Forget Khan and Klingons, Star Trek's greatest trick was simply surviving
How, by the numbers, Star Trek should – but didn't – go red shirt
Star Trek @ 50 Thirteen films, TV spin-offs, millions of loyal fans and the ultimate of accolades for any work of science fiction – spoofs. Confirmation indeed of Star Trek's status as a cultural force.
Fifty years ago this week, the genesis of that legacy played to unsuspecting and uninitiated US viewers. Star Trek the original TV series aired with The Man Trap.
It shouldn’t have been this way. By all rights, we shouldn’t be remembering Star Trek at all.
Commercially, while the films have made money they haven’t been roaring successes – raking in $2.4bn in the US, adjusted for inflation, compared to $5.9bn for Star Wars – that other great totem in the sci-fi canon that nerds will retreat to.
Star Trek vs Star Wars - no contest when it comes to money
The most successful Star Trek film of all time, JJ Abrams’ 2009 reboot, made less than the least successful entry from Star Wars – $299m versus $450m.
In an industry like Hollywood, driven by profit, the numbers don’t add up.
And while you’ll hear some pretty lofty assertions made about Star Trek this week, it’s not like Star Trek was blessed by manifest destiny.
Low budgets meant some alien Star Trek worlds looked remarkably Californian
Star Trek debuted not on the big screen, like Star Wars, but rather on the tiny living-room screen on US network NBC in September 1966. Just another TV show on just another US TV channel.
Neither did NBC really care for any pretensions to dramatic excellence or making of statements on the nature of the human condition that might have been felt by the series’ creator Eugene Wesley Roddenberry, which have been accorded to Star Trek since then.
No, NBC’s needs were simple: something to fill the slot against rival CBS’s Lost in Space. Box ticked.
Star Trek’s writers weren’t exactly showered with gold either. This was TV and they only got a lot tighter once Desilu Studio, which produced Star Trek, came under the control of the Gulf+Western bean counters in a 1967 acquisition. Each episode cost $186,000 – versus $1.3m for Next Generation – and special effects were primitive.
That’s why so many alien worlds looked remarkably like outdoors California or a version of the Blue Peter set, with coloured backdrop and Styrofoam rocks.
NBC treated Star Trek and Roddenberry accordingly: nearly axing Star Trek after two years, then killing it properly three years later in 1969 because of falling audiences.
Moreover, Roddenberry nearly blew it, having to write a second pilot after the first, The Cage, was deemed “too cerebral” by NBC’s suits. Such was NBC’s desire to take on Lost In Space and to do business with the owner of Desilu – US TV sitcom hit star Lucille Ball (of CBS’s I Love Lucy) – that NBC was somewhat remarkably persuaded to give Roddenberry a rare second bite at the cherry in the dog-eat-dog world of Hollywood, producing Where No Man Has Gone Before that hit the mark.
The original TV series lost the TV war, and nearly the battle for the cultural consciousness 10 years later with the explosive début that was Star Wars.
And yet, we are here: just two months after that third film in the JJ Abrams reboot of Star Trek – the third after things petered out in 2002 with Nemesis – talking about the 50th anniversary of what in reality was a low-budget, late 1960s, TV time-slot filler.
It's a wonder Star Trek made it this far
You could say Star Trek’s always been a bit of a survivor. NBC was ready to axe its space drama after the first series and into the second.
Pike: his green-lady love (not pictured) stayed, but the first Captain was thrown overboard
What’s said to have saved it was a grass-roots protest from fans – loyal nerd fans, the most dogmatic and determined fans on the spectrum.
Students at brain-box institute MIT in 1968 staged protests – this was 1968 after all. The network was also inundated by thousands of letters from students at CalTech and staff at former Nazi rocket man Werner Von Braun’s White Sands Missile Range, calling for Star Trek to be saved.
It’s said Roddenberry orchestrated the campaign – an act that finally and fatally put him at odds with NBC’s suits and led to the ultimate demise of his TV show.
Roddenberry claimed that 100,000 letters came in support of Star Trek, but others reckon the figure was more like 12,000. Whatever the numbers and the antecedence, this was an unprecedented outpouring of mail for a US network in post-War America. At the end of the second series in March 1968, the NBC announcer told fans their programme had been renewed for a third season.
Herein would seem to lie the strength of that original TV series and of Star Trek.
On paper, Star Trek cast were nothing out of the ordinary – more players in the meat grinder of Hollywood US network TV system. Roddenberry came to writing for TV having worked for the Los Angeles Police Department, where he’d been a consultant on the then-TV-hit Dragnet. His cast and writers were faces familiar in TV westerns and suspense such as The Outer Limits.
But what Roddenberry demonstrated early on was willingness and a determination to paint complicated topics on an allegorical canvas. It’s this that made Star Trek not just stand out, but build a distinct and loyal audience. An audience you couldn’t ignore.
Roddenberry's pre-Star Trek series The Lieutenant, a personal drama based around the character of Lt William Tiberius Rice and his unit of US marines, presaged some of the themes explored in ST. Only The Lieutenant's marines were not operating on the battlefield – not with the Vietnam War heating up. Their theatre of conflict was peacetime, with officers dealing with life challenges and their personal demons.
The Lieutenant ran for 29 episodes between September 1963 and April 1964 and set the template for Star Trek: drama over action. The series was cancelled by a network – NBC – unhappy with, yes, ratings and concerned by external events – that war in Vietnam.
Over to Star Trek.
The template for Star Trek is one of discovery, adventure and action.
You can see the influences of submarine warfare and even WWII. The Enterprise is a ship referred to, naturally, as a “she,” while Kirk keeps a captain’s log. It’s worth recalling that Star Trek aired just 20 years after the end of the Second World War, with Roddenberry himself having served on a B17 Flying Fortress with 394 Bombing Squadron on 89 missions over the Pacific.
Spock and fiancée: working from scratch, Roddenberry's writers developed a Vulcan culture that has now taken on a life of its own in fan culture
For US TV and film in those post-war years, WWII was its strongest influence since the Wild West and men with guns took on men of the law.
However, there were deeper influences, too, from Roddenberry’s childhood. Born in 1921, he’d grown up watching the legendarily camp Flash Gordon at the cinema during the 1930s, replete with its phallic rocket ships spitting smoke and sparks.
The growing lad read what’s come to be recognized as ground breaking literary works: Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars, said to have also influenced Ray Bradbury and astronomer Carl Sagan, and EE Doc Smith’s Skylark, a ground-breaking epic series of stories from 1928 that tackled the science of space and space travel.
But there were even older and more classical currents feeding into that TV programme.
The good ship Enterprise
Remember that nautical theme? According to Herb Solow’s Star Trek: The Inside Story, CS Forester’s Lieutenant Hornblower series was a great inspiration for Roddenberry. The captain of Roddenberry’s ship had, initially, been described in the story outline as rather Hornblower like: “A strong, complex personality, he is capable of action and decision which can verge on the heroic and at the same time lives in a continued battle with self doubt and the loneliness of command.”
This was the captain in the original, rejected in The Cage – a leader brooding on his mission and responsibility for 203 lives. In this respect, Roddenberry went too far – even by his own standards. No wonder it was red-pencil time for NBC.
Think NBC went too far?
The captain of the USS Enterprise in The Cage was Pike, in a story of a complicated relationship that featured the famed green alienness. But it was back to the drawing board for Roddenberry, who re-configured the crew and shook up the captain and the concept to write Where No Man has Gone Before, the official pilot that ran on September 22, 1966. The green alienness remained in the program's credit sequences, at least, but the man in the swivel seat? The baton passed to James Tiberius Kirk, swashbuckler, alien-lady killer, no respecter of authority and a philosopher commander. The rest is history.
Star Trek: Putting the sci in sci-fi
The thing, however, that really gave Star Trek muscle was, in a word: science.
Roddenberry strove for scientific legitimacy in Star Trek and employed consultants from Rand Corporation, NASA and Caltech to channel the latest thinking and developments on space travel, space suits and ship design. At end of the second season, Roddenberry reckoned more than 100 high school science classes assigned Star Trek as a credit and that education journals were analysing the show.
Star Trek played out as the US-led forces' war in Vietnam escalated
It was a comment on the success of this aspect that scientists and engineers mobilised in Roddenberry’s campaign against the 1968 cancellation.
However, the scientific roots of Star Trek extended beyond that the white heat of post-War, nuclear America.
Skylark had already tackled the idea of warp travel – that you can travel faster light. It was an idea Albert Einstein, writing just before Skylark, had said was impossible. What speed does the Enterprise travel at? Warp speed. When it’s working, that is. Skylark also references matter-energy conversion and black holes, topics found in Star Trek.
Roddenberry, however, was careful not to get too caught up in the wonder of science and he kept the human interest angle alive: dinner parties with ambassadors, Scotty getting drunk on the off-puttingly blue Romulan ale. Roddenberry wanted the science, but Star Trek wasn’t some a documentary. In a New York Times’ interview, Roddenberry said of the future: “People aren’t going to stop eating, sleeping or getting dressed in a few hundred years. We’re trying to imagine… what they’ll most likely be eating or thinking or wearing.”
Upon this foundation came that drama and also the codes and the universe. Roddenberry used writers such as Theodore Sturgeon who developed the concepts of Vulcan Culture and of Spock of logic and suppressed feelings that we now take so much for granted and would use to describe somebody in real life without giving it a second thought. It was the episode "Amok Time" from September 1967 that showed how Spock must return to Vulcan to marry his betrothed – or die.
Writer Dorothy Fontana, who also worked on Vulcan culture with Sturgeon, went on to write some of what are regarded as the best episodes of the original TV series: they include "This Side of Paradise" (September 1967), where the logical Spock feels and then must contain his feelings saying: “For the first time in my life, I was happy”, and "Charlie X" (also September 1966) where a 17-year-old boy is rescued by the Enterprise with unwanted consequences – particularly for Yeoman Rand.
And here’s where we encountered another influence on Star Trek, something that’s set the framework for everything since and that’s also made Star Trek so universal: Roddenberry wanted the TV series to be a 20th century version of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, marrying adventure and social commentary.
Like Swift’s hero, Gulliver, Kirk and crew deal with different races, cultures and civilizations, from the warlike through to cerebral – just like sea adventurers of old.
According to Star Trek and American Television Roddenberry told the Washington Post at the time: “When Swift wanted to comment on his time, on crooked prime ministers, insane kings and queens... he would have gotten his head chopped off for it if he’d written it straight.
“So I did much the same thing. I talked about... sex, religion, union management, labor all that stuff… it went right over the network’s heads. But all the 14- and 16-year-olds in the audience knew exactly what I was talking about.”
He told the LA Times in 1967: “We did shows last year about sex, bigotry, unionism, racism and religion. We even did on the Vietnam war – disguised of course.”
The show put a stake in the ground, on race: the Enterprise’ has a multi ethnic crew at the centre of the core line up, not in the periphery, that departed from the standard sliced white variety of 1960s US TV. Cast members included George Takei as helmsman Hikaru Sulu, an actor of Japanese descent, and Nichelle Nichols' African-American Lieutenant Nyota Uhura. A Japanese-American so close after the conclusion of the War against Japan and the US’s terrible treatment of its Japanese-US citizens with internment and black woman at a time when America, and particularly the southern US states, was grappling with civil rights and integration and the right of black people to vote.
NASA provided technical input on Star Trek as it worked on the first moon landing
Roddenberry also factored in a Russian – Walter Koenig's Pavel Andreievich Chekov – at a time of the Cold War when Russia was a Communist country.
This following the 1950s McCarthyite Reds-under-the-beds scare, the Bay of Pigs stand off between US president Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev over nukes for Communist Cuba and the Vietnam War, where US forces were locked in a military struggle against Communist-backed forces in Vietnam. 1968 is regarded as a pivotal year in the War’s intensity and in the fortunes of US forces.
Takei was an actor who’d struggled with his place in American society: along with his parents, he’d been interned during the second World War for being of Japanese, with his mother stripped of her US citizenship and his father nearly deported.
Takei wrote: “This was unbelievable…. The project was a quantum leap ahead of anything on the air, the role, a real trailblazer. And this was happening to me.”
But, while gripping for an emerging fan base responding to real science and real stories, herein also lay the seed of the death of the TV series’ death.
Rodenberry’s willingness to tackle controversial topics and present challenging scenarios for the comfortable US TV viewing public of the time got him in trouble with NBC and was responsible for the program’s demise as friction ensued.
US TV in the 1950s and '60s was a self-censoring beast: a finely balanced set of interests of conservative networks, conservative advertisers and very conservative local TV affiliates.
The advertisers, the real moneymen, in particular, wanted raw viewing numbers. Getting them it was believed programmes must target and reflect the biggest socio-economic demographic: white, middle-class and conservative America. It was a TV culture where, if you got to peek into the characters’ bedrooms, you saw the characters slept in separate beds – no hint of sex of physical relationship.
Fan lore has it that Star Trek gave US TV audiences their first taste of an interracial kiss – a muscular clincher between Kirk and Uhura in 1968’s "Plato’s Stepchildren", an episode where the crew become pawns of an alien race who are directing their actions – so, therefore, not actually responsible for what they are doing.
Some dispute this, but whether it was first or not, NBC was extremely concerned about how the scene would play in southern sates, a place reeling from new laws giving US African American’s equal citizenship and voting rights following massive violence. The network wanted two scenes filmed, one a kiss and one a hug, but William Shatner is said to have deliberately fluffed the hug scene with Nichols so that the network was forced to run with the full-on lip smacker.
How Lucille Ball saves Star Trek
What was good drama was proving bad for NBC. In The Fifty Year Mission: the Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek, the network reckoned it was receiving too many letters from too many offended members of the public.
There was no love lost between the network and Roddenberry. Worse, Roddenberry’s 1967 Save Star Trek letter-writing campaign, while it prolonged the series, ensured Roddenberry was seen as a hostile to the suits of NBC.
Indeed, it’s said it wasn’t the campaign itself that saved Star Trek: it was the presence of Lucille Ball at Desilu Studios – which had produced The Cage and the TV series – who had personally intervened to save Star Trek. Such was NBC’s desire to do business with Ball.
So, yes, while NBC committed Star Trek to a third series, it did so on terms that ensured the program’s demise. NBC shunted Star Trek around the time slots, including 10-11pm Eastern on a Friday. Audience numbers inevitably fell off and that gave NBC the excuse it needed to set its phaser to the kill setting and fire.
And Einstein said it couldn't be done: Star Trek's warp drive for the JJ Abrams' generation
The death shot was made all the easier by the fact that Roddenberry had left day-to-day writing duties of Star Trek and had become a more distant executive producer, having burned out because of constant battling with NBC and the censors. Series three started in September 1968, but NBC had Star Trek canned eight months later.
Barring an animated series, that was it for Star Trek until 1979, when The Motion Picture kicked off what would become an on-again-off-again film franchise. This was later followed by a new TV series – The Next Generation in 1987 with Roddenberry on board – and spin offs. The latest – Discovery, another attempt to mine the prequel genre – is due in 2017, from CBS.
That CBS is going where others have gone boldly before should be regarded as a testament to the strength of what Roddenberry and his team laid out in the original series 50 years ago. Yes, it got them in trouble, but they get the last laugh.
As a Klingon might observe: revenge is a dish that has indeed been served cold. ®