Original Star Trek images courtesy of Paramount/
Desilu Productions; Star Trek TNG courtesy of Paramount/CBS
Reflections on the 50th
Anniversary of Star Trek
| published September 18, 2016 |
By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor
The latest cinematic installment in the Star Trek franchise—Star Trek Beyond—has largely recovered from what some industry analysts described for a month as a “slower-than-expected” box office take. The film, released in mid-July amidst a field crowded with summer action adventure tales (Jason Bourne; Mechanic: Resurrection) and comic book based chapters (Captain America: Civil War; X-Men Apocalypse; Suicide Squad) and even more crowded with animated tales for kids (Angry Birds; Finding Dori; The Secret Life of Pets; Kubo & The Two Strings), struggled mightily after an initial opening weekend surge in the U.S. On the other hand, released only weeks ago in China, the film is making huge waves, overpowering everything else at the box office with millions of Chinese moviegoers flocking to the box office, pushing Star Trek Beyond’s total take in China to more than $53 million.
Star Trek Beyond was expensive to produce and market—some $134 million all told—meaning it had to sell a lot of tickets before it could see the profits of its elaborate and dazzling special effects and its now popular new cast; Chris Pine as Captain James Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Mr. Spock, Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy, Zoe Saldana as Lt. Uhuru, Simon Pegg as chief engineer Scotty, and the late Anton Yelchin as Pavel Chekhov. STB is a massive cliffhanger teeming with terrifying aliens, breathtaking stunts, shattering explosions, and plenty of essential character development of the newly minted crew.
Still, Star Trek Beyond, the third installment of the reboot, recovered from its minor slump, and now seems poised to beat even its prequel, Star Trek: Into Darkness, in large part because of the milestone anniversary many thought improbable in the extreme: Star Trek is now 50 years old, making the science fiction storyline one of the most enduring franchises in Hollywood and television history, and extending its mighty legacy through multiple generations of fans who want more stories about the beloved crew members of a space ship with the simple mission to explore strange new worlds and seek out new civilizations.
The backstory of that original 1966 TV show demonstrates much about how we approach science and science fiction. That quirky story also shows why the mega brand and its band of space travelers continue to succeed and reach wider and wider audiences.
Star Trek very nearly didn’t happen at all. And, even after it finally gained a marginal foothold in prime time for those scant few seasons, Star Trek managed to survive its first incarnation despite intense pressure from the suits at NBC to kill it off. Everything about the show ran counter to what the TV execs saw as fundamental: the show was too farfetched, even at the apex of the real world space race; the show defied all the cherished rules of TV, including the canon to keep it simple and “contained”; the program was too open-ended, without walls, unstructured; the scripts routinely trampled on cherished but often unwritten conventions about race, ethnicity, gender, and social norms; and the show was “too cerebral,” to quote one NBC executive.
But the halls of NBC were not the first place Star Trek got pitched. Creator and writer Gene Roddenberry first approached MGM, which thought highly of Roddenberry’s proposal and pitch, but seemed unsure that the idea was a good fit for their business model. He then went to Desilu Studios, the production studio formed by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, where Roddenberry was more-or-less hired full time—the idea being he could work on some of their meat and potatoes projects while developing his oddball Star Trek show.
Conceived and written by Roddenberry and associate writer D.C. Fontana, the initial pilot episode of Star Trek generated confusion and dismay on the part of the NBC programmers who first saw it in late 1964. It fared little better with a test audience commissioned by NBC to screen the sci-fi show. The pilot episode was titled “The Menagerie,” (later more popular known as “The Cage”) and included a substantially different cast and set of characters: Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Pike, John Hoyt as Dr. Boyce, Susan Oliver as Vina, and Leonard Nimoy as Spock. The pilot’s plot also effectively already embraced the core narrative: a large spaceship with a crew of hundreds is wandering across the galaxy in search of…well…anything new—a sort of Wagon Train in space, as Roddenberry and others marketed the concept.
When shown the rough draft, the NBC brass famously blanched. The suits very nearly dismissed it totally, and one could imagine them offering to have security guards escort Roddenberry to the door—thinking possibly the experienced screenwriter of episodes of Have Gun, Will Travel and Highway Patrol had become a crank. But those same executives were under intense pressure to find their own comeback to several other sci-fi shows under development at the other networks, notably Lost in Space, only months away from its first prime time airing on CBS, and The Time Tunnel, scheduled for its debut on ABC in the fall of 1967. Both the ABC and CBS shows had modestly large budgets, and both were generating a lot of pre-debut talk. And each were seen as harbingers of things which would become inevitable on TV: science fiction shows reflective of the real world space race by then in full swing, with the United States working feverishly to catch up with—and hopefully surpass—the competing space program of the Soviet Union, and the race to the moon in full swing in the form of Gemini and Apollo programs.
Reluctantly, the chiefs at NBC told Roddenberry to take his cans of footage and try again—a rare case of a television concept being given a second opportunity to make it right. Roddenberry, working with his mentors and backers at Desilu, went back to the drawing boards and the editing room and produced a “second pilot,” something of an oxymoron for TV production. That unusual decree to try again reflected the desire of some of the hardnosed top people at NBC to find the right vector with which to approach the whole space travel/time thing, and in a way that would catch fire with viewers who were perceived to possess limited attention spans of 24 to 48 minutes. The show’s success might also hinge on how much muscle Ball and Arnaz and their influential Desilu were willing to put into giving Star Trek a voice at the corporate conference table.
Roddenberry went to work hammering away at something that would please NBC, carefully reworking the script called “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” After great struggle, using a mostly new cast, and employing scrupulous editing, the second pilot seemed to please NBC, which green-lighted the show for a fall 1966 rollout.
Under the umbrellas of Paramount Television and Desilu, shooting for the real-deal debut began soon afterwards, and within a few weeks the scripts introduced the more familiar faces and characters, including William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk, Deforest Kelly as Doctor Leonard McCoy, James Doohan as chief engineer Scott (aka, Scotty), and George Takei as Lt. Sulu. Also introduced was Nichelle Nichols as communications specialist Lt. Uhura, a bold move by Star Trek’s production company Desilu and NBC: never before had an African-American woman been placed in a top-tier role in a U.S. TV series. And then there was Leonard Nimoy, back again after two pilots in his role as Spock.
Hunter was, famously, replaced by William Shatner for the lead role as captain, a move which would greatly alter the trajectory of Hunter’s career (he would suffer a serious concussion while shooting in Spain in late 1968, then—still not fully recovered—a fall in his home in early 1969 which would result in fatal brain injuries; he died days after surgery to repair a intracranial hemorrhage). The extensive footage using Hunter as Captain Pike would be masterfully reworked into a complex two-part episode called “The Cage” during the second half of the show’s first season.
Star Trek debuted on the night of Thursday, September 8, 1966. Its ratings thereafter were a mixed bag of modest-to-low numbers, and the show got uneven reviews in the entertainment press: some reviewers liked it, some panned it, still others expressed ambivalence toward a show with such potential for moral complexity and futuristic space travel. Despite what appeared to be an intensely loyal following by the end of the first season (measured by those who failed to miss a single episode) overall ratings remained sluggish. In the entertainment press, some reviewers even questioned the potential of a show with so much at stake—deep investment in intellect and science, a show without the comfortable boundaries which had become a canon of TV production, and the presentation of even societal and racial struggles, however carefully coded—echoing the earlier concerns by NBC that the show was “too cerebral.”
Indeed, Star Trek ran only three seasons, from its debut in September 1966—50 years ago—to June 3, 1969. But during that brief period the topics and issues addressed by the show read like a laundry list of hot topics, and cultural and political flashpoints: intolerance, race, religion, poverty, economic injustice, societal understandings and perceptions, war, peace, death, struggles between nations and belief systems, sexism and feminism, libertarianism versus authoritarianism, free will versus and subjugation, and the age old question of when to embrace peace versus when to employ violence to resolve conflicts.
The show also interlaced its ongoing narrative with its most enduring common challenge: how to balance emotion with logic, and under what circumstances do crew members of the USS Enterprise make the decision to defer to one or the other. Not surprisingly, this more or less continuous theme delivered an often ambiguous answer, while at the same time generating the show’s familiar and endearing interpersonal and familial context—friction between the logical, deeply disciplined Spock and the emotional, gregarious Dr. McCoy, with Kirk often acting as the fulcrum upon which such matters were leveraged and resolved, preferably before the final credits rolled each episode.
Star Trek’s not-so-hidden agenda, as it turned out, was Roddenberry’s utopian view of a human race able to finally overcome the worst of its instincts and pathologies. In this distant future, the wars of planet Earth have been long settled, guns silenced, the hand of violence stayed; peace is the prevailing and universal factor; poverty has been eradicated, hunger eliminated, antagonisms largely resolved, and equality achieved for everyone regardless of ethnicity, gender, or native language. This was Roddenberry at his best: offering a hyper-progressive example of what Earthlings can achieve a future in which science and morality can operate hand-in-hand to put aside the worst aspects of the human condition. Thus, humanity—freed from its most terrible distractions—forges a future in which the search for knowledge and understanding moves beyond our small solar system and into the deepest realms of unknown space.
Though it seems laughable by today’s standards, the intensely idealistic and progressive template of Star Trek was not merely avant garde, but even edgy, and examples abounded within those first seasons: Shatner as Kirk and Nichols as Uhuru engage in the first inter-racial screen kiss; bridge officer Pavel Chekhov, a Russian, sits at the helm of the USS Enterprise, despite the Cold War realities TV viewers knew each day; Sulu, likewise, occupies a place of importance at a time when many Asian actors were used for comic relief, at best.
Sexism and perceptions of beauty are attacked: in the episode “Mudd’s Women,” a group of females are given drugs which mask their true appearance, making them appear seductively attractive to male miners of a remote planet; their beauty is only an illusion (this is several years before the controversial 1972 Ira Levin novel, The Stepford Wives) brought about by the banned psychotropic drugs, which affect both male and female. When the illegal drugs wear off, reality sets in for all parties, and both the men and the women must reboot their understandings of sexuality and what really matters in their new relationships.
Racism and bigotry are questioned, as in the episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” in which the blind hatred of two seemingly identical humanlike creatures, Bele and Lokai (they are black on exactly half of the face, white on exactly the opposite half), drives them to fight to the death even though they are now the last living remnants of a civilization decimated by continuous wars and brutal genocide. The two chase each other to the ends of the galaxy, fighting, as it turns out, because one adversary is white on the left side of the face, the other, on the right—as senseless a reason for the vitriolic hatred as anything conceived, yet poetic in the late 1960s as the U.S. watched racial violence unfold in seemingly pointless spirals. Roddenberry’s not-so-subtly coded black/white, left/right, yin yang further drove the point deeper into the body politic.
“Balance of Terror” questions whether misunderstandings and misconceptions can exacerbate tensions and spark war, as the Federation comes perilously close to open war with the largely unknown and never glimpsed Romulans, as close an analog to the chilly, icy relations between the U.S. and communist China as anything attempted in the Vietnam War era. The episode introduces viewers to a new race, and pits the wiles and wits of Kirk against the cagey, formidable Romulan commander. The show also establishes the more complex balance of power in a galaxy where the Klingons are not necessarily the sum of all fears, and gives Spock the opportunity to posit that the Vulcans and the Romulans may be distant cousins through the epoch of time—Romulans still trapped by their aggressive warlike ways, Vulcans freed of such impulses by their centuries old adherence to logic and reason. Reviewers and fans alike caught the thinly coded analogy to the United States, the Soviet Union, and Maoist China.
In the episode “The Cloud Minders,” two sharply divided classes of people exist: the Troglytes, miners and laborers trapped in a life of toil, unsafe conditions, and continuous servitude; and the elite people of a floating, silver city in the clouds, a place of luxury and beauty known as Stratos, where people enjoy the riches and wealth derived from the precious elements, rare gases, and valuable metals mined deep below the planet’s surface. The cloud dwellers are beautiful, impeccably mannered, genteel, aloof—and they live into healthy old age. Predictably, the Trogs are irritable, violent, often sickly, and—generation after generation—die an early death from overwork and environmental disease. Trogs possess a blind hatred for those living in the clouds; the cloud dwellers retain a bland, almost absent-minded wonderment at the resentments of the Trogs—another case a case of Roddenberry and Star Trek writers pushing the analogy to its logical if extreme conclusion.
Aside from Roddenberry’s ultra-progressive views and his insistence that the series reflect his belief in humanity at its very best, Star Trek also benefitted mightily from two factors: the leverage and prestige of Desilu Studios (Lucille Ball was a shrewd businessperson and a powerful mover in Hollywood at the time), and the attraction the show exerted to sci-fi writers and talented scripters of TV. Among those who wrote Star Trek episodes were Harlan Ellison, Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, Max Ehrlich and David Gerrold. The quality of the show’s writing quickly burnished what would become the early artifacts of its legacy.
The show reached its critical high water mark with the final episode of the first season, “City on the Edge of Forever,” in which Dr. McCoy—briefly deranged from an accidental overdose of painkillers—hurls himself back in time through an ancient time portal called the Guardian of Forever, where he lands in Depression-era pre-World War II New York City. Attempting to retrieve McCoy from the portal and contact the ship, the Guardian informs Kirk and Spock that McCoy has already altered the space-time continuum: neither the USS Enterprise, nor the Federation, nor human-developed advanced space travel, exist…at all. Spock and Kirk are effectively marooned forever on the remote planet where the Guardian impassively serves as the steward of all history. Kirk and Spock must themselves pass through the portal in a desperate attempt to find McCoy in a city of millions of people and correct whatever alterations to history the doctor has imposed, which, as it turns out, is the success of the pacifist movements to keep the U.S. out of World War II: Nazi Germany consolidates its control over Europe while the U.S. delays going to war; German scientists win the race to develop rockets and nuclear weapons; there is no “space race” because Germany wins the war and defeats the Soviet Union.
This vast shift in history is the result of McCoy’s brief encounter with Edith Keeler (played by Joan Collins), an anti-war activist who also manages a soup kitchen; Keeler, as it turns out, is supposed to die while crossing a busy street before she can motivate thousands, then millions, to join her effort to keep the U.S. out of the war. Kirk and Spock must intervene before McCoy can save her life. The concept introduces one of Star Trek’s most cherished thematic moral paradoxes: the lives of the many outweigh the lives of the few, or the one.
That episode, written by Harlan Ellison, Roddenberry, and Fontana, won accolades from TV critics and reviews who had previously offered, at best, lukewarm praise for Star Trek. It also earned the show numerous awards, including a coveted Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, and a Writer’s Guild of America award for best TV episode. TV Guide also once famously called “City on the Edge of Forever” one of the best 100 moments in TV history. (A strange footnote to this episode is the nasty feud which broke out between Roddenberry, Ellison, writer Gene Coon, and others, over the provenance of the original concept, final writing credits, and a blame-game over rewrites; the fracas spurred a rift between Ellison and Roddenberry which was never resolved during their lifetimes).
Still, after three seasons (Star Trek barely escaped the chopping block at the end of Season Two), NBC execs, unhappy with the lukewarm ratings and unmoved by the pleas of the show’s rarified following—including the protests of some 29,000 people as part of a massive letter writing campaign—the show met its end. After 80 episodes, Star Trek’s voyages had ended. Sort of.
Not long after its plug had been pulled, Paramount sensed that the series might be useful for syndication. Picked up almost as a business gamble by Kaiser Communications in early 1970, the show gained traction in the rapidly blooming and expanding market for reruns in Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Cleveland and several other large TV markets where third and fourth stations competed with the big three. Those second-tier broadcasters needed something useful to place opposite evening newscasts, which tended to draw an older more stable demographic. Star Trek, at least at that time, had a particularly strong appeal to younger viewers with little interest in “news,” whether local or national. Star Trek proved to be no gamble for Kaiser and those broadcasters. In the heady days when many major TV markets were adding fourth and fifth local stations to their line-ups, Star Trek became a valuable commodity.
Thanks to syndication, Star Trek’s following grew exponentially within the two-to-three year period following its cancellation, and by the mid-1970s was threatening to top the rerun success—ironically—of those hundreds of episodes of I Love Lucy, up to that time the juggernaut of fill-in-the-blank strip programming. Indeed, by the end of the 1970s, Star Trek had become the most successful rerun in TV history.
Parallel to the syndication success, the show’s followers began to band together at conventions where they could share their love of Star Trek. The first such convention was held in New York City in 1972. Event planners were worried that less than 400 people might show up, but at the end of the day more than 3000 attended—a harbinger of things to come in hundreds of cities across the country as the conventions grew rapidly in size and scope, effectively inventing a genre of fan gatherings the likes of which no previous movie or television incarnation had ever generated. This, in turn, fed interest back into the reruns, which rapidly gained a foothold in more cities. Star Trek fans became a notably loyal legion, their numbers swelling over the decades and driving much of the energy back into the mainstream, where it fostered demand for more things Star Trek, and where it inevitably spawned more TV shows and movies—all springing out of a show with low ratings so low the TV execs wanted it dead almost from the start.
“The show that won’t die,” as TV Guide once famously called the original Star Trek in 1973, was pulling in as much as $1 million per episode for Paramount by the early 1980s in syndication fees—meaning it had become the most lucrative rerun of all time. This spawned multiple movies using the original cast, beginning with Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), six massive sequels, and plans already under way by the mid-1980s to introduce new television variations on the same theme—notably Star Trek: The Next Generation, which would debut in the fall of 1987. Star Trek: The Motion Picture, would not merely serve as a vehicle to revisit the crew and the USS Enterprise using the original cast, but it also gave composer Jerry Goldsmith an opportunity to generate the second most enduring musical theme of the franchise—almost as iconic as Alexander Courage’s ethereal and unforgettable opening and closing music from 1966.
But as has become even more clear with the passing of the decades, Star Trek’s deepest, most ironic legacy is its technology and science—much of it so out-of-the-box at the time as to be considered wacky—but which now, looking back from the comforts of the 21st century, seem downright prescient.
Among the many things we take for granted now which were portrayed in the original series, and in numerous reboots and remakes: pocket-sized “communicators,” the design of which was a factor in the development of the first popular flip-phones; Lt. Uhuru’s communications earpiece, which bears a striking resemblance to today’s Blue Tooth wireless earpiece; the “microwave ovens, an exotic, obscure and markedly expensive item in 1967; iPads and other tablet devices, seen frequently in Star Trek: The Next Generation, though such handheld devices would not hit the markets for another decade or more; likewise, glass touch screen and touch-and-drag technologies; tricorders and handheld medical devices for vital signs, now found in the ubiquitous “wearables” which can be used to monitor practical everything, from heart rate to blood sugar to respiration, and food content detectors which can rapidly produce a list of elements and compounds of vegetables and fruit at your nearest grocery store.
Star Trek also spawned decades of reboots, spinoffs, novels, comic books, graphic novels, and what now seems an unstoppable sequence of movies. In the late 1970s and through the 1980s, it was reinvented to much success in a series of big screen adaptations with the original cast, and these films included at least two of the most successful sci-fi movies of all time: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Each of those two films, written along episodic narratives and crafted to appeal to both fans of the original series and to an entire new generation of mainstream moviegoers, proved that the franchise had fuel enough to last for years. Some critics suggest that Wrath of Kahn may have been actor Ricardo Montalban’s finest performance as he revisited a role first introduced in the original series, and Christopher Lloyd—as a relentless Klingon commander—was exquisitely evil in The Search for Spock.
Television reboots, extensions and spinoffs have met with success, attracting older fans and drawing-in new followers, widening the footprint and extending the canons and the mythology created originally by Roddenberry. Star Trek: The Next Generation, which starred Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Michael Dorn, Marina Sirtis, Wil Wheaton, and Brent Spiner, ran from 1987 to 1994, and proved almost as successful as the syndication power of the original series. It achieved the highest ratings of all Star Trek brands, and nearly toppled the original series when TNG itself went into reruns in the middle 1990s. Not a reboot, TNG picks up the Star Trek thread a century after the timeline presented in the original, allowing the show to introduce even more fabulous advances in technology and design, and introducing a Star Fleet/Federation nemesis—named Q—who became one of the show’s most intriguing characters and formidable adversaries.
Star Trek: The Next Generation also introduced so many new characters, so many new cultures, and so many new plot wrinkles that it outgrew its own seemingly limitless space and spawned a complex series of spinoffs and parallel shows, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (often simply called Deep Space Nine), which ran from 1993 to 1999, and Star Trek: Voyager, featuring Kate Mulgrew as Captain Kathryn Janeway, a female commander of a major spaceship.
Voyager offered a kind of reversal of the Star Trek equation: in the opening episode, Janeway’s ship and crew are engaged in a dangerous high stakes chase which propels them inadvertently into the farthest reaches of the galaxy, some 70,000 light years from Earth. As a result, they are forced to endure an Old Testament-like journey of 75 years back to Earth, during which time they must contend with daunting challenges, strange adversaries, and dazzling adventures along the way.
The massive success of these shows drew still more followers into the growing fold. In 2001, Paramount and various writer/developers introduced us to Enterprise (later renamed Star Trek: Enterprise), a quasi-prequel of sorts meant to pick up the thread between the events portrayed in the highly successful movie Star Trek: First Contact (1996, directed by alumnus Jonathan Frakes, and starring most of the TNG cast) and the early years of the fictional Federation as depicted in the original series. Starring Scott Bakula as Captain Jonathan Archer, the show ran through the end of 2005, effectively bringing to a terminus the long continuous run of television shows begun with TNG in 1987. The finale was meant to bridge the timeline gaps at both ends, and it gave viewers a brief introduction of some of the same characters first introduced in The Next Generation.
All told, Star Trek—a low budget show which barely made it to the end of its third season—has spawned more movies and more television incarnations than anything else in the history of TV. Even now, new variations of the Star Trek franchise are under development. Minor bad news for some Star Trek fans came in mid-September, as CBS announced a six month delay in rolling out the newest TV incarnation of the unstoppable series: Star Trek: Discovery. Instead of this fall, the show will debut instead in May 2017, the result—according to a press release—of insufficient time to develop and produce the new show adequately. Producers and writers, however, promise fans plenty of bang, sizzle, and adventure in what will be the eighth TV series to spin off from the original now more than 50 years old.
A minor setback for diehard fans wanting to experience yet more Star Trek, but perhaps a sign that the next series will effectively mirror the now deeply entrenched ethos and canons set forth by Gene Roddenberry in an oddball television show a half century ago.
Related Thursday Review articles:
Star Trek Beyond: Better Than its Slow Box Office Numbers; Maggie Nichols; Thursday Review; August 20, 2016.
Leonard Nimoy: Rest in Peace; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 28, 2015.