Star Trek Animated Series Re-Watch: “The Terratin Incident”

The Terratin Incident
Written by Paul Schneider
Directed by Hal Sutherland

Season 1, Episode 11
Production episode: 22015
Original air date: November 17, 1973
Star date: 5577.3

Mission summary

Weird interference derails the Enteprise’s survey mission of the burnt-out supernova Arachna. The signal is random–or is it? According to an old code, the signal appears to be repeating “Terratin.” That’s enough for Kirk to investigate, and they come upon a Class M planet that has turned into a volcanic, crystalline wasteland, or else just advertising dianetics. It’s also emitting unidentifiable waves. They seem harmless enough, at least until the Enterprise reaches orbit. A bright white laser light blinds the crew and makes them glow like fireflies. No injuries, though, aside from the dilithium crystals that have been completely destroyed.

Scotty’s crew tries to get started on repairs, only to discover that the tools have become too big to use. Either the Enterprise is enlarging, or its crew is shrinking.

The ship rapidly becomes too unwieldy for the little people as they struggle to send out a distress call and get the impulse engines back online. Uhura can barely reach the buttons on the console, and chaos is breaking out across the ship. McCoy, curiously not on the bridge, calls Kirk and Spock down to Sickbay because he thinks he has some answers:

KIRK: Then Spock’s theory is right. We’re contracting.
MCCOY: That’s why our weight remains the same, same number of atoms. The effect is just reducing the space between the molecules. It’s something I’ve never seen before.
SPOCK: Agreed. And it is accelerating.
KIRK: How long can it keep on?
SPOCK: Ad infinitum, perhaps, considering distance between atoms is relatively as great as between stars.

But you don’t need science! to figure out what’s going on: organic material is shrinking. The animals are all getting too small for their inorganic cages, but personnel uniforms shrink with their wearers thanks to organic xenylon material. (A handy excuse to not have tiny naked people running around a cartoon.) Thankfully, DNA’s double helix can only shrink so far, so they won’t disappear–they’ll just become 1/16th of an inch tall.

The computer calculates that they have 29 minutes before they become too small to operate the ship, so the crew works overtime to jury-rig levers, pulleys, and hacks to work the controls. The door sensors stop being able to detect the little guys, and Spock plays a private game of Twister to perform basic tasks.

Unfortunately, a careless Sulu falls from his little ladder and breaks a leg. With all the medical equipment too large to operate, Chapel decides to find the miniature laser they used to use on inner ear problems. She does find it but falls into a fish tank, proving her uselessness, and Kirk has to literally fish her out with a needle and thread (that thankfully they have lying around a post-stitching future medical bay).

Time is running out, so Kirk decides to try a gamble: he’s going to beam down to the surface and see if there’s something intelligent doing this to them. They set the transporter on a ten-minute return timer to make sure he doesn’t get stuck in Pompeii, and Kirk heads to the surface.
And he’s normal again. The transporter restored his true size! That’s some voodoo right there. Sadly his mini communicator, lovingly crafted by Spock, falls into some lava which explodes or something, who’s keeping track really, and Kirk stumbles upon a tiny little village! It’s so cute! But the timer’s up and he beams right back to the ship.

The empty ship. Where is everyone?

Oh right. Kirk has to step carefully to make sure he doesn’t crush his friends. He finally finds Scotty on the bridge, but the whole bridge crew is gone. They were all beamed away at the last moment! And it’s not like he can just place an ad for more tiny crewmen. Angry, Kirk sends a signal to the planet that he hopes they can understand: he knows there’s a city there, and he guesses they took or killed his crew, and if they don’t return them he’s going to phaser them to smithereens.

MENDANT: In the name of the Terratin people, I forbid you to destroy us, Captain Kirk.
KIRK: You forbid me after what you’ve done to my people?
MENDANT: I am Mendant of all this city, equal in command to yourself. We are people of pride, Captain, equal to your own. We neither suffer insult nor give apology for actions. But I give them now, for damage done your starship. Be assured, this land contains much dilithium to replace that you lost.
KIRK: Where are my officers?
MENDANT: I request you to understand. We tried to tell you our plight as you passed, that our adopted planet is dying. But our great antenna was buried. We had no choice but to use our invasion defence to reach you.

The Terratins are a lost Earth colony, Terra Ten–get it? The spiroid shrinky waves are natural to the planet and shrunk the colonists so small that when rescue parties came to find them, the inhabitants were just too small to see. By now it’s become selected for. But the planet’s going to die soon, with them on it or not, and they don’t have much time to get the natives and the bridge crew (who are safe and sound) out of there.

Kirk has priorities: his men and women. They lug as much tiny dilithium as they can back to the ship and get started repairing the drives. Just in the nick of time Kirk is able to transport the entire Terratin city to the safety of the transporter bay. Even better news: he’s got a new planet all picked out for them, Verdanis, lush and much like Earth.

MENDANT: People of the Enterprise, we have no way to pay the debt we owe. But this at least comes from a meeting of all our numbers. We name you honorary Terratins now, and for all time to come.
SPOCK: We came rather close to making it more than honorary.
KIRK: Yes, I’d say just about a sixteenth of an inch close.


For a while here I actually felt like I was watching Star Trek and not some Krofftian mind experiment! Talk about a step up.  The premise–shrinkage*–works in an animated format, is always an interesting science fictional idea, and is a perfect choice for a young audience. Alas, it felt too young. The gags (oh no, Chapel fell in some water!) are infantile and the “solution”–go see who’s home on planet Shrink Ray, gee, you needed 20 minutes to think of that? You didn’t even try to communicate earlier?–would have come easily to a three-year-old. The whole thing fits too neatly, too. The uniforms are made of living algae? Really, guys? If only organic material shrinks, what about, say, the water in your body? The attempts to be educational and grounded in real science only highlighted the absurdities.

The real issue I had, though, was thematic. As I was watching this I couldn’t help but think of A.I., the Spielberg/Kubrick “collaboration.” There you had one director whose signature theme is that humanity is, at its core, good and redeemable and sincere; and another whose signature theme is that humanity is a morally bankrupt collection of corrupt, violent, hopelessly flawed people who survive on each other’s cruelty. Who thought that was a good combination? It was just never going to work, and neither was this.

Gulliver’s Travels is a deeply cynical story, scathingly critical of just about anything mankind has ever attempted to do. By the end, Gulliver is more hardened than ever as a pessimist and the few friends he meets are exceptions to the rule that people are generally petty, brutal, and shallow. Star Trek is, if anything, much more Robinson Crusoe (minus the 85% that’s creepy racist imperialism): it’s committed to a vision of mankind as resourceful and optimistic, even in the face of extreme isolation and hardship. To bowdlerize the Swift story into a cutesy kids’ program just fails in every way for me. The Swift mine should probably be left unexcavated by a show as sincere as this one.

* You were thinking it.

Torie’s Rating: Warp 3 (on a scale of 1-6)

Eugene Myers: “The Terratin Incident” perfectly balances what made Star Trek so compelling, with a storyline that not only appeals to a younger audience, but could not have been done in the original series with their usual budget. Ironically, it’s also one of the first animated episodes that doesn’t feel like a live-action script that was compacted into a shorter format. The plot is easy to follow and never feels too rushed or incomprehensible.

I was hooked immediately by the mystery that draws Enterprise to Terratin, and the investigation unfolded for just the right amount of time. But I’ve fallen for this trick before; too often episodes begin with an intriguing appetizer like this, only to follow it with an unsatisfying entree. I admit that when the crew began shrinking I suspected this would be another of those interesting failures, but the episode quickly won me over again because this inherently ridiculous concept was handled surprisingly seriously.

Naturally, I immediately wondered why their clothes were shrinking too. So I was amazed when this question was actually addressed–and turned out to be an important plot point. Similarly, though I don’t quite buy the “scientific” explanation for why they were shrinking, I was fascinated by the idea that the space in their atoms was being reduced, and the technobabble was both clever and sounded plausible. And this is probably the only time that it actually made sense for the transporter beam to fix their condition.

After placing the crew in this bizarre situation, the plot develops to its natural conclusion, by showing the ingenious ways the crew copes with their situation so they can continue to operate the ship (my favorite being the ropes tied to the transporter controls), as well as the dangers inherent to their condition. Possibly the only thing I can truly find fault with is Nurse Chapel’s irritating cries for help when she fell into the halo fish tank. (I’m not convinced Kirk was trying to rescue her–it looked like he was trying to spear her with a makeshift harpoon to shut her up.)

In addition to revealing that their uniforms are made of organic material of alien origin, I liked the addition of the gossamer mice and halo fish. It’s sheer genius to have alien life forms aboard that are sensitive to subspace disruptions or whatever weird effects the ship’s instruments may not pick up–the futuristic equivalent of canaries in the mines. I also liked the mention of a “timer beam” for the transporter that immediately recalls a crew member.

As for the City of Kandor Terratin, it was gratifying to see Kirk do right by them instead of leaving them to their horrible fates. As with the Scalosians in “Wink of an Eye,” the Terratins are another example of a group of desperate survivors pushed to extreme acts to save their people, though in this case they’re offshoots of an old Earth colony, which perhaps makes the captain more sympathetic to their cause.

When you get down to it, this story is no more ridiculous than the idea that people can move at an accelerated rate, or that crew members can be turned into kids (TNG’s “Rascals”), or that a shuttle and its crew can be shrunken down (DS9’s “One Little Ship,” which is somehow even harder to believe).

We’re nearly halfway through the animated series and I’m not sure it’s going to get better than this, so I’m going to take a chance and make this one my first Warp 6. I hope it isn’t the last.

Eugene: Warp 6

Best Line: KIRK: Scotty, how are your engines?
SCOTT: Purring like happy kittens, Captain.

Trivia: Paul Scheider also wrote “Balance of Terror” and “The Squire of Gothos.” The plot is based on a one-paragraph story idea that Roddenberry had, and Schneider fell in love with the Gulliver’s Travels angle.

Other notes: A similar idea was used in DS9’s “One Little Ship,” where a shrunken runabout must save the Defiant.

Previous episode: Season 1, Episode 10 – “Mudd’s Passion.”

Next episode: Season 1, Episode 12 – “The Time Trap.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

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 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.