Star Trek Guide

Celebrate Star Trek: Discovery’s return with one of the best episodes of the most neglected Trek series

There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.

What to watch

“Yesteryear,” a 1973 episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series. Written by D.C. Fontana (a key contributor to the original 1960s Star Trek, who penned 10 episodes and served as the story editor), “Yesteryear” takes place in the wake of a routine fact-finding mission into a “time vortex.” Though Captain James T. Kirk and the USS Enterprise’s landing party have taken great pains not to interfere with history, when they return to the present, they discover that a minor oversight has inadvertently erased first officer Spock from the timeline. To restore his reality, Mr. Spock must head back through the vortex to his own boyhood on the planet Vulcan to save his younger self from a fatal accident.

Why watch now?

Because the second season of Star Trek: Discoverydebuted last night.

Set about a decade before the Enterprise’s adventures in the original series, the latest interstellar drama is different from other shows in the Star Trek TV universe. It tells more of a serialized story, and it’s focused less on a single ship’s crew and commander than on one particular upper-level Federation officer: Michael Burnham, played by former The Walking Dead actress Sonequa Martin-Green. In Discovery’s first season, Michael gets bounced from her original post due to criminal insubordination, and she is reassigned to a new ship to help fight a war against the Klingons alongside a crew that’s not sure they can trust her… just as she (correctly) surmises that not all of them are on the up-and-up. Last year’s finale ended with some of the season’s big mysteries and plotlines being resolved, then it tacked on a coda / cliffhanger, as the USS Discovery received a distress call from the Enterprise’s pre-Kirk commander, Captain Christopher Pike.

Season 1 also spent a lot of time digging into Burnham’s background as an orphaned human who was adopted as a child by the esteemed Vulcan emissary Sarek — also known to Star Trek fans as Spock’s father. Some of the franchise’s most memorable moments have dealt with Spock’s Vulcan upbringing and how being reared as an icy, unsentimental logician affected his relationships with his human colleagues. Discovery is continuing this theme with its own heroine.

Star Trek: The Animated Series did this, too — especially in “Yesteryear.” After the original Star Trek was canceled in 1969, its three seasons became so popular in syndicated repeats that creator Gene Roddenberry decided to bring the concept back as a cartoon, and he insisted on taking the same mature approach to science fiction storytelling that had won so many new fans. “Yesteryear” is a prime example. Fontana doesn’t use her time-travel plot for some kind of goofy, kid-friendly caper, but as a way to look more closely at Spock’s origins. The episode explores the finer details of Vulcan culture, while showing how Spock’s family expresses deeper feelings in their own way.

Who it’s for

Trekkies and neophytes alike.

Because there’s been such an explosion of Trek product over the past few decades — movies, TV shows, games, books, and more — even fans of the franchise may not realize what a big deal Star Trek: The Animated Series was in the 1970s. Roddenberry maintained a remarkably high level of quality control on the Star Trek offshoots and merchandise after the original series went off the air. The Gold Key comic books, the paperback novels and short-story collections, and the cartoon all featured work from some of the industry’s top writers who were serious about Roddenberry’s mandate to contrast big philosophical ideas and ethical quandaries with small character moments.

The animation in Star Trek: The Animated Series is nowhere near as strong as the writing. The production company, Filmation, didn’t have the resources available to the era’s major animation studios, so the characters’ movements range from “stiff” to “nonexistent,” while the color palette looks drab and blocky. But the artists did put a design flourish into the alien planets’ backgrounds that a live-action series would’ve found difficult to replicate. And they also occasionally dropped in creatures with bizarre antennae and facial features that were beyond what most 1970s makeup artists could’ve done.

Nearly all of the major original cast members returned to The Animated Series as voice actors (at Leonard Nimoy’s insistence, according to series regular George Takei), so it’s maybe best to think of this Star Trek like an illustrated radio play. In “Yesteryear,” there’s a rare subtlety to the way William Shatner and Nimoy approach their roles as Kirk and Spock, respectively. They maintain relaxed, conversational vocal tones, rather than shouting or exaggerating. That all adds even more poignancy to the subtle emotional swells of Spock’s visit with his younger self.

Where to see it

CBS All Access or Netflix. Although one of the main selling points for CBS All Access is that it’s the exclusive home of Star Trek: Discovery (as well as future Star Trek TV projects, such as Patrick Stewart’s as-yet-untitled Jean-Luc Picard drama and the upcoming raunchy cartoon Lower Decks), Netflix, for now, still shares the streaming rights for several of the old shows, including The Next Generation, Voyager, Deep Space Nine, Enterprise,and The Original Series.