How Star Trek: The Animated Series Influences Discovery

Ryan Britt points out how much The Animated Series episode "Yesteryear" has influenced Star Trek: Discovery Season 2.

Star Trek: The Animated Series Episode Yesteryear

This Star Trek: Discovery article contains spoilers for Season 2, Episode 8, “If Memory Serves.”

When people debate about their favorite iterations of Star Trek, almost no one will say their favorite series is Star Trek: The Animated Series. Which, is actually, too bad. Because, while it’s impossible to make the argument that TAS is the best version of Trek, it does contain, perhaps, one of the best Spock-centric episodes ever: “Yesteryear.” (The episode is included on Den of Geek’s list of 50 Best Star Trek Episodes.)

This story is not only so good and so heartfelt, it clearly inspired several episodes from Star Trek: Discovery’s second season. If you’ve never seen it, here’s why you could watch it right now…

Written by D.C. Fontana (that’s the woman who created Amanda Grayson) “Yesteryear” is a classic sci-fi predestination paradox story. How can Spock save himself from dying as small boy in the wilds of the planet Vulcan? Short answer: thanks to time travel he already has! But, like the classic episode “City on the Edge of Forever,” this story briefly presents an alternate universe in which both Spock and Amanda aren’t alive in “the present day.” Because Spock is off time traveling to a different era with Kirk, he misses his appointment to save himself in his own past.

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If some of these paradoxes sound a little Doctor Who timey-wimey, that’s because they totally are. But, the time travel stuff isn’t necessarily what makes the episode so great. In 1973, when this episode first aired, it was the only Star Trek episode that gave glimpses into Spock’s childhood. And, unlike Discovery, this wasn’t a flashback, Spock was actually, physically back in time, seeing his younger self and his family.

In fact, one scene in “Yesteryear,” in which Vulcan bullies mercilessly mock little Spock about his human mother, was recreated — nearly identically — in the 2009 Star Trek reboot, directed by J.J. Abrams and co-written by Alex Kurtzman, the current showrunner of Star Trek: Discovery. And the architecture and design of Spock’s childhood home is very similar to how it’s presented in the newer episodes of Discovery like “Brother,” “Light and Shadows,” and, most recently, “If Memory Serves.”

But “If Memory Serves” borrows more than just the aesthetics of “Yesteryear,” it features Michael Burnham, running away from home, and nearly getting killed by the horrifying wildlife on the planet Vulcan. And guess what? The exact same thing happens to Spock in “Yesteryear.”

In Discovery, Spock mentions the “many dangers” in Vulcan’s Forge and, in “Yesteryear,” young Spock is nearly killed by a tiger-looking creature called a Le-matya. But, of course, thanks to adult time-traveling Spock and Spock’s pet sehlat, I-Chaya, young Spock is saved. In Discovery, Burnham is saved from different terrifying monster—but, again, time travel is involved because Spock got a message from the Red Angel.

Now, I’m not saying any of this proves Spock is the Red Angel in Discovery, even though he was his own guardian angel in “Yesteryear.” Instead, “Yesteryear,” is a fascinating piece of art which lovingly created the groundwork for what contemporary Trek is exploring now. We don’t get this touching Michael Burnham stuff with Spock, without “Yesteryear.”

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Obviously, the events of “The Cage,” and “The Menagerie” get a lot of attention in “If Memory Serves” and during this season of Discovery in general. But, I would argue the most important and formative Trek story, and the one that actually represents the retro-heart of Discovery is, in fact, this 30-minute animated episode. “Yesteryear,” is legit Star Trek canon, too, and it’s very clear that the writers of Discovery know that.

The only question now is this: Will Discovery ever let us see Spock’s “giant teddy bear with fangs?” Because “Yesteryear” was an episode of The Animated Series, it does have a message that is not-so subtly aimed at children. In it, Spock has to deal with the death of I-Chaya, his beloved pet. In the closing lines of the episode, Kirk says that the death of a pet “wouldn’t mean much in the course of time.” Spock replies tenderly with “It might, to some.”

This might not be as hardcore as Burnham and Spock’s childhood blow-up in Discovery, but I’d say you don’t really know Spock until you’ve seen him crying over the death of a furry, bear-looking thing with droopy sad eyes and giant fangs.

You can stream “Yesteryear” right now on Netflix or CBS All-Access.

Ryan Britt is the author of the book Luke Skywalker Can’t Read and Other Geeky Truths (Plume/Penguin Random House). You can find more of his work here.