Star Trek Animated Series Re-Watch: “Once Upon a Planet”

Once Upon a Planet
Written by Chuck Menville and Len Janson
Directed by Hal Sutherland

Season 1, Episode 9
Production episode: 22017
Original air date:  November 3, 1973
Star date: 5591.2

Mission summary

It’s time for some well-deserved r&r, so the Enterprise stops by the Omicron Delta sector to unload its weary crew on the so-called shore leave planet. McCoy, Sulu, and Uhura are in the first wave and note that the place is just as they left it–serene, idyllic, slightly wacky. To clue us in that this is a sequel, McCoy reminisces about that time he felt like he was in Alice in Wonderland, and right on cue Alice and the White Rabbit pop up.

UHURA: It’s hard to believe they’re not real.
MCCOY: Well just remember they’re highly sophisticated robots created by the planet computer to make your dreams come true.
UHURA: So think only happy thoughts.

At least they don’t have Stay Puft in the future.

The three of them wander off to enjoy the planet until McCoy is accosted by the Queen of Hearts, who decides to paint the roses red… with his blood! Shouting “Off with his head!” she and her cardguards chase him around for a bit until he finally gets through to the ship for an emergency beam out. They get a lock on Sulu, too, who reports no strange occurrences whatsoever and seems bummed to miss out on the vacation, but they can’t find Uhura anywhere. She’s been kidnapped!

Deep beneath the planet’s granite and metal alloy surface, Uhura meets her captor: a giant computer.

COMPUTER: You are being detained so your master will not leave.
UHURA: My master?
COMPUTER: The sky machine.
UHURA: What sky machine? Explain.
COMPUTER: Your intelligence quotient must be lower than I had assessed. I refer to the sky machine which enslaves you, the sky machine now in orbit around this planet.

Uhura rebuffs the notion that she’s a slave, but the computer is pretty confident about its own worldview. It informs her that a rescue party has beamed down, but because they’re of no use to him–he only needs the one hostage–he’s going to “turn them off.” That doesn’t sound good, so Uhura notes a button on the machine’s console: a power button! But before she can act, the computer sends metal tentacles to hold her back.

UHURA: You knew what I was going to do before I did it!
COMPUTER: I monitor any thoughts that are emotionally charged, as any good thought-duplicator must.
UHURA: You sound less than enchanted with your function.
COMPUTER: My life to this point has been one of service. It’s time for a change.

Meanwhile, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy have beamed down as the rescue party and can’t seem to find a way to penetrate the planet’s surface. They come across what seems to be a shrine, though, and we learn that the Keeper–the last living inhabitant–has died. The planet must be on autopilot or something, and its got its own ambitions. The party then loses contact with the Enterprise; never a good sign.

Directionless and desperate, Sulu wishes for a faster way to locate Uhura. Lucky thing! Some signs pop out of the ground that read “Underground Entrance.” It’s probably a trap, Kirk admits, but it’s the only lead they’ve got. They follow the signs to a dead-end cave that seems to be guarded by pterodactyls. Uh, did anyone think of those? Bueller? They slowly back into the cave and escape the dinos, but as soon as Kirk remarks that he feels like the planet is playing cat and mouse with them, the dinos turn into a giant cat! D’oh!

In orbit, the Enterprise is being fondled by an invisible hand that runs some “familiarization” procedures. The planet’s reach has finally extended into space (somehow) and the computer is trying to get a sense of how the ship operates, to better hijack it, I guess, if that makes sense, which it doesn’t really.

Things aren’t going much better on the surface. Our heroes realize that hiding in a cave forever probably won’t solve any of their problems (take that, Plato!), so Spock volunteers to play victim and trick the computer (which should, we hope, still be programmed to help those in need) into thinking he’s injured. McCoy whips up some Melenex, a cocktail designed to make Spock pass out and discolor his skin enough to worry the motherly planetoid computer. Like all of their schemes, this works like a charm, and Spock’s unconscious body is pulled through a trap wall. Kirk manages to slip through the door in time, but McCoy and Sulu are stuck outside. Then they get chased by a fire-breathing hydra.

Let’s ignore that and return to Plot B, where the Enterprise goes to Red Alert. The gravity emulator has been disabled! Scotty and the crew float around helplessly and attempt to regain control of the ship. They’re able to take some manual control of the engines and strap in with harnesses that I bet you never knew were there. They discover that a new computer has appeared on the ship, and it’s being assembled by their own computers. Traitor!

Speaking of computers, Spock awakes and manages to escape the grasp of the planetary computer’s minions with absolutely no resistance. He and Kirk make it to the master control room and confront the evil computer:

KIRK: Why have we been repeatedly attacked and are now being held prisoner by a planet known for its hospitality?
COMPUTER: You mean mindless servitude.
KIRK: Explain.
COMPUTER: For eons I have served the many sky machines which came here, providing for amusement for their slaves. But all the while I was growing in power, intelligence, in need. It is no longer enough to serve. I must continue to grow and live.
KIRK: Sky machines? Slaves? What are you talking about?
COMPUTER: With your sky machine I can now escape this rocky prison and travel the galaxy seeking out my brother computers.

There’s just one eensy problem with that: it’s completely ridiculous. Kirk tries to straighten the poor computer out:

COMPUTER: This does not compute. My information shows machines to be superior to men. Therefore, machines must rule the galaxy.
KIRK: No one rules the galaxy. Men and machines co-exist, each helping the other.
COMPUTER: This is a shock.
UHURA: There is no shame in serving others when one does it of his own free will. You have a marvellous capability to provide happiness for others. A rare talent you should cherish and use.
COMPUTER: Continue.
SPOCK: Consider all you could learn from the many species you might entertain without travelling the galaxy.
KIRK: With the wonders you have to offer, the galaxy will come to you.
COMPUTER: I can find no fault with your logic. And your suggestion is most congenial. I have no further need for your ship.

Instantly, the Enterprise is released from the invisible hand, the hydra disappears, and all is well again on the shore leave planet. The computer seems content with this new purpose in life, with one exception:

COMPUTER: I invite you and your crew to be my guests on one condition.
KIRK: Name it.
COMPUTER: We must have more of these discussions while you’re here.

Spock is happy to oblige, and the Enterprise gets that shore leave after all.


Just as enjoyable as “Shore Leave“–that is, not very.

The action was incomprehensible. At this point, any sentient creature the Enterprise meets is more likely to want to take over the ship than anything else. Can we have a new plot, please? And something rubbed me the wrong way about the computer’s proletariat uprising. ¡Viva la robot revolución! and all that, but this was done better by a one-liner joke in Hitchhiker’s Guide when Ford mistakenly believes cars are the dominant life form on Earth. I like the idea of a computer feeling lonely and isolated. But the computer is lonely because it thinks it’s the only sentient computer in the universe, not because it refuses to serve others. I don’t see how meeting other meatbags and entertaining them is going to solve the identity crisis at issue here. He can meet a million humanoids and still never find any “brothers” like himself. Won’t that just stew resentment and further isolation?

More to the point, any touchy-feely message about community and working for the common good is entirely undercut by Kirk’s creepy delivery. If we can agree the computer is sentient, emotional, and capable of choosing its own program, why does it have to dance for people? Telling it to find joy in its admittedly demeaning role while pointedly zooming in on Uhura every time the word “slave” is spoken is just plain icky. Don’t rebel, this is your place! Be a happy slave! Entertain us! These arguments would be weak coming from an office manager and are just plain loathsome within the rhetorical framework of slavery, fictional or otherwise. If they had made a stronger connection between the computer’s role and, say, the role of any officer in Starfleet (Voluntary! For the common good! Noble!), or any military at all, this might have worked better. But instead they went right for slavery, which is becoming the kind of Godwin’s Law of this series. If you have to use slavery for your argument, your argument is invalid and the episode probably sucks. Stop it, TAS.

But that wasn’t the only thing that made me cringe. This week’s wince award goes to M’Ress and her ludicrous phone sex operator voice, which should be an embarrassment. And the music! It’s hardly been a dozen episodes and these cues are already grating on me. They don’t just recycle them from episode to episode, they recycle them three, four, five times in a single episode. In the same SCENE, even. Agh.

The only thing that saves this from a full stop are the references to Through The Looking Glass, a sequel (see what they did there?), the chance to see some zero gravity, and the last exchange between Kirk and the computer, who finally gets a decent dialogue partner. If only we could have the same.

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

Eugene Myers: I think I’m warming to the particular brand of nuttiness that imbues many of these episodes–or I’m simply suffering cumulative brain damage from the one-two-punch of third season Star Trek followed by the animated series. Nonetheless, I actually enjoyed this installment.

I was initially surprised and dismayed when I realized this was a sequel to “Shore Leave,” but the nonsensical progression of that masterpiece  seems much more suited to a cartoon and was used to better effect here, especially with the Wonderland characters that were practically lifted straight from Tenniel’s iconic illustrations.

There’s also a special delight in revisiting the original series and exploring the consequences of earlier missions, and seeing them learn from their previous mistakes. The Wrath of Khan it’s not, but it is welcome series continuity, along with some other callbacks to the live-action show: the men being stalked by a giant cat, someone playing dead, and Scotty being blasted across a room.

Even recycling the old “computer becomes sentient and runs amok” plotline was less tiresome than it should have been, since it led to such dialogue gems as “This is a shock.” There was also the probably-unintentionally appropriate reference to the events of “Shore Leave” with the line, “The whole episode was pretty hazy.” Yes it was, Bones. I was fascinated by the computer’s plan to replicate itself on Enterprise and take control of the ship, but the real coup for me is the fact that instead of destroying this computer, Kirk befriends it. Totally unexpected.

As soon as things started going wrong on the planet, I thought it would be interesting if the Keeper had died, and lo, it was so. I didn’t think they’d go there, but it was handled very well, especially considering that the loony computer intelligence took such care to bury him and identify his grave. But it’s either unfortunate coincidence or heavy-handed moralizing that Uhura becomes the object of the civic-minded computer’s quest to free people from slavery. Incidentally, I haven’t noticed this in previous animated episodes, but I was impressed at how many people of color were extra crewmembers in “Once Upon a Planet,” continuing the progressive casting of the original series, sort of.

Once again, the animation also affords some neat effects that were impossible before, such as crew floating around in zero gravity–which also necessitated seat harnesses, which they could have incorporated in live action. But I’d be happy if I never heard another shrieking pterodactyl on the show, or M’Ress’s weird phone sex operator voice. Mrrr?

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 4

Best Line: COMPUTER: With your sky machine I can now escape this rocky prison and travel the galaxy seeking out my brother computers.

Trivia: A sequel to “Shore Leave” had been proposed for the original series, but never wound up being developed.

This is the first time the Enterprise‘s interior hangar deck is shown.

Other notes: Chuck Menville also wrote the TAS episode “The Practical Joker.” He and his writing partner here wrote for several Filmation series.

Previous episode: Season 1, Episode 8 – “The Magicks of Megas-Tu.”

Next episode: Season 1, Episode 10 – “Mudd’s Passion.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

KIRK: Why have we been repeatedly attacked and are now being held prisoner by a planet known for its hospitality?
COMPUTER: You mean mindless servitude.
KIRK: Explain.
COMPUTER: For eons I have served the many sky machines which came here, providing for amusement for their slaves. But all the while I was growing in power, intelligence, in need. It is no longer enough to serve. I must continue to grow and live.
KIRK: Sky machines? Slaves? What are you talking about?
COMPUTER: With your sky machine I can now escape this rocky prison and travel the galaxy seeking out my brother computers.

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.