Alternate History in Star Trek, Part 3: The Animated Series and TOS comics

By Tom Anderson

In this continuation of my ‘Alternate History (AH) in Star Trek’ article series, I’ll be looking at the first official continuation of the franchise after the original series (TOS) as well as some of the comics based on it. I have had to split this up, as there is plenty of material to discuss in the TOS novels as well – chronology can become confused, as some of these did not appear until years later.

First, let’s discuss the animated series (TAS) which aired from 1973 to 1974. The status and ‘canonicity’ of this has always been a slight object of contention among Star Trek fans (how uncharacteristic). Certainly, at the time it was pitched as a continuation, a ‘fourth season’ of TOS, by the main writers DC (Dorothy) Fontana and David Gerrold. Fontana and Gerrold had both played a big role in some of TOS’ more iconic episodes; for example, Fontana wrote “Tomorrow is Yesterday”, important for setting up time travel plots in Star Trek, while Gerrold was responsible for “The Trouble With Tribbles”. Both became important science fiction writers in their own right, and other big-name writers for TAS included Larry Niven. However, Niven’s episode, “The Slaver Weapon”, also illustrates some of the problems with TAS for Trek fans; he essentially copy-pasted his Kzinti race from his own “Known Space” books into Star Trek, and this tied fans and spinoff media creators in knots over trying to figure out how to reconcile this – especially as it also mentioned the multiple Man-Kzin Wars.

The animation of TAS was created by the studio Filmation, an appropriate choice given they had first risen to prominence by producing an animated sequel to the seminal 1939 live-action Wizard of Oz film. Filmation were known for favouring quantity over quality and using limited animation to do so, but some of their people would also try to rise above the crowd of American Saturday-morning cartoons. TAS generally represented a relatively high-quality piece of animated media for the time, although there are plenty of oddities caused by cost-cutting. Most obvious is the peculiar way characters move their arms when moving towards the camera, presumably to avoid having to create walk-cycle animations. A similar effect is seen in the opening credits, where the Enterprise flies ‘up’ from the bottom of the screen rather than towards the camera to avoid having to draw so many cels.

However, animation can also be a liberating canvas for speculative media (as aficionados of anime well know) because ‘special effects’ become a lot cheaper to achieve! Notably, TAS gave the Enterprise two regular alien bridge crew members who did not simply resemble humans in makeup: the three-legged Triexian Lieutenant Arex and the catgirl-like Caitian Ensign M’Ress. No prizes for guessing which of them has a vast and thirsty internet fandom to this day. As I said before, a lot of the tropes we associate with fandom were first created way back in the 1970s by Trekkies, when the internet was still that obscure thing used by universities and the military.

Arex, incidentally, replaced Chekov, as the budget would not stretch to re-employing all the original voices’ cast. Leonard Nimoy refused to return when the original plan cut George Takei and Nichelle Nichols; producer Lou Scheimer later claimed this was unintentional and was horrified when it was pointed out that it looked like he had deliberately cut the only two minority characters. (Probably if this happened today he’d get a vast problematic online fandom...) Majel Barrett and James Doohan got to show off their vocal ranges, with Doohan in particular voicing a frightening number of minor and guest characters (including Arex) as well as reprising his role as Scotty. Although Walter Koenig as Chekov was cut, the producers attempted to make up for it by buying a script from him (the very strange episode “The Infinite Vulcan”).

Another aspect of animation’s liberating factor concerns showing starships on screen. TOS always struggled with a limited array of models and these being expensive to construct, hence why the shuttlecraft looks so boxy and there were silly re-uses of the same ship for multiple alien races (which even continued into TNG, DS9 and VGR at times). Animation, by contrast, allowed an infinite canvas. For example, the episode “The Pirates of Orion” has an original design for both the Orion ship (which had been represented as merely an oscillating light in the TOS episode “Journey to Babel”) and a Starfleet ship that it raids. The episode “The Jihad”, written by Stephen Kandel as the first season finale, illustrates both the opportunities and problems of TAS. The plot involves a team of representatives of different races being brought together to prevent a galactic war (the titular jihad) as the ‘Soul of the Skorr’ artefact has been stolen. Animation lets the episode introduce several alien ship designs and races that would have been impossible under TOS, such as the intriguing bird-like Skorr.

However, TAS could also establish things quite wildly that didn’t fit well with other ideas, such as the people who organise the team in that episode being the cat- or fox-like Vedala, who are said to be the first known spacefaring race. The episode “The Practical Joker” even introduces the holodeck (albeit referred to simply as ‘the rec room’) as present on the Enterprise years before TNG, when it was portrayed as a new invention. Animation limitations meant that characters were portrayed as being able to survive in a vacuum using only special belts that projected invisible shields to keep their oxygen in and protect them, unlike the usual spacesuits shown in other Star Trek media. The tone of many episodes could indeed feel too ‘Saturday morning cartoon’, too, and always suffered from having only 23 minutes to work with.

TAS may partly be responsible for some people having the Mandela-effect impression that TOS was less serious in tone than it was; some wackier ideas that surely must have appeared on TOS in the Sixties, like the crew all shrinking in size (“The Terratin Incident”), de-ageing to children (“The Counter-Clock Incident”) or all the men being infatuated by predatory alien amazons so Uhura and their other female colleagues have to save them (“The Lorelei Signal”) are actually from the sillier TAS.

Despite this, the series could also have its more serious moments, with episodes such as “The Survivor” and “The Time Trap” (not to be confused with the similarly-titled TOS novel “Timetrap”). In the latter, the Enterprise and the Klingon ship Klothos (captained by Kor from “Errand of Mercy”) fall into the Delta Triangle, which is totally not the Bermuda Triangle IN SPACE. It leads to a pocket in spacetime (not an alternate universe, as Kirk is informed when he asks) where dilithium rapidly becomes depleted; those who have fallen into it over the years have formed a peaceful society in with humans, Klingons, Romulans and others cooperate to survive. Kirk and Kor refuse to give up and, ironically, work together and combine their ships’ power (physically joining them together) to escape before it’s too late. I remember seeing this episode at a young age and it being quite influential on me – I use a semi-similar side plot in my ongoing Surly Bonds series. I wasn’t the only one it influenced, with a similar (but somewhat different) idea being used in the well-regarded Voyager (VGR) episode “The Void” many years later, as well as the TNG comics series “The Star Lost”. Ironically, “The Time Trap” itself may have been inspired by a Gold Key Comics Star Trek story from the year before, “Museum at the End of Time”, which similarly involves forced cooperation with Klingons to escape a ship graveyard. “The Time Trap” also featured the appearance of the Bonaventure, the ‘first ship outfitted with warp drive’, which caused endless continuity confusion later on (see my earlier article on the novel ‘Federation’).

Even in the sillier episodes of TAS, there was often more close attention paid to science and engineering than one gets in primetime TV sci-fi nowadays – but I’ll leave that rant for another article. Finally, another issue people often had with TAS is that too many of its episodes were derivative of TOS ones. There are sequel episodes such as “More Tribbles, More Troubles”, “Mudd’s Passion” and “Once Upon A Planet”, which follow on from the TOS episodes (respectively) “The Trouble With Tribbles”, “Mudd’s Women”/“I, Mudd” and “Shore Leave”. These often feel phoned-in, often even when they bring back the original writer (though props to “Once Upon A Planet” for at least pulling a shocking plot twist to make us scared of the amusement park planet again). It is, perhaps, instructive that one thing the TAS writers never thought to bring back was the mirror universe...but more on that later.

In the early 90s, the official position was that TAS was no longer considered canon due to its more canon-problematic and sillier elements. However, many people lobbied hard to at least have the episode “Yesteryear” defined as canon, which is widely considered the best TAS episode – despite being, at least at first, another ‘TOS sequel’ story. The only episode DC Fontana wrote herself, “Yesteryear” opens with the crew using the Guardian of Forever from “The City on the Edge of Forever” for archaeological research through time travel – an idea later used a number of times by author Peter David. When Kirk and Spock return from one such trip, nobody except Kirk recognises Spock, and his place has been taken by an Andorian first officer named Thelin (who, despite only appearing briefly, made enough of an impression to appear in later spinoff media). Checking the records, it seems Spock died in this timeline aged seven when he was killed by a Vulcan predator called a le-matya during his attempt at the Kahs-wan ordeal in the desert of Vulcan’s Forge. According to Spock’s own memories, he was saved by a cousin named Selek, whom he never encountered before or since. Kirk makes the remarkable leap of logic that Selek was a time-travelling Spock, but the intervention was rendered impossible because the historians had been simultaneously using the Guardian to view Vulcan history, and he cannot be in two places at once. (This is one of those things that made no sense to me as a child, but ironically I can now see a quantum observation-based argument for it – though I’m not sure if that was intended!)

Spock uses the Guardian again to go and restore this intervention. In the process, we get to meet young Spock and see him being bullied by full-blooded Vulcans (this, along with the concept of future Spock meeting young Spock, would of course be lifted wholesale for the 2009 Star Trek film reboot). Mark Lenard reprises the voice of Spock’s father Sarek, and we even meet Spock’s, ahem, ‘teddy bear’ pet, a giant sabre-toothed ‘sehlat’ named I-Chaya, who was briefly mentioned in TOS. ‘Selek’ is eventually able to save his younger self, but at the cost of I-Chaya’s life when the sehlat defends Spock from the le-matya. Thus the time stream is not wholly restored, as I-Chaya lived in the original timeline, something which even Spock cannot hide his emotional reaction to.

Because “Yesteryear” introduced so much important backstory for Spock and Vulcan (it was the first on-screen appearance of Vulcan’s Forge and Spock’s home town of ShiKahr), it retained a special place in the fans’ hearts, and eventually the whole of TAS would be ‘more or less’ restored to canon (essentially, ignore all the parts that don’t make sense). Of course, “Yesteryear” is also the TAS episode most relevant to the concept of Alternate History; unlike “The City on the Edge of Forever”, we actually hear some detail about the changed timeline, meet Thelim and consider what will happen to him if it’s restored, etc. Quite impressive to cram all of that into 23 minutes!

Other than the episodes I’ve discussed in detail, the only other AH-relevant element I would mention is in “The Counter-Clock Incident”, where the Enterprise accidentally falls into an alternate universe in which time runs backwards. The concept is quite silly (e.g. the ship even flies backwards, the colours of space and stars are reversed) but, as one reviewer noted, it serves a serious plot purpose. The framing device is that the Enterprise is bringing its former Captain, the now elderly Robert April, and his wife to a retirement ceremony on Babel; in the alternate universe, as the crew (even Spock) begin to de-age to children, the Aprils must take over command, with a message about what older members of society still have to teach us. Roddenberry was very keen on April, the Enterprise’s first captain before Pike and Kirk, being secured as canon, and he has since appeared on a list of Starfleet’s greatest captains in Star Trek: Discovery.

So much for the animated series: what about the TOS comics? There have been a bewildering variety of these published over the years, and I am familiar with only a fraction of them, so I must apologise if I miss something very relevant. The Gold Key comics, mentioned above, were the earliest ones published – they first appeared during TOS’ own run, in 1967, and often cheerfully diverged from it and disregarded continuity. (Sometimes there was an excuse for this, like the artists drawing Scott differently as they didn’t have a publicity photo of James Doohan!) Like the later TAS, the Gold Key comics often feature ‘sequel’ stories to TOS episodes (often even the same ones!) For example, “A Warp in Space” revisits Zephram Cochrane and the Companion (as the novel “Federation” would later), while “No Time Like the Past” features the Guardian of Forever. In the latter case, an escaped alien former dictator named Trengur went through the Guardian and tampered with world history, and we actually get to see the result: Trengur killed Hannibal, the American Revolution was averted, and Hitler conquered America (Niall Ferguson: “Write that down, write that down!”) Absurd as this is, it comes with an interesting corollary – Earth was denied entry to the Federation, and the crew find their counterparts have now become the fascist ‘Earthfleet’. They must foil a plot to trap them in this alternate timeline before they can fix history (which they do). The unpublished “Operation Con Game”, the last Gold Key comic, also features the return of Harry Mudd.

I remember encountering a few of the Gold Key comics in an annual at school and feeling, despite the more wacko elements, they often did capture the feel of TOS. “The Voodoo Planet” even features a pointless duplicate Earth! (Though, admittedly, setting it up so the super-powerful baddie can throw the Leaning Tower of Pisa at you is a pretty good reason). “The Legacy of Lazarus” – which has nothing to do with “The Alternative Factor” – features a mad historian who has populated a planet with android replicas of great figures from Earth’s history (a similar idea was later used by Red Dwarf in “Meltdown”). “Sceptre of the Sun”, despite several bizarre elements, actually ties in with the Eugenics Wars, with some characters being descendants of a peace movement from 1997 (insert your own joke here) who fled Earth in their own rival sleeper ship to Khan’s. “The Choice” interestingly prefigures the TNG episode “A Matter of Time”, in which Kirk is trapped in a time loop and has to fight his own time-displaced self without killing him. “Siege in Superspace” has the ship trying to escape a region between universes (what, another one?) “A Bomb in Time” features a terrorist threatening to blow up a past era of Earth with a modern bomb until the Federation pays a ransom; like the DS9 episode “Past Tense”, they only have a broad range of dates he might be in, so Kirk goes to 1955 (he gets run over by a Roman chariot and thinks something has gone wrong, only to realise it’s a movie set!) while Scott gets to fight cowboys in 1855.

In 1979, Gold Key lost the rights to produce Star Trek comics to Marvel. At first Marvel’s efforts were highly limited, as they were initially tasked with adapting the first Star Trek film, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”, and were not allowed to feature anything that had appeared before that. DC then picked up the rights in 1984, and promptly began a very strange series of comics set in the Star Trek TOS movie era (from “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” to “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier”). What was strange about them was that, as comics reviewer (and inventor of feminism, according to TVTropes) Lewis ‘Linkara’ Lovhaug observed, they were being written and produced in between the release of the TOS films, each of which followed immediately on from the last. The first of them followed on from “Star Trek II” and featured Kirk mourning the loss of his first officer Spock, only to follow the Enterprise’s new adventures...when, only a few months later, “Star Trek III” would come out and feature an entirely different sequence of events. Undaunted, DC would carry on doing exactly the same thing after each film, ignoring the inconsistencies.

Despite this inauspicious format, the DC comics would introduce a number of interesting ideas, such as beating TNG to the idea of a Klingon bridge officer by a few years. Konom, the character in question, is quite different to Worf; rather than a Klingon raised by humans who is aspiring to the Klingon way, he is a Klingon pacifist who turned against his people due to disgust with their violent policies. The DC storyline I (and many others) are most familiar with was their attempt to do a sequel to (dramatic chord) the Mirror Universe. Of all the many, many attempts to revisit that setting, theirs is probably the least awful, so we’ll be taking a look at a future article. As we’ve now overshot the on-screen canon of Star Trek, first it’s time to look at the TOS films themselves. See you next time!


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Tom Anderson is the author of many SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour, To Dream Again), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, The Surly Bonds of Earth and Well met by Starlight.