Like Star Wars and the MCU, the Star Trek franchise sometimes has an unfair reputation for being inaccessible for those who aren’t caught up on the geeky lingo and the lore. In truth, a lot of Trek is very accessible for casual fans and families — from the ‘90s stalwart The Next Generation to the classic ‘60s show, and more recently, the retro-futuristic romp Strange New Worlds. But, if you want to fire your kid's imagination with some classic science fiction adventure, it might be time to dive back into the 1973-1974 show, Star Trek: The Animated Series. On Sept. 8, 2023, this quirky animated take on Trek celebrates its 50th anniversary, and there’s never been a better time for families with younger kids to get beamed up.
On Sept. 8, the Star Trek franchise will celebrate its annual “Star Trek Day,” which commemorates the original airdate of the original show in 1966, and also the first airing of The Animated Series in 1973. This September, in honor of Star Trek’s animated past, new animated shorts will air on StarTrek.com, created by Too Many Cooks impresario Casper Kelly, all done in the style of the 1973 show. This will also coincide with a few movie theater screenings, celebrating the animated history of Star Trek. But, for families, it’s perhaps just a simple reminder that the 1973 Star Trek is not only fine for kids as young as 4 or 5, but it’s also way smarter than most kids cartoons both then, and now.
Interestingly, in 1973, Star Trek: The Animated Series wasn’t called “The Animated Series.” It was just called “Star Trek,” and it was written and produced by two of the people who made the classic show such a big deal: Gene Roddenberry and Dorothy “D.C.” Fontana. Several scriptwriters from the classic show returned too, including science fiction writer Samuel A. Peeples, who coincidentally wrote two successful Star Trek pilot episodes, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” in 1965, and “Beyond the Farthest Star,” for the 1973 cartoon. Here’s what will shock you if it's been a while since you’ve seen the 1973 cartoon: “Beyond the Farthest Star” is better than “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”
Over and over again in Star Trek: The Animated Series, the crew deals with conflicts in which physical force is rarely the solution. In the excellent episode “The Slaver Weapon” (written by famed novelist Larry Niven), Spock defeats some carnivorous cat-aliens, mostly because they underestimate him as a vegetarian. In “Eye of the Beholder,” Captain Kirk and Scotty realize that large elephant-like creatures are actually super-intelligent, much smarter than humans. In “The Terratin Incident,” Kirk helps to save a group of humans who have been shrunken to less than an inch tall, but nonetheless live their lives in peace.
The messages of tolerance and peace within the Trek franchise are well known, but what’s nice about The Animated Series is that this moralizing never comes across as sanctimonious. Instead, the show retains the hyperbolic charm of the ‘60s show, minus some of the fisticuffs. It's also a deeply goofy show, which is exactly why it appeals to children. Take it from one dad who knows — watching this show with a 5-year-old is extremely fun, and will result in a kid who asks more questions, is more reflective, and is open-minded enough to accept all sorts of possibilities. Also, did we mention cat people? Or the one where Kirk and Spock are turned into mermaids?
Star Trek: The Animated Series was only on for two seasons, but it won a Daytime Emmy for best children’s show during that time. It was the first kids show to depict a child grieving for a pet that had passed away and gave kids a thoughtful alternative to some of the more by-the-numbers crime-fighting cartoons of the time. Created by Filmation — the same studio that would later give the world He-Man and the Masters of the Universe — the 1973 animated Star Trek is minimalist, quirky, and features a lot of the color pink.
If you’ve never seen the show, or your family needs a way to dive into Star Trek that is both retro and relevant, it's time to boldly go, back to the grooviest Enterprise of them all.