Star Trek: The Animated Series

“The Practical Joker”

1.5 stars.

Air date: 9/21/1974
Written by Chuck Menville
Directed by Bill Reed

Review Text

During a routine survey of an asteroid field, the Enterprise is fired upon by three Romulans warbirds that wrongly claim the ship is in Romulan space. The Enterprise flees into an energy cloud with strange properties and emerges safely on the other side, having eluded the Romulans.

While the crew makes repairs, the senior staff is having lunch when all of them are victims of leaky trick glasses that cause them to spill their drinks. Throughout the day, more practical jokes emerge, including Spock getting raccoon eyes from ink applied to his microscope (how did it get there?) and the captain having "KIRK IS A JERK" written across the back of his uniform.

Spock discovers all the pranks are being pulled by the Enterprise computer, which has gone mad because of the strange properties of the energy cloud. Majel Barrett pulls overtime as the voice of the computer, which cackles away at all the "hilarious" pranks it pulls, like ejecting an avalanche of food from the replicator, or covering the floor of the corridors in fog and ice. At one point, Scotty even gets a literal pie in the face.

Is this funny? I can't say so. It's tedious. As I've mentioned before, comedy rarely works on this show because there's no sense of timing, or subtlety of performance, or twinkle in William Shatner's eye, or blank reaction shot from Leonard Nimoy. (I suppose all of animated Spock's reaction shots are blank, but it's not the same.) It's just a crudely drawn comic strip pitched at a 7-year-old. And that laughter from the computer — please make it stop.

This episode is probably most notable for being the first holodeck episode in the Trek franchise. We see the "recreation room" here and it works very much like the holodeck of the TNG era. It even malfunctions like the holodeck, thanks to the ship's computer having gone mad. It drops McCoy, Uhura, and Sulu into a hole in the forest, and then turns the entire simulation into an inescapable blizzard that threatens to freeze them all to death. Hilarious!

Kirk tries negotiating with the computer, the computer cackles some more, and then turns off the gravity and floods the ship with nitrous oxide when it feels threatened. Everyone starts laughing, and then the Romulans show up again, and the ship tricks the Romulans by inflating a giant replica balloon of the ship alongside itself to pose as reinforcements. I hate it when that happens.

But we do at last get our Kirk Outsmarts the Computer™ for this series. Kirk pretends to be scared of the energy field to get the ship to steer back into it (does the computer know the difference between a prank and sadism?), which reverses the effects of the computer's madness. And then the Romulans go into the cloud and all their computers end up on the fritz! Karma!

This is something that I have no doubt sounded funnier on the page than it ends up being on the screen.

Previous episode: Bem
Next episode: Albatross

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12 comments on this post

    Heh, I would give it another star just for the "KIRK IS A JERK" shirt. It's so silly but so wonderful it exists in an official production.

    I'm not sure, is TAS canonical? I don't see any obvious major reasons it couldn't be.

    @Silly TAS is not considered canon, with the exception of "Yesteryear" which is an official part of Spock's backstory.

    I find it arbitrary that TAS isn't canon (except for one episode?), given that it had Star Trek writers, was commissioned by Roddenberry, and is owned by Paramount. And then someone (Roddenberry?) just declared it non-canon? That declaration is so Inside Baseball that it barely matters. It's like saying, "Of all the fiction we made, this fiction is actually fictitious."

    TAS is totally canon. I don't get the rationale for saying it isn't. Why wouldn't it be?

    I recall watching this Star Trek documentary - "The Center Seat" - 55 years of Star Trek - and they did an entire episode about TAS (apparently it won some award) and the actors/producers etc. interviewed for the series were pretty unequivocal about TAS being canon from what I recall...

    Obviously "Yesteryear" is the best example of canon not just for "Journey to Babel" and "The Forge" but there are a number of ideas / themes from TAS used or borrowed in subsequent Trek episodes so empirical evidence would suggest TAS is canon.

    If TAS was ever non-canon (and that is an "if" -- apparently the idea reflects a misunderstanding of something Roddenberry said), it was "re-canonized" by decree on following a fan poll in 2006.

    To be entirely fair, here are some reasons spelled out why TAS shouldn't be canon: However, the rejoinder to all of this would be that there are at least as many inconsistencies between TOS and TNG, and even within TOS itself (which can't even keep what century it's in straight).

    Another good reason to watch this episode is to hear Sulu's deranged nitrous laugh. I bet George Takei was having a blast recording this one.

    I wonder if it's episodes like this that made Roddenberry declare the show non-canon. There was a time where he clearly really wanted to make Trek closer to 'sophisticated' sci-fi like 2001: A Space Odyssey, a cartoon show that often had childish humor and plotting doesn't quite fit into that.

    I totally accept it as canon, though. Plenty of sillier stuff is allowed into canon, why shouldn't TAS be?

    Of course it's canon! It may not be great Trek, but it's canon. (I watched The Center Seat, too. Well worth sitting through it if you like the Trek universe.) Most of this episode was silly/stupid beyond silly/stupid. I guess watching the holodeck for the first time was kind of interesting. My favorite thing? Kirk is a Jerk! So hilarious--don't ask me why--just so dumb it was funny.

    Not much at all to this episode as it is mostly silly practical jokes played on the Enterprise's crew. This is fun for a short while but it carries on for most of the episode. Interesting that the Romulans are using Klingon ships here -- the stardate is considerably earlier than "The Enterprise Incident".

    Also, the Enterprise has a holodeck, something we think wasn't Federation technology until TNG. It's meant to be a very light-hearted episode, and it doesn't make a lot of sense. Kirk's ruse was over-exaggerated such that the viewer has to wonder what's up, but it's the appropriate way to resolve such an episode. The ship's computer is definitely disappointed when the energy field undoes the damage.


    Three stars for me. I love this silly romp and its first look at the holodeck (here called a red room) in Trek history. Kirk is a jerk made me laugh.

    I like that the rec room is a less sophisticated precursor to the holodeck in that it take place in a standard sized area, without the more advanced treadmill forcefields of the TNG holodecks.

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