Star Trek's New Animated Shorts Bring Back The Characters Fans Have Been Missing

The latest "Star Trek" animated series, "Very Short Treks," attempts to honor — or at least revisit and poke fun at — arguably the most underrated series in the nearly 60-year-old franchise. "Star Trek: The Animated Series" was a two-season Saturday morning cartoon show starring most of the original cast and written by many of the original writers, which filled in the gaps left in the historical records after the Enterprise's five-year mission got cut short by CBS.

While "Star Trek: The Animated Series" could be a little hit-and-miss (just like every other "Trek" show) it expanded on the original series in crucial ways. The animation was limited, but there was no longer any need to hold back on ambitious creatures and concepts due to budgetary concerns. So the cartoon featured an array of bizarre worlds and life forms that had never been possible on the show before and have rarely been explored since. "The Animated Series" also introduced the concept of a holodeck for the very first time, and featured some of the first sequels in the series, with characters revisiting important planets and story elements from classic episodes like "The City on the Edge of Forever," "The Trouble with Tribbles," and even "Shore Leave."

And not for nothing, but the first "Star Trek" series to ever win an Emmy Award was this short-lived animated 1970s show, so have some damn respect is all I'm saying here.

But what "Very Short Treks" has reminded us "Animated Series" fans — and perhaps introduced to new generations who are, probably, less familiar with the show — is that in addition to the live-action crew members, the original "Star Trek" cartoon also introduced new regular characters into the franchise's canon. And although a lot of the modern "Trek" shows take place in roughly the same era as "The Animated Series," those characters have been, tragically, almost completely ignored for 50 whole years.

Any which way you canon

Granted, the question of whether "Star Trek: The Animated Series" is officially canon has long befuddled "Trek" fans and has led to some (hopefully good-natured) arguments over the years. 

Sure, there have been serious continuity mix-ups between "The Animated Series" and the live-action films and shows. The animated episode "The Magicks of Megas-Tu" found the Enterprise traveling to the center of the universe and meeting and befriending Satan. But in the movie "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier," Spock's half-brother Sybok forces the crew of the Enterprise to travel to the center of the universe, allegedly for the very first time, where they (sort of) meet God instead. You'd think if "The Animated Series" was canon that the whole "Actually, we've been to the center of the universe, that's where Satan lives, he's a pretty good guy if you get to know him, and we could totally introduce you" thing would have come up at least once.

Then again, even officially canonical live-action "Trek" can get retconned within an inch of its life. The final episode of "Star Trek: The Original Series" claimed that it was an actual law that women weren't allowed to be Starfleet captains, a plot point the franchise has mercifully ignored in the years that followed. 

So what's official? All we know for sure is that when the trailer for "Very Short Treks" debuted this new web series declared that it was "anything but canon." But that probably has a lot less to do with whether "The Animated Series" is canon and a lot more to do with the tone of the new show. The first episode, "Skin a Cat," features Starfleet officers acting wildly out of character. Also, everyone on the Enterprise dies at the end. So that episode, at least, is obviously a comedy sketch, and not a new and vital piece of "Trek" lore.

A talking cat?!

Regardless, "Very Short Treks" placed front-and-center two characters who were very important to "Star Trek: The Animated Series" but have rarely been seen since. They're two regular crew members who, in live-action, would be difficult to bring to life on a TV budget. But again, this was animation, so all bets were basically off.

The character featured most prominently in "Skin a Cat," besides Kirk and Spock, is Lt. M'Ress. Originally voiced by Majel Barrett (who played both Nurse Chapel and Una Chin-Riley in "The Original Series," and the voice of almost every Starfleet computer, and Lwaxana Troi in "The Next Generation"), and now voiced by Cristina Milizia ("The Casagrandes"), M'Ress is a communications officer who sometimes fills in for Uhura on the bridge of the Enterprise. She's also a Caitian, which is why she looks like a humanoid cat.

Another regular bridge member who appears, without dialogue, in the first episode of "Very Short Treks" is Lt. Arex, one of the ship's navigation officers, who has taken over Ensign Chekov's post on the bridge. Walter Koenig, who played Pavel Chekov in the original series and films, was the only regular cast member not to return for "The Animated Series," although he did get to write an animated episode featuring a gigantic Spock clone, titled "The Infinite Vulcan." Voiced by James Doohan (Scotty himself), Arex is an Edosian, a species with three arms, three legs, and three fingers on each appendage.

Caitians and Edosians both appeared in "Star Trek" in the years that followed, mostly on "Lower Decks." In that series, the ship's doctor, T'Ana is also Caitian, and an Edosian is portrayed as the proprietor of a health spa. In live-action, Caitians have also appeared in the films "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" and "Star Trek Into Darkness." So we know their species, at least, are canon! There's no excuse!

The day of retconning is at hand

So the question is ... where are M'Ress and Arex in these new "Star Trek" movies and shows?

The Kelvinverse "Trek" movies, as well as shows like "Discovery" and "Strange New Worlds," all take place during or shortly before the "Original Series" timeline. (Well, okay, not "Discovery" so much anymore, but the first two seasons at least.) While some of the characters may be alternate reality versions of the original crew, all of these films and shows feature at least some classic characters who we've already met, before the events of the first two TV series.

"Discovery" and "Strange New Worlds" go out of their way to re-introduce younger versions of beloved characters like Spock, Kirk, and Scotty in unexpected and dramatic ways, and add new elements to their characters that expand on what we already knew about them. Even characters who had very little screen time previously, like Captain Pike, get to take center stage and keep it for a while, establishing their own greatness as both accomplished Starfleet officers and multifaceted fictional characters.

But although these new live-action films and shows have the budget to turn Caitians and Edosians into a reality, and even though characters like M'Ress and Arex have so little built-in canon that modern storytellers could build them up free from most expectations, they've been conspicuously absent until "Very Short Treks." And again, "Very Short Treks" isn't even canon.

Considering the obsessive urge long-running franchises like "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" have to turn every minor character, moment, and even stray lines of dialogue into excuses for spin-offs, "Trek's" weirdly stubborn refusal to make M'Ress and Arex series regulars — or at least prominently featured guest stars — is simply confusing. Hopefully, these new appearances remind the producers, and audiences, that they're out there somewhere, and they're just waiting to make a triumphant and canonical return.