Star Trek: The Animated Series Re-Watch: “Beyond the Farthest Star”

Beyond the Farthest Star
Written by Samuel A. Peeples
Directed by Hal Sutherland

Season 1, Episode 1
Production episode: 2204
Original air date:  September 8, 1973
Star date: 5221.3

Mission summary

The Enterprise is on a star-charting mission near Questar M-17 when strange radio transmissions persuade Kirk to investigate. Since no good deed goes unpunished, a hypergravitational mumblemumble draws the tiny ship full speed into the dead star’s surface. The ship manages to change its trajectory enough to avoid impact and achieve a standard orbit, but once in orbit our heroes are surprised to find another ship orbiting with them. This new ship isn’t sleek and modern, but tentacled and organic-looking–a kind of pod ship. It’s the source of the radio transmissions. Spock discovers that they’re much too late to help. The pod ship has been there, drifting, for over 300 million years.

Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scotty all beam down to check the place out. The hexagonal windows and fleshy textures of the ship evokes insects. Further, the ship is made of some kind of filament, not processed ore. The landing party is disturbed to find that each of the “pods” has been broken through from the inside, implying that the ship’s crew destroyed themselves. But why? Some weird magnetic readings reveal the unique function of the ship:

SPOCK: Captain, its registering energy. Very little, but building.
KIRK: You mean it’s functioning after all the milleniums this ship has been here?
SPOCK: The wands are accumulators, receptors to attract energy, motion, sound, light, heat, every kind of energy around them.
SCOTT: The structure of the ship, those huge arches, thrusting up. The whole ship is designed to receive and store energy.
MCCOY: Gives me the creeps. I feel like something’s watching us.
SCOTT: I feel it too, Captain.

The landing party enters the main vestibule but as soon as they do the doors slam shut and none of their equipment works: not the communicators, not the phasers, not anything. The room has earth-like atmosphere and gravity, but the doors are being energized by some force that wants to get in.  Spock manages to activate the last ship log and on the viewscreen the alien commander offers our explanation:

Danger. Danger. The dead star, we are being drawn to it. Rather than carry this malevolent life form to other worlds, we have decided to destroy our own ship. There is no other answer. If you understand this message, you are protected only for this moment in this room. This thing, it wants–

But it’s too late. The doors burst open in a huge explosion. The breach of the control room must have allowed a window of opportunity, however, because at that moment the four of them are beamed back to the Enterprise. Kyle in the transporter bay pats himself on the back for his fine work, only to notice that some green blobular thing has beamed up with them. Within seconds it has infiltrated the ventilation ducts and laughs maniacally through the ship’s comm system. Gloating bastard.

Whatever it is has at least read the space douche playbook because it takes over the ship in what feels like seconds. It uses the Enterprise’s phasers to destroy the alien pod ship, then shuts down life support, one deck at a time.  The creature then downloads the entire Enterprise memory banks (even space douches need a good book) and explains how unbelievably good luck it was for Kirk to wander to this star. He’s waited 300 million years for a new ship, and Kirk delivered it easily. Kirk refuses to go along with this scheme and instead puts a static shield all around the navigational computer. Blobular doesn’t like this, so he shoots lasers (from… somewhere…) at Kirk, shouting in the shrillest possible voice, “Obey me!” When that fails, he tries torturing Spock, and Kirk relents at last.

He pretends to go along with the warp drive repairs and release navigational control, but secretly pow-wows with his first officer:

KIRK: What are we dealing with, Spock?
SPOCK: High rank probabilities, Captain. It is a magnetic organism without mass, but capable of symbiotic relationship with a host body, a starship for instance. It is a form of primal energy, and it can utilize the electronic control systems of a starship like the mind of a man uses the neural control systems of the human body. It has become the Enterprise, and we are only life-support organisms in its body like the white corpuscles in human blood. And Captain, the magnetic flux readings are higher. It is growing stronger, building itself.
KIRK: A slingshot effect to yank us out of orbit. Can you compute it in your mind? If we try to use ship’s computers…
SPOCK: The alien will know. I believe I can, Captain.

Spock gets started as Blobular demands a course to the center of the galaxy. This is bad news:

SPOCK: Captain, this symbiont can reproduce itself by mitosis and take over every starship we encounter. It can control computer centers, whole planets.

Finally at the last stage of repairs, Kirk explains that with everything else offline they can only operate auxiliary control manually. Blobular understands this and lets them proceed, but Kirk pulls out the ace up his sleeve and sets course directly for the dead star. The alien doesn’t want to die and begs Kirk to change his mind, but it seems like he won’t, and the alien doesn’t call his bluff–he flees into the great emptiness of space as the Enterprise slingshots at the last moment around the dead star and away from the malevolent entity.

In the distance, the alien begs not to be left alone, again, forever and ever.

Analysis

Despite the mediocre animation and limited time to fill, “Beyond the Farthest Star” manages to feel as much like Star Trek as anything we’ve seen before.

The music was usually fantastic–evocative and interesting, and thank god, not the same freaking cues from every single season 3 episode. Unfortunately, some of the sound effects were–I’m gonna say it, cartoonish–and seemed like they would be more at home in Batman with the likes of POW! and BLAM! Uhura even had lines, a fact that completely jolted me out of the story. But the real weakness here is the villain, whose motivation, appearance, and behavior is identical to so many we’ve seen before.

While the blobular green meanie and his overdone space douche arc irritated me, the alien pod ship was incredible. Elegant space bugs: there’s an idea that never could have been done on the original series. In fact, it couldn’t be done on the Next Generation, either*. But animation really lets you poke around the creative limits and I’m so gratified that they seized that opportunity. Space bugs usually don’t recall images of beauty or grace and yet you can’t help but be impressed at the ship’s lovely design, the creativity, and the uniqueness of its existence. Here are some truly alien aliens that we know so little about, and yet at the same time we know enough to understand that they’re like us–noble, courageous, and compassionate.

The sense of scale, here–300 million years–is humbling. I liked Kirk and McCoy’s reflection on it:

KIRK: A civilization that advanced three hundred million years ago before life even emerged on Earth.
MCCOY: Barely an instant in eternity, Jim.

Eternity is a long, long time, and space is an empty, lonely place. The blob knows this, feels it more acutely than anyone on the Enterprise could possibly understand. Pretty heavy stuff for kids. I’m so impressed that the network let those ideas and issues be, and trusted its audience, toy-buying and marketable children, to appreciate it. So many children’s programs treat children like idiots. It’s refreshing to see a show have so much to offer and risk depth and complexity in its stories. It also says a lot about how universally appealing and accessible the Star Trek stories just are generally.

That said, the ending was pretty bleak even for me, and I suspect that if I had seen it as a kid I would’ve bawled my eyes out. The entity’s desperate pleading not to be left alone is just heartbreaking. Is there really nothing else that they could do? No way to make his existence less agonizingly miserable? They should set up some kind of space douche playdate with all the other lonely SDs out there. Though I suppose then they could band together and really get us…

* The borg were originally intended to be an insectoid race. That was too budget-breaking, so they went with cyborgs.

Torie’s Rating: Warp 4 (on a scale of 1-6)

Eugene Myers: I was both impressed and disappointed with the first animated adventure of the Enterprise. There’s no question that one of the strongest aspects of “Beyond the Farthest Star” is the script by Samuel A. Peeples.

Contrary to my expectations, the plot and dialogue didn’t seem “dumbed down” for a kiddie audience. It sure sounds like Star Trek through and through: Spock reports on “spectra analysis,” “imploded matter,” and a symbiont that “can reproduce itself by mitosis.” Technobabble, check. Thematically, we have another lonely alien threatening the crew, an advanced civilization that commits mass suicide rather than allow it to escape, and a nifty concept of a magnetic lifeform that fuses with the ship’s systems. This is dark, heavy stuff–much like the cold star that draws Enterprise in. There’s even time for some poetic touches, such as Uhura’s line, “What kind of people could have built it, to touch even a starship with grace and beauty?”

And yet it all feels so rushed. The episode begins in media res and the plot moves so quickly I couldn’t keep up with all the developments. I had no idea what was going on for most of this episode. They sure pack a lot of story into less than twenty-five minutes, but this clearly isn’t time enough to explore the intriguing ideas merely hinted at by the episode, and it makes me wish this could have been developed as a live action show. Most frustrating of all was the fact that the potentially sobering ending was ruined with a superfluous Captain’s Log that makes the whole conflict into business as usual–oh well, we have to get back to our all-important starcharting. Woo.

On the other hand, the animated format offers some rare opportunities, primarily the ability to do justice to the sprawling alien ship. With no physical sets, nearly anything the writer describes on the page can be translated to the screen without looking any cheaper than anything else. The gorgeous painted backdrops are true art, a remarkable contrast to the colored skies, painted trees, and Styrofoam rocks of the live series; the grander scope evokes the sense of wonder that Star Trek should.

Dare I say the Enterprise herself often looks stunning in her 2-D animated rendition, and the designs are authentic to the source material. That said, why couldn’t they make her movement through space more realistic? She slides across the screen as unconvincingly as in the live opening credits. Perhaps they matched things a little too closely to the original show… Too bad they didn’t reuse the theme music too.

Adjusting to the shifty-eyed character animation is another matter, but I soon found myself accepting it and appreciating tiny details like Kirk’s head movements, which could have been left out altogether if Filmation were truly budget-minded. Then again, we’ll probably be seeing these same cels recycled for the next twenty-one episodes, so perhaps they’ll wear a bit thin by the end.

The familiar voices of the original cast made it easier to buy into the cartoon crew. This early in the series, they seem to be giving it their A-performances–unlike in “Spock’s Brain,” for instance. One of the other unexpected bonuses of this new format is that Uhura gets more lines, and some of them even serve a purpose! But much of the animation is just plain bad, like the WTF sequence of explosions on the alien ship. And why does that happen again?

Along with the thematic links to the original show, we also get references to established continuity, such as use of the “slingshot” effect to escape the hypergravitational pull of the planet. There are also some interesting changes to preexisting concepts, such as a self-destruct device that has to be armed in the warp core, and the introduction of super convenient life support belts and an “Automatic Bridge Defense System.” Not a bad idea, replacing the useless red shirts with ceiling lasers… Unless you lose computer control. And why does the alien need to access navigation through the console when it’s tied directly into the computer?

I thought the warp effect on the Enterprise is pretty cool at the end, but they somehow managed to make the red alert klaxon sound even more annoying than before. The viewscreen inexplicably has a sliding panel that covers it, and the transporter effect sounded a little off to me. (Speaking of the transporter, my favorite moment in the episode is when Kirk elbows Chief Kyle out of the way to try to beam the alien off the ship himself.)

I also wondered if this episode might have influenced the Doctor Who character Davros, who appeared on UK tellys two years later, since the alien in this episode keeps shrieking “Obey me!” at the crew in a Davros-like voice. And there were also some space insects in Who‘s “Ark in Space.” But these are probably just coincidences, right?

Speaking of bugs: If you ever find yourself on an alien ship that looks like it was built by giant intelligent insects, my recommendation is you get the hell out of there, no matter how pretty it is. Especially if it’s pretty.

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 4

Best Line: KIRK: Compared to the beings that built this ship, we are primitive people–even you, Mister Spock.

Trivia: This episode aired seven years to the day after the 1966 premiere of Star Trek.

Other Notes: Samuel A. Peeples, of course, also wrote the second pilot to Star Trek, “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Gene Roddenberry and D.C. Fontana invited him to write this pilot as well.

Hal Sutherland, the director, was a founder of Filmation and worked on Flash GordonThe Adventures of Batman, The Batman/Superman Hour, Aquaman, and He-Man, among others.


Previous post: Star Trek: The Animated Series Introductory Post.

Next episode: Season 1, Episode 2 – “Yesteryear.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

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About Torie Atkinson & Eugene Myers

TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former Tor.com blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.

EUGENE MYERS has published short fiction in a variety of print and online zines as E.C. Myers. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid. When he isn’t watching Star Trek, he reads and writes young adult fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is available now from Pyr.