Sunday, September 15, 2013

Star Trek The Animated Series: Episode 2 "Yesteryear"

I've seen a couple of printed sources, including The Star Trek Compendium, that mistakenly list "Yesteryear" as the first episode of Star Trek The Animated Series to air.  (Judging from this passage in the Wikipedia entry for this episode, it would seem that the compilers of these sources may have been residents of Los Angeles in the fall of 1973.) A strong case  could certainly be made that it ought to have been.  It is, after all, not only far and away the best episode of the animated series, but one of the finest examples of Star Trek in any incarnation.  
It is no accident that "Yesteryear" was written by Dorothy (D.C.) Fontana, who was likewise responsible for what I personally consider to be the best episode of the original live action Trek, "Journey To Babel."  Like "Journey", "Yesteryear" focuses on Trek's most popular character, Mr. Spock.
In addition to bringing back most of the original Star Trek cast to reprise their roles, The Animated Series utilized, whenever possible, the original actors to play returning guest stars from the original series.  Thus, Mark Lenard makes his second appearance as Spock's father Sarek.  This is third overall Trek appearance, as he first appeared as the Romulan commander in the first season original series episode "Balance of Terror."  He would next be seen briefly as the Klingon captain in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and later would show up again as Sarek in three Star Trek movies and a couple of episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.   On the other hand, Jane Wyatt, who originated the role of Spock's mother in "Journey to Babel," is replaced by Majel Barrett, who regularly voiced nurse Christine Chapel.  She also provided the voice of an unnamed female crewperson in the early scenes of the episode.  Most of the other guest characters, except for the children, were done by James Doohan, in addition to his regular role as Scotty.
The story begins on the planet of the Guardian of Forever, the sentient time portal last seen in the first season live action episode "The City on the Edge of Forever."  Kirk, Spock  and an unnamed crewman return from a historical survey mission to find that no one seems to know the Vulcan and the Enterprise's first officer is an Andorian called Thelin.
Obviously, the timeline has been altered by Kirk and Spock's trip into the past, but in such a subtle way that the only thing that has changed is that Spock doesn't exist.  A search of recent historical records, reported by another unnamed crewman who bears a remarkable if entirely coincidental resemblance to current Secretary of State John Kerry, reveals that Spock died while undergoing a traditional Vulcan rite of passage known as the Kahs-Wan ritual, which involves the participant attempting to survive on his own in the desert area called Vulcan's Forge for ten days.  Spock remembers being saved by a mysterious visiting cousin when he was attacked by a wild animal during the Kahs-Wan ritual.  It becomes obvious to Kirk and Spock that this "cousin" was in fact Spock himself.
Now, while Kirk and Spock were in the past, other Enterprise crewmen were using the Guardian to review the events of the past thirty years on Vulcan.  Because Spock was somewhere else in the past, he wasn't there to go through the Guardian and save himself, resulting in his being killed as a child.   The solution is simple, of course.  Spock must go back through the Guardian to the 20th day of the month of Tasmeen thirty years past in order to set his timeline right.
Arriving at the appointed time and place, Spock meets his father, Sarek, and learns from his mother, Amanda, that her son is due to undergo the Kahs-Wan the next month.  Confused, Spock ponders what he could have done to alter the timeline further.
It turns out that the problem lies not in the timeline, but in Spock's memory.  He had forgotten that it was not the actual Kahs-Wan ritual during which he met himself.  The young Spock, under pressure from his father not to fail the test and worried that he may, sets out alone across the Vulcan desert to prove himself.  He is followed, despite his commands to the contrary, by I-Chaya, his pet Sehlat, a Vulcan animal described by Amanda in "Journey to Babel" as a giant teddy bear with six inch fangs.
Spock catches up with his younger self just as the child is being menaced by a Vulcan beastie call a la matya.  I-Chaya fights the monster off, but is scratched by the creatures poisonous claws.  As adult Spock comforts the wounded sehlat, the young Spock sets out across the desert back to the city of Shi'Kahr to bring a healer to save his pet.  However, he is too late, and allows the healer to put I-Chaya out of his misery.   After helping the boy deal with his grief over the loss of his pet, and teaching to do the Vulcan nerve pinch, adult Spock returns to his own time where the original timeline has been restored.
The question of whether the events of Star Trek The Animated Series can be considered "canon" has been the subject of ongoing debate among Trek fans and the show's producers ever since the series first aired, however some elements introduced in the animated version, including many from this episode, have found their way into live action TV episodes or movies, and thus into official Trek continuity.  This episode offered the first extensive look at the planet Vulcan, and the city of Shi'Kahr, the design of the sehlat, the Kahs-Wan ritual, and the desert area of Vulcan's Forge would all figure in future episodes of the final Star Trek TV series, Enterprise.   Furthermore, the scenes in this episode of young Spock being taunted by other Vulcan children most likely influenced similar scenes in J.J. Abrams' 2009 reboot of the franchise.
When I watched this episode a few years back after not having seen it for a couple of decades, I was astonished that this was a Saturday morning cartoon from the early 70's.   "Yesteryear" deals with themes of loss and acceptance in a manner that is surprisingly mature and sophisticated for a time and a medium that produced such "classics" as Super Friends, Inch High Private Eye, and Help! It's The Hair Bear Bunch.  In fact, on reflection, the episode seems to be ahead of its time for television in general of that era.   Unlike those and other Saturday morning fare of the era, it did not condescend to its young audience.  Of course, the producers were aware that some part of their audience was going to be adult fans of the original series.
Apparently, NBC executives did, in fact, have some qualms about the episode, worrying that it might be upsetting to young children.  According to the text commentary on the DVD, Gene Roddenberry's response to them was simply, "Trust Dorothy." 
Based on the evidence of this and other Trek episodes written by Ms. Fontana, including "Journey to Babel" and "Charlie X", that certainly seems like sound advice to me, and all Star Trek fans can be glad that the suits at NBC decided to heed it and allow this excellent episode to be seen.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, AGAIN with the canon question.

    I liked how David Gerrold explains it.., more or less saying, 'Gene put his name on as Executive Producer and drew a paycheck for it, so of COURSE it's canon...'

    Pretty hard to argue with that...

    I never disputed this was all canon, the only naysayer reportedly was one of Gene's assistants at that time. Of course Paramount took that advice and ignored it for decades until they finally got behind it and released a great boxset.

    I actually prefer most of these episodes to a lot of 3rd Year TOS episodes ~ I actually squeeze a few DVDs into my bag when I'm on the road as well.

    Excellent show, always great to hear the voices.