expedition, is the one added last to the crew and the one outside of the ARD which is several red flags all at once.  There’s already a sense of things going wrong because of Benny’s position in the novel as on the back foot.  Richards doesn’t actually waste time by paralleling the two crews before the possessions start.  The possession trope is one of those things that really finds their way into the novel quite slowly.  Benny being a suitable replacement is one aspect of the novel that doesn’t work. Richards makes Benny being a match for original crewmate too close that the suspension of disability is just off.  The other characters work because they were hand selected and it’s implied moulded at points into their roles, but Benny as an outsider really needed Richards to show how different she actually was.

 

Despite the possession narrative driving the plot down the route of a murder mystery with Benny as detective, Richards also has the novel end with a stand-off with a villain.  The shift towards the more science fiction, genetic engineering elements of the novel that leads to Benny dancing with a skeleton as depicted on the cover.  The identity of the villain is fairly obvious, again Richards as a novelist has never been one for his great twists, but the motivation for the villain is a bit underwritten.  The villain is one motivated by a lost love and a knowledge of genetic engineering essentially trying to create artificial lifeforms out of the identities of those on the Medusa.  There is one particularly effective twist as to why there is an extra member of the new expedition in regards to the original crew of the Medusa, though again in hindsight it’s a fairly obvious twist that keeps in line with a lot of the book.

 

Overall, The Medusa Effect is a surprisingly effective novel.  Justin Richards actually manages to make a memorable read out of a science fiction murder mystery where the twists have a tendency towards the obvious.  What really works is the characterization that allows the main trope that’s the conceit of the novel to really work, the first third is devoted to characterization and it’s clear that Richards not having to just write Doctor Who, but a spin-off leads to some very solid work in this second Benny novel.  8/10.

Sunday, June 2, 2024

The Lorelei Signal by: Margaret Armen and directed by: Hal Sutherland

 


“The Lorelei Signal” is written by: Margaret Armen and is directed by: Hal Sutherland.  It was produced under production code 22006, was the 4th episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series, and was broadcast on September 29, 1973.

 

When I saw Margaret Armen was responsible for this episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series, I was apprehensive to say the least.  Armen wrote multiple episodes of Star Trek before this of varying quality from the genuinely great “The Cloud Minders”, to the rocky but with potential “The Paradise Syndrome”, to the downright awful “The Gamesters of Triskelion”.  “The Lorelei Signal” is an episode that draws on Greek mythology for its plot, mainly The Odyssey and several of its escapades on temptation.  The temptation draws on the interpretation of the Sirens of mythology being beautiful women and only tempting towards men which is what you’d expect from an episode written in 1973.  The Enterprise investigates a signal that puts the male members of the ship under its sway, being sent out by a race of women who then force them to undergo transformations into older men.  The male landing party begins to age a decade in a day and it’s up to Uhura and Nurse Chapel to save everyone.  This involves Uhura taking command of the Enterprise which is the highlight of the episode, becoming clear that Nichelle Nichols is clearly having a ball in her voice role here.  This is also an episode where Nichols is joining James Doohan and Majel Barrett in the additional voices department, Barrett needing backup on the female aliens in particular.  While Nichols is great as Uhura and her character actually gets agency and a plotline, Armen’s script is particularly held back by the fact that the episode does keep cutting back to the planet where the male characters are captured.  This is largely for exposition to explain how they’re aging and how Spock is aging slower because of his heritage as a Vulcan.  Now, this doesn’t help that the Enterprise crew aging was already done in “The Deadly Years” which already was a fairly weak episode.

 

The episode has also aged poorly in terms of its plot, mainly because it essentially treats the sexes as two separate species and not two genetic expressions of the same species.  The inhabitants once were mixed in terms of sex, but the men died off while the women were able to evolve a secretion that allow them to overcome the aging effects of the planet.  The trouble here is honestly that Armen doesn’t really seem to have much focus in terms of what she is trying to say with the episode, is it about men and women learning to live in harmony or is she just using an all-female planet because it has the potential to be an interesting setting that then has little to do.  It could also be that Armen is not comfortable writing in the 25 minute format of Star Trek: The Animated Series, this is an episode after all that doesn’t quite reach the length.  There is a full minute where James Doohan as Scotty sings a song and our male characters are sitting in an urn in a rainstorm to drown because they’ve been lured to their deaths.  This is an episode where things happen and have very little in way of explanation, largely using the imagery of mythology because it seems like a cool idea.  It’s really only in the final minutes of the episode where Armen seems to go onto a point of being about living life to the fullest which feels tacked on.

 

Overall, despite everything “The Lorelei Signal” does have a lot to like, especially with Nichelle Nichols actually getting things to do in an episode and seeing a woman of color take command, albeit briefly, is a great statement that feels more progressive than many original series Star Trek episodes.  The trouble comes with the fact that it retreads some ground of previous Star Trek episodes without really setting things apart from those episodes, even if the shorter runtime means the aging works slightly better.  5/10.

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Trading Futures by: Lance Parkin

 

When most people draw parallels between Doctor Who and the James Bond franchise it is the Jon Pertwee era’s first three years or so, being mostly Earthbound with a sense of working with the government.  Beginning around 2013, the serial The Enemy of the World was also included in this discussion due to its world spanning scale and focus on espionage and action.  It’s specifically a tone and stylistic flair similar to the James Bond films over the books by Ian Fleming and their drier, more methodical style.  While the BBC Books have often taken direct inspiration from past eras of Doctor Who in terms of the stories that they commission to tell, it was actually quite a surprise to come upon Trading Futures, an Eighth Doctor Adventure that is directly Lance Parkin’s tribute to James Bond and what Doctor Who largely brought from it.  There are international organizations, several female characters with utterly ridiculous names, and a plot that at almost every turn provides a twist and turn.  Heck, the novel even opens with a cold open sequence that leads into what would be the gun barrel sequence of a Bond film.  Surprisingly, especially from what I usually expect from Parkin, Trading Futures is a light affair, dealing with a time travel service that is marketed primarily towards the general public, wrapped up in several prophecies of doom, and dealing with world governments that need to be saved.  Okay, that sounds like it could be a dark, political thriller, but Lance Parkin’s prose is incredibly light and there’s this general sense of urgency throughout that makes it an incredibly engaging read.  It’s probably helping that despite references to their previous adventures, the four remaining elementals, and Sabbath, Trading Futures is actually pretty friendly to the general reader.

 

Anji’s plotline is perhaps the one with the most emotional weight, deciding that she can use Baskerville’s services to go back in time and stopping Dave from dying way back in Escape Velocity.  There’s been a lot of focus recently on Anji’s grief, especially in Anachrophobia and Hope, but Trading Futures is one of those novels that actively feels as if it punishes Anji for it.  Baskerville, it is revealed, is a con artist at his heart, not actually having the ability to transport people back in time and the prophecies are all created by Baskerville and the fulfilment of the fourth is what the Doctor, Fitz, and Anji have to divert.  There ais also a fleet of Onihr surrounding the Earth that Fitz gets himself mixed up in.  Like Anji’s arc drawing on her grief from Dave, Fitz once again finds himself pretending to be the Doctor, something that even the prose at points acknowledges as a possibility by having several sequences with Fitz without referring to Fitz as Fitz, but just as the Doctor.  The Onihr are relegated to comic relief and feel like Russell T. Davies largely drew on them in designing the Judoon, at least visually.  The idea is that they wish to be the new Time Lords but are completely incompetent, making them largely easy (ish) work for Fitz to deal with.  The Doctor is essentially in the role of James Bond for the novel, and that’s generally one of the weaker aspects of the novel, mainly because the plot keeps putting him in Bond situations and Parkin can’t quite make the commentary on the differences of the Doctor and Bond as respective leading men.  There’s also some of the colonialism and imperialism baked into the Bond formula that Parkin doesn’t really reckon with, there is a character called Malady Chang that Anji impersonates which particularly rubs me the wrong way since Malady is East Asian while Anji is Pakistani.  The entire plot just conflates cultures and it almost seems like Parkin realizes it but doesn’t do anything about it.

 

Overall, Trading Futures is a great little Doctor Who novel that works so well because it’s sending up what is essentially the other British cultural touchstone in the 1960s and 1970s which was getting its own, far more successful reboot in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  It does have problems, mainly because author Lance Parkin isn’t really examining enough of the formula he is playing with along with the tropes, but it does make for such a good time.  8/10.

One of Our Planets Is Missing by: Marc Daniels and directed by: Hal Sutherland

 


“One of Our Planets Is Missing” is written by: Marc Daniels and is directed by: Hal Sutherland.  It was produced under production code 22007, was the 3rd episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series, and was broadcast on September 22, 1973.

 

Marc Daniels is the strongest director of the original run of Star Trek, his talent behind the camera showed an innate understanding of how the show operates and how to make it look good.  Daniels is a good director, but that wouldn’t necessarily work as a writer as the skill sets are different so it is odd that the third episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series is a script submitted by Daniels.  “One of Our Planets Is Missing” is an episode that feels very much like a truncated regular length episode that could have possibly been commissioned during the third season of the original series.  As an episode it is combined to the bridge of the Enterprise on a mission to the planet Mantilles when one of the planets is destroyed by a mysterious cloud.  The big twist of the episode is that the cloud is alive and it’s up to the Enterprise crew not to defeat it, but to make contact and stop it from destroying Mantilles.  As a premise this is classic Star Trek, I could very much see the cloud be created using clever optical filters over some planet models and the Enterprise model.  In the scope of Star Trek: The Animated Series “One of Our Planets Is Missing” also feels like it is being made as a budget saver in terms of animation.  Confining the action to the bridge leaves most of the characters at their stations, Scotty who is featured doesn’t really appear on the bridge at all and nobody really moves.  This just leaves the lip flaps to be animated which does mean that the dialogue in general of the episode drags in places, especially in the second act when the crew is attempting to ascertain the nature of the creature and get Mantilles evacuated.

 

What the episode lacks in animation, it almost makes up for in the actual backgrounds of the episode.  The interior of the cloud is described as reflecting the makeup of a small intestine, which visually is represented by these interesting protrusions, but the decision to make the cloud in shades of red and orange is the most effective decision.  It’s another example of Star Trek: The Animated Series’ art direction being perhaps its strongest suit, although that could change since I am only three episodes in.  Daniels’ encapsulation of Star Trek does also help by making the climax of the episode not see the cloud destroyed, but Spock performing a mind meld in recognizing its autonomy and convincing it to not continue eating the planets.  Now the voice of the cloud is Majel Barrett and her vocal performance is a bit stilted but Leonard Nimoy once again is the actor who understands how to give the best vocal performances.  It’s also nice to see everyone on the bridge actually get a moment to shine, particularly Nichelle Nichols and George Takei who despite being last minute additions to the cast (Leonard Nimoy threatening to walk if they weren’t included) are a delight to hear from and actually get their moments even if it’s just dialogue meant for exposition.

 

Overall, “One of Our Planets Is Missing” is a surprisingly solid piece of Star Trek despite its status as a budget saver is shown due to the limited locations and incredibly simple nature of the plot.  It’s kind of a shame that this wasn’t sold for the live action series because the 25-minute format does mean that the opening and closing of the episode moves far too quickly and could have been slowed down for a more effective experience.  It’s a great example, however, of Star Trek’s mission statement and sometimes that’s enough.  7/10.

Saturday, May 18, 2024

Yesteryear by: D.C. Fontana and directed by: Hal Sutherland

 


“Yesteryear” is written by: D.C. Fontana and is directed by: Hal Sutherland.  It was produced under production code 22003, was the 2nd episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series, and was broadcast on September 15, 1973.

 

You always know you’re in safe hands when you see D.C. Fontana’s name come up as a writing credit for an episode of Star Trek.  “Yesteryear” as the second episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series is a fascinating choice because despite everything this one is very probably going to rank among the very best of the series.  Fontana seems to understand the 25 minute format and what can actually be done with it, weaving a time travel story giving the viewer a glimpse of Spock’s timeline when a mission into the past of the history of Orion, left entirely off-screen, leads to Spock being dead in the present, killed at the age of seven during a Vulcan coming-of-age ritual.  Fontana is surprising in setting up the new timeline, understanding that having only 25-minutes means the story has to get to its actual point and setting, that being past Vulcan, quite quickly.  Now this is an episode where it is clear that there hasn’t been much thought on how time travel mechanics occur, adult Spock is still allowed in the present though with a new first officer for the Enterprise in his place and he and Kirk remembering the proper timeline due to their time travelling before the episode, and the rest of the plot actually has adult Spock helping his younger self through the ritual.  Yes, it’s a bit nonsensical, but Fontana actually manages to overcome those issues in the script with some genuinely amazing character drama.

 

Leonard Nimoy is the one stealing the show throughout the entire episode.  While the first episode of the series had some stilted performances, Nimoy actually blends quite well into this one with the emotion of the character.  Fontana gives Nimoy as Spock plenty to do, Nimoy really bringing out the idea of looking back on his childhood with fondness, young Spock, voiced by Billy Simpson, a child actor related to the production staff, needing the guidance to grow up confident in his identity as mixed.  Fontana doesn’t use terminology like mixed but it is there, before putting in a twist for the episode.  By the time young Spock is saved there is also one final lesson for the young Vulcan, he has to learn to let go and say goodbye to the pet sehlat who steps in to save young Spock at the climax.  This decision reflects the Vulcan ideology and proves his place in society, though this is also an episode that in the brief scenes with Spock’s parents, Sarek being played again by Mark Lenard while Amanda is voiced by Majel Barrett doing her best with a part that doesn’t quite fit her voice.  These are all fascinating aspects packing the episode full of these wonderful ideas, young Spock’s motivation to actually put himself in danger in particular is an interesting episode.

 

Overall, “Yesteryear” is an episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series that almost entirely overcomes the issues I had with the pilot.  The expanded voice cast is particularly nice, even with Barrett and James Doohan still providing many of the minor characters’ voices, but having Mark Lenard makes Vulcan feel real all while Leonard Nimoy proves that he understands how to voice act which takes a completely different set of skills.  Yes, the time travel mechanics make no sense, but this is an episode that feels far more mature for a children’s Saturday morning cartoon which is what The Animated Series is, it’s just a fantastic time.  9/10.