Final Frontier Friday: 'Yesteryear'

Hello and welcome back to ‘Final Frontier Friday‘! This installment marks the completion of the first full year of this column (give or take a  week). With that being the case, I’d really like to do something special to celebrate. But unfortunately, I realized that far too late to actually plan anything. Hooray for thinking ahead! But with that being the case, I decided instead to do a callback of sorts to our first outing, wherein we covered a favorite of mine, ‘Journey to Babel’. To that end, we’ll be returning to ‘Star Trek: The Animated Series’ for a look at ‘Yesteryear’.

Like ‘Journey to Babel’, ‘Yesteryear’ was written by D.C. Fontana, revisiting themes that were established in the former episodes. It also serves as a loose sequel to ‘City on the Edge of Forever’, revisiting the Guardian of Forever (which, as before, is largely a plot device). To some degree, ‘Yesteryear’ has its origins in the mere fact of Fontana’s involvement with the series, in that once she was brought on board as story editor and associate producer, she knew she wanted to contribute at least one script. With that being the case, it was virtually a given that her script would be – like so many of her contributions to the original series – a Spock story. The development of the story is serendipitous in a way, in that Fontana’s interest in exploring Spock’s past dovetailed so neatly with Gene Roddenberry’s insistence that the show take advantage of the fact that animation would allow them to depict things that would never have been possible on the original series. After all, what better way to explore Spock’s past than to visit it?

Accordingly, the episode’s biggest hurdle had nothing to do with its depiction of Vulcan (on a scale which would have been unthinkable in live action television), but rather with its content. The animated ‘Star Trek’ was, after all, a Saturday morning cartoon, and that meant a young audience. It also meant that NBC executives were understandably nervous at the prospect of an episode that not only dealt with death but euthanasia on top of that. At one point, the network wanted the ending changed. Thankfully, Filmation maintained creative control (rather than the network) and Roddenberry insisted that the story proceed, telling the concerned executives to simply “Trust Dorothy.”

The Enterprise is on assignment to the “planet of the time vortex,” home to the Guardian of Forever. There, they are assisting a team of historians as they make use of the Guardian in their studies. Kirk and Spock return from an expedition to Orion’s distant past to find that no one – including the Enterprise crew – recognizes Spock. They quickly realize that history was somehow altered during their mission to Orion, but remain puzzled at the fact that whatever it was that changed seems to have only affected Spock. Upon investigating Spock’s revised family history, they find that in this timeline his parents separated… after the death of their son.

According to a survey the historical team conducted – with the Guardian’s aid – of recent Vulcan history, the young Spock was killed during his kahs-wan – a Vulcan coming of age ritual that takes the form of a test of survival. When given the date of his counterpart’s death, Spock recalls an incident in which a visiting cousin called Selek saved him from a wild animal during his kahs-wan. Kirk and Spock deduce in parallel that “Selek” was, in fact, an adult Spock, and that his presence on the Orion mission prevented him from saving his younger self. With the necessary preparations made, Spock journeys through the Guardian and arrives in his own past.

Spock arrives in time to see his younger self-being bullied (for his human heritage) by a group of Vulcan children. He is greeted by Sarek, to whom he introduces himself as a distant cousin. Sarek invites his “cousin” to spend the night at his home. There, Spock is “introduced” to Sarek’s family as his younger self-prepares for the kahs-wan ordeal, confiding his anxiety – over both the ritual and his place in Vulcan society – in I-Chaya, his pet sehlat.

Determined to prove himself, the young Spock sneaks out to begin his kahs-wan that night (a month ahead of schedule) and is followed by I-Chaya. The elder Spock finally remembers his youthful defiance, and noting that he had as much to prove to himself as to his father, takes off after his counterpart. Spock catches up to himself just in time to save his younger self from a le-matya attack – the wild animal he had earlier described. But while Spock is safe, I-Chaya has been mortally wounded, struck by the le-matya’s poisonous claws.

The young Spock sets out across the desert to find a healer while his older self stays with I-Chaya. The healer arrives, and upon examining I-Chaya, informs the two Spocks that the sehlat is beyond help. The healer can either prolong I-Chaya’s life – and his suffering along with it – or he can “release him from life. The young Spock chooses the latter, reasoning that it if I-Chaya must die, he should do so with peace and dignity.

Returning home, Spock explains what has happened to his parents, adding that his experience in the desert has lead him to choose a Vulcan way of life. The elder Spock then bids his farewells and returns to the present to find that all is as it should be.

I have to be honest. Every time I sit down to cover an animated episode, I find myself expecting them to be somehow “easier” or at least quicker to write up. After all, they’re half-hour episodes with a younger audience in mind. Despite that, I’ve typically written at least as much about animated installments as their live action counterparts. They tend to have just as much to unpack, and it’s packed into half the runtime. And boy, does ‘Yesteryear’ typify the animated series in that regard. It manages to deal with issues as wide-ranging as bullying, coming-of-age angst, family strife, and even euthanasia, all in the space of some twenty-odd minutes. Make no mistake, this is ‘Star Trek’.

Not only that, this is top quality ‘Trek’. It is harmed a bit by the condensed storytelling demanded by its half-hour runtime, but the episode nonetheless manages to tell a moving story that expands our understanding of Spock, his history, and his family. That’s no mean feat for twenty-five minutes. It’s a fundamentally a character-driven affair, and in fact, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it’s less action-oriented than many animated installments, it is arguably the best that the animated ‘Star Trek’ has to offer.

“Trust Dorothy,” indeed!

There’s something I’ve said when covering the original series that applies here, and that’s that reviews of episodes featuring Spock should all come with the understanding that “Nimoy is awesome” as an unspoken truth. And he is fine form here, with much of the episode resting on his shoulders. But Nimoy isn’t the only Spock here. The young Spock is voiced by Billy Simpson, who acquits himself well enough. It’s not a performance that I’d put up for an Emmy and is at times a bit stilted (deliberately so, per director Hal Sutherland’s coaching), but it gets the job done. Most importantly, Simpson’s Spock sounds like a child (because of course, Simpson was exactly that at the time), and there is an organic quality derived from the fact that for the most part, Sutherland used the first take of Simpson’s readings in the finished episode. Because of this, you can sometimes hear Simpson stumble on some of the more unusual pronunciations, but it only contributes to the fact that he sounds more like an actual child than an actor playing a child (or a child actor, for that matter).

Whatever weight the episode has that isn’t carried by the two Spocks is largely left for Sarek to pick up. Thankfully, Filmation was able to secure Mark Lenard’s to reprise the role for ‘Yesteryear’. While the animated ‘Trek’ was able to bring some original series guest stars back, they were just as likely to recast the role, often with one of their more versatile regular cast members (typically either James Doohan or Majel Barrett Roddenberry). While those two were by no means bad at what they did, Mark Lenard brought an undeniable dignity and gravitas to every performance, particularly as Sarek, and ‘Yesteryear’ is no exception. Indeed, while his role isn’t as large as it was in ‘Journey to Babel’, it’s hard to imagine the episode being quite as strong as it is without his involvement.

And lastly, Roddenberry’s dictum that the show take advantage of its animated format is well served here. While ‘Star Trek’ had visited Vulcan in the past, it had by necessity done so in a very limited fashion. Thus, this episode marks the first time we really get to see the planet. And what a sight it is! The environments are wildly imaginative. Familiar enough to be recognizable, but different enough to be unmistakably alien.

And that brings us to the end of yet another ‘Final Frontier Friday’. I’d like to thank all of you who’ve followed this column over the past year for making it possible for me to do this every two weeks. Without you I’d… well, I’d still probably be watching a bunch of ‘Star Trek’, but I’d just be sitting here talking to myself instead of writing this column. This is definitely better. And I hope to keep this thing going until I run out of ‘Star Trek’ to talk about! As always, let me know what you think of ‘Yesteryear’ in the comments, and check back in two weeks as we squeeze one last ‘Final Frontier Friday’ into 2017.