Star Trek, a show that didn’t do very well in the ratings when it first debuted, has become a multi-media monster. It has gone from television to cartoons, novels, comic books, video games and films. Many of the character names have become an iconic part of pop-culture. The real-life space shuttle Enterprise was named in honor of the space vessel from Star Trek. The whole concept of the sci-fi convention was begun by the fan-created ‘Trek’ conventions of the early seventies. Few franchises can claim to have had the impact that Star Trek has on mass culture.
Star Trek began as the brainchild of Eugene Wesley Roddenberry, AKA Gene Roddenberry. (1921-1991)Gene Roddenberry was a second-generation police officer and a veteran of World War Two. He had always dabbled in writing and often penned speeches to the press for his superiors. As a bored LAPD desk sergeant at his precinct; he began writing ‘spec scripts’ (unsolicited speculative scripts) for TV shows. He sold his first script to the show Highway Patrol, because they were impressed with his inside knowledge of the working of police procedure. He sold a few more scripts to the program, which helped him get a job on the writing staff of the western show Have Gun; Will Travel (1957-1963) using the pseudonym Robert Wesley.
While working on Have Gun; Will Travel, Roddenberry successfully pitched an idea for a military-themed drama series called The Lieutenant (1963-64). This was his first shot at being a head writer/producer. The show starred a pre-2001: a Space Odyssey Gary Lockwood, as well as a pre-Man from U.N.C.L.E. Robert Vaughn and a pre-Six Million Dollar Man Richard Anderson.
The show did well critically. The ratings were fair but not outstanding, due to some tough competition in the time slot from The Jackie Gleason Show, and a general feeling of disapproval from the public regarding the military since this was during the Vietnam War. When co-star Robert Vaughn left after the first year to star in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., the network canceled the Lieutenant after only one season. (Trivia footnote: It was on the show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. that future ‘Trek’ stars William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy would meet for the first time.)
After the commercial failure of the Lieutenant, Roddenberry had a hard time pitching his new concept for a TV series, especially since this new project was science fiction—a genre which had very little respect at the time, unless it was written by Rod Serling. Roddenbery pitched the idea around to several studios, trying to make the idea sound more palatable by describing it as “Wagon Train in Space” (The western show Wagon Train had been very popular at the time.) He met with a lot of rejection.
What few people know is that it was Desi Arnaz (of I Love Lucy fame) who saved the day and helped give birth to Star Trek. Arnaz and his wife Lucille Ball owned Desilu Studios and Arnaz decided to bank on the show. Making a deal with NBC to air the program on their network (Lucy had a lot of clout with networks, who all wanted to work with her in any capacity) Star Trek got the green light to begin production.
Roddenberry envisioned Star Trek as being different from the usual Space Opera fare of Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and other previous sci-fi franchises. He wanted his show to be an idea show, which would act as a metaphor for the turbulent social conditions of the 1960s. (The Vietnam War, the civil rights conflicts, women’s lib, the “hippie” culture, etc.) He didn’t want one-dimensional bad guys like Ming the Merciless. He thought the villains should all have shades of gray. His goal with Star Trek was to be an observation on what humans are doing wrong now and what they should do right in the future.
Roddenberry cast popular actor Jeffery Hunter (The Searchers, King of Kings) to star as the ship’s captain, Christopher Pike. Majel Barrett (the future Mrs. Roddenberry) was cast as the unnamed First Officer, only referred to as ‘Number One’. A supporting cast character was the alien programmer of the ship’s advanced ‘Library Computer’; this pointy-eared crewman was known as Mr. Spock from the planet Vulcan. Spock was played by Leonard Nimoy.
The first pilot episode of Star Trek was called “The Cage”, and was completed in 1965. It was a thought-provoking metaphorical narrative about slavery and the treatment of third world people by industrialized governments. Although it was a very good script, it wasn’t what NBC or Desilu wanted. They wanted more Flash Gordon-like adventure and some Outer Limits-type monsters.
Although the pilot was rejected, NBC made the surprising move of commissioning a second pilot, something that had never before been done in the history of TV. Roddenberry was amazed to get this unprecedented second chance. He wrote a new, more action-oriented script called “where No Man Has Gone Before”.
He immediately hit a setback when Jeffery Hunter pulled out, due to film commitments and a lack of confidence in the future of Star Trek. Roddenberry had to re-write the role of the captain. While he was at it, he started from scratch and created all new roles/characters, except for that of Mr. Spock, who Roddenberry saw as crucial to the series. There had to be an alien crewman there to symbolize the universal brotherhood of man, he felt. Nimoy was the only cast member to carry over from the original pilot. (Except for Roddenberry’s new girlfriend Majel Barrett, who got the recurring role as Nurse Chapel on the show.)
The part of the new captain, who was renamed Captain James Kirk, went to a young actor named William Shatner, who had appeared in the film Judgment At Nuremberg, and had a successful turn on Broadway in “The World of Suzie Wong”. He had also appeared in two episodes of one of Roddenberry’s favorite shows, The Twilight Zone.
Other cast members included ship’s engineer Mr. Scott (James Doohan), Helmsman Mr. Sulu (George Takei) and communications officer Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols). The guest star in the new pilot episode was Gary Lockwood, who had starred in the Lieutenant. NBC liked the new pilot and so Star Trek was officially scheduled for the 1966-67 TV season.
When the show went to series, a new ship’s doctor was cast, replacing the actor from the pilot. Veteran character Deforest Kelly was cast as Dr. Leonard McCoy. (Trivia footnote: McCoy was only meant to be a minor character at first but everyone responded so well to his comical repartee with Nimoy’s Spock character, that his part was increased until he was given third billing, and his name joined Shatner and Nimoy in the opening credits.)
When the show debuted, it got mixed reviews, although Nimoy got almost universal acclaim for his portrayal of Spock, ultimately getting two Emmy nominations. One TV critic suggested that the show would benefit if Captain Kirk were killed off and Spock became the Captain. (This article reportedly infuriated Shatner, who some say was a bit of a male diva on the set of the show. Shatner admitted his insecurities years later.)
Star Trek never did particularly well in the ratings during its original run. Sci-fi was not popular then, (Pre-Star Wars) and many thought the pilot was “too preachy” at times. Shatner’s acting was often criticized for being too over-the-top, and the effects were sometime limited by the budget. It just never seemed to catch on with fans of the day.
Considering the show was fairly expensive to make, NBC considered cancelling it after the first season, but it was a plea from a group of noted sci-fi writers organized by Harlan Ellison (Who wrote the most-popular ‘Star Trek’ episode The City on the Edge of Forever) that changed the network’s mind. Ellison and the others argued that there was too little meaningful sci-fi on TV to counter the cheesy, silly stuff like Lost in Space. NBC gave ‘Trek’ another chance.
The second season of Star Trek (67-68) is considered its best period by fans but the ratings did not go up. Not even the addition of new cast member Ensign Chekov helped. (Triva footnote: Although Roddenberry claimed to have added Chekov to appease Russian fans who complained that the lack of a Russian on the ship was disrespectful–because Russians originated the space race–that was just an excuse. He was really trying to get younger fans–and females in particular–to watch the show by casting Davey Jones look-alike Walter Koenig in a Beatle’s wig, to cater to fans of the trendy show the Monkees.) However, the show’s production costs did go up, which infuriated the network.
NBC announced the cancelling of Star Trek at the end of the second year. This led to the now famous write-in campaign led by Betty Jo “Bjo” Trimble. Trimble was a huge sci-fi fan who contributed artwork to sci-fi magazines like ‘Astonishing Science Fiction’. She started the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society in 1958. She was a rabid fan of Star Trek and so when the series was scheduled for cancellation, she organized the massive “Save Star Trek” letter writing campaign. As a result of her efforts, NBS received thousands of letters threatening to boycott the network if it dared cancel ‘Trek’. NBC changed their minds once again. In another unprecedented move, the president of the Network appeared on TV just before what would have been one of the last ‘Trek’ reruns, to announce that the show had been renewed for a third season.
Before the third season began, Gene Roddenberry decided to take some time off. He was exhausted from over two years of working 12-16 hour days, 5 or 6 days a week. He had just married Majel Barrett Roddenberry and he wanted to relax for a while and enjoy being married. He stood down from his post as head writer and show-runner. While he was still listed as Executive producer, it was in name only and his contribution was only in an occasional advisory capacity.
The network and the show’s new producer Fred Freiberger didn’t seem to know what to do with the show. It’s generally acknowledged by even the most devoted fans that the quality of the show dropped considerably without Roddenberry’s guidance. Also, NBC shoved the show in the ‘Death slot’ of 10pm on Friday nights; a time slot which has killed many a show. The rating for ‘Trek’ plummeted during the disappointing third season and nothing could save the show now. Star Trek was officially and permanently cancelled in 1969.
But this was still not the end. The moon landing in 1969 suddenly made science fiction seem less fictional and it gained some credibility, as well as a lot of sudden interest. People began to discover Star Trek during its reruns and the public started to appreciate it in a way that it hadn’t during the initial run. In the early 1970s, Star Trek was the most watched rerun of its day, getting higher ratings in syndication than it had during its prime time days. This led to the Star Trek animated series and the Star Trek comic books. ‘Trek’ merchandise became big selling items in stores. Star Trek novels soon appeared and parody rip-offs of the show were becoming common.
The first ever Star Trek convention was held in New York in 1973. The original cast agreed to appear (Most of them were having trouble finding post-Trek work, except for Nimoy, who moved on to the role of Paris in the show Mission Impossible.) It was a fan-organized event and they couldn’t pay the cast to appear, so all they could do was to supply the airfare and hotel accommodations. The event was expected to draw about 200-300 people but surprisingly, over 3,000 people overwhelmed the hotel ballroom where the convention was being held. The success of this event led to annual ‘Trek’ conventions, which later became monthly and—at the peak its popularity in the 80s/90s—bi-weekly. Conventions were held all over the country. The concept of the sci-fi convention spread and is a commonplace event now for all popular franchises and genres.
Roddenberry, who hadn’t been able to sell a new series to the networks in the seven years following the cancellation of “Star Trek”, pitched a new/old idea for a series called Star Trek: Phase Two. The spin-off show would pick up the continuing voyages of Captain Kirk and his crew. Paramount Pictures bought the idea and the show went into a pre-production period in 1976. Most of the cast—still struggling to find steady work—agreed to appear in the new show; all except for Nimoy, who was busy hosting the TV show In Search Of”, as well as appearing in a one-man stage show ‘Vincent’ about Van Gogh, and was also in the process of writing his autobiography ‘I am not Spock’ which would become a best-seller. He couldn’t fit the show into his schedule so Roddenberry decided to proceed without him. Roddenberry was going to introduce a new Vulcan character for the show (Spock 2.0, basically.)
Roddenberry was busy from late 1976-mid 77 trying to get his series ready for the 78-79 season. However, plans changed when the mega-hit sci-fi classic Star Wars debuted in theaters in 1977, shattering all box office records. There had never been a sci-fi monster hit like that before and suddenly every studio was rushing to churn out films to cash in on the popularity of George Lucas’s sci-fi opus. Films with names like Star-Crash, Battle Beyond the Stars and Battlestar: Galactica were popping up, all hoping to be the next Star Wars. Paramount decided that it would take advantage of the name recognition of the ‘Trek’ franchise to put out its own entry in the “Who can best cash in on Star Wars?” game. They scrubbed Star Trek: Phase Two and green lit Star Trek: the Motion Picture.
Paramount knew that it needed the ever-popular Spock in the film if it was going to recapture the ‘Trek’ audience, so they baited Nimoy with a large salary offer and finally he agreed to be in the film. The rest of the cast came back eagerly enough, and the project was under way. Although the script was based on the germ of an idea Roddenberry had for his Star Trek: Phase Two series, the project was mostly taken out of his hands and Paramount was running the show. The film came out in 1979 to mixed reviews but was very successful at the box office regardless of that. In retrospect, most fans don’t think too much of the first ‘Trek’ film but at the time, the excitement of seeing Kirk, Spock and the rest on the big screen was a big crowd draw. The film was a hit and a sequel was quickly in the works.
The sequel, Star Trek 2: the Wrath of Khan, (1982) was a vast improvement over the first film and many fans consider it the best of the franchise. Ricardo Montalban, who had appeared on the original TV series as the villainous Khan, reprised his role here and made for an excellent adversary for Kirk to battle. The film was a hit. It led to several more sequels.
Leonard Nimoy, however, claimed that he had had enough of playing Spock and wanted to be written out of the franchise. The character of Spock was killed off at the end of the Wrath of Khan. However, when the next sequel rolled around, Nimoy was lured back once again, this time by the promise that he could direct the film. Nimoy would direct the next two entries in the franchise Star Trek 3: the Search for Spock (1984) and Star Trek 4: the Voyage Home (1986). The fifth film, Star Trek 5: the Final Frontier (1989) was directed by Shatner, who demanded equal time. He didn’t do nearly as well as Nimoy did and his additions to the script were not very inspired. The movie didn’t do well at the box office and is much maligned by fans. The franchise made a comeback with the sixth film, Star Trek 6: the Undiscovered Country (1991). This film did good business and was mostly well reviewed, and it was a nice bow-out for the cast. It was the last film featuring the cast of the 1960s TV series.
But there was still more ‘Trek’ in the world. In 1987, Roddenberry introduced the spin-off series Star Trek: the Next Generation. (ST:TNG) Originally, fans of the classic show were aghast at the idea of doing Star Trek without Shatner, Nimoy, Kelly and all the rest. Many predicted that the show would be terrible, and the first season seemed to prove them correct. The early episodes were awful, like a watered down remake of old ‘Trek’ episodes with rip-off characters. Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) was seen as a Kirk rip-off and Mr. Data (Brent Spiner) was considered Spock-lite. Only Patrick Stewart received positive acclaim from old time fans for his authoritative performance as the ship’s new Captain Jean Luc Picard. (Although Marina Sirtis–who played Counsellor Troi–became very popular as the sex symbol of the show and a popular pin-up girl for young fandom.) The show did well enough in the ratings to earn a second season. It limped through its sophomore year, only slightly improving after its poor freshman year. It wasn’t until the third Season, when the aging Gene Roddenberry retired that new executive producer Rick Berman and new head writer Michael Piller gave the show an identity of its own.
The show became a bona-fide hit, critically and ratings wise, loved by old fans now, as well as new. Star Trek: the Next Generation got higher ratings than the original had ever gotten and lasted far longer, running for 7 years. (Trivia Footnote: Several members of the original cast appeared on ST:TNG. Deforest Kelly appeared in the Pilot episode as Admiral McCoy. Leonard Nimoy appeared in a two-part episode as Spock; and James Doohan was in one episode as Scotty.)
The popularity of the series led to several movie versions of the show, continuing the voyages of Capt. Picard and company. The first of them, Star Trek: Generations, (1994) was sort of a cross-over film, with William Shatner co-starring as Kirk and teaming up with Stewart’s Picard to save the day. it was sort of an unofficial handing-the-baton moment. Sadly, Gene Roddenberry didn’t live to see Kirk meet Picard on screen. He passed away in 1991, at age 70.
More ‘Next Generation’ film sequels came (Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek: Insurrection and Star Trek: Nemesis) and more spin-off TV series arrived, including Star Trek: Deep Space 9, Star Trek: Voyager and Enterprise.
A reboot film of the ‘Trek‘ franchise by J.J,. Abrams (Lost, Cloverfield, Alias) came out in 2009 and was a success at the box office. (Leonard Nimoy reprised his role as Spock for the film.) It was followed up by Star Trek: Into Darkness. Another sequel is now in the works. So the STAR TREK franchise has not yet run out of steam as it approaches its 50th anniversary soon.