Star Trek: The Animated Series

“How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth”

2.5 stars.

Air date: 10/5/1974
Written by Russell Bates and David Wise
Directed by Bill Reed

Review Text

A probe scans Earth's star system, turns around, heads in the opposite direction, transmits a message into deep space, and then self-destructs. Why was it here and who did it contact? The Enterprise investigates and soon finds itself facing a ship of unknown origin, which opens fire and has the appearance and name of the ancient Earth serpent god Kukulkan. Ensign Walking Bear, who happens to be on the bridge today with the right information, recognizes the name from Earth's history, and says Kukulkan had made a vow to return.

With the Enterprise trapped within a forcefield, Kirk, McCoy, Scott, and Walking Bear are transported off the ship by the alien entity and find themselves on his ship, which can generate large environments within it. Kukulkan generates a city from several ancient cultures (the Aztecs, the Mayans, the Egyptians, etc.) and the team has to figure out what it means. They eventually deduce they have to turn the heads of the statues toward the top of the pyramid to reflect the sun into a focused energy beam that acts as a transmitter. Or something like that.

Kukulkan, thousands of years ago, visited Earth and asked the ancient civilizations there to build their cities according to exacting specifications, and once that was done, he would be contacted and return. Except he apparently did this across multiple cultures and they all did it in different ways and never figured out what Kirk's team does here. When Kukulkan never got a reply, he eventually sent the probe. Sort of like Star Trek IV, except way more convoluted than talking to whales.

Where "Albatross" was a grounded example of classic Trekkian procedure, "How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth" is a much more fantastical and ambitious melding of multiple concepts and historical elements. I mean, this is pretty weird. It gets even weirder when we see what's going on in Kukulkan's main room. He has a bunch of creatures from various worlds that live in glass cages, except they're hooked up to VR machines that allow them to experience full worlds and learn what he teaches them. It's like The Matrix, except populated by sentient animals. One of these animals is a "power-cat," which is like a vicious predator plus 2,000 volts of electricity. (Inevitably, Kirk releases this creature and unleashes chaos.) Kukulkan himself is like a serpent with eagle wings crossed with the Wizard of Oz.

Does this make sense? Not really. Can I endorse this? Not exactly. This is nearly as nuts as "The Magicks of Megas-Tu," except it has the benefit of being way more interesting. There's at least some strange energy here, and we don't have to sit through a trial. We do, on the other hand, have a cartoon snake-eagle with a boomy voice.

Kukulkan, it turns out, is the lone creature from a long-extinct race who has taken it upon himself to parent his adopted species as children because he was so lonely. At one point, that included humanity, but I guess the experiment failed? (Why make your "children" solve impossible puzzles beyond their grasp before you accept them? As a test?) Kirk is able to talk Kukulkan into releasing them with a well-meaning humanistic speech. I enjoy the optimism of his persuasion. We have to have hope for communication and understanding somewhere. Might as well be here.

Previous episode: Albatross
Next episode: The Counter-Clock Incident

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5 comments on this post

    Yes, this was a really off-the-wall weird and whacky one. It made more sense than the Magick's of Megas-Tu, and I thought was quite watchable, except for all the animals in glass cases living in Virtual Reality. Those made me wince--I just wanted them to be set free, whether they were contented or not--it didn't seem right for them to be cooped up like that. I felt sorry for Kulkulan--just like that entity on the first ep of season 1, it didn't seem right just to go off and leave him alone. At least set up a plan for further communication or socialization. But whatever.

    Far too similar to "Who Mourns for Adonais?" with Kukulkan in place of Apollo. There is literally nothing original here, with Spock aboard the Enterprise trying to break through a force field and Kirk explaining to the "God" that they can't be (his) children anymore.

    The idea is that humans are ungrateful children as the Shakespeare line goes something like "How sharper than a serpent's tooth to have a thankless child". I suppose it is noteworthy that the Enterprise had a native American on board and we get some mention of other ancient Latin American cultures -- something VOY did. Thought it was quite convenient how Kukulkan just lets the Enterprise go and gives up on his idea to continue to guide "his children." Disappointing in how unoriginal this episode is given that it is written by 2 writers who didn't write for TOS.


    Thanks to M'Baku for explaining that Kukulkan is the Serpent Feather God.

    Fascinating episode that earned TAS the first Emmy in the history of Trek. It bears careful rewatching to catch the subtle plot. But a bit derivative and not the most fun to watch. I give it 3 stars.

    This is the one episode I remember from childhood as Kukulkan frightened me as a very young kid. The rest of the visuals are quite stunning from the mix of cultures in the architecture to the caged animals.

    But the story has about every TOS cliche possible: powerful “god” being, random crew member with expertise in the exact field necessary joining the away team (although this time, not by choice), Spock figuring out to get the Enterprise out peril. Even some Shakespeare sprinkled in. A bit of a bore watching it all these year later as the same flying snake animation seemed to be onscreen for at least 10 min.

    I’m probably being too hard on it as the visuals elevate the so/so rest of the story. 3 stars with 1 of them just for the backgrounds and character designs for me. Doohan sounded exactly like he did when playing Sargon, which was kind of fun as well.

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