|And this would be the point you should run away screaming.|
“The Practical Joker” was the Animated Series episode I most dreaded having to watch, even before knowing about Margaret Armen’s submissions. And, while the actual episode isn’t anywhere near as dreadful as I feared it was going to be, it’s still concerning as it marks the point where The Animated Series treads the closest to becoming the one thing that would simply torpedo its legacy: Children’s television.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with children’s television. When it’s working properly, there’s an elegance to children’s television that can make it fundamentally more sophisticated and effective than “adult” fiction because it doesn’t shy away from being idealistic or taking a stand. Indeed, my very favourite television shows were, in fact, designed with children predominantly in mind or at least operated according to a logic that children would find recognisable. But this…is not the kind of children’s television I’m talking about here.
Before I go any further I should probably get the plot synopsis out of the way. While taking a break from a geological survey mission, the Enterprise is randomly attacked by a fleet of Romulan battlecruisers. After seeking refuge in an electrically-charged space cloud, a series of strange occurrences starts to befall the crew. All the cups and silverware are replaced with trick ones, Spock’s science station scanner is replaced with one that has black ink on the eyepieces and the replicators start shooting food out at anyone who tries to use them. Finally, in a woefully iconic moment, Kirk storms onto the bridge and fumes about how someone stole his uniform from the laundry chute and replaced it with one that has “Kirk is a Jerk” emblazoned on the back in bold lettering. After taking turns blaming each other, the crew soon realizes that their practical joker is the Enterprise computer itself, which is suffering from an electronic nervous breakdown as a result of the charged storm the ship passed through. The crew must now work against the clock to interpret and outmanoeuvre the ship’s erratic behaviour before it outwits everyone by plunging them into the Neutral Zone.
So it’s dumb, but inoffensively so. In fact, it’s actually somewhat clever as it starts out leading us to believe it’s going to be a rote and banal children’s television story about a practical joker who will eventually get their comeuppance and learn a lesson about playing hurtful jokes on people before turning into a basic Star Trek techno-puzzle about a computer going out of control. In essence, the episode has played a practical joke on us through subverting expectations, but it’s not really an especially good one as neither type of story is something terribly easy to get excited about. Now, the basic concept of the back half of the episode, that of the Enterprise gaining sentience and leaving clues for its crew to figure out, is actually pretty interesting and it’s a testament to their shared skill as writers that Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky eventually do this story for Star Trek: The Next Generation and manage to make it something other than an unwatchably cringe-worthy disaster. But that story is not this one, and while there are significantly worse ways to kill twenty minutes, I’d be hard pressed to call “The Practical Joker” a highlight of the series. There are a few funny lines and moments, but nothing that struck me as especially memorable.
The other notable thing about this episode is that it introduces the Holodeck. It’s called the rec room here, but it’s self evidently what we’d now call a Holodeck: A room the crew can go to on their off hours to relax in any one of its pre-programmed virtual reality environments. Gene Roddenberry had actually wanted to introduce the Holodeck in the third season of the Original Series, but budget cuts and his own stepping back from day-to-day duties meant he didn’t get to put it into an episode until the Animated Series. And, given we now have the Holodeck, we of course also now have the Holodeck malfunction: In this case the Enterprise plays a joke on McCoy, Sulu and Uhura by locking them in, laying a pit trap for them and then cycling through all the different programmes until settling on a whiteout in an arctic tundra and putting them at risk for exposure. And, although the Holodeck works best when it’s used to explore themes of artifice, metafiction and genre mashup and while we’ll have to wait for its reappearance in Star Trek: The Next Generation before we get there, the first appearance of such an iconic part of the franchise is definitely worth paying attention to.
Now, having exhausted basically all the erudition I can derive from this episode, I want to focus more on the direction it seemed to be going before it pulled a bait-and-switch and why that had me worried for quite awhile. Of course, what I’m referring to is the tendency to associate animation exclusively with children’s television, and not only children’s television in general, but cheap, disposable and mindless children’s television. At some point in its history, most typically pegged at the moment when Hanna-Barbera figured out how to make filler Saturday Morning programming cost effectively and efficiently, cartoons began to be seen as kid’s stuff not worthy of serious consideration.
Soon, creators themselves began to internalize this negative reputation and started talking down to their audience, resulting in a vast majority of animation becoming insufferably and unwatchably patronizing, either because it was obvious throwaway work nobody put any thought into or because it was irritatingly and smugly didactic in its attempt to “teach a lesson”. It eventually got to the point that James “Shamus” Culhane, a veteran animator and director who worked on the legendary Woody Woodpecker short “The Barber of Seville” (named one of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of All Time by animation historian Jerry Beck) along with numerous Disney Animated Canon movies, flat-out said nobody should make cartoons with children primarily or exclusively in mind as they will inevitably be cripplingly paternalistic.
With the success of shows like The Simpsons, South Park and the output of Pixar in more recent years this attitude no longer seems to be quite as widely accepted as it once was, but I still see it quite a lot. Even in my own experience writing about animation this crops up quite frequently: I get the most snarky and bemused reactions and do the worst traffic numbers whenever I talk about cartoons or children’s television (the exceptions being if I talk about something ubiquitous like the Disney Animated Canon or get picked up on a fluke by a huge community blog). Even trying to get people to accept that something as self-evidently culturally and historically significant as Scooby-Doo probably warrants analysis is an uphill battle. This very blog, in fact, has suffered somewhat: My readership figures and comment threads tapered off significantly following the switch from the Original Series to the Animated Series. And, while I did expect this and can’t chalk the whole thing up to me covering a cartoon show, I also find it hard to believe that’s not a factor either.
And this is noticeable in the production of the Animated Series itself. There’s the fact it aired on Saturday Mornings for one thing, but also look at how D.C. Fontana herself felt compelled to defend “Yesteryear” on the basis that it supposedly “taught a valuable lesson to children” and not on the basis of it being, you know, possibly the single greatest character study in the history of Star Trek to date. “The Magicks of Megas-Tu”, debatably the high water mark of the entire series, was almost never made because the network was afraid it that it would cause children to believe God didn’t exist, and Fontana had to come up with some strangled argument about how Lucian’s status as the Devil implicitly proved God existed as well to convince them to let it go through. Also look at the very obvious science lessons shoehorned into “One Of Our Planets Is Missing” and “The Terratin Incident” that in both cases jarred pretty horribly with the rest of their respective stories. While this might not be a guiding concern for those running the show, it very much seems like something that at least had to be on their minds somewhat.
And now maybe it becomes clear why an episode about a practical joker going around playing pranks on the Enterprise crew would make me nervous. Because there’s no way in hell an episode with this kind of premise would ever have been made on one of the live action shows. And for the first time in the history of the Animated Series that’s not a good thing. The sentient starship stuff, yeah: I previously mentioned Braga and Menosky and they do make it work, and they’re far from the only ones to. The Holodeck stuff? I mean, come on, do I need to even say it? Of course Star Trek comes back to that. But the pranks? Absolutely not. That kind of a setup is the exclusive domain of the absolute dregs of the print-and-forget children’s animation industry, and that’s sobering. So, even though “The Practical Joker” isn’t actually that kind of story, the fact it gets close enough so as to tease us with the possibility it might be is sincerely troubling.
It may be a joke, but I’m not laughing.