Wagon Train to the Stars: The Story of Star Trek
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.
Those immortal words…that iconic introduction…first hit the televised airwaves on September 8, 1966. At the time, nobody knew that the show about a starship exploring the galaxy would have such a redefining impact on both pop culture as well as human culture itself. And to think…it almost didn’t even happen.
Star Trek has had an unprecedented fifty year history, which says a lot about a series few people were initially interested in that ultimately only lasted for three years. In the time since its first episode and subsequent third season cancellation, the fan-favorite show has gone on to spawn an animated series, four successful spin-off shows, twelve feature films, a multitude of video games and the most unique and devoted breed of fans. With a thirteenth film set to be released in Summer of this year and a new TV series premiering on the CBS streaming app next year, it only goes to show what those fans of have done for the strength and longevity of the franchise.
Over the next year I will be recalling the storied history of the starship Enterprise, its various crews, the missions we have grown to love and the impact its lessons and moral views have had on our lives. All power to the engines, Mr. Scott, and let’s look back on Fifty Years in the Final Frontier.
In early 1964, Gene Roddenberry – a former World War II pilot and writer of mostly Western television – began a draft for a new science fiction series that he called Star Trek. Roddenberry pitched the series to Desilu Productions. With heavy influences from the likes of Horatio Hornblower and the film Forbidden Planet, Desilu saw promise in the concept and took both Roddenberry and the show to CBS. Using his experience writing for the popular Western genre of the time, Roddenberry pitched the series as “Wagon Train to the Stars” (referencing the popular series Wagon Train and its episodic formula of self-contained adventure stories). Unfortunately, due to the fact that they already had the similarly themed sci-fi series Lost in Space in production, CBS passed on Roddenberry's pitch.
Not letting that get them down, Roddenberry and Desilu’s director of production, Herb Solow, began production on a pilot episode that would be shopped to NBC (Solow’s old stomping grounds). Said pilot episode – titled The Cage – starred Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike, Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock, Majel Barrett as the ship’s first officer and John Hoyt as Dr. Phillip Boyce. The episode varied a little bit from Roddenberry’s original pitch thanks, in part, to some help from Solow.
The Cage followed the adventures of the USS Enterprise as they respond to a distress call on the planet Talos IV. However, instead of finding distressed humans, the crew finds only illusions of people and a hyper-intelligent alien race that captures Captain Pike. The intent is to have Pike mate with the one actual surviving human from the shuttle the Enterprise thought they were rescuing and to study their behavior.
Much like later episodes in the series, the pilot emphasized a lot of mature and controversial themes than your typical science fiction show of the era dealt with. The notion of having one’s freedom stripped away from them for the purposes of a superior race was a particularly strong undertone of the episode. Ultimately, NBC would pass on the series after deeming that the pilot was “too cerebral.”
Still determined to get his vision on the air, Gene Roddenberry was yet again undeterred. He would revise his concept and re-pitch it to the network. In an astonishing turn of events, NBC commissioned a second pilot – something unheard of both then and today. With a mostly new cast and a slightly different series structure, NBC reviewed the new pilot (Where No Man Has Gone Before) and the rest, as they say, is history.
In September of 1966, NBC unknowingly made television history when they aired The Man Trap as the first broadcast episode of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek (the second pilot wouldn’t air until later in the month as the series’ third episode). The show now starred William Shatner (known for a lot of work, notably the classic episode of The Twilight Zone, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet – “There’s something on the wing!”) as Captain James T. Kirk.
Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock transitioned to the series as the only original character from The Cage (though Majel Barrett also remained in the series, it was as a new character named Nurse Chapel). The rest of the new cast rounded out with DeForest Kelley as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, George Takei as Sulu, Nichelle Nichols as Uhura and James Doohan as Montgomery Scott. Walter Koenig’s popular character of the young Russian, Pavel Chekov, wouldn’t premier until the second season as a stand in for Sulu’s scripted lines while George Takei filmed The Green Berets. It’s often noted that when Takei returned for filming he had to share a script with Koenig for rehearsals. This was even referenced as a joke on the Trek themed episode of The Simpsons creator Matt Groening’s sci-fi cartoon series, Futurama (Where No Fan Has Gone Before).
Star Trek immediately captured the attention of audiences for tackling social issues of the time, including racism, gender roles and cultural acceptance. At a time when tensions between people and nations were at their highest, Gene Roddenberry’s look at the future promised us a world where hate, war, intolerance and disease were all put behind us. Even in episodes where such notions were the center of conflict, such as in a third season episode (Let This Be Your Last Battlefield) where the Enterprise encounters a race of black and white humanoids with extreme racial distrust, Kirk and his crew took it upon themselves to try and find a peaceful solution to their bigotry.
The inclusion of the youthful Russian character, Chekov (Koenig), in such a high level role was a particularly important aspect to Roddenberry to emphasize the end of conflict in his vision, given that the United States was in the middle of the Cold War with the Soviet Union at the time. But the character to probably have the most impact on the notions of acceptance and equality has to be that of communications officer, Nyota Uhura (Nichols). For the first time, not only was a woman of African American descent not being shown as a stereotype of the time, she was in a position of authority and respect.
Nichelle Nichols, in a now famous story, often recounts when she was going to leave the series to pursue other career prospects on Broadway. At an NAACP fundraiser, Nichols met civil rights icon and self-proclaimed "Trekkie," Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who convinced her that her part in the show was more than just an acting role. It was something much bigger and much more meaningful and it was very important for her to stay with the series for as long as she could.
Nichols went to Gene Roddenberry and retracted her wish to leave the show. When she explained her reason why Roddenberry famously replied, "finally...someone gets it."
Not only did Star Trek tackle social issues that others were afraid to address, it also introduced pop culture to new alien species that would influence entertainment for decades to come. Logical people like the Vulcans (Spock's paternal lineage) would inspire lifestyles and points of view for thousands, if not millions, of people across the globe. The savage, yet honorable, Klingons would give birth to a new language that a devoted group of core fans now speak fluently. And, lest we forget, the Tribbles. Oh how they are troublesome.
Despite its massive fan following, Star Trek had trouble finding the ratings it required to be considered a hit for its network. When rumbles started to emerge that the series would be cancelled after its second season, Roddenberry urged his fans to help save the series. And thus began the infamous letter writing campaign. NBC was flooded with thousands of letters from fans demanding that they keep the beloved show on the air. The present day equivalent would be a petition on Change.org, which often fall on def ears (or blind eyes).
In this case, though, NBC listened — if for no other reason than to make the letters stop — and Star Trek was renewed for a third season. However, the decision was also made by NBC to cut its budget and move it to the Friday night at 10:00 time slot. These were moves that affected the audience and frustrated Roddenberry. As a result, the third season is considered among critics and fans to be much more lackluster than the previous two. Though it did still have a handful of some of the more classic episodes, it was not enough to keep the powers that be from eventually getting their way. Star Trek was cancelled after 79 episodes at the end of its third season. Another letter writing campaign was attempted but was not successful.
The one positive thing to come out of the less than stellar third season was the amount of episodes it ultimately produced for the series. After it's final showing, Star Trek had just enough episodes to move into syndication, which is where it found a whole new following that finally matched what networks were hoping for. As production of a new spin-off series, Star Trek: Phase II, began to take shape, something else happened. A low budget science fiction movie from 20th Century Fox exploded into massive success and popularity. The film, starring mostly unknown actors from a director with a very limited resume, was called Star Wars and helped push Paramount Pictures to the notion that Star Trek could succeed as a motion picture franchise. So with that, Phase II was canned and production began on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which would reunite the original television cast and set forth a whole new series of adventures that boldy go where no man has gone before.
Whether they were exploring the galaxy, encountering new civilizations, fighting giant lizards, seducing green women or meeting Abraham Lincoln in space, the impact that Star Trek and the crew of the Enterprise has had on pop culture and the whole world over cannot be denied. With a history spanning five decades and continuing onward this very day, Gene Roddenberry's vision of a utopian future, full of hope and optimism for peace and equality in our world, certainly has lived long and prospered.
Come back throughout the year for more reflections on Star Trek's engaging history as Fifty Years in the Final Frontier goes on to explore such installments as the motion picture series, Star Trek: The Next Generation and the other subsequent spin-off series, fandom and more. And be sure to follow me on Twitter (@ThisIsJamesT) for all things rant and ravey and to be apprised of when new chapters to this series are available. After all, it's only logical.
Star Trek: The Original Series Wikipedia