Recalling "Star Trek: The Animated Series" with Lou Scheimer, Hal Sutherland, and "Original Series" Writer DC Fontana

Herbie J Pilato

September 15, 1973, 9:30 AM, Saturday morning: Star Trek returns, albeit within an alternative universe. An animated universe. A real animated universe.

Before The Motion Picture initiated a theatrical film series; before The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise, Discovery, Picard, Strange New World, and the animated Lower Decks embarked on the small screen, Trek fans were treated to a previous kaleidoscopic version of Gene Roddenberry's initial celestial hike-oriented series.

Save for Walter Koenig as Mr. Chekov, all of The Original Series performers supplied their voices for The Animated Show. Back on the beaming Enterprise was Classic Trek's titled triad consisting of William Shatner's sturdy Captain Kirk, DeForest Kelley's fervent Dr. McCoy, and Leonard Nimoy's discerning Mr. Spock.

Also on board: George Takei (as Mr. Sulu, the trusted helmsman), Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura, the elegant communications officer), Majel Barrett (the Spock-adoring Nurse Chapel), and James Doohan ( as the miracle-working Chief Engineer Montgomery Scotty Scott).

Roddenberry drafted the successful Filmation animation company (Fat Albert, He-Man), helmed by producers Lou Scheimer and Norm Prescott, and associate producer/director Hal Sutherland, who worked for Walt Disney films like Lady and the Tramp (1955) and Sleeping Beauty (1959). Long-time Trek veteran DC (Dorothy) Fontana was then slated as story editor/associate producer, Ervin Kaplan was pegged as background director, and art director Don Christianson was enlisted, as were approximately 74 artists and animators.

Two early notions for The Animated Show were proposed. One had the Enterprise crew take part in episodes from their pre-teen youth. The other partnered the adult crew with adolescent compeers. Both of these concepts were quickly vetoed at the speed of light when it was determined to furnish the well-known band of Classic Trek regulars as they were originally drawn out.

Gene Roddenberry, also known in Trekdom as The Great Bird of the Galaxy, did not receive an immense amount of currency for producing the picturesque rendition of his galactic TV kingdom. He appropriated only a $2500 consultant's salary for each segment, yet treated the project as absolutely, one-hundred-percent Star Trek. The resplendent Enterprise consequently exploded in Trek lore and continues to ignite traditional Trekkers and novice Trekkies alike.

The Animated Show's first season story editor and associate producer, DC Fontana (who had been story editor and writer on The Original Series) offered two central reasons for the drawn-out Star's premiere glow:

"First of all, Filmation was extremely interested in doing Star Trek as an animated series. But they wanted to do Star Trek. That's the only reason Gene Roddenberry agreed in any way, shape, or form was that it would be Star Trek. It might be animation. It might be only half an hour. It might be on Saturday morning, but it's going to be Star Trek.

"Secondly, when they went to NBC, the network was very open to the concept. They had Saturday morning shows, but nothing like this. Possibly by that time [1972], NBC had remembered the demographics for the original Star Trek, which were exactly what they wanted them to be. Unfortunately, by the time they realized that fact, they had canceled the show. Star Trek had been off the network for three years."

Soon after, Paramount, Filmation, and Gene Roddenberry combined their efforts, and an NBC Star began to form once more; a concept that would not display condescending tones. "We weren't going to talk down to the audience," sustained DC Fontana.

Trek toon director Hal Sutherland (who guided each of its 22 episodes) remembers Roddenberry's negotiations with the network, in particular, which possibly bridged the show's successful foundation. "One of the stipulations that Gene rallied for," Sutherland said, "was that NBC was to have no creative input whatsoever."

The hue-filled Star installment received a variety of colorful reviews which were always "in the pink."

Cecil Smith, writing in The Los Angeles Times on September 10, 1973, thought the animated endeavors of the Enterprise were out of place on Saturday morning and likened it to "a Mercedes in a soapbox derby." Smith suggested that NBC move the show to prime time and commented that the network "never understood the appeal of the live program," and probably would choose not to reschedule. He described the animation as above the usual quality found on TV with "magnificent effects which could never be achieved on a sound stage."

One critic writing in The Chicago Tribune suggested that "fans of Star Trek be referenced correctly as fanatics," and mentioned they were in "full cry nationally, complaining that the animated Star Trek was being called a kiddie cartoon."

Tom Zito, of The Washington Post, had reviewed a number of Saturday morning children's programs, and found the animated Trek to be, as Spock might say, "fascinating." Yet Zito also questioned whether or not the potential youthful viewership is able to comprehend the program's themes.

In the end, they did, and The Animated Show went on to distinguish itself from other illustrated fare of the time. As Roddenberry told an interviewer for Show magazine in the early 1970s:

"I just didn't want space cadets running all over the Enterprise saying things like, 'Golly gee whiz, Captain Kirk -- you know, like Archie and Jughead going to the moon."

It was this concern for the show's maturity level (and NBC's previous shabby treatment with The Original Series) that motivated Roddenberry to seek creative control. "There are enough limitations just being on Saturday morning," he said. "We have to eliminate some of the violence we might have had on the evening shows. There will probably be no sex element to talk of either, but it will be Star Trek and not a stereotypical kids cartoon show."

"We can have a spaceship 40 miles long if we want," he told The Los Angeles Times shortly before the Animated debut. "We can use grotesque characters, like [Mr. Arex]. It costs no more to blow up a planet than to have a couple of guys talking..."

Filmation's Norm Prescott then countered with the drawbacks:

"A drawing can't do what an actor can. We can't read the thoughts of a character in his eyes, in the tightening of a jaw, in a wary glance. We can't have lengthy dialogue scenes."

Still, other children's fare of the day could not compare with Trek's animated universe. With the exception of Sid and Marty Kroft's Sigmund and the Sea Monster, most of the children's programming was animated when the tooned Trek debuted. Everything-else-kiddie extended from past and then-present live-action prime-time series like Emergency, My Favorite Martian, Jeannie (loosely based on I Dream Of Jeannie), and The Addams Family.

The color-imaged Trek outdistanced them all, from superior writing to top-notch almost-on-screen talent. In addition to the regular crew, new characters were created, including Mr. Arex (who replaced Mr. Chekov), a three-armed, three-legged native of the planet Edoa, and Lieutenant M'Ress, who was humanoid, though very much a feline personality from the planet Cait. The voice of Arex was supplied by James Doohan, and the vocal cords of M'Ress came from Majel Barrett, who would later donate audio time as the Computer for The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager.

The lucid Enterprise encountered a variety of beings, such as Cyrano Jones (from "More Troubles, More Tribbles"), the Orions (a hostile alien race introduced with "The Pirates of Orion"), and Kulkulkan (a god who came alive in "How Sharper Than A Serpent's Tooth".

The engagement of an illustrated Star not only permitted the inclusion of splendid alien character and vessel visuals, but the exclusion of the inedible, insulting monstrous plots ordinarily associated with youth-oriented programs of the era.

"Doing the show was a very enjoyable experience," said Filmation founder, Lou Scheimer. "We had a wonderful working relationship with Gene, and we were very proud of the series. It was the first sci-fi show that we transformed into animation. Superman doesn't count, because we adapted it from a live-action TV show, that was adapted from an earlier film series, which was adapted from the comics.

"We had a history of adapting programs from other media, and I always wanted to do Star Trek. When we finally did it, I was thrilled. You could watch the episodes and relate them to real life, which I thought was important, especially since a major part of the audience consisted of youngsters. It was closest to what children's television could be," Scheimer said, "if Star Trek had truly been a children's show."

"We won the Emmy for children's programming," explains, "which seemed absurd to me at the time. The Star Trek we did wasn't a kid's show by definition, it was adult programming. That Emmy was the only one we ever received, and it seemed wrong. That doesn't mean it didn't deserve the Emmy, because it did. It's just that Star Trek was the most mature show that we ever did, and that includes Fat Albert, which was specifically geared towards youngsters."

There was never really any concession given to the age of The Animated Show's available audience on Saturday morning. The stories were literally an extension of The Original Series, only with more latitude.

"We were allowed a broader scope to do more interesting visuals," Scheimer said. "We didn't have the same restrictions that came with producing the live-action show. It didn't make any difference to us which planet we were on," Scheimer deduces, "it was all just paint. Yet each one of the stories had a message, which was Gene's goal from the beginning."

For example, in Larry Brody's "The Magicks of Megus Tu," Queen Trekker Bijo Trimble said Roddenberry sought to explore the search, not for Spock, but for God.

Trimble (who initiated the famous letter campaign that kept Trek on track for its third year on NBC), recounts that an initial Magicks moment referenced a "blinding flash of light." "And that," states the Mother of All Star Trek Fans was considered "unacceptable" by network broadcast standards.

A "Megus" memo circulated, and read, in part: "Blinding flashes of light are reserved to God."

No one character actually said, "Holy cow! The ship exploded into a blinding flash of light," Trimble clarifies. "The writer merely indicated to the artist what kind of explosion he had envisioned."

No matter.

The network censors were not happy, and the blinding reference had to be dimmed. The idea of "finding God," Trimble revealed, was changed to "finding magic." But by the time Star Trek V: The Final Frontier became accessible to Trekkers, she concluded, "going to the center of the Universe to meet God was considered acceptable."

Not surprisingly, Gene Roddenberry's relationship with Filmation had been infinitely more productive than his association with NBC.

The animation studio had established a unique arrangement with Roddenberry, initiated a special production unit, and closely worked with the Star creator who, as Hal Sutherland upholds, was eminently satisfied with the direction in which the animated Enterprise was soaring.

Roddenberry, however, was also extremely concerned that the colored Star not be a travesty, and that it duplicated The Original Series as much as possible.

"We were limited, of course, to our budget [$75,000 per episode], compared to that of the original show," Sutherland explained, "but at the same time, there were things we did with animation, that the original series could never have accomplished with the limited technology available at the time."

The director said Roddenberry went over each script with continuous revisions. "It was very frightening at first," he confesses. "We had sixteen weeks to produce a script after it was commissioned, which was okay until we started getting new scripts every week. Gene was a perfectionist, but we had to meet that deadline."

Sutherland eventually sat down with the Kirk-architect, had a cup of coffee, and urged, "If we don't finish up pretty soon, we won't be able to make the first airdate." "Okay," Roddenberry replied, "You just tell me when I'm out of time."

"And that was that," Sutherland declared. "We met the deadline."

Nevertheless, the director remembers "a lot of flurry going on" in the attempt to reproduce the designs and schematics of the live-action Enterprise, bridge, and characters. So much so, that Filmation had to develop a peerless stock system that would adhere to the character quality of The Original Series.

"There were not a lot of animated artists in Hollywood who were used to portraying human figures," Sutherland explained. "They felt better suited with the more stylized Disney or Hanna Barbara approach, which was common at the time. People with good knowledge of the actual human anatomy were scarce in the animation field. We had to configure a huge catalog of different angles for each character. Once we did that, we went ahead and hired the best artists we could find."

If the show is watched closely, the same heads and faces may be seen from various angles, and are repeated from episode to episode. "It was never done in an obtrusive way," Sutherland explains, "because we tried to keep the cutting pace going. But sometimes we'd have Kirk with the same profile, doing different walks in different shots. A lot of those shots were modeled after some live-action scenes of the original series and then converted to animation. All of it was tightly planned on storyboards, which I pre-sketched myself, and then handed over to other artists for clean-up."

Hal Sutherland could not recall an episode of The Animated Series that he "didn't like." Yet he claimed he performed an inadequate first-season job with the show's nationwide premiere episode, entitled, Yesteryear; a time-excursion tale dealing with the death of a pre-teen Spock's pet.

"I couldn't do anything with the camera or the action on that one," he determined. "The pacing of it was quite different, and I was very surprised. I couldn't reach a stride of some excitement. It was a very emotional story, not an action story. And that was just my impression at the time. You would get all caught up in the momentum of what was happening on the show."

"Because we were trying to reproduce the feel of the live show," he went on to say, "we were very conscious of what we could do with the special effects. We wanted to see something startling and different on the screen. And I felt that some of the younger viewers would have difficulty understanding the story. It may have seemed somewhat tedious, and less action-packed. But so much for what I know, because it's become one of the most popular of the animated episodes."

Not only that, Yesteryear went on to obtain a Filmcon Award for its writer, DC Fontana, who said the segment evolved from an idea beyond the central Trek philosophy. "I thought that we had to present some form of Saturday morning sensitivity," DC deciphered. "We had to be aware of children in the audience. What I really wanted to do was a story about how things die. Animals die. Pets die. If you're lucky, parents and grandparents die only when you're ready to deal with it.

"I wanted to address that same issue, get a message to the kids, and somehow involve a pet. Because, sometimes, pets are kept alive more for the owner than for the animal. That's kind of a heavy message to be laying on kids. But I thought we displayed it in an intelligent and sympathetic way."

NBC, on the other hand, was somewhat tense about the story when it was first proposed. And it was Roddenberry who ran to Fontana's defense.

"Don't worry about it," The Great Bird told The Bird Web. "Dorothy will handle it. Trust her." "He backed me up all the way," Fontana recalled, "and to the best of my knowledge, there was never any complaint about the fact that a pet was euthanized on Saturday morning television."

Such a development was "quite effective," added Lou Scheimer. "Not only did it deal with something that was hardly ever dealt with before on Saturday morning, but it was also very moving and touching, and much more than just another science fiction story. It was a very human story. We used alien people and animals to tell a very human story, which is what Star Trek is all about, and why the animated version succeeded."

[Note: This feature article is an edited version of what was first published in Sci-Fi Entertainment Magazine in 1998). Unless otherwise noted, all quoted commentary is from original interviews conducted by the author]

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Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including THE 12 BEST SECRETS OF CHRISTMAS: A TREASURE HOUSE OF DECEMBER MEMORIES REVEALED, MARY: THE MARY TYLER MOORE STORY, TWITCH UPON A STAR, GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR, and NBC & ME: MY LIFE AS A PAGE IN A BOOK, among others. He's also a TV writer/producer, and has worked for Reelz, Bravo, E!, TLC, and hosted THEN AGAIN WITH HERBIE J PILATO, the hit classic TV talk show (which premiered on Amazon Prime in 2019).

Los Angeles, CA

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