Matthew Kresal gets animated...
The twenty-two animated episodes of Star Trek that aired on NBC across 1973-74 tend to be overlooked these days. It isn't hard to understand how that might be, given the bias against animation to simply “be for kids” that it is still struggling with even today. Yet Star Trek: The Animated Series featured not only the original series cast reprising their roles but also saw writers from the original series (as well as others such as Larry Niven) returning to pen new tales for the Enterprise crew. One of the most intriguing episodes to come out of this brief run was Yesteryear, a story that would have a lasting legacy across Star Trek as a whole.
Yesteryear opens with the familiar pair of Kirk and Spock returning through the Guardian Of Forever from observing the birth of the Orion civilization. They are met by a group of Starfleet historians and an Andorian in Starfleet uniform whom everyone present (including Dr. McCoy) swears is the first officer of the Enterprise instead of Spock. In this new timeline, Spock died at the age of seven during the Vulcan Kahs-wan ritual, whereas he had been saved originally by an adult relative. Realizing that the relative must have been himself, Spock travels through the gateway into Vulcan's past to try and save his younger self without contaminating the timeline any further.
Though never quite satisfactorily explained in the episode how the situation was created by Spock being in the past while the historians were using the gateway, Yesteryear nonetheless remains intriguing. Though Spock's past had been hinted at in the original series, most especially in episodes like Journey To Babel (written by this episode's writer Dorothy C. Fontana) and Amok Time, it was in the animated series that fans finally got to see Vulcan properly, nearly a decade before Star Trek III did it on the big screen. We see cities and beasts only hinted at in those episodes, including Spock's childhood pet that becomes a key plot point here. Not only that but fans got a look at life and culture on Vulcan in general but especially through the eyes of a youth who stands out from those his age because of his heritage. This is a prime example of what the animated Trek, not bound quite so much by budgets to create its visuals, could accomplish.
What's even more surprising, for an episode of a series that was seen as aimed for children, is how it dealt with Spock's youth. Spock is tormented by others his age over his heritage, which causes the young boy much anguish and which Leonard Nimoy's voice acting brings across quite well as he watches events he lived through. We see young Spock struggle not only with this mixed heritage but also with the results of his actions as he tries to live up to the expectations laid upon him by his father (voiced once again by Mark Lenard) including making a surprisingly mature decision late in the episode. For a early-mid 1970s Saturday morning cartoon its surprisingly good stuff.
That being said, the episode suffers from many of the same issues that the animated series on the whole dealt with. The animation is vaguely defined at times, showing the limitations of Filmmation's budgets, as things often fall into shadows or (as is the case during some of the scenes in the desert) playing them in silhouette. While the voice acting from original series cast members is good with Nimoy in particular being a standout, the younger members of the cast never come across as well with Billy Simpson never quite managing to sound convincingly like he isn't reading off a page in his portrayal of the young Spock, though his interactions with Nimoy do work for the most part. Despite these flaws, Yesteryear represents something of a high point for the animated series.
Though the animated series was overlooked in later years (especially after Gene Roddenberry declared it non-canon), this episode in particular would have a lasting impacting on the franchise. It's portrayal of Vulcan would be especially felt in spin-off shows including references to Spock's childhood made in The Next Generation episode Unification Part 1, as well in episodes of both Deep Space Nine and Voyager with the latter referencing Tuvok going through a identical ritual to the one seen in this episode, though under a different name. Yesteryear's influence can be most strongly felt in Star Trek: Enterprise episodes set on Vulcan including references to the city of ShiKahr in the episode Fusion, as well as helping form the backbone of much of the Vulcan locations featured within the three-part story in its fourth season. In an intriguing twist, when remastered versions of original series episodes were prepared ahead of its fortieth anniversary, a new effects shot featuring ShiKahr made its way into Amok Time which brought things full circle in a way.
Perhaps the influence can be felt most strongly in the rebooted Trek universe introduced in 2009. Especially in a scene early on in J.J. Abram's film of Spock as a youth being tormented. Though the setting is different and the taunts a bit more pointed (no pun intended), the scene bares a very striking resemblance to the one from this episode. It was perhaps just one way for those filmmakers to bring the best of the show's past back to the fore.
Of all the episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series, Yesteryear stands out as perhaps the best. It presents, in a mere 22 minutes, a time travel story that allows for the exploration of the early days of one of Trek's most iconic characters with a depth rarely expected from a series that was seen as predominately aimed at children. The fact that its influence can be felt in Trek right up to the present day is a testament to its success as well and how animated Trek should not be so easily dismissed.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.