Today I’d like to focus on not a writer, or specific film but a franchise that spans both television and film. That has engendered parodies. Massive merchandising. Conventions. And continues to re-invent itself for over 50 years.
The latest version premieres Sunday night on CBS Television and then goes to CBS streaming which is a pay service. Whether or not that business model proves to be successful is yet to be seen but there is no doubt that there is a massive amount of anticipation for the newest entry into a universe conceived by master story teller Gene Roddenberry.
Roddenberry, a successful TV writer had written dozens of episodic TV scripts for series as varied as Highway Patrol, Mr. District Attorney, I Led Three Lives, West Side, Boots and Saddles, and others. He has over 105 credits as a writer.
Frustrated at what he perceived were the limitations of what could be done on the network on issues like bi-racial relationships, political commentary, and hot button topics of the day including the highly charged Vietnam War, in 1964 Roddenberry put his interracial crew of explorers in outer space seeking new worlds of creative freedom.
Some have called Star Trek “Wagon Train In Outer Space” and that is certainly true. However, Roddenberry’s first thought wasn’t the episodic tales of “trekking” around the galaxy but at crafting episodes that allowed social issues to be examined.
Other writers of that time like Rod Serling from the Twilight Zone, also sought more creative freedom. Both Serling and Roddenberry found it in science fiction, a fact I find most inspiring.
It might seem strange to us today that even a kiss between a woman of color and a white man was forbidden on televison but in the mid-sixties this was the case. Certainly, things were changing in the world and it was inevitable that mass entertainment would follow - but the first interracial kiss on television was a 1968 Star Trek episode called “Plato’s Kiss” between Lieutenant Uhura and Captain James Kirk.
An anecdote that I heard on a show about Star Trek was that the network had okayed the kiss and then gotten cold feet because of pressure from the sponsors. The cast was told on the day of filming that the actual kiss wouldn’t be shown.
William Shatner subtley messed up every take on that scene except the one in which he actually kisses actress Nichelle Nichols. When they examined the footage, the producers had no choice but to go with the scene with the actual kiss in it.
History was made. And it wouldn’t be the only barriers that Star Trek shattered.
Beside the interracial kiss, I recall one episode of Star Trek where two aliens are brought on board. Their skin is both black and white. However, one is black/white and the other is white/black. And they hate each other - mortal enemies - which makes no sense to the crew.
A not-so-subtle hint from Roddenberry that racism is ridiculous. Roddenberry was almost always able to do this in outer space even if he could not on present-day Earth.
Also, a first season episode “Taste for Armageddon” was one of TV’s first allegories for the war in Southeast Asia that was just beginning to roil the country.
Another famous episode is “I, Mudd” where societal standards of beauty are parodied and given the full light-of-day examination.
This, among others, made Star Trek special for its day and perhaps go to explain why it’s lasted over 50 years.
Some interesting facts about the original Star Trek.
1. The original ship was the S.S. Yorktown and had Captain Christopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) at the helm.
2. The pilot“The Cage,” was turned down by NBC as being too cerebral. It was later made into a two-part episode on the Star Trek series. It featured Spock taking Pike back to the planet where the Cage took place so he could die in a world where he wasn’t an immobile burn victim. I thought it was quite cleverly done.
3. After being discarded, another pilot was shot with William Shatner as captain because Hunter had taken another show and couldn’t do the new one. Only Leonard Nimoy (Spock) and Christine Chapel (Majel Barrett (who was married to Roddenberry)) were saved for “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” The rest of the crew was replaced for the group we know now.
4. Lieutenant Sulu (George Takei) was originally ship’s physicist but became a helmsman for the rest of the series.
5. Lucille Ball who was part owner in Desilu Studios made the eventual decision to go ahead with Star Trek. She basically greenlit a television and movie universe that has lasted over five decades.
6. As mentioned, the first interracial kiss was between Kirk and Uhura but also Lt. Nyota Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), was the first African-American woman to hold such an important and seminal role in an American television series.
It’s become somewhat of a cliche that the Enterprise was manned by an international crew including a Russian, a Scot, an Asian and an African America woman but again, this was groundbreaking at the time.
There just didn’t exist this sort of inclusivity in the world of television and barely in the world at all.
Despite its groundbreaking narratives, after the second season it was cancelled but an effort by fans (almost 6,000 letters a week) convinced NBC to renew it.
The fan letters were composed of the individuals you’d expect but they also included scientists, doctors, teachers, and other white-collar professionals.
There was a third season but the show was moved to Friday, 10:00pm which fairly guaranteed its death since it put it too late for its major demographic to watch it. NBC also greatly reduced its budget which created less of a demand for high-quality writers and productions.
ST died finally after 79 episodes.
And that might have been the end of it if it wasn’t for its rabid fan base, the precursor of the ComiCons of today. At one time there were dozens of Star Trek fan conventions that were massively attended. Fans famously memorized the most arcane bits of Trek lore, quoting dialogue and ship specifications. They were called Trekkies - still are.
Shatner himself appeared on Saturday Night Live to yell at the Trekkies to get a life.
Link to “Get A Life”: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/xmagzq
A brilliant send up film called “Galaxy Quest” took that all one step further as the crew of the imaginary TV series hilariously became real participants in an Intergalactic war. They were saved by a true fan who had detailed schematics of the ship, and was able to guide the crew to victory.
After the series ended, several movies were made with the original cast, including what some consider the best Star Trek ever: “The Wrath of Khan.” In fact, a friend called me the other day to tell me that Khan was playing on the big screen. Why he told me I don’t know since he lives in Oregon and I’m in California but that just shows the enduring power of Star Trek.
There was an animated series after the original that lasted for two seasons. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never seen any of the episodes.
Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) was the next major installment in the Star Trek universe television series. It took place in a time about a hundred years after the original timeline and lasted for seven seasons.
Roddenberry was still involved as an exec producer on this series. The first season was a little rough around the edges but it found its stride to last seven seasons and created some truly memorable characters and adventures.
During its run it earned several Emmy awards and nominations—including a nomination for Best Dramatic Series during its final season—two Hugo Awards and a Peabody Award for Outstanding Television Programming for the episode "The Big Goodbye".
Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise (which took place in a universe before the original series) followed.
As mentioned, a new Trek series is premiering on Sunday night on CBS. By the time this podcast airs, it will have been seen but I’m sure you can also catch it on CBS streaming.
There were 13 movies about the Trek universe.
Six were done with the original crew.
Four were done with the TNG crew.
In the first movie with the TNG crew called Star Trek: Generations, the old crew and the new crew of TNG work together. This transitions the old series characters to the new gen crew and to the TV series that followed.
The latest grouping of three films is a reboot where the origins of the Shatner Enterprise crew are introduced. Chris Pine plays Kirk. Old Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is also seen as his future self. Nimoy died in 2015 after the second movie but he still makes a digital cameo appearance in movie number thirteen.
If you look at Roddenberry’s IMDB page, he’s listed as having a lot of writing done that wasn’t either the original Star Trek or the TNG.
In fact, he’s even given credit for an x-rated movie called “This Ain’t Star Trek XXX” a Hustler production. Something I am definitely tracking down. For research of course.
It is simply astounding to me that one man, doing something he loved could have been so completely and utterly prescient to see the potential in something like “Star Trek.” I’m sure Roddenberry didn’t see all the way from 1964 to 2017 but at some point he had to have a glimpse of what he’d created and its amazing impact.
The newest Trek is widely anticipated. It’s yet to be seen if it will soar or sink after the initial enthusiasm. I’ll certainly watch the first ep and report back. I can’t wait actually. I’m watching as many Star Trek episodes I hadn’t seen (mostly TNG) to try and be a little better versed when the new series starts.
Beside not featuring The Enterprise, Discovery has an openly gay crew member, focuses more on Klingons and their political situation, and takes place about ten years before the original series. So it pre-dates Kirk and the Enterprise. The writers have basically disconnected it from the movie franchise. They also have a human raised by Sarek, Spock’s father, as a Vulcan which should provide for some interesting interactions. Sidenote, MC: Rainn Wilson is appearing as Mudd. And, Toby, Nicholas Meyer who wrote Wrath of Khan is onboard as a writer and consultant, as well as many alumni of the various Start Trek worlds. CBS is dumping 7-8 million per episode into this so it should be solid.
There’s also a new spoof of the series by Seth McFarland called The Orville. I enjoyed the first episode - it’s on Fox. Check it out.
Star Trek is an inspiration. It is beyond success to almost immortality - or certainly as close as entertainment gets to that lofty phrase.
Television, movies, books, comic books that have been continually published since 1967, games, magazines, action figures, toys, fan fiction...not to mention the preponderance of all the merchandise that features a crew of the Enterprise on it. No one can accurately estimate how much money the concept has generated - not even CBS who owns it. But it has to range in the trillions of dollars.
It all boggles the mind - as does the immense cultural impact.
Nichelle Nichols tells the story that she was at an NAACP fund raiser a day after she had informed Roddenberry that she was leaving ths show. She was told there was a big fan wanting to meet her.
“I thought it was a Trekkie, and so I said, 'Sure.' I looked across the room, and there was Dr. Martin Luther King walking toward me with this big grin on his face.
He reached out to me and said, 'Yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan.'
He said that Star Trek was the only show that he, and his wife Coretta, would allow their three little children to stay up and watch. [She told King about her plans to leave the series.]
I never got to tell him why, because he said, 'You can't. You're part of history.'
When she told Roddenberry what King had said, he cried.
I could have easily done another 1000 hours on Star Trek. There is just so much about this - what would you call it - universe, phenomenon - words fail. How to explain it? How to truly appreciate a seemingly simple concept that, like Sherlock Holmes, has lasted and thrived for decades unabated. It’s possible that we’ll still be talking about Star Trek for another 50 years.
Let me close with the iconic opening from the original series which I know by heart:
Space, the final frontier.
These are the voyages of the starship, Enterprise.
It’s five year mission, to explore strange new worlds,
to seek out new life and new civilizations...
To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before.
Indeed we have -
With Star Trek.