The first animated Star Trek series showed viewers strange new ships.
It ran for only 22 episodes and has endured decades of unfair debate about its “canonical” status. But Star Trek: The Animated Series (TAS) was an ambitious if imperfect attempt to bring the same kind of dramatic and thoughtful storytelling at which Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) had excelled to Saturday morning.
While the cost of hiring most of TOS’ cast left little money in the budget for elaborate animation, TAS did take advantage of the medium’s freedom to boldly depict what no Star Trek had depicted before—including several cool new spacecraft.
Here are the three vessels that get my nod for the coolest ships seen in the first (and, until Lower Decks, only) animated Star Trek series.
Beaming aboard an ancient alien derelict (“Beyond the Farthest Star,” September 8, 1973)
Premiering seven years to the exact date (September 8) after the original Star Trek, TAS showed viewers right off the bat a ship that took full advantage of animation’s freedom.
The Enterprise encounters a massive, mysterious, 300-million-year-old organic alien ship orbiting a dead star. You’ll get a good look at the ship’s exotic and highly advanced interior, as well as much discussion of the vessel’s nature, in this clip:
No live action TOS episode ever realized a ship of this scale and complexity on screen.
Dreamed up by Samuel A. Peeples (who also wrote the original series’ second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”), this intricate and enigmatic vessel stokes the crew’s and viewers’ sense of wonder in the highest Star Trek style.
According to Aaron Harvey and Rich Schepis’ Star Trek: The Official Guide to the Animated Series, storyboard artist Bob Kline didn’t originally realize he was supposed to design an alien vessel. “I just kept getting indications that it was not weird enough,” he says (p. 31).
Fortunately, Kline put his many early iterations of the ship to good use in a later episode, “The Time Trap,” populating a starship graveyard with them.
Animated Star Trek dives deep with the aqua-shuttle (“The Ambergris Element,” December 1, 1973)
Scotty tells Kirk in Star Trek Into Darkness, it’s “ridiculous to hide a starship on the bottom of the ocean.”
But a shuttlecraft? That’s doable!
In “The Ambergris Element,” Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Clayton (one of the few Star Trek redshirts, this website’s name notwithstanding, to survive his only appearance) set out to explore the almost completely water-covered planet Argo using a craft we never saw in live action: the aqua-shuttle.
Spaceflight-capable, fully submersible, and armed with phasers, the aqua-shuttle sports a sleek design.
You could almost mistake it for a pleasure boat, perfect for an afternoon of high-speed fun on a lake!
Thanks to animation’s lack of physical constraints, the aqua-shuttle also boasts an apparently more technologically sophisticated interior than standard shuttlecraft. There’s no doubt this is a mobile scientific laboratory.
(Then again, maybe the Galileo and her sister shuttles simply weren’t designed to show off!)
“The aqua-shuttle was a matter of what looked good,” Kline says in The Official Guide. “I don’t remember taking into account a lot of other additional requirements” (p. 97).
“The Ambergris Element” actually also introduced a second watercraft: the open-top “scouter gig” used to search for the missing crew.
Clearly, Starfleet’s invested a lot of resources in exploring aquatic elements. Maybe a future Star Trek series will take place mostly on and under the seas of some strange new worlds!
The Enterprise meets the chariot of a god (“How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth,” October 5, 1974)
The ship bearing the alien who appeared to ancient Mayans as Kukulkan (Quetzalcoatl) and his menagerie is one of the most colorful crafts in either TOS or TAS.
Its hull shares the bright hues of Kukulkan’s plumage. And its angular, serpentine shape reflects Kukulkan’s own, making it resemble the snake god even before its image projection system is activated.
Kukulkan’s ship also packs a lot of power. It’s able to immobilize the Enterprise in a globular force field. Its interior houses a power amplification system designed along the lines of an ancient Aztec city.
This episode won Star Trek its first Emmy, the Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Entertainment in a Children’s Series.
It’s certainly another fine example of how animation could show audiences of any age whole new wonders—including wonderful new ships—in the Star Trek universe.