Star Trek: The Animated Series (TAS) has a number of noteworthy franchise milestones—for better or worse. We were introduced to the three-legged, three-armed, three fingered (but not three eyed) Edosian Lieutenant Arex and the feline Caitian Lieutenant M’Ress. We got our first glimpse at a holographic “Rec Room.” We learned that Captain James T. Kirk’s middle name is “Tiberius.” And we were introduced to special “life-support belts.”
The first time we see these belt gizmos is in TAS episode “Beyond the Farthest Star” (Episode Production Number 22004), written by the late Samuel A. Peeples (who also wrote the second pilot TOS episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before”). In the animated episode, Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scott beam over to the external hull of an ancient alien ship, being exposed to the cold vacuum of space. But rather than being protected from the harshness of space with the elaborate space suits that were used in the TOS episode “The Tholian Web” (and reused in the episode “Whom Gods Destroy”), the boarding party used new life-support belts. The main point of these belts, of course, was to make it possible to reuse all the regular footage that has already been created for our characters; no new space suite need to be drawn. The animators could simply use existing animation cels or style guides, and then overlay a surround aura effect. These life-support belts were described in the “Beyond the Farthest Star” script:
INT. TRANSPORTER ROOM
Transporter Chief Kyle is on duty at the console. The door opens, and Kirk, Spock, Scott and McCoy step in. They are now wearing life-support belts. The belts are wide, utility-type belts that glow with a pale, lime-yellow aura when turned on. This aura surrounds the wearer, like an envelope of air surrounds the Earth; it supplies air, and being a force-field, prevents harm to the person inside it, as it is almost totally impenetrable.
Activate life support belts.
The faintly glowing lime-yellow aura surrounds the four of them as they activate their belts. Kirk, Spock, Scott, and McCoy gather in the Transporter Chamber.
And a few moments later….
EXT. ALIEN SPACESHIP
Protected from the cold and vacuum of space by their faintly glowing life-support auras, they move along the hull of the alien ship’s pod. Spock stands beside one of the huge hexagon-shaped ports. Beyond it is a great, gaping hole, torn in the unknown metal of the hull — an explosion from within, as the metal flanges are bent outward.
So these personal force fields are not only self-contained with temperature and oxygen functionality in some Clarkeian “magical” way (1)…
…we also learn that these fields are also able to compensate for significant external pressures imposing on a body. Here’s some script direction from a bit later in the episode:
Kirk and Spock hurry in. Engineers and a couple of Security men are clustered around the huge hatch leading to the “core”. (This is an inset tube in the floor with a heavy double hatch to protect it.) McCoy has arrived ahead of Kirk and Spock.
The hatch is almost shut – and Scott, still wearing his life-support belt, is caught in it. The faint aura around his body is flaring redly where the enormous weight of the hatch pushes against it. The force-field is holding the hatch ajar, keeping it from crushing Scott. Kirk runs up; Spock goes to the control panel.
The force-field of his belt
won’t hold that weight for
Override systems, Mister Spock.
Open the core hatch.
(looks up, shakes head)
It’s no use, sir – the mechanism
is frozen. They’ve already tried…
(at control panel)
Something’s jammed the circuits –
(to other engineers)
All right, get cutter beams on
that hatch! Move!
They didn’t really animate the script direction that the aura from the belt was “flaring redly” where the enormous weight of the hatch was impinging on the force field. (That would be a neat little VFX for us to do if we ever have occasion to do so.) But Mr. Scott’s precarious position is clear nevertheless.
So what do these belts look like? Well, if you really want to sweat the details and get everything just right, the belts (you can’t have the force field glowing auras without the actual belts themselves, of course) are maybe about six inches wide and they are shiny metallic looking—with very minimal adornments (to make it easier for animators to draw, of course). Another important detail: they don’t have any mouthpieces or mask components of any kind. It’s a bit of a mystery as to how that’s possible, but if we understood it today, we’d make them today. Presumably, we’ll figure that out at some point in the future. (It’s not like everything there is to be discovered and invented technologically has been discovered and invented by 2014.)
The belt-buckle like closure appears to be just a simple notch. (Presumably the closure mechanism is “actually” more sophisticated than a cartoon can imply.)
Whatever supplies, equipment, and technology are needed to make these belts function (field generator, oxygen and carbon dioxide canisters, heating and cooling elements, and possibly even artificial gravity) all seem to be contained in a small compartment/pouch towards the back of the belt, worn at the small of the back.
Although tricorders and phasers are readily apparent…
…communicators are nowhere to be seen. Perhaps these rear compartments do double duty as communicator carriers. (Kirk pulls out a communicator to contact the Enterprise; he must have kept it somewhere.)
There also seems to be some inconsistency regarding whether equipment like tricorders are held inside these fields…
…or outside–and, yes, you can tell by the layout of the tricorder that this image has been flipped. (Either that, or this is a tricorder that you can buy at Ned Flanders’ “Leftorium” shop.)
Also, it’s interesting to note that phasers can be fired through these personal force fields.
The next appearance of the life support belts was in a brief “blink and you’ll miss it” scene in the episode “The Infinite Vulcan” by Walter Koenig (Episode Production Number 22002)—although it would appear to be a production blooper. As the landing party prepares to beam down to the planet Phylos, for one quick scene, Kirk and McCoy wear life-support belts, but Sulu doesn’t have one. (It looks like the “Kirk and McCoy with life-support belts in the transporter room” scene was just a reuse of the same animation cell from “Beyond the Farthest Star”—judging by the positions of Kirk and McCoy. Compare this shot from “The Infinite Vulcan”…
…with this shot from “Beyond the Farthest Star.”
Once the beam-down is complete, however, the life support belts are nowhere in sight.
There is an interesting line of dialogue, though. When the landing party is suddenly plunged into darkness, Sulu exclaims “Use the belt lights.” So maybe the landing party was indeed meant to be drawn with life-support belts. (It’s also interesting that, like Batman’s utility belt or Speed Racer’s Mach Five’s steering column, these belts seem to have whatever function is required by the needs of the script.)
These life-support belts had three more appearances in TAS. In “The Ambergris Element” by Margaret Armen (Episode Production Number 22013), the belts are used on two occasions: a search and rescue team uses them while searching for Kirk and Spock on the water-world Argo. (They serve, basically, as scuba diving suits.)
We also see them a bit later when McCoy and Chapel attempt to treat Kirk and Spock in a large shipboard tank. (Kirk and Spock had been turned into, well, fish—and Dr. McCoy is attempting to reverse their condition.)
The life-support belts’ next appearance was in “The Slaver Weapon” by Larry Niven (Episode Production Number 22011). Spock, Sulu, and Uhura encounter some Kzinti on an ice planet orbiting Beta Lyræ while attempting to deliver a Thrint stasis box to Starbase 25. They use their life-support belts when they venture outside the shuttlecraft.
In an animation goof, the animation cels were painted incorrectly on Spock’s and Uhura’s belts (although it looks kind of cool); a nearly identical shot a bit later in the episode is painted the right way.
Also in another animation goof, Sulu is surrounded by his life-support belt aura, but he doesn’t appear to be wearing a belt.
We also see that, despite how “impenetrable” these individual personal force fields are, it’s evidently possible to stun someone through them. So phaser beams, at least, can go both into and out of these fields—not to mention communicator signals and tricorder scans, I suppose.
In their final appearance, the life-support belts can be seen in the TAS Season Two opener “The Pirates of Orion” by Howard Weinstein (Hi, Howard!), (Episode Production Number 22020). In the episode, Kirk and an Orion ship captain both beam down to a small asteroid to conduct a trade: a Galactic Standard Weight’s worth of dilithium from the Enterprise in trade for a supply of the drug strobalin needed to cure Mister Spock’s life-threatening choriocytosis from the Orions.
So that’s it: aside from what might or might not be an animation cel blooper, we see the life-support belts in just four of the twenty-two episodes of TAS. In the end, although we associate the belts with TAS, the credit for their original idea might actually rest with Judy Burns and (husband) Chet Richards—the co-writers of “The Tholian Web.” In an interview (2), Judy Burns had this to say:
“Some of the things I was a little disappointed in [regarding “The Tholian Web”] were caused by technical problems. Originally there were no space suits when Kirk and the others beamed over to the other ship. There were force field belts which kept them encapsulated in a kind of mini-force field, which included an oxygen bank. It kept them secure as long as the batteries held, but if the batteries ran out—which was the greatest threat to Kirk—then they die. They didn’t have an infinite amount of time within the force field. Therefore, Kirk would have wandered around the ship, looking like he looks, except for a little force field belt.”
Dramatically, these belts probably would have been more visually compelling and “ghost-like.” Judy Burns continues:
“I think it would have made a better ghost story. He looks silly constantly appearing in that space suit. I really had qualms about that. Not from poor designing or anything. But from a story point-of-view, it would have been better. They felt strongly that if they started something like a force field belt, it might have ramifications down the line on other stories. I was a novice in those days, but today I probably would have countered that it was a prototype model that had been given to us this one time.”
So maybe these life-support belts weren’t really all that far-fetched: they actually had been contemplated as far back as “The Tholian Web.”
As always, questions, comments, feedback, and, of course, “Shares,” “Likes,” or “+1s” are greatly appreciated. Also as always, this article would be remarkably uninteresting without the benefit of all CBS Consumer Products’ Star Trek: The Animated Series images that I have shamelessly harvested from the TrekCore website. My thanks to them for all their valuable archival work, and for making CBS’s images available.
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(1) The late British science fiction writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke formulated a number of “laws” that govern making predictions. Clarke’s Third Law is “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination” in the collection Profiles of the Future: An Enquiry into the Limits of the Possible (London: Scientific Book Club, 1962), 36.
(2) Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman, Captains’ Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1995), 72.