Oct 14, 2020
Star Trek (TAS) “The Counter-Clock Incident”
At long last, we’re coming to the end of an era here at the Agony Booth: This is the last ever episode of Star Trek (the ’70s animated series) left for us to recap. A lot has happened on the TAS front in the 14 years since I kicked things off with “Mudd’s Passion” (and yes, it really took us that long to finish recapping a show that was only on TV for a couple of seasons): the entire animated series was released on DVD in 2006, then on Blu-ray in 2016, and is now just as widely available on streaming as all the other Star Trek shows. So after several decades of languishing in obscurity, it’s safe to say that the animated series is no longer the redheaded stepchild of the Star Trek franchise.
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And despite creator Gene Roddenberry’s 1988 edict that the animated series be removed from official Star Trek canon, references to it have been slowly seeping their way back into the live-action shows for years, in everything from Deep Space Nine to Enterprise to Discovery to even the remastered TOS episodes with new CGI effects that reused TAS ship designs. So TAS fans can rest assured that the animated series is now about as canon as a Star Trek show can get without any official announcement from Paramount/CBS (or whatever they’re calling themselves these days).
Also in the previous 14 years, my fellow Agony Booth staffer Thomas Stockel did most of the hard work in getting these recaps done, covering 15 out of 22 episodes. But we decided that in the end, it made sense for things to come full circle, and since I started these recaps, I should be the one to finish them.
And so, you’re about to find out why I was in no real rush to wrap things up, because the final episode is “The Counter-Clock Incident”, originally aired October 12, 1974, and a pretty lackluster way to end this TV series and also this series of recaps.
The episode starts with an extremely echoing captain’s log where Kirk tells us the Enterprise is headed for the planet Babel (as in the TOS episode “Journey to Babel”), where “ambassadors from all Federation planets” are gathering to honor the ship’s current guest of honor, Commodore Robert April, the first captain of the Enterprise. Hardcore Trek fans know “Robert April” was the name Roddenberry used for the ship’s captain in his original Star Trek pitch, back when the hero ship was the “SS Yorktown”. And for decades, April’s existence was mostly fanon until an episode of Discovery canonized Robert April as one of Starfleet’s most decorated captains. Also according to that episode, he’s apparently just as decorated as Jonathan Archer, so get ready to have your socks blown off.
We learn that Robert April has been an “ambassador-at-large” for 20 years, but now he’s reached the age of 75, which according to Kirk is the mandatory Federation retirement age. And wow, plenty of people don’t even retire by age 75 in the year 2020, let alone a couple of hundred years into the future when lifespans will presumably be a lot longer. Also, this “mandatory retirement age” prompts all sorts of interesting questions that won’t be answered in the episode, like: is this the retirement age for just humans, or all Federation citizens? Because I’m pretty sure a 75 year old Vulcan is not even middle-aged.
The white-haired Commodore April stands next to Kirk’s chair on the bridge, and he’s voiced by TAS MVP James Doohan, and he talks about how being on the Enterprise is like being home. Also, he claims to have been in the “San Francisco Navy Yards” to see the ship being built. So, several years before The Motion Picture, Roddenberry already had San Francisco in mind as—if not necessarily Starfleet HQ—at least a very important Starfleet location.
Enter Dr. McCoy with Robert’s wife Sarah April, who we learn was chief medical officer of the Enterprise when her husband was captain. McCoy is marveling at how much of the equipment in his sickbay was invented by Sarah herself. Sarah, voiced by Nichelle Nichols, says that “as the first medical officer aboard a ship equipped with warp drive”, she constantly had to come up with “new ideas”. Which implies that the Enterprise was the first ship with warp drive, though if that’s the case, not only does it contradict the later shows, the animated series is also contradicting itself, because “Time Trap” established that the USS Bonaventure was the first ship with warp drive.
Kirk compliments Sarah as a “pioneer” while McCoy calls her “intelligent” and “beautiful”, just like the big pink and purple flower she has in her hands. Kirk knows the flower is from Capella IV (the setting for the TOS episode “Friday’s Child”) and Sarah says it only has a lifespan of a few hours. Which will of course be important later.
Spock interrupts this vital talk of flowers to report they’ve made “visual contact” with the “Beta Niobe nova”, previously mentioned in “All Our Yesterdays”, so I guess they’re on the scenic route to Babel. A misty pink and white donut appears on the viewscreen and Sarah declares it to be “beautiful” but also “very deadly”.
Suddenly, Spock picks up a ship on a “collision course” with the Enterprise. He says it’s moving at an impossible speed: “Something on the order of warp 36!” Kirk orders evasive maneuvers, and the rather ugly ship passes through the frame. It turns out the ship is not headed for the Enterprise, but rather directly into the Beta Niobe nova.
Kirk orders Sulu to put a tractor beam on the fast-moving ship. The pilot finally contacts the Enterprise, and it turns out to be a blonde woman who’s speaking in gibberish that’s obviously reversed speech.
Kirk has no idea what language the pilot is speaking, so he tells Uhura to run it through the “universal translator”. Aren’t all communications with the ship automatically run through the universal translator? Nevertheless, Uhura is able to ascertain that the woman is speaking “the same universal language we speak, but she is speaking in reverse.” Kirk finally has her run the tape backwards, and the woman declares that she’s on a “priority mission” and the Enterprise is slowing her down and they need to release her or else she’s “doomed”.
Scotty calls up to say that (all together now) the ship can’t handle much more of this speed, and helmsman Arex reports that they’re now traveling at warp 11. Oh shit, they’re all about to turn into salamanders, aren’t they? Kirk says he has no choice but to shut off the tractor beam, but Sulu can’t do that because the controls aren’t responding.
The Enterprise is now traveling at warp 20 directly into a supernova, and Kirk apologizes to the Aprils for dooming them. But it seems the two are totally cool with this, because they still consider themselves “starship personnel” and as such, they’ve always been prepared to give up their lives.
Kirk thinks they still might have a chance to break free once the alien ship burns up in the nova. The ship enters the nova, but alas, the Enterprise is still being pulled in behind it. There’s a shot of Sarah’s flower dying as the Enterprise heads into the nova, and soon the ship is all covered in sparkles. They pass through the nova, and a rather bored Kirk notes that they’re not dead. And now they’re looking at the viewscreen, and all they see is an inverted starfield, with black stars on white space. Oh, and the ship is now flying backwards.
Back from break, Kirk’s echoing log says they’re in “some reverse universe”, and still being towed by that other ship. Scotty calls up from Engineering to say that everything’s fine, except “every control is working in reverse” now. Oh, is that all? Sounds like no biggie. Going by the tone of his voice, Kirk couldn’t care less, and tells Uhura to hail the other ship again. Sarah April interrupts Kirk to tell him that her flower is suddenly alive and blooming again. Robert gently tries to shut her down, telling her Kirk has bigger things to worry about than her stupid flower, but Sarah insists that it really seems like her flower is “growing younger”.
Spock notes other similar things are happening around the Enterprise. The “ship’s chronometers are also running backward”, he says, accompanied by a shot of old school analog counters ticking down. So the obvious conclusion is that everything is reversed in this universe, and time flows backwards, and if they stay here, they’ll all grow young as well. This is accompanied by a shot of Sarah’s flower transforming back into a seedling.
Uhura finally gets the other ship on the horn, and the pilot chews out the Enterprise crew for interfering with her mission. And lots of time is devoted to explaining how she’s talking forwards now, thanks to their brains now working in reverse.
The pilot says she’s an explorer who was caught off-guard when a “dead star” went nova, which in this reverse universe means it came back to life, and she was pulled into the star and ended up in our forward universe. She has a theory that two stars going nova at the same time in the same place in both universes formed a “gateway” between the two realities. Kirk thinks they can just head back the way they came to return home, but it’s too late: in this zany backward universe, the nova has already become a star. Wait, within the last three minutes? In a supplemental log, Kirk tells us the explorer’s name is “Karla Five”, distant cousin of Johnny, and she comes from the planet “Arret”. Hmm. “Arret”. Clever reverse code there, guys. Maybe they should have called it “Erra-tay” to really obfuscate things.
The Enterprise is now cruising backwards to Arret. In the Enterprise briefing room, Kirk discusses the situation with Spock and Scotty and the Aprils, and everybody’s pretty hyped at the prospect of growing younger, and Robert says he might end up being too young to retire. Kirk says that he and Spock and Robert April will beam down to Arret. Well, sure, why not let Robert tag along? What’s he got to do besides watch Judge Judy and comment on Fox News articles? As they stand on the transporter pad, Scotty casually drops the info that they’ll be beaming down to the laboratory of Karla Five’s son, and of course Kirk thinks Karla’s son must be a child, and he’s irritated because they “don’t have time for children’s games”, and ho-ho, is he in for a surprise!
When they get down there, Karla introduces her son Karl Four, who’s a grizzled old man of course (and also voiced by Doohan, of course). Spock doesn’t miss a beat and immediately pronounces that this is “most logical”, because the residents of this universe must age in reverse. He adds that here, “descendants are born before you, and ancestors are born after you!” And… how exactly does that work, anyway? You know, the less I think about this, the better.
There happens to be a baby in a playpen nearby, and Karla says this is her father. Kirk gets a stunned look on his face as if to say, “I’m not even gonna try to figure this shit out”, and steers the discussion back around to how they’re going to return to their “positive matter universe”. Wait, this is an anti-matter universe now? Hell, why not? It makes as much sense as anything else going on right now.
Karl Four croaks out that he’s been working on this problem, and suddenly they’re all standing around a giant, room-sized star chart of the galaxy. The map turns into a negative image with white stars against a dark background, and Spock says that the location of Arret “corresponds exactly” with the location of Earth. I know, what are the odds? Then red dots start flashing on the map, and Spock explains this is where dead stars occupy the same space in both universes. Hold up, I thought this was Karl Four’s map? Why is Spock suddenly in control of it?
Robert then suggests they help one of these dead stars be born, which would form a gateway and allow them to return home. Karla says they’ll have to be travelling at ludicrous speed to get through the nova, so she offers up her ship, which they can latch onto with a tractor beam to pull them through. It might work, but if there’s any miscalculation, they’ll all die flying into a supernova.
Back on the Enterprise, another echoing captain’s log entry explains the plan again, and how they’re headed for a dead star that matches the location of the nova Minara (previously mentioned in “The Empath”) in their own universe. And Karla Five’s unmanned vessel will be carrying enough “positive matter armaments” to ignite the dead star. Kirk tells Robert that they might get him to Babel after all. But then Robert reminds him that the trip to Babel means “the end of my career”. Way to be a Bobby Downer. Karla Five is on the Enterprise’s viewscreen wishing them good luck, and she notes that success or failure, she’ll never see them again.
Then Kirk asks when the “youngest crew member” will “return to the moment of birth”. Oh that’s right, they’re all supposedly growing younger, even though everybody still looks the same. Regardless, Spock says they have just a bit more than 18 minutes until they all regress to newborns. 18 minutes? What? Why? I mean, I assume they’re aging backwards because they’re in a crazy backwards universe, but why would they be de-aging this much faster than the universe’s own inhabitants? And I’m assuming they’ve been in this universe for hours, so why are they just starting to age backwards now?
And as Spock speaks, we abruptly get a shot of, let’s say, early twenties Kirk. Starfleet Academy Kirk, maybe. Uhura also looks… a little younger, I think?
Spock says they may end up being too young to understand how to operate the Enterprise. And then Shatner pitches his voice higher as he asks Sulu for an update. A slightly younger Sulu replies, “I don’t know! What am I doing here?” Oh no, he’s become as useless as Harry Kim! Kirk realizes Sulu is already too young to do his job, and has Arex take over for him, and orders Uhura to the navigation console, but now Uhura’s too young and doesn’t have any idea what all these controls are, either.
Luckily, Spock’s here to take over for both of them, because as a Vulcan, he ages slower than everyone else. Plus, he can do every job on the Enterprise anyway. “But,” he adds, “even I will become too young to know what to do!” And I think we already saw an example of that when he was going through pon farr on the Genesis Planet.
We get another echoing log entry, with Shatner doing a hilarious impression of what I think is supposed to be a young boy, but instead it sounds like he’s too drunk to modulate his voice. They only have ten minutes now, and everyone’s younger. Spock is at Sulu’s console, saying they’ll have to disengage the tractor beam on Karla Five’s ship soon, and Teenage Kirk looks at him and says, “Tractor beam?”
Spock immediately realizes Kirk has been incapacitated and takes over command. But then Robert April speaks up, saying he’s the senior officer aboard, and now that he’s merely middle-aged instead of old as dirt, it only makes sense that he assume command instead. Spock agrees to this, calling him “Commodore”, but then Robert gets confused and starts thinking he’s captain again.
Robert takes the captain’s chair, and who knows where Kirk went. Spock, sitting next to Arex, starts counting down as they approach the star. There’s a cut, and suddenly Spock looks like a child (even though he’s still speaking in adult Spock’s voice), while Arex is totally gone, suggesting he’s already aged back into a zygote. Robert is forced to take the controls himself.
Sarah tends to a grade school-age Uhura as the Enterprise flies backward into the nova, gets covered in sparkles again, and emerges back in the positive universe.
Robert happily announces the reverse aging has stopped, but Sarah points out that the Enterprise crew are now all children. But Robert’s got the solution: they can use the transporter to reconstruct their “original molecular structure”, the same trick that worked in “The Lorelei Signal” when all the men on the crew got really old instead of young.
However, Sarah notes that the two of them aren’t children, and they can stay the age they are now and live their lives again. But Robert shoots down that suggestion for the dumbest of reasons: you see, the life he’s already led was so amazing and fulfilling that he doesn’t need to live it over again, because he couldn’t possibly “improve one bit” upon it. And you’d think Sarah April would be like, “suit yourself,” and go hook up with some young stud. But instead, she’s touched by the idea and they kiss. This is absurd, of course; nobody in their right mind who’s age 70+ would turn down the opportunity to go back to being in their thirties or forties. Hell, I’m pretty sure a lot of Enterprise crew members would have happily signed up for the opportunity to be ten year old kids again.
After a lengthy shot of the Enterprise flying through space, we return to the bridge, and just like that, everyone’s back to their correct ages again. Uhura gets a message from the Federation stating that due to Robert’s “heroic actions”, whatever those were, they’re reconsidering his mandatory retirement and thinking about letting him stay on as ambassador-at-large. Robert and Sarah’s hearts are warmed, and Robert says that even an old geezer of 75 can still give his “service to the galaxy”. Kirk notes that Sarah’s flower is blooming again, and she says it got a “second life”, and in fact, traveling to the reverse universe gave everybody a second life. But not a third season, gang, sorry. The Enterprise flies off, and that’s the end.
So this was a pretty mediocre way to end the series, though I suppose it makes for a slightly better series finale than “Turnabout Intruder”. At least TAS’ finale got to explore a little bit of the history of the Enterprise, drop in some TOS references, and bring things back around to Roddenberry’s original Star Trek pitch, even though very few viewers at the time would have known anything about Robert April’s origins.
But everything else here was pretty silly, particularly the idea of a “reverse universe” where humans evolved the same way on the same planet speaking the same language even though time runs backwards, which somehow became an anti-matter universe halfway through the episode, while making about as much sense as the anti-matter universe from “The Alternative Factor” (i.e., none). I’m guessing the original pitch for this story was primarily about the Enterprise cast turning into children and Commodore April becoming young again and saving the day, but after all the exposition involved in setting up Karla Five and her kooky universe, the de-aging concept became an afterthought. And the resolution felt like an aftethought too, with everybody getting instantaneously cured completely off-screen.
The premise of the Enterprise crew turning into children later resurfaced on The Next Generation as “Rascals”, which wasn’t a great episode, but I suppose it was executed about as well as you could expect, given the completely ridiculous concept.
The writer of this episode, “John Culver”, is a pseudonym for Fred Bronson, who was working as an NBC publicist at the time and was asked to use an alias to avoid appearances of a conflict of interest. He later went on to co-write two TNG episodes: “Ménage à Troi” and “The Game”, both of which surely mean we’ll be seeing more of Mr. Bronson’s work on this website in the future.
This wasn’t the end of animated Star Trek—Star Trek: Short Treks already gave us two animated episodes, Star Trek: Lower Decks is set to debut on CBS All Access this year, and a more kid-friendly show is being developed for Nickelodeon—but for Star Trek, the 1970s animated series, that’s all she wrote. While later disowned by Gene Roddenberry and Paramount, this show was a pretty important stepping stone in the Star Trek canon, bridging the gap between the original series and the motion picture revival that was only five years away. And you can see the beginnings of a lot of things that would later make their way into TNG, most importantly the greater focus on the bridge crew ensemble instead of just the captain, as well as the seeds of a more enlightened, inclusive Trek. It wouldn’t be called one for decades, but TAS is where Star Trek officially became a franchise.