Star Trek: The Animated Series: How Sharper Than A Serpent's Tooth   Rewatch 
September 1, 2020 1:19 PM - Season 2, Episode 5 - Subscribe

The Enterprise encounters a being that once visited the ancient peoples of Earth.

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Background information
Title, story, and script
  • Although co-writer Russell Bates had pitched several never-produced plots to Star Trek: The Animated Series regarding parasites and had also written such a script (entitled "The Patient Parasites"), Dorothy "D.C." Fontana – the series' associate producer and story editor – much preferred the idea of receiving from him a story based on the fact that he is a Kiowa Native American. (TAS DVD audio commentary) Bates remembered, "She had always wanted to see [...] a story about 'the little men from the stars' that Native Americans note in their legends."
  • It was hoped that the addition of co-writer David Wise to the script-writing process – he having been an animator in his pre-teen years – might help Russell Bates by adding a useful perspective to his next teleplay attempt. Bates offered, "I felt that if we combined what he knew of animation and what I knew of TV writing, we might just find the story Dorothy wanted." (Starlog issue #159, p. 27)
  • David Wise learned of Dorothy Fontana's requirements for the story. He reflected, "We went in to meet with Dorothy, and she made it very clear that she was interested in the fact that Russell was a full-blood Kiowa Indian and that that should somehow play into the story, that Russell should, in essence, write from his background." Although Bates was adamant that they continue writing narratives that featured parasites, Wise urged him to instead focus the plot on the particular element that Fontana wanted in the story. Wise recalled, "I said, 'Russell, it's obvious we've gotta do an American-Indian theme story here." (TAS DVD audio commentary)
  • The character of Walking Bear was reused in this episode, having originally appeared in "The Patient Parasites". This episode features him more prominently than that script did and also gives him a unique personality. "He was lifted out [of 'The Patient Parasites'] and later became pivotal to 'Serpent's Tooth'," noted Russell Bates. (The New Voyages 2)
  • This episode was influenced by the death of Gene L. Coon, with whom Russell Bates had had a close professional friendship. "I made up my mind then that my next try at The Animated Star Trek would be an honor and a tribute to Gene Coon's memory," Bates recollected. He deliberately modeled this episode on TOS: "Who Mourns for Adonais?", not only as an intentional homage to Coon – since that installment was both produced and written by him – but also because it was one of Bates' favorites from the installments that Coon wrote.
  • The plot point about Kukulkan actually being an alien lifeform was inspired by the Erich von Däniken book Chariots of the Gods?, especially claims like Indian sites in Peru having actually been created by aliens as methods of communication. David Wise explained, "We thought, 'Well, there's science fiction and Indians in one package.'" (TAS DVD audio commentary)
  • Russell Bates gave the alien influence of Kukulkun a worldwide form. "I always had been outraged that Europeans said the vast cities in Central and South America could not have been built by the 'savages,'" Bates commented. "They had to have had help: the Egyptians, or the Chinese, or the Phoenicians, or even the Atlanteans came, taught the poor Indians how to build their civilization, and that's how it all happened. Horse breath! So, the story about Kukulkan became that Kukulkan visited ALL races of mankind, taught them his knowledge, and then departed. Now the story said that NOBODY on Earth invented a damned thing! They all got their knowledge from somebody else!" Similarly, by having Kukulkan state that he visited the planet's Mayan and Aztec cultures, each of which developed in different centuries, the writers suggested that Kukulkan was on Earth for several hundred years.
  • Including TOS: "The Cage", this episode marks the 100th appearance of Spock.
  • The presence of Ensign Walking Bear in this installment means it was the first episode to feature the appearance of a Native American starship crew member on Star Trek.
  • Prior to the introduction of the Capellan power-cat here, the planet Capella IV appeared in TOS: "Friday's Child". This outing, the penultimate installment of the animated Star Trek series, is the first of two consecutive episodes that feature a Capellan lifeform, as a Capellan flower appears in series finale "The Counter-Clock Incident".
  • In 1975, the animated series of Star Trek won a Daytime Emmy Award in the area of "Best Children's Series" for the 1974-1975 television season. "When Filmation submitted Star Trek for the Best Children's Series Emmy, ["How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth"] is the episode they submitted," explains David Wise, a co-writer of that installment. ("How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth" audio commentary) The episode's other co-writer, Russell Bates, comments, "[The episode] became the only credential submitted when Filmation received an Emmy nomination for the series, and thus was instrumental in the winning of a 1975 Emmy Award." Although Star Trek's original series had repeatedly been nominated for Emmys, this was the first such award that the franchise actually won, and the only best-series Emmy it has ever won (it beat out Captain Kangaroo and The Pink Panther). ("Drawn to the Final Frontier - The Making of Star Trek: The Animated Series", TAS DVD; Star Trek - Where No One Has Gone Before, p. 57, et al.)
Poster's Log:

Man, Chariots of the Gods? got a LOT of attention in the '70s. This episode, the entirety of the backstory for the original Battlestar Galactica series, its own TV movie and "In Search Of..." (hosted by Leonard Nimoy).

Familiar plot points: ancient god turns out to be alien ("Who Mourns for Adonais"), other planets sending probes to Earth to check up on something they left behind ("Star Trek IV: The One With The Whales"), Kirk explaining that humans have changed and aren't like they used to be ("A Taste of Armageddon", among others).

I love the subtle brilliance of showing that Kukulkan gave knowledge to multiple ancient civilizations but, in 2020, it's a bit of a bad look to have all of the puzzle pieces still (finally) put together by a white man.

There seems to be a little bit of an unspoken assumption that Kukulkan, by only giving each of the civilizations it touched a part of its plan, had the intention of humanity working together to call him back.
posted by hanov3r (5 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Tim Apple presents: the Apple Menagerie.

When McCoy is whisked away he has some line like, 'you don't deserve it, Yeoman, but you're going to get some leave'. What has that Yeoman been up to?

It's pretty cool that they gave young writers a chance on this show.

Of all the ominous bad guys portrayed by Jimmy Doohan in this version of Star Trek, this might be the best. He sells the heck out of it.
posted by StarkRoads at 7:17 PM on September 1, 2020

Certainly one of the weirder TASes, and that's saying something. Extra-weird, then, that THIS is the one that won an Emmy, but at least we can be content that TAS earned one with "Yesteryear" alone.

Kukulkan looks like nothing so much as a D&D Monster Manual illustration.

There seems to be a little bit of an unspoken assumption that Kukulkan, by only giving each of the civilizations it touched a part of its plan, had the intention of humanity working together to call him back.

Which suggests he wasn't as much of a jerk back then as he has become by the time of this episode.

When McCoy is whisked away he has some line like, 'you don't deserve it, Yeoman, but you're going to get some leave'.

There were a few weird McCoy moments in this one. I don't remember which one, but he had a line read that was really uncharacteristically flat for Kelley.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 5:28 AM on September 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

I love the subtle brilliance of showing that Kukulkan gave knowledge to multiple ancient civilizations but, in 2020, it's a bit of a bad look to have all of the puzzle pieces still (finally) put together by a white man.

It was an interesting time in the history of American culture to have done an episode like this. On the one hand, yes, Chariots of the Gods? was huge, as were any number of other fringe theories and urban legends: alien abductions, cryptids of various sorts, conspiracy theories, etc., most of which would serve as grist for episodes of The X-Files a couple of decades or so later. (As they say, I was today years old when I found out that there was an In Search Of.../The X-Files crossover... on The Simpsons.) At more or less the same time, there was a reconsideration of the role of the Native American in American culture, probably coincident with the beginning of the slow fade of the Western movie genre and the civil rights movement; Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was a best-seller, Sacheen Littlefeather turned down Marlon Brando's Oscar for The Godfather, etc. I'm not sure when public criticism of CotG? focused on the racial aspect of Von Däniken insisting that extraordinary feats of engineering and architecture by non-white civilizations must have been due to alien intervention; I was quite a lot older when I found out that his editor and uncredited co-author was a literal Nazi propagandist; Von Däniken also had convictions for fraud, and was a plagiarist to boot. So, it's interesting to see that Russell Bates spotted the bias in the premise and tried to counteract it; I'm guessing that the mighty whitey aspect of the solution was due to Shatner insisting that Kirk have the hero moment, as he was notorious for grabbing lines and scenes from other actors. (As an aside, it's an interesting bit of info that Bates wanted to do a story about space parasites; maybe something like TNG's "Conspiracy"?)

Another interesting thing about this ep was how Trek tried to do something like it again, and failed utterly. Voyager wanted to introduce a Native American character, and even hired a consultant to get it right; unfortunately, they hired "Jamake Highwater", aka Jackie Marks, a fake Native who had been exposed in the eighties, but somehow passed muster with the VOY people. That, eventually, led to "Tattoo", and you can follow the link to see what I thought of that one. (Spoiler: I wasn't a fan.) Even if HSTaST wasn't perfect, it was still streets ahead of "Tattoo."
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:15 AM on September 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

Oh, I should mention that I liked this episode, both for the nostalgia factor (Kukulkan made a big impression on young me, especially as I was sort of into the whole hidden-historical-secrets aspect of Chariots of the Gods? myself as a kid), and for the general quality of the episode. I like eps that have the away team and the crew left on the ship working on different parts of a problem at the same time, and the designs for Kukulkan's menagerie were great--I just spent some time looking for a Basil Wolverton drawing that the three-eyed beastie reminded me of, and although I didn't find that particular one, I got to look at Basil Wolverton stuff.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:28 AM on September 2, 2020

Kukulkan's late episode change in attitude seemed much more driven by "running out of runtime" then by anything that actually happened.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 12:25 PM on July 4, 2021

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