(written from a Production point of view)
|"How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth"|
|TAS, Episode 2x05|
Production number: 22022
First aired: 5 October 1974
|←||21st of 22 produced in TAS||→|
|←||21st of 22 released in TAS||→|
|←||100th of 728 released in all||→|
| Written By|
Russell Bates and David Wise
The Enterprise encounters a being that once visited the ancient peoples of Earth.
- "Captain's Log, Stardate 6063.4. The Enterprise is tracing the origin of a mysterious alien space probe. It approached the Federation home worlds, made a scan of Earth's system and then signaled outward into space. Before it could be intercepted, the probe self-destructed. We are following a trail of disrupted matter left by the probe's highly advanced propulsion system. Thus far the trail has not intercepted any inhabited star systems."
Soon, the Enterprise encounters an alien vessel that is approaching on the same course as the probe. It is twice the size of the Enterprise, surrounded by an immense energy field and composed of crystalline ceramic. A globular force field encompasses the Federation ship. The alien ship probes the Enterprise, then the surrounding energy pattern shifts and transforms itself into the shape of a large feathered serpent, which Ensign Dawson Walking Bear recognizes as Kukulkan.
Upset over being forgotten by Earthlings, Kukulkan gives the crew one chance to redeem themselves because one crewman did not forget him. When asked, Walking Bear tells Captain Kirk that he is a Comanche and has studied his background. The ship bears a strong resemblance to a god of ancient Mayan and Aztec legends. The Mayans had a legend of a winged serpent god who came from the skies. They could conceivably be dealing with a space traveler who visited Earth in early times and was the basis for such legends.
- "Captain's Log, Stardate 6063.5. First officer Spock in temporary command. The Enterprise is a captive of an alien lifeform calling itself Kukulkan. Captain Kirk and three other officers have vanished. They were most likely transported by Kukulkan to his ship."
Inside the other ship, Kirk asks Walking Bear if legend says what happened to Kukulkan. The ensign tells him no, only that he left and promised to return one day. Kirk surmises that the space probe was his. Kukulkan says, "Now I have shown you the seeds I have sewn before. Learn from them. Find their purpose if you can. Only then will I appear before you." If they fail, the crew will all perish.
The four crew members are transported to an Earth-like city filled with many cultures that appears to be one gigantic riddle. Walking Bear tells Kirk that Kulkukan gave the Mayans a remarkably accurate calendar and instructed them to build a city according to its cycles. When the city was finished, Kukulkan was supposed to return. The Mayans built their city and waited. Kukulkan never appeared. Kirk reasons that he must have visited several ancient people on Earth but each one only used part of his knowledge to build their cultures. If no one built this city exactly right, that is why Kukulkan never came back. The city is the key. It must contain some sort of signaling device.
Kirk decides that it must be a pyramid. He climbs it and gets McCoy and Scotty to turn the heads of the serpent statues to all strike a certain space on the pyramid. When they accomplish the task, Kukulkan appears as the winged serpent, alleging to be their master. He claims they strayed from the path he set. Kirk claims he doesn't know him so Kukulkan will teach him. Transported to an ominous "life-room," the crew members notice a variety of creatures from around the galaxy, all in cages. There is even a ferocious, but now peaceful, Capellan power-cat.
Kukulkan says they are contented. Each creature's mind thinks that it is on its own world, created by Kukulkan's machinery. They are his only companions, his children to be shown how to live. Kirk says, "If children are made totally dependent on their teachers, they will never be anything but children." Kukulkan has had enough. Despite what he has shown them, they still cling to their disobedient ways. Kirk explains that they cannot accept Kukulkan as their master, despite his contributions to mankind.
On the Enterprise, Spock discovers a way to break the energy field surrounding the ship, distracting Kukulkan from the other crewmen. The men release the animals from their cages, thereby creating a chaos which Kukulkan is unable to control. The power-cat traps Kukulkan, which forces him to reveal himself as a mortal. Kirk saves Kukulkan and thus teaches him a valuable lesson about human survival. Kukulkan leaves as an old, broken mortal, and Kirk decides that the price of infinite knowledge is too high to pay. McCoy reminds them of a line from Shakespeare's King Lear, "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child."
"Intelligent life is too precious a thing to be led by the nose."
- - Kirk to Kukulkan
"Vulcan was visited by alien beings. They left much wiser."
- - Spock
"Just once, I wish he'd let us use the stairs."
- - McCoy
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 Dawson 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 uniquer 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. 
- As this episode's development progressed, the writers selected a working title for it. "The original title of this, when we started," remarked David Wise, "was 'The Thunderbird', which came from a North American Indian legend as opposed to a Central or South America Indian legend." (TAS DVD audio commentary) Russell Bates took credit for calling the story "The Thunderbird" and said that, as the writers set to work on the plot, they used "the legends of my people as its basis."  Though the story initially drew on the Plains Indian legends of the Thunderbird, the writers discovered, while the narrative evolved, that the specific deity featured in the outing should be a more familiar figure in Indian lore. (Starlog issue #159, p. 27) Bates remembered, "As we worked, I realized that the same legends are more well known as being the winged dragon-like beings of the Aztecs, Toltecs, and the Mayans."  He elaborated, "There were three likely candidates: Varicocha of the Peruvian Incas, Quetzalcoatl of the Toltecs and Aztecs, and Kukulkan of the Mayas. We picked the latter because Kukulkan had that hard 'k' ring to it and my tribe, the Kiowas, were discovered to be related to the Mayas." (Starlog issue #159, p. 27) The alteration of the story being centered on Kukulkan was a gradual progression. 
- 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.
- Kukulkan's ship was originally envisioned as serpent-shaped, looking identical to the Mayan god. (Starlog issue #159, p. 27; TAS DVD audio commentary)
- When this installment did not make it into the selection of episodes for the animated series' first season, Russell Bates and David Wise resumed their regular lifestyles, with Bates taking a bus back to his hometown of Oklahoma. After a period of about eight months, Wise learned that the episode idea was finally wanted for the series. He recollected, "I got a call from Marc Richards [...] saying, 'We read your story, and we want you to do the script.' So we got Russell, that night, on a bus back from Oklahoma, and immediately – I mean, within 48 hours – we were in his [Marc Richards'] office at Filmation, getting ready to go." (TAS DVD audio commentary) The script was commissioned in May 1974. (Starlog issue #159, p. 27)
- Russell Bates and David Wise were not the only production staffers who influenced the writing of the episode's teleplay. Wise recalled, "When we went to script, we were given notes by Gene Roddenberry on an audio cassette [....] and there were just a couple of notes, they were very minor, and they were the only notes we received on the entire episode [....] There were two of them and they were sort of cultural. And one of them was, he thought it was egotistical of Kukulkan to have a ship look like himself." (TAS DVD audio commentary) Russell Bates added, "Mr. Roddenberry felt that this smacked of the worst of Flash Gordon-pulp SF, in the manner of Viking ships rowing through space." (Starlog issue #159, p. 27)
- As both Russell Bates and David Wise felt very strongly about portraying the feathered serpent-god in space, they came up with a solution. (TAS DVD audio commentary) "I really wanted that dragon ship," Bates mused, "so we got around it by giving Kukulkan a sophisticated but artfully designed ship. While it held the Enterprise captive, an electronic image of Kukulkan himself was projected over the ship. This gained approval." (Starlog issue #159, p. 27) Another way that the writers dealt with Gene Roddenberry rejecting their idea of having the ship look like Kukulkan was by coming up with the idea that the vessel had a cloaking device. The writers were initially concerned that they couldn't accurately describe the vessel's initial decloaked appearance, however, prior to it transforming into Kukulkan's likeness. (TAS DVD audio commentary)
- Gene Roddenberry stated the other note while saying something about the deity's attitude. "He said [...] 'Intelligent life is too precious to be led by the nose,'" offered David Wise. Impressed with this line, the writers chose to include it in the actual episode. Wise concluded, "It was our way of sucking up to the boss, basically." (TAS DVD audio commentary)
- The writing duo, now equipped with Gene Roddenberry's notes, began scripting the episode. Recalled David Wise, "It was an absolute fifty-fifty collaboration [....] We would take turns at the typewriter, and one would talk and the other would type and then we'd switch." (TAS DVD audio commentary)
- Although the episode's first act ends with Captain Kirk deciding to investigate where the pyramid came from, the act was originally written with a different conclusion, which was the appearance of Kukulkan at the top of the pyramid. David Wise once noted that, if the original act ending (which he and Russell Bates wrote) had been used, the middle act would have only been approximately three and a half minutes long. (TAS DVD audio commentary)
- One scene that was a struggle to write was the first of the second act, wherein Uhura worries about the captives from the Enterprise and Spock then orders her to return to her duties, continuing their attempt to free the starship from Kukulkan's vessel. Originally, Uhura was to have made a verbal comeback at the end of the scene. David Wise explained, "Our original idea was wouldn't this be a great opportunity to have Uhura finally really zing Spock, because [...] [in the original series] Spock lords it over her from time to time [....] So we spent almost two hours trying to come up with a line, just a great, you know, zinger line for Nichelle Nichols to say. And we couldn't come up with a good one." As the writers were in a rush to continue scripting the episode, they decided to add a temporary line, known as a "slug line." Wise noted, "I typed under Uhura's speech, 'Pointy eared fool!' And then she whirls around and goes back to her duties." (TAS DVD audio commentary)
- David Wise was conscious of the amount of time it took to show the Enterprise officers turning the serpent-like, movable heads to face the pyramid. He felt a need to speed through the sequence, as it basically involved the same action done four times. The writers intended the pyramid and movable heads to be a form of subspace communication device. (TAS DVD audio commentary)
- Because of his work on this episode, David Wise ended up having to watch many installments of the original Star Trek series. The same series influenced the conception of the menagerie of aliens in Kukulkan's supervision. "When Russell and I wrote this scene," said David Wise, "we wanted to have [...] animals, various life forms, from earlier episodes of the live action Star Trek [....] They were supposed to be reference, the various menagerie of characters who had appeared in earlier Star Treks." These aliens included a couple of tribbles (which had not only appeared in TOS but also in the first season episode "More Tribbles, More Troubles") in one cage and a Horta in another. (TAS DVD audio commentary)
- The Capellan power-cat was conceived as a ferocious and wild animal that the writers could use to pose a danger to Kukulkan and that the Enterprise officers could then deal with, influencing Kukulkan to finally realize that Humans were possibly more mature and capable than he had thought. The writers took inspiration for the creature from an orange tiger-striped cat that was named Nick, was owned by David Wise and had a deceptively grumpy exterior but a secretly lovable core to his character. "Basically, he sort of walked across the floor," recalled Wise, "and Russell and I both looked at him and went, 'There's our animal.' And we came up with this idea of a combination between, in essence, a lion and an electric eel, which sounds reasonably science-fictional." Concerning the episode's final view of the power-cat (calmly licking a paw), Wise remarked, "That's my cat right there. That is the embodiment of Nick right there." (TAS DVD audio commentary)
- An uncertain David Wise attributed Spock's line, "They left much wiser," to Russell Bates. The line was meant to be an indirect reference to Humans who went to Vulcan. (TAS DVD audio commentary)
- As this episode's conclusion implies, the writers took the title that was eventually used for the outing from a Shakespeare quote: "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child." This quotation is from King Lear, Act I, Scene 4. David Wise explained, "We thought, 'It's Star Trek. Yeah, it's suitably pretentious to end on a quote from Shakespeare.' And we had come up with the title originally, and then we thought, 'Well, we've got to work the quote into the story to explain the title' [....] We figured we had to work it into the script, and it fit very nicely [....] I think we got the title and the quote probably from looking it up in a Bartlett's Famous Quotations [sic] book." (TAS DVD audio commentary)
- The writers had to submit the script fairly quickly. "We wrote the script in the course of about two weeks, I think," David Wise reckoned. (TAS DVD audio commentary) The teleplay was completed just prior to 4 June 1974. (Starlog issue #159, p. 27) However, the writers forgot to remove Uhura's slug line to Spock. (TAS DVD audio commentary)
- Additionally, Filmation at first had an issue with the way Kukulkan's temperament was scripted. "The studio felt that Kukulkan was portrayed as far too threatening and powerful, an angry god-figure," explained Russell Bates. "But by softening dialogue, we managed to rescue all of the action." (Starlog issue #159, p. 27)
- David Wise felt that, miraculously, everything in this installment, apart from some aspects that were botched during production, was "almost word-for-word" the script that he wrote with Russell Bates. (TAS DVD audio commentary)
Cast and Audio
- For this episode, William Shatner and DeForest Kelley recorded their vocals separately from the rest of the cast. (TAS DVD audio commentary) Shatner's absence from the group recording was because he was in New York at the time. (Starlog issue #159, p. 27) Russell Bates and David Wise were present at the recording session that involved most of the performers. (Starlog issue #159, p. 27; TAS DVD audio commentary)
- The writers were consulted to advise James Doohan on his portrayal of Dawson Walking Bear, for which Doohan needed to know the character's age. "We talked it over and decided he was around 22 or 23 years old," explained Russell Bates. "Then, amazingly, in his voice, James Doohan became someone 22 or 23." (Starlog issue #159, p. 27)
- The issue of the slug line that the writers wrote for Uhura to say to Spock arose during the group recording session. Regarding Nichelle Nichols' reaction to the slug line, David Wise reflected, "When we got to the recording session, and we got to that part of the script [...] she doesn't read it out loud. She just reads it, you know, in her head and looks up and goes, 'Am I really supposed to say that?'" With panicked speed, Wise and Bates quickly clarified to the actress that she was not actually meant to say the line, telling her to forget she had even seen it. (TAS DVD audio commentary)
- Because neither David Wise nor Russell Bates were at William Shatner's recording session, the writers were unable to monitor his pronunciation of Kukulkan's name. Consequently, Shatner mispronounces the moniker as "Kuklakan" throughout the episode, despite the other characters pronouncing the name correctly. (TAS DVD audio commentary)
- According to Russell Bates, this episode had a group of artists that was unusual for the animated Star Trek series. "Filmation used a crew of Japanese artists to do 'Serpent's Tooth,'" Bates stated, "to help finish out a contract for their feature, 'Journey Back To Oz'." 
- According to a slightly unsure David Wise, the episode's production was of considerable expense. "My understanding was that they actually went pretty over budget on this show," Wise said. He found that to be "funny" because the animation required for the installment consisted, almost entirely, of talking rather than action sequences. (TAS DVD audio commentary)
- Due to the concern that David Wise and Russell Bates had about accurately describing the initial decloaked appearance of Kukulkan's ship, Wise drew an illustration on which Filmation based the look of the vessel in that state. (TAS DVD audio commentary)
- Including TOS: "The Cage", this episode marks the 100th appearance of Mr. Spock.
- The presence of Ensign Dawson 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".
- Even though this outing did not make the first-season cut of episodes, there was one notable success at that point. David Wise later proudly stated, "Dorothy [Fontana] liked it very much." (TAS DVD audio commentary)
- Russell Bates and David Wise found William Shatner's repeated mispronunciations of Kukulkan's name to be very humorous. They commonly referred to it as "Kuklakan and Ollie," believing that the animated version of Kukulkan looks similar to the hand-puppet of the dragon Ollie from the 1950s television series Kukla, Fran and Ollie. (TAS DVD audio commentary)
- Years later, David Wise admitted to being highly proud, for the most part, of this installment. He stated that the initial decloaked appearance of Kukulkan's vessel looks "much better" than how his own drawing of the craft looked, and enthused, "It's a pretty darn cool-looking ship they [Filmation] came up with." He believed that the concept of the vessel having a cloaking device "worked out very well." He opined that the scene between Uhura and Spock that, at one time, included a slug line ultimately "plays okay." He noted a similarity between the Gate of Chinatown and the Gate to Kukulkan's city that he found to be "cute," and thought that the action inside the city, with the Enterprise officers turning the serpent-heads towards the pyramid, "is very well executed." He believed that the appearance of Kukulkan "is really effective," and stated that, although he was of the opinion that much of the animation is "terribly cheap-looking," the animated depiction of the Mayan god "really works." He was also pleased with the final version of Kukulkan's zoo. "What they came up with here is quite good," Wise declared. "These are some nifty aliens." In addition, Wise was particularly pleased with two lines of dialogue from this episode, saying that he loved McCoy's comment, "Just once, I wish he'd let us use the stairs," and describing Spock's remark, "They left much wiser," as "one of the all-time great Spock lines." Wise was, however, dissatisfied that the episode's first act does not end with Kukulkan appearing at the top of the pyramid. "It's unfortunate that we couldn't time it out to work right, but that often happens," he observed. Summing up his feelings about the episode, Wise said, "My hope is that we did some honor to [the original Star Trek series] [...] with this episode [....] It's nice that it was, I think, really a very good script. I'm very proud of it. I don't say that about a lot of what I wrote, but I say it about this one, and I'm sure that Russell [Bates] is very proud of it as well [....] I see this episode from time to time and I still enjoy it." (TAS DVD audio commentary)
- Russell Bates described the experience of working on the episode as "one of the best set of adventures I ever have had." He also found the installment to have been highly successful. "I got it all in one story: write for Star Trek, write that Native American story that Dorothy had sought, write a story that vindicated my people's history, and write to honor [Gene L. Coon]."  He was pleased with the look of Kukulkan's ship in the form of its controller too, enthusing, "I feel that it became a very striking visual." (Starlog issue #159, p. 27)
- This episode received top ratings for a children's show, and got favorable comments and mail. (The New Voyages 2) Russell Bates remarked, "The episode got great reviews from fans and teachers and children."  The installment was also submitted to the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for the show, and is responsible for The Animated Series winning Star Trek's only Emmy Award for a series as a whole. (The New Voyages 2; TAS DVD audio commentary, et al.) The episode also attained several other accolades. Stated Bates, "[It won] a Melies Prize, a Robby Award, a Fantasy Film Fans Federation Award, and finally [became] the American Entry in Children's Programming at the Fifteenth International Television Film Festival of Monte Carlo." 
- The editors of Trek magazine collectively scored this episode 1 out of 5 stars (a rating that they termed "poor"). (The Best of Trek #1, p. 112)
- In the unofficial reference book Trek Navigator: The Ultimate Guide to the Entire Trek Saga (p. 108), co-writer Mark A. Altman rates this episode 2 and a half out of 4 stars (defined as "average") while fellow co-writer Edward Gross ranks the episode 1 and a half out of 4 stars (defined as "poor").
Video and DVD releases
- UK VHS release (CIC Video): Volume 7, catalog number VHR 2557, 17 February 1992
- As part of the The Animated Series DVD collection
Links and references
Aztec; calendar; Capellan power-cat; central power source; Chinese dragon; clay; Comanche; crystalline ceramic; disrupted matter; dragon; Earth; Earth's system; Egypt; energy field; energy amplification system; evasive action; globular force field (force globe); God; hypo; Human history; jungle; King Lear; kitten; Kukulkan's city; Kukulkan's machinery; Kukulkan's probe; Kukulkan's species; Kukulkan's starship; Kulkulkan's space probe; Kukulkan's zoo; library computer; light year; Mayan (Mayas); medical kit; Native American; obelisk; pyramid; Quetzalcoatl; serpent; Shakespeare, William; signaling device; standard greeting; Starbase 21; spiral invasive course; Toltec; tranquilizer; volt; Vulcans; Vulcan (planet); warp catapult effect; yellow alert; yeoman; zoo
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