Star Trek: The Animated Series Re-Watch: “Yesteryear”

Yesteryear
Written by D.C. Fontana
Directed by Hal Sutherland

Season 1, Episode 2
Production episode: 22003
Original air date: September 15, 1973
Star date: 5373.4

Mission summary

The Enterprise crew is assigned to help a bird creature and a woman historian with their survey of Federation history via Harlan Ellison’sTM Guardian of Forever, but they somehow end up altering the timeline. Again. Whoops!

It could be worse–at least Nazis haven’t taken over the galaxy this time. Instead, when Captain Kirk, a red shirt, and Commander Spock return from their jaunt to Orion’s past, they discover that no one recognizes Spock! Even Dr. McCoy has never heard of him. It’s a minor deviation in the grand scheme of things, but Kirk is still somewhat concerned, especially when he finds out his first officer in this new “timeplane” is an Andorian commander named Thelin. But hey, he seems like a nice guy.

The Enterprise computers reveal that despite the team’s best efforts not to interfere with history–strictly look but not touch, which must have been challenging for Kirk with all the Orion slave women–something got screwed up. In this reality, Spock died at the age of seven, and his mother was killed in a shuttle accident soon after.

Spock thinks back and remembers that he nearly died as a boy during kahs-wan, the Vulcan maturity test, but a mysterious cousin Selek saved his life. A cousin who, oddly enough, looks a lot like Spock and never visited again. It also turns out the historians were DVRing Vulcan history while Kirk and Spock were mucking about on Orion. Hmmm.

Kirk figures out that Spock must have saved himself in the past, but since he was too busy with Federation busywork on Orion, the historians recorded a Vulcan history without his timely rescue of his younger self. That may not make much sense, but one thing’s for sure: Spock’s going back in time to save himself and his mom.

While they wait for period-appropriate clothing and supplies for Spock, he shares a nice moment with his Andorian counterpart. The Andorian’s life as he knows it will be erased, but there are no hard feelings.

THELIN: This change in the timeline will put you in my place, yet I am not aggrieved.
SPOCK: Andorians are not known for their charity.
THELIN: True. A warrior race has few sympathies, but one we do possess is for family. In your time plane, you will live and so will your mother. That is valuable. Live long and prosper in your world, Commander Spock.
SPOCK: And you in yours, Commander Thelin.

Kirk shakes Spock’s hand and wishes him luck, then Spock takes the leap through the time vortex into the Vulcan of thirty years before. Bell bottoms are back in fashion and hula hoops are all the rage, but the best thing is he and his mom are still alive.

Spock the Elder witnesses the other Vulcan kids making fun of Spock the Younger, hurling insults like “Emotional Earther” and “Barbarian”–until young Spock tries to attack them, proving their point. Spock the Elder introduces himself to Sarek as “Selek,” and Sarek remarks that he looks strangely familiar.

Later, Sarek lectures young Spock on mastering his emotions:

SAREK: Spock. Spock, being Vulcan means following disciplines and philosophies that are difficult and demanding of both mind and body.
SPOCK THE YOUNGER: Yes, father.
SAREK: You constantly display your emotions. You have even been seen fighting in the street.
SPOCK THE YOUNGER: Yes, father.
SAREK: The time draws near when you will have to decide whether you will follow Vulcan or human philosophy. Vulcan offers much. No war, no crime. Order, logic and control in place of raw emotions and instinct. Once on the path you choose, you cannot turn back.
SPOCK THE YOUNGER: Yes, father.

He reminds Spock the Younger of his upcoming desert survival test, telling him that if he fails, people will make fun of him for the rest of his life. No pressure.

Meanwhile, Spock the Elder hangs out with his mother, the lady Amanda, reassuring her that Spock will turn out all right. If he isn’t killed by a wild beast in the desert, that is. Their conversation makes him realize he’s a month early for the kahs-wan. “I seem to have lost track of time,” he muses, worried that the timeline has been changed yet again.

That night, Spock the Younger sneaks out of the house, followed by his pet sehlat, I-Chaya, and Spock the Elder, who has remembered that he was attacked before the actual kahs-wan. But the boy’s practice session is interrupted when a le-matya, a large cat/lizard/thing, corners him in the mountains. I-Chaya struggles with the creature and falls, but Spock jumps on the monster’s back and subdues it with a neck pinch.

He has a heart-to-heart with Spock the Younger, telling him things get better:

There is some human blood in my family line. It is not fatal. What you do not yet understand, Spock, is that Vulcans do not lack emotion. It is only that ours is controlled. Logic offers a serenity humans seldom experience in full. We have emotions but we deal with them and do not let them control us.

Except during the ponn-farr, and under the influence of strange spores, or when you’re trapped in ancient times. But those are extenuating circumstances.

The moment is ruined when they realize that I-Chaya is dying from le-matya poison. Spock the Younger braves the dangerous desert on his own to summon a healer while Spock the Elder comforts his old pet. He doesn’t remember any of this happening before.

Spock the Younger eventually returns with a grumpy healer, but it’s too late. He decides to let I-Chaya die peacefully rather than suffer a painful extended life, and wonders how he’s going to break the news to Sarek.

Fortunately his father is a cold, emotionless automaton and all is forgiven, especially when Spock the Younger explains that he was simply trying to decide where his life would take him and that he’s chosen Vulcan.

Spock the Elder figures he’d better get out of there before he messes anything else up. He takes his leave of Sarek.

SAREK: You saved my son’s life, Selek. There is no way I can fully repay you for that.
SPOCK: Try to understand your son, Sarek of Vulcan. It will be repayment enough for me.
SAREK: A strange request, but I will honor it.

Spock returns to the present day and finds Kirk pining for him at Harlan Ellison’sTM Guardian of Forever. Seems like everything’s back to normal, except for poor I-Chaya. Kirk heartlessly says, “A pet? Well, that wouldn’t mean much in the course of time.” Thanks for your sympathy, Captain.

They return to the ship, where Dr. McCoy is anxious to run their crew physicals. Good to be back home. The doctor complains that he has to recalibrate the medical scanners for Vulcans, just for Spock. Life is so hard sometimes.

SPOCK: Dr. McCoy, you do not know your good fortune. If the times were different, you would have to recalibrate for an Andorian.
MCCOY: What’s that supposed to mean? If that was supposed to be a joke, Spock, I have to remind you Vulcans don’t tell jokes.
SPOCK: Times change, Doctor. Times change.

Get it?

Analysis

I’m not quite sure what to make of this. On the one hand, it has strong links to two terrific episodes of the original series, “The City on the Edge of Forever” and “Journey to Babel,” and it’s written by D.C. Fontana, who revisits the characters and relationships she originated in the latter. But despite the joy I felt at seeing Harlan Ellison’sTM Guardian of Forever again onscreen, along with another fine performance from a (seemingly uncredited) Mark Lenard as Ambassador Sarek, the episode is strangely lacking.

First off, the odd references to “the time vortex” and the redesigned Guardian donut made me think they were using a cheap knockoff to avoid some kind of lawsuit from Harlan EllisonTM. That isn’t unheard of. But then they actually refer to it as the Guardian, so that clears things up. I’m still not sure why it’s voice sounds like someone (in this case, James Doohan) imitating a ghost though. Whatever, moving on.

Even after rewatching the expository scene where things went wrong in Spock’s past, I still don’t understand it. Or rather, it makes no kind of sense. Aside from the crazy paradoxes that demand that he have traveled back in time in the first place, why can’t he be in two places at once? Or three places, counting his younger self. The idea of the recording altering history is ludicrous, and it’s weird that the Guardian, who knows and sees and hears all, presumably, didn’t automatically correct for that or warn them in the first place. What kind of a guardian is he, anyway? I know this is all just handwaving to get Spock to revisit his childhood, and from there things do improve considerably.

Except there’s no, ahem, logical reason for the timeline to continue to change while he’s there. No logical reason within the narrative, but a good one from a storytelling perspective: there wouldn’t be any tension if Spock knew exactly what was going to happen at any given moment. Connie Willis uses the same technique in her time travel books Blackout and All Clear, to much better effect. Some of the inconsistencies can be attributed to Spock’s oddly faulty memory–faulty by Vulcan terms, I imagine. Must be the human blood. But the death of his pet sehlat? Why? How did events change to cause that? They set up this loss as being at least slightly significant, but Kirk’s insensitive comment aside, how does it matter in young Spock’s life and the course of Vulcan events? It’s all rather wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey.

Removing Spock from the timeline also should have had a much bigger impact on history, at least as far as Enterprise is concerned. How many times did he save the ship and/or Captain Kirk’s life in the course of three seasons? Or Captain Pike’s, for that matter. I find it hard to believe that Thelin was ever an adequate substitute for him. Besides which, what’s an Andorian doing in Starfleet? If events had transpired differently in the Federation all because Sarek is short a wife and kid, there have to be some other huge differences in this timeplane, whatever that is.

I was also a bit disappointed that no one bothered looking up Thelin to see how his life was different once they put things back to normal. I get the impression that I will keep wanting more from these episodes than they can deliver and that I’ll have to fill in some of the gaps myself. I thought Amanda was a little disappointed that Spock had chosen Vulcan, but I might have been reading into things. It’s hard to gauge a reaction when all she does is blink in response to his announced decision.

I can’t overlook what I perceive as some major plot flaws, but this episode must be celebrated for its valuable contributions to the Vulcan culture and Spock’s childhood–which was even referenced in the 2009 Star Trek film. (In which an older Spock once again interacts with his younger self.) There are also some lovely character moments between Spock, his younger self, and his parents, and the dialogue is often terrific, even if the delivery isn’t. It sometimes sounded like the actors were reading the script for the first time, especially when Spock mispronounces the word “sacrifice.” Or maybe it’s just his Vulcan accent. In fact, episode trivia by the Okudas on the DVD revealed that Billy Simpson, the kid who played Spock the Younger, recorded his lines as an audition tape–which Hal Sutherland thought was so great he ended up using it for the actual episode. In my humble opinion, some more takes might have been in order, so I can only assume it was just cheaper and faster to use the taped recording. But those are the kinds of production decisions we’re dealing with here.

Still, I loved a lot of the background paintings for Vulcan and the Guardian’s planet, and I even caught some music cues adapted from the original series. And forcing a kid to put down his pet is pretty heady for a cartoon in any decade. But I can’t help wondering how things could have played out with live actors and another twenty-four minutes to play with. For instance, I’d expect Kirk to be a little melancholy at returning to that planet, given what happened to one of his great loves as a result of meddling in time. Oh well, I guess I’ll have to lower my expectations, huh?

If this episode is the best of the animated series, as many regard it, then I’m worried about how I’m going to get through the next twenty episodes.

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

Torie Atkinson: Jeez, another downer episode.

This one just didn’t work for me. For one, I still can’t figure out how, exactly, this paradox is supposed to work. Because Spock was in the past he couldn’t also be in some other past? Really? And if the sehlat didn’t die in the original timeline but he did fight the le-matya… what exactly happened? Did Spock the Elder originally intervene before the sehlat could jump in? Seems unlikely, as the sehlat was loyally following the boy. How is it that Spock, with an elephant’s memory, can’t remember with even a mild degree of accuracy the most formative adolescent experience of his life? The taunting scene bothered me as much now as it did when I saw it again in the new Star Trek movie–it feels like caricature and not character. Combine all that with a whiny, nasally child’s voice, some really stiff delivery, and the absolute worst boy’s outfit I’ve ever seen, and there doesn’t seem like much to love.

Yet there were some things I admired. Getting to see Vulcan, its architecture, it’s weird planetoid moon, and its cheesy flying cars was pretty neat even if, again, it doesn’t make much sense. I liked Thelin, who had everything to lose by this and yet respected Spock and his decision. They seem much alike and you can see why the alternate Kirk would have chosen him as a first officer.  We learn so much about Spock in these twenty minutes. On the original series he always refers to Starfleet and the Federation as his home, but once he sees it all again Vulcan is home again. It’s an emotional response, not a logical one. I was moved by how much he loved his mother though he could never express it to her, and how much he felt he hurt her by choosing the Vulcan path.  He still rejects her philosophy and we get a brief glimpse here of the reason for that: emotions cause pain. Any child can tell you that, but it’s all the more interesting to see Spock go through it.  Kirk’s offhand remark that a pet is insignificant in the grand scheme of things hurts, you can tell.

The evocation of two excellent original series episodes didn’t hurt either, but I almost wish they hadn’t gone there because in comparison this is so flat and uninspired. I’m still nagged by so much that doesn’t add up. If the death of the sehlat made this Spock choose the Vulcan path, then what precipitated the change in the original timeline? Doesn’t that seem like a huge thing to just gloss over? And the cheap “Oh yeah, it’s my cousin Selek! We all remember him!” crap–come on. I don’t buy it, Sarek and Amanda wouldn’t have bought it, and even baby Spock would’ve probably demanded to know biggy Spock’s make and model, so to speak.

I do want a sehlat, though, so at least there’s that.

Torie’s Rating: Warp 4

Best Line: SPOCK: There is some human blood in my family line. It is not fatal.

Trivia: D.C. Fontana was a script consultant on the original series and served as story editor and producer for the animated Star Trek. She wanted to write an animated episode that would “touch-back” on the original series, allow Spock to revisit his childhood, expand his relationship with Sarek, and show more of the Vulcan homeworld than was possible in live action. The use of the Guardian of Forever was a convenient way of getting Spock into his own past without wasting valuable exposition, which was needed to fill in the rest of the complex back story.

NBC executives balked at depicting euthanasia, but D.C. Fontana and Gene Roddenberry refused to change the ending. It was intended as a moral lesson for children.

The script indicated that Thelin’s skin should be blue, to match the skin color of the Andorians on the original series, but Filmation often had trouble with colors, leading to some interesting variations on the animated show.

Filmation artists also ignored Fontana’s instruction not to include a moon in Vulcan’s sky (to be consistent with continuity established in “The Man Trap”). Instead, they placed a gigantic planetoid in the background, which also appeared in the theatrical release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. They did, however, recreate the landscape of the Guardian’s planet from “The City on the Edge of Forever.”

Other notes: Mark Lenard (Sarek) was only one of three actors to reprise his character from the original series on the animated show. James Doohan recorded Sarek’s lines for this episode before Lenard became available.

The director’s son, Keith Sutherland, provided the voice of the bully insulting Spock.

In their Star Trek Chronology, Michael and Denise Okuda decided that this episode was the only one of the animated series to be included as canon because of Fontana’s importance in building Spock’s character in the original series and because material in “Unification” (TNG) and “Journey to Babel” reinforced events in “Yesteryear.” Consequently, other references began appearing in Star Trek: Voyager, Deep Space Nine, and Enterprise.

This is one of three animated episodes that does not take place on the Enterprise bridge.

This was the second episode to air in most of the United States, but it was the first to air in Los Angeles. It was swapped with “Beyond the Farthest Star,” since George Takei was running for public office and NBC would have had to offer equal air time to his opponents if they had broadcast  an episode which featured his voice as Sulu.

D.C. Fontana recycled the plot of this episode on Land of the Lost in the 1974 episode “Elsewhen.”

The animated series was nominated in the First Annual Emmy Awards for Daytime Programming in “Outstanding Entertainment Children’s Series” based on this episode.

Star Trek 101 by Terry J. Erdman and Paula M. Block named this the best episode of the animated series.

This episode was adapted into a View-Master reel entitled Mr. Spock’s Time Trek.

The story “The Chimes at Midnight” in Star Trek: Myriad Universes further explores the differences in the timeline in which Spock died.


Previous episode: Season 1, Episode 1 – “Beyond the Farthest Star.”

Next episode: Season 1, Episode 3 – “One of Our Planets is Missing.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

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About Eugene Myers & Torie Atkinson

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 fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is forthcoming from Pyr.

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.