Love Star Trek: Lower Decks? Give the '70s Star Trek: The Animated Series a try

Commentary: Star Trek: Lower Decks isn't the first animated series to boldly go where no fan has gone before. The original 1970s Star Trek: The Animated Series had groundbreaking stories and diverse characters.

Bonnie Burton
Journalist Bonnie Burton writes about movies, TV shows, comics, science and robots. She is the author of the books Live or Die: Survival Hacks, Wizarding World: Movie Magic Amazing Artifacts, The Star Wars Craft Book, Girls Against Girls, Draw Star Wars, Planets in Peril and more! E-mail Bonnie.
Bonnie Burton
5 min read

What I remember most as a young Star Trek fan in the 1970s was how exciting it was to eat my breakfast -- most likely a giant bowl of Rice Krispies -- while sitting in front of the TV on Saturday mornings, watching Captain Kirk, Mister Spock, Lieutenant Uhura and the crew of the USS Enterprise embark on a brand new space adventure.

Like so many geeky kids, I would watch anything starring the legendary crew of the Starship Enterprise. Seeing them in Star Trek: The Animated Series made these iconic sci-fi characters even cooler to my young mind.

So with the recent success of the new animated series Star Trek: Lower Decks, available on CBS All Access, I can't help but get nostalgic about the classic cartoon I loved to watch as a kid. (Disclosure: CBS is CNET's parent company.)

Star Trek: The Animated Series ran for two seasons in 1973 and 1974, winning an Emmy in 1975. It was more than just a quirky cartoon about the adventures of Kirk, Spock, Bones, Uhura and assorted members of the Enterprise crew we didn't see in the '60s live-action series. 

The Animated Series also made Star Trek feel even more bizarre and colorful with added alien characters, unusual destinations and its own sense of humor. And it broke new ground giving female characters and Native Americans more of the spotlight.

CBS's "Star Trek: The Animated Series"

Leonard Nimoy joined the original Trek cast to voice The Animated Series, including the episode "The Lorelei Signal in 1973.

CBS Photo Archive

The series included most of the original cast from the live-action series voicing their familiar characters, and also had Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry at the helm. As a Star Trek fan you knew you were in for a treat.

Star Trek: The Animated Series ran to 22 episodes, created by Filmation production house -- who were also responsible for the cartoons Fat Albert, The Brady Kids, Sabrina and the Groovie Goolies and She-Ra: Princess of Power. Watching it, I was not only excited to see cartoon versions of my favorite Star Trek characters boldly getting into trouble, but also new crew members to love.

There was an alien member of the bridge crew with three arms, three legs and a long neck: Lieutenant Arex. Serving as one of the ship's primary navigators, he was often put in charge of the Enterprise when the main crew members were trapped on other planets.

He was voiced by James Doohan, who was doing double duty voicing his more famous character of chief engineer Scotty.

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Here's Lieutenant M'Ress at the communications station on the USS Enterprise. 

Video screenshot by Bonnie Burton/CNET

And then there was the cat-like alien Lieutenant M'Ress. She served on the Enterprise as the ship's relief Communications Officer when Lieutenant Uhura wasn't available. M'Ress also acted as the temporary science officer when first officer Commander Spock was detained on other planets.

She was sassy, confident and had a wicked sense of humor, and was often seen cracking jokes with Scotty and Arex. Her character was voiced by none other than Majel Barrett, who also provided the voice for the on-board computer system.

The Animated Series also added significant details to Star Trek canon. The cartoon featured the first appearance of the Holodeck, which would later become a regular component in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The VR room on the Enterprise first appeared in the animated series episode called The Practical Joker. It was referred to as the Rec Room, where Lieutenant Sulu, Dr. McCoy and Uhura hung out on a simulated beach.

The Animated Series also gave Star Trek fans a deeper look into Spock's troubled childhood in the episode Yesteryear, where he's bullied for not being a full-blooded Vulcan. This episode's story was so compelling that decades later filmmaker J.J. Abrams used the same details about Spock for his 2009 movie reboot.

Star Trek: The Animated Series was more than just an extension of Star Trek in cartoon form for me. It explored bold themes that the live-action series never got around to tackling.

In The Lorelei Signal, written by Margaret Armen, Uhura takes command of the Enterprise. The ship is drawn to a planet populated solely by women, who end up controlling the male crew members' minds. It's down to Uhura to take charge and rescue them.

CBS's "Star Trek: The Animated Series"

Uhura rescues a weakened Captain Kirk in "The Lorelei Signal", originally aired in September 1973.

CBS Photo Archive

I distinctly remember seeing that episode as a young girl and hoping that Uhura would be the permanent captain replacing Kirk. Uhura was one of the smartest members of the crew, after all, and she made a mighty impressive leader. But alas, Kirk came back.

Another episode I loved as a kid was called How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth. In the episode, which is named after a line from William Shakespeare's King Lear, we meet an ancient winged serpent creature named Kukulkan

The creature takes credit for the technological, cultural and architectural advancements of the Egyptian, Mayan, and Aztec civilizations on Earth. He basically looks like a colorful alien version of Quetzalcoatl mixed with a Chinese dragon.

Kukulkan is upset that the humans of Earth don't remember who he is and threatens to kill off all mankind. Luckily Ensign Walking Bear -- who happens to be a descendant of the Native American tribe of Comanche and a scholar of Earth history -- recognizes Kukulkan from his studies and gives Kirk some much-needed insight on how to deal with the alien deity.

The episode won an Emmy in 1975 for its writing, but more importantly, it gave us our first Native American Star Trek character.

Now that we have a new animated Trek series from Rick and Morty producer Mike McMahan, I'm hoping the writers of Lower Decks take a look at the '70s cartoon to see how they can make the show fun while breaking new ground.

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Here's Lieutenant Arex at a rare leisure moment on the USS Enterprise. 

Video screenshot by Bonnie Burton/CNET

Since the new half-hour animated series Lower Decks focuses on the lowly support crew of one of Starfleet's "least important ships", this could be a great opportunity to add some interesting characters to the Star Trek canon just like the original cartoon did with Arex and M'Ress.

Lower Decks continues the work of the original Animated Series, and more recently Star Trek: Discovery, which has created a range of characters with diverse sexualities and backgrounds.

Lower Decks mixes humor with Star Trek's proud tradition of creating innovative stories and characters.

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