“A little ship that took a little trip”: The Terratin Incident (TAS) vs. One Little Ship (DS9)

*This post contains full spoilers for both episodes, and very mild spoilers for some ongoing storylines in Deep Space Nine, up to the middle of its sixth season. 

Star Trek: The Animated Series – “The Terratin Incident” (season 1, episode 11)

Written by Paul Schneider; directed by Hal Sutherland; first aired in 1973

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

The crew of the Enterprise put their survey mission on hold to investigate a strange signal that seems like just noise, except for one word in archaic code: “Terratin”. After following the signal to a volatile, volcanic planet, the ship is hit with a strange beam that ruins the dilithium crystals, leaving the crew stranded … and just a little bit shorter, maybe? Yup, turns out they’re all shrinking, and will soon be too small to operate any of the ship’s systems. Hijinks ensue: a tiny Sulu falls off a console and breaks his leg; a tiny Nurse Chapel falls into a fish tank; and a tiny Kirk turns regular-sized again after beaming down to the planet, but loses his adorable, custom-made tiny communicator in some lava. It turns out “Terratin” is the name of a tiny city of tiny people who need help getting off the planet before they get lost in lava, and only shrank the crew of the Enterprise because they couldn’t communicate any other way. Kirk is mightily pissed at the tiny people, but agrees to help them anyway, after his crew is unshrunk, and after the Terratinians (?) pony up some of those dilithium crystals they’ve got just lying around (but which they couldn’t use to power tiny ships of their own, I guess … whatever, it’s a shrink-ray episode, best not to over-think it I guess).

VS.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – “One Little Ship” (season 6, episode 14)

Written by Bradley Thompson & David Weddle; directed by Allan Kroeker; first aired in 1998

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

The crew of the Defiant take a break from the front lines of the Dominion War to do some good old-fashioned research, by sending Bashir, Dax, and O’Brien to explore an anomaly which will shrink them, and their runabout, until they’re “half the size of a comm badge”. It’s all fun and tiny games until the front lines of the war come to them, and the Defiant is attacked and commandeered by the Dominion’s first batch of Jem’Hadar soldiers to be bred in the Alpha Quadrant. Sisko and the rest of the Defiant crew pretend to cooperate with the Jem’Hadar’s orders to get the Defiant up and running again, while secretly plotting to either retake or destroy the ship, all under the watchful eye of a grizzled old Gamma Quadrant Jem’Hadar who thinks those whipper-snapper Alphas are getting played by Sisko. But the tiny Bashir, Dax, and O’Brien have flown their tiny runabout inside the Defiant, and are there to provide tiny help by rerouting tiny circuitry and firing tiny photon torpedoes at those newfangled (but full-sized) Jem’Hadar.

terratin 3

The words “campy” and “Star Trek” have never exactly been strangers. No matter how seriously Trek’s fans may take it – no matter how many 3,000-word blog posts they might write on what Trek has to say about contemporary social issues, just to pick a random example, cough cough – a certain silliness has always been part and parcel of the Trek experience. For much of Trek’s history, we could blame that silliness, if we wanted to, on the fact that Trek’s ideas tended to be bigger than its budget. This is most obvious in the original Star Trek, where, for instance, “The Devil in the Dark” set out to tell an important story about empathy for the ‘other’ by having its intelligent alien Horta be as inhuman-looking as possible … which, on a Star Trek budget in the 1960s, resulted in a giant pizza-muppet that’s probably damn-near impossible for the uninitiated to take seriously today. This is what I find kind of fascinating about Star Trek: The Animated Series. At least in theory, its animation gives Trek the chance to do things, visually, that would have been impossible in the original series, and which were still a significant challenge in the later Trek series of the 90s and 2000s – such as having a very non-human-looking alien, like Lt. Arex, appear as a member of the bridge crew (or at all, really).

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But let’s be honest: Trek’s campiness was never just a result of undersized budgets, was it? Or, even if it did start out that way, even if the sillier elements of the original Star Trek really were the closest its creators could get to something more serious and realistic that they’d envisioned, those silly elements still ended up hard-wired into the Trek formula. And they stayed there, into the 90s and beyond, when Trek went from a cult following to a mainstream pop-culture phenomenon. We can see this in the fact that even Discovery, debuting in 2017, stuck with the time-honored but undeniably silly Trek tradition of making each alien species ‘the _____ race’. Don’t get me wrong, Discovery’s Saru looks great (and is an excellent character at any rate), but he still belongs to ‘the scared race’, after Trek has had decades to move beyond such simplistic representation of alien races.

The reason Trek doesn’t move past such things isn’t that it can’t, it’s that those things are what Trek does, on purpose. I don’t believe Trek was ever really meant to be plausible science fiction built on meticulous world-building. Its formula has always been to make serious ideas, even important ideas, palatable to a broad audience, one that includes people who might not particularly want their TV to be serious or important, or whose politics might not be immediately compatible with Trek’s (mostly) progressive perspective. And one of the ways Trek does that is to hide that serious importance behind the camp of brightly-colored costumes and rubbery aliens and pseudo-scientific technobabble. Which is all okay, I think.

terratin 2

But it’s also okay if, sometimes, that campy silliness is an end unto itself. Every episode doesn’t need to be “The Devil in the Dark”. The franchise’s campier conventions work as an infrastructure for delivering more serious themes and morals – which is, personally, what keeps me invested – but as we watch, episode to episode, we get attached to that infrastructure, too. The bright flashing buttons and distinctive technobabble start to feel like home, and sometimes we just want to spend some time with them. Both “The Terratin Incident” and “One Little Ship” use a classic sci-fi conceit – one that’s pretty campy in its own right – to let us see those familiar details from a different perspective, or angle, or height.

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And, maybe ironically, it’s a conceit that would have been impossible to execute under the budget and effects restraints that are so often blamed for making the original series so campy. Shrink-ray stories are the kind of classic sci-fi that The Animated Series seems to have been made for, and I can imagine that there might have been people involved in the making of the original Star Trek who had been itching to do an episode like “The Terratin Incident” until animation gave them the chance; after all, Fantastic Voyage, the classic tiny-submarine-inside-a-human-body movie, was based on a story co-written by Jerome Bixby, who also wrote for the original Star Trek. And by the time Deep Space Nine came along, not only did that show have access to better effects, but being set on a space station had forced DS9 to make its shuttle-sized runabouts a much more central and recognizable part of the show than shuttlecraft ever had been on its sister shows. A runabout – the Rubicon, in this case – makes the perfect Fantastic Voyage-style vessel for zooming through the metaphorical veins and arteries of the Defiant.

What’s appealing about shrink-ray stories, I think, is the way they’re uniquely qualified to show us the familiar in unfamiliar ways, and to make the mundane seem impressive, or threatening, or both. Fantastic Voyage does this with the human anatomy, while the shrinking story I remember most clearly from my own childhood, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, applies that formula to the stereotypical suburban home and backyard of a late-80s family comedy. It’s probably not controversial to say that “The Terratin Incident” and “One Little Ship” aren’t the most substantial episodes of Trek, but they are fun and interesting for the ways in which they make Trek’s familiar, comforting, campy details unfamiliar and fantastic (albeit silly) again.

terratin 5

Now, I’m not sure if “The Terratin Incident” necessarily understands that this is what it’s doing; it spends too much time grounding its plainly ridiculous premise in techno-babbly discussions of the pseudo-science behind the crew’s “shrinkage” (the episode’s choice of words, not mine!). It seems to me that this is always the issue (or one of them, anyway) with The Animated Series: the series itself seems as unsure as anyone else of where, exactly, it fits into the Trek franchise. It’s torn between being a continuation of the original series for the older audience that grew up on it, or a kid’s show that translates the ideas and ideals of Trek into a format that’s friendly to a younger audience – like, say, what the X-Men animated series of the early 90s would do, much more successfully, for that franchise.

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DS9, on the other hand, has a tendency to fully embrace the camp and comedy of its lighter episodes, giving the audience a break from the darker and more involved storylines that make up most of its run. Episodes like “Take Me Out to the Holosuites” and “Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang” work precisely because they accept their premise for exactly what it is, silliness and all. “One Little Ship” signals, in its first minute or so, that this won’t be an episode to take too seriously, by having Kira and Sisko almost break the fourth wall when they literally laugh at the premise of the episode they’re in. When Dax and Bashir reassure a nervous O’Brien that they will return to their normal size, as long as they retrace their steps exactly out of the anomaly, the undisguised fairy-tale logic of that explanation hangs a lantern on the silliness of the episode, as does Dax throwing to commercial with the blatantly cheesy line, “If you liked that, you’re gonna love what’s coming up next!”

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In fact, the only real complaint I had about “One Little Ship” – after accepting it for what it is – is that its side-story about the 2 different species of Jem’Hadar soldiers seems a bit out of place here. Don’t get me wrong, potential differences and conflicts between new Jem’Hadar created in the Alpha Quadrant and the older originals from the Gamma Quadrant is a really interesting idea, with clear implications for the larger Dominion War storyline; imagine the possibilities of a revolt against the “Alphas”, and therefore against the Dominion itself, by the Gamma quadrant Jem’Hadar, who were literally born and bred (not to mention drugged) to be perfectly obedient soldiers. But that’s kind of the problem: it’s too interesting an idea to be the C-story in a comic relief episode, especially given that it will never be mentioned again after this episode.

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Watching “One Little Ship”, it’s hard not to think of The Next Generation’s equally silly “Rascals” (which I’d be comparing to “One Little Ship” in this very post, if “The Terratin Incident” had never existed), in which a small (sorry) group of crew members who’ve reverted to childhood help save the Enterprise after it’s been boarded by hostile Ferengi. But where the Ferengi – as they’re portrayed on TNG, at least – are notoriously difficult to take seriously as villains, DS9 spent several seasons building the Jem’Hadar up to be the dictionary definition of a serious threat. As a result, their inclusion here sets kind of a weird tone for an episode with such a silly main premise, and the story of the Jem’Hadar’s second-in-command, a “Gamma” who understands his adversaries from the Alpha Quadrant far better than the “Alphas” who were genetically engineered specifically for that purpose, is more compelling and tragic than “One Little Ship” is equipped to deal with (not unlike the way DS9 previously squandered the dramatic implications of having Sisko encounter an alternate-reality version of his late wife, by having it happen in a couple of particularly campy Mirror Universe episodes).

terratin chapel fall

But when “The Terratin Incident” and “One Little Ship” embrace the campy fun of their premise, they do a pretty good job of showing us the Trek universe from the perspective of someone “half the size of a comm badge”. “The Terratin Incident” goes to slightly ridiculous lengths to involve its tiny crew in some truly Honey, I Shrunk the Kids-worthy miniature set-pieces; it sure is convenient (or inconvenient, if you’re Nurse Chapel) that there happened to be a fish tank in sick bay, so Kirk could heroically save Nurse Chapel from drowning in it. But it is pretty entertaining to see the increasingly shrunken crew crawl around on top of their familiar flashing consoles, or lug around small engineering tools as if they were two-by-fours. “One Little Ship” does an even better job of that stuff, showing an impressive attention to detail that 70s animation may not have been capable of. Its depiction of the technobabbly circuitry within the Defiant’s walls as a sort of glowing forest for Bashir and O’Brien to trudge through is beautifully done, and having the tiny runabout gently collide with one of those familiar Starfleet console buttons in order to press it is an inspired bit of visual fan service as well. There’s something pretty compelling, too, about seeing first the face of a Jem’Hadar soldier, and later Worf’s face, looming on the shrunken runabout’s viewscreen like a massive planet. Some of the jokes and sight-gags work better than others, of course – the runabout’s last-second escape from an approaching fireball is nothing you haven’t seen a million times before – but for the most part, “One Little Ship” feels more focused and purposeful in its tiny hijinks than “The Terratin Incident”, mostly due to its decision to focus on a single little ship, Fantastic Voyage-style.

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Are these episodes essential Trek? I mean, no … they don’t have much going on thematically, as far as I can tell, and much of what works about them would probably fall flat for anyone who isn’t already very familiar with the trappings and clichés of Trek. But I found “The Terratin Incident” to be one of the more entertaining episodes of The Animated Series, and “One Little Ship” does a good job of demonstrating that DS9, as dark as it can be at times, also has an impressively self-aware and self-deprecating sense of humor (not to mention a cast who, by this point in the series, seem to have been having a whole lot of fun).

Next time, we’ll analyze an android’s dreams, and a hologram’s daydreams, when we look at The Next Generation’s “Birthright, Part 1” and Voyager’s “Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy”.

birthright p1 3

 

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