Mar 9, 2021
Star Trek (TAS) “Yesteryear”
We’re coming into the home stretch with our recaps of the animated Star Trek series, with just four episodes left to go. So it should only follow that we’re finally getting around to the episodes we didn’t have much motivation to write about sooner, mainly because they’re either boring, mediocre, or—in the case of “Yesteryear”—widely considered one of TAS’s finest episodes, and thus not the kind of material that can generate much in the way of complaints or nitpicks or digressions.
“Yesteryear” was written by Dorothy “D.C.” Fontana, who worked as a script consultant on the original series. She’s officially credited with writing some of TOS’s best episodes, including “Journey to Babel”, “The Enterprise Incident”, “Tomorrow is Yesterday”, “The Ultimate Computer”, and a few others, but she contributed greatly to most of the series’ scripts, doing everything from minor polishes to full rewrites. There’s no doubt that Fontana was one of the key behind-the-scenes players instrumental in making the original Star Trek into one of TV’s all-time classics.
So it makes sense that “Yesteryear”, her one credited script for the animated series (though she’s also listed as story editor on all 22 episodes), is obviously written by someone with a deep love of Star Trek and deep knowledge of what makes it work. This episode gives us a look at Spock’s childhood that’s entirely consistent we everything we know about the character, while also giving us plenty of insight into the culture of the planet Vulcan. Which is why it’s no surprise that despite TAS not being officially “canon”, this is probably the one animated episode that’s been referenced the most by the later shows and movies, particularly by Enterprise in its final, TOS fanservice-y season.
It’s obviously a well-written episode, but for me, I must admit, a bit bland. There are plenty of good moments, but unlike some of Fontana’s TOS teleplays, there’s no real action or suspenseful aspects that make me want to rewatch this one on a regular basis. When it comes to the animated show, I guess I prefer the episodes that fly off the rails into total lunacy (“The Slaver Weapon” is probably my favorite—how can you not love a sentient watermelon gun that turns itself into a nuclear bomb? Or an enemy who can be defeated by thinking really hard about eating raw veggies?). But we’re of course committed to covering this entire series from start to finish, so let’s do this.
Kirk’s log tells us it’s Stardate 5373.4 and the Enterprise is in orbit above the “planet of the time vortex”, and their mission is to assist a group of historians in researching Federation history via the use of time travel. Specifically, time travel courtesy of the big round time arch known as the Guardian of Forever, previously seen in the original series episode “The City on the Edge of Forever” (written by Harlan Ellison, but of course Fontana also did a few rewrites on that one).
And I realize this isn’t the first time Kirk and Company have traveled back in time purely for historical research, but given all the ways in which time travel has previously made everything go tits-up for these characters, this still seems like an incredibly bad idea. Look, if you have to go into Earth’s past to retrieve an extinct humpback whale to save the planet, that’s one thing, but does “research” really justify possibly bringing about a universe-annihilating paradox?
We see Dr. McCoy and two of those Federation historians waiting in front of the Guardian, and hey, one of the historians is a member of the Skorr, that yellow Big Bird race later seen in “The Jihad”. There’s also a lady here with a magenta streak in her hair. No idea what race she is.
As McCoy and the historians loiter about, the Guardian suddenly speaks in a withered voice most likely provided by James Doohan, and moans that “the travelers are returning!” Kirk and a random Redshirt leap out of the Guardian, and Kirk declares it was an amazing trip where they were on the Orion homeworld watching the “dawn of its civilization”.
Then Spock appears inside the portal, and everyone looks nonplussed. It seems all the people who were awaiting their return no longer recognize Spock—not even Bones. Instead of reaching the obvious conclusion that they borked up the timeline somehow and Spock no longer exists, Kirk just gets a little miffed and contacts Scotty to beam them up.
In the transporter room, Scotty also has no clue who Spock is. Kirk apparently thinks this is some sort of elaborate practical joke on the part of his senior staff, and angrily states he wants the ship’s “first officer” to be treated with respect. Just then, an Andorian comes sauntering into the transporter room, and everyone reminds Kirk that “Thelin” here has been Kirk’s first officer for five years now.
Quick question: When you think of an Andorian, what’s the first physical trait that comes to mind? Other than the antennae on their head, I mean. Blue skin, right? Well, get a load of Thelin:
Yes, I realize that Enterprise would later introduce Andorians with different skin tones, but I can guarantee that Thelin the Gray, just like the pink tribbles and blue Orions seen elsewhere on the animated series, was the result of director Hal Sutherland being colorblind. And I’m happy to cut the guy some slack, but geez, wasn’t there at least one long-time Star Trek staffer with normal color perception available to quality check this stuff before it aired?
At long last, Kirk and Spock figure out that they’re all telling the truth and not just goofing on Spock. Kirk then gives a log entry saying something must have happened while they were in the past that changed the present, and that’s why nobody knows Spock anymore.
Over in the briefing room, Kirk and Company try to determine what they might have changed. Just then, a crewman who looks like one of the lesser known Kennedys conferences in to say they have no record of anybody named “Spock” ever serving in Starfleet.
Thelin asks about the Vulcan family they told him to research, and Ensign Kennedy puts up a photo of Sarek, and then a photo of Amanda Grayson, and declares that the two separated “after the death of their son”. Also, Amanda later died in a “shuttle accident” on the way back to Earth, and Sarek never remarried. Oddly, there’s no mention of Sarek’s other son Sybok, or his adopted daughter Michael Burnham; but it’s all good, because both of those are/will be canon, and this episode is not.
Spock asks about Sarek’s deceased son, wanting to know his name and age when he died. Ensign Kennedy finally says, “Spock, age 7.” So let me get this straight, Ensign, you were asked to look for a guy named Spock serving in Starfleet, but you didn’t think it was at least a bit noteworthy that this other guy you were asked to research just happened to have a son named Spock who died young? Talk about burying the lede.
Thelin gives a shifty-eyed look (not for any sinister reason, of course; it was just easier for Filmation to animate a character’s eyes and no other part of his face), then we cut to everybody back down on the planet as Kirk wonders if anyone else used the Guardian while they were in the past. Magenta Streak Historian (voiced by Majel Barrett) casually drops the fact that while Kirk and Friends were visiting Orion’s past, they were using the Guardian to “scan recent Vulcan history”, specifically “20 to 30 years past”. Wow. And you didn’t think this was an important tidbit to mention until just now?
Okay, I get it, this episode is trying to gradually lay out the clues for the sake of the younger members of the audience, but it’s kind of hilarious how slow on the uptake everybody is coming off here.
And suddenly the Big Bird-looking historian knows that Sarek’s son died during the Vulcan “maturity test”, which Spock says is called the “kahs-wan”, and which happened for him on the “20th day of Tasmeen”. The kahs-wan was later referenced on an episode of Enterprise, which is cool. Much less cool is how Voyager came up with a nearly identical Vulcan maturity test and called it the “Rite of Tal’oth”, but maybe they were still sticking with Gene Roddenberry’s “TAS isn’t canon” directive at the time.
And now Spock remembers this was the same day his cousin saved his life when he was attacked by a wild animal, and this “cousin” called himself “Selek”, but was never seen again. Thankfully, we don’t get another briefing room scene with everybody trying to grasp the significance of this, because Kirk cuts to the chase and asks if this “Selek” looked like Spock does now.
Spock says it’s possible that it was he who saved the life of his younger self. “But this time,” Kirk says, “You were in Orion’s past with us when the historians had the time vortex replay you Vulcan history. You couldn’t be in two places at once, so you died as a boy!” Even by the sketchy rules of time travel as usually presented in the Trek franchise, this makes no sense whatsoever. Spock was supposed to travel back in time to Vulcan’s past, but didn’t because he was already travelling back in time to Orion’s past? Say what?
Kirk asks the Guardian to send Spock back in time to Vulcan to fix the timeline, and the Guardian agrees. Which is not at all consistent with how the Guardian acts in “City on the Edge of Forever”. There, the Guardian makes a point of saying it can only play all of human history from the beginning and it’s up to the would-be traveler to jump through at the right moment, but I’m assuming this fudge factor is only necessary because this episode is half the length of a TOS episode.
Spock says he must go back for both the sake of his own life and also his mother’s. Thelin pipes up, saying he knows that when the timeline gets restored, it’ll mean that Spock will become the Enterprise’s first officer instead of him, “yet I am not aggrieved.” He says that despite Andorians being a “warrior race”, he has much respect for the bonds of family, so he finds it honorable that Spock would go through all of this to save his mother.
Thelin even tells Spock to “live long and prosper” while flashing the associated hand gesture, so that’s pretty cool of him. I mean, the guy has no way of knowing if he even exists in the “correct” timeline, or is destined to maybe have his own unfortunate shuttle accident.
Spock throws the Vulcan hand gesture back at Thelin, and then the Enterprise beams down a satchel of period-appropriate clothes for him. Spock tells the Guardian he wants to go back thirty Vulcan years to the month of Tasmeen near the city of ShiKhar, which was previously established as Spock’s birthplace in the original series, and also mentioned in a few later shows. Spock jumps through the portal and we see ShiKhar, while he records a “personal log” about being home again and how he had “almost forgotten its beauty”.
Just then, he catches sight of some Vulcan boys bullying another Vulcan boy, calling him “Earther! Barbarian! Emotional Earther!” They laugh at him for not being able to master the Vulcan neck pinch and eventually shove him to the ground, and as you might have guessed, the victim here is the younger version of Spock. In “Journey to Babel”, Amanda talks about seeing Spock get bullied for being part human, which is of course the inspiration for this scene as well as a very similar scene in the 2009 Star Trek reboot, though there, Spock’s response was a lot more physical.
But I have to say, I’m liking the reboot movie just a tiny bit more right now, because at least it didn’t stick with the notion that kids’ wear on Vulcan consists of a bright blue sash, black briefs, bright blue boots… and nothing else.
As adult Spock watches this unfold, Sarek comes up behind him and apologizes for this “unfortunate display of emotion”. And in a rare occurrence, Sarek is being voiced by original actor Mark Lenard here, but don’t hold your breath for a Jane Wyatt voice cameo later. Spock says this is all fine, because he’s actually a member of Sarek’s family and he knows how to keep this sort of thing under wraps. He claims to be (wait for it) “Selek”, a cousin descended of “T’Pel and Sasak”, and he’s on his way to the “family shrine” to honor the “gods”. Sarek immediately invites “Selek” to stay a while at his home.
We next see young Spock with his pet, a large bear-like creature with fangs called a sehlat, which was previously mentioned in “Journey to Babel”, and would also later appear in CGI form on an episode of Enterprise. Li’l Spock then gets a lecture from his dad about how he shouldn’t be fighting with other kids and showing his emotions, and eventually he’ll have to decide if he wants to follow the Vulcan way or the human way.
Adult Spock hangs out with his mom Amanda (also voiced by Majel Barrett), and she notes that “Selek” seems to understand Li’l Spock better than his father. Adult Spock attempts to confirm his recollection that Li’l Spock’s kahs-wan ceremony is coming up tomorrow, but is surprised to find out it’s not for another month.
As Sarek talks to his son, we learn more about the kahs-wan ritual. It’s a test where a little kid has to survive for “ten days without food, water, or weapon on Vulcan’s Forge”, a vast desert. And to that, I’ll just quote what Captain Archer said to T’Pol when she explained the kahs-wan on a second season episode of Enterprise: “Sounds fun.”
Li’l Spock wonders what will happen if he fails the test, but Sarek says that “you will not disappoint me. Not if your heart and spirit are Vulcan.” So, you know, no pressure from the old man here. Once he’s gone, Spock talks to his pet sehlat, named I-Chaya, and wonders if he really is a true Vulcan.
Cut to nighttime and another personal log where Spock expositionizes that the kahs-wan exists because their Vulcan ancestors wanted to make sure that relying on pure logic wouldn’t leave them “weak and helpless”. He then catches sight of Li’l Spock leaving the family compound while being trailed by I-Chaya, and suddenly remembers that it wasn’t the actual kahs-wan ritual where his cousin saved his life. Instead, it was Li’l Spock going off on his own on this night.
Adult Spock follows Li’l Spock out into the desert, just as Li’l Spock is attacked by a giant green wolf-like creature. I-Chaya jumps in to defend him, and the two battle it out until Adult Spock hops onto the wolf-thing’s back and uses the Vulcan nerve pinch to render it unconscious. Adult Spock says they have to get away quickly before the “le-matya” wakes up.
Li’l Spock thanks his “cousin” and hopes he can learn that neck pinch someday, too. He then says he’s out here on a “personal test”, I guess to prep himself for the real kahs-wan. He also says he’s often confused, because his father tells him to do one thing and his mom tells him to do another. Spock reminds his younger self that his mother is a “human woman with strong emotion and sensitivities”, and he also knows Li’l Spock is afraid of taking after her. Adult Spock says that he too has some human blood in him, and “It is not fatal.”
Then he drops a few lines that are key to understanding the nature of Vulcans, including, “What you do not understand, Spock, is that Vulcans do not lack emotion. It is only that ours is controlled.”
Unfortunately, I-Chaya is looking pretty ill. He keels over on his side and starts whimpering. Adult Spock knows the le-matya scratched him with its “poison claws” during their fight, and the animal is dying unless they can find a “healer”. Li’l Spock says it’s his duty to save his pet, and runs across the desert to track down a healer, while Adult Spock applies the nerve pinch to I-Chaya to let him sleep and spare him some pain.
As Li’l Spock runs across the desert, he steps on a tentacled plant that comes alive and grabs him… and then in the very next shot, he’s running across the desert again. Whew! That encounter almost slowed him down by a good two or three seconds.
Finally, he reaches the home of a healer. A bald guy with a white beard answers the door and seems a bit annoyed. Li’l Spock tells him, “My sehlat fought a le-matya in the Llangon foothills,” and man, you can tell the child actor playing Spock here was having all kinds of problems with this line, because it’s clearly been stitched together from multiple takes.
The healer is skeptical, because he knows of Spock and his tendency toward that human custom of “practical jokes”, but Spock begs and pleads and says he’s not just the boy who cried le-matya. Finally, the healer agrees to help. He and Li’l Spock cruise on over in some kind of flying car thing (which, per TAS custom, is bright pink) to where Adult Spock and I-Chaya are waiting.
Later, the healer gives Li’l Spock the prognosis, and I’m sure you can guess where this is going: he can prolong the animal’s life but I-Chaya will be in great pain, or he can put him out of his misery now. Li’l Spock calmly makes the decision to allow his pet to die “with peace and dignity”. Yes, in this episode of a Saturday morning cartoon, the dog dies. It’s pretty remarkable that they were able to include something this potentially traumatic to their target audience, and apparently Roddenberry and crew had to fight hard with the network to keep this plot point in the script.
Cut to Li’l Spock back at home with his parents and explaining his trials and how he had to make a choice, “And I chose Vulcan.” He then excuses himself because he has “business to conduct with schoolmates”. When asked what business that might be, he says it’s a “demonstration of the Vulcan neck pinch” as taught to him by his cousin. In other words, some bullies are about to get their asses handed to them.
Adult Spock says he must also say goodbye and get going on his journey to honor the gods or whatever. Sarek thanks him for saving his son’s life and says, “My home is yours if you pass this way again.”
Hilariously, Spock totally deadpans the line, “I think I shall not.” Well, there’s some of that fine Vulcan gratitude for you. Damn. I know Vulcan’s aren’t supposed to show undue emotion, but is a simple “thanks for giving me a place to crash for a while, cuz” too much to ask?
Back in the present, Spock jumps out of the Guardian to an awaiting Kirk. Jim asks for a status report and Spock says that everything went as planned, except for one small change to the timeline where “a pet” died. Kirk responds, “A pet? Well, that wouldn’t mean much in the course of time.”
Spock replies, “It might, to some.” Oh god, the feels.
They beam up to the ship and McCoy is waiting. He now has no trouble recognizing Spock and is here to scold the two men for not getting their regular physical exams, and he even complains about having to recalibrate his equipment to handle Vulcan physiology. Spock shit-talks him right back by saying that if things had gone differently, he’d have to “recalibrate for an Andorian.”
McCoy is of course confused, and thinks this is a joke and reminds Spock that Vulcans don’t tell jokes. Spock replies, “Times change, Doctor. Times change.” Indeed they do. The end.
As I said earlier, it’s a well-written episode, with some nice moments and good lines, but I’m sorry to say it’s a bit boring overall. Like I said, I prefer the flat-out insanity of other TAS episodes like the one where all the men on the ship turn into drooling idiots because they meet a planet of sexy vampires. Or the one where Harry Mudd releases a love potion gas that makes Nurse Chapel grind all up in Spock’s lap.
Maybe if “Yesteryear” were a live action episode, things would have gotten fleshed out more and there would have been more action than a single scene with a wolf-like creature and half a scene of Li’l Spock dealing with a tentacled plant. But I really can’t complain too much about “Yesteryear”, especially compared to the dull TAS episodes we still have left to recap.