Star Trek, or Star Trek: The Original Series as it is more commonly called today, ran on the NBC network from 1966 to 1969 and was a ground breaking US genre television series. Unlike Britain, which at that time had the earlier Quatermass serials and the more recent and wildly successful Doctor Who, genre TV in America was largely viewed as material suitable only for children. A few shows, such as Science Fiction Theater, The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, were attempts at serious genre television, but these were all anthology shows. Star Trek was an attempt to make an adult oriented dramatic science fiction series. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, was a relatively new television producer at the time. Having spent a good amount of time on the Outer Limits sets and using Forbidden Planet, one of his favourite movies, as a template, Roddenberry decided to tap into America’s obsession with space by creating a space based setting. Simultaneously, he touched upon the cold war fears of the day by setting the show in an optimistic future where humanity had avoided nuclear annihilation and learned to work together. While Roddenberry had sold the series to the network heads as a "wagon train to the stars", what he instead delivered was a serious Sci-Fi drama that examined human desires and motivations at their core.
The pilot for the series was called The Cage, and starred actor Jeffrey Hunter as the captain of the Starship Enterprise. This pilot was thought lost for a number of years until a copy was discovered in a non-labelled film canister in 1987. There was a good deal of network oversight of the production of this pilot. When the executives saw the finished product they found it to be “too cerebral” but ultimately realised that it was their own interference that had created the problem. They did see the promise of what they were looking for in The Cage and, as a result, asked for a then unheard of second pilot to be made. The episode, Where No Man Has Gone Before, was the true pilot for the series in that it featured most of the actors in the roles that they would carry for the remainder of the series. This pilot was broadcast as the third episode of the first season in what I would guess was the network’s concern over ratings. The story deals with two crew members who accidentally acquire god-like powers and the effect such powers have on them. The story is simple but it remains one of my favorite episodes of this series of Star Trek.
The show ran for three seasons of 29, 26 and 24 episodes, respectively. The first two seasons were produced by Gene Roddenberry, with the third and final season having Fred Freiberger take over production. The series was episodic, meaning that each episode was a self-contained story with everything ultimately being returned to as it was at the beginning of the show. The term “reset button” is used among genre TV fans to describe this effect but this practice was largely the norm for American TV series at the time, although Star Trek did seem to take it to an extreme. During the first season I feel it took the series a while to find its footing as a number of what would ultimately be considered classic episodes arrived in the latter half of the season. This would include episodes like City on the Edge of Forever, Arena, and Space Seed, which is the episode that first introduces Khan Noonian Singh, who would later appear in the second Star Trek movie. This is not to say that the other episodes were weak, as in their day, most of these stories were totally new for television.
The second season is where Star Trek really shines. It opens with Amok Time, in which we learn a great deal about Spock’s background as well as that of the Vulcan culture. This is the season that gives us such classics as Mirror, Mirror, The Doomsday Machine, and The Trouble With Tribbles, which spawned not only one but two sequel episodes over the course of the franchise. Another noteworthy episode is the season closer Assignment: Earth, which is what is commonly referred to as a “back door pilot” for a spin off series. The episode is another time travel one where the Enterprise goes back in time on a historical observation mission and encounters a character named Gary Seven, whose job is to interfere with human history to prevent humanity from destroying itself. As a Doctor Who fan, I have always wondered whether this episode was inspired by Roddenberry’s viewing of episodes from that series. It’s pretty common for people working from a common foundation to come up with the same ideas, so it’s more likely that Gene arrived at the same concept completely on his own, but the similarity of the concept is still pretty striking.
For the third season, Fred Freiberger took over as producer after Roddenberry stepped down due to the show being placed in what has come to be known today as the Friday night death slot. This season of Star Trek is generally considered the weakest by most fans, and I am no exception. However, even with the dire season opener Spock’s Brain, we still get a couple of classics in The Enterprise Incident and The Tholian Web. While it is easy to blame Freiberger for the series' demise, it is really an oversimplification as the budget per episode was reduced considerably. He is not completely without blame in my opinion, though, as at least one of the series' regular writers accused him of viewing the series as nothing more than “tits in space” due to the sometimes provocative female clothing seen throughout the series' previous two seasons. While this was the last season of Star Trek, if things had worked differently, it may not have been. About a year or two later, NBC began looking at ratings by demographic data, which is now a common practice in the television industry. It turns out that Star Trek scored extremely well in the highly desirable "18 to 45 year old male" market. A former NBC executive commented that, had that data been available at the time, the crew of the Enterprise would have easily been allowed to complete their five year mission.
On the subject of writers, one of the things that set Star Trek apart was the use of professional science fiction writers on the series. This had been done once before with a dramatic series on the Dumont network called Captain Video and his Video Rangers, and was a regular practice on genre anthology series as well. This definitely lent an air of legitimacy to the series for science fiction fans who weren’t regular television viewers. A number of the episodes that are now considered classics were written by these authors or by others just starting out who would become famous Sci-Fi authors later in their own right.
Another interesting aspect of Star Trek was Roddenberry’s refusal to pin down an exact date for when the series was taking place. In fact, the date for the series wouldn’t be sorted out until after the first season of The Next Generation. The reasons for this were that Roddenberry wanted the series to be timeless, and the story was more important to him than continuity. He was following the same model he had seen on The Outer Limits of using the genre format to address serious issues of the day that would otherwise be taboo topics for television, and had stated a number of times that he would let continuity slide for any script he felt covered an important issue and/or had an exceptional story to tell.
After its cancellation, Star Trek was immediately put into syndication. Between this and the unique and timeless nature of the show, it has invaded American popular culture to this day. References such as “Beam me up, Scotty” - which, as a side note, was never actually said in the series - are still used to this day. New merchandise for this series is still being produced and sold as the show celebrates its 50th anniversary. Star Trek’s legacy was so powerful that it established the space based setting as the standard for a number of American genre shows to follow, in the same way that Doctor Who established time travel as the setting for competing genre series in Britain. Star Trek still holds up quite well today and, in an effort to maintain this, in 2007 the series was re-released with new computer graphics effects replacing some of the original ones. Unlike such additions to other movies, these were done in such a way as to achieve what the original production would have wanted had they had the resources at the time, and, as a result, fit seamlessly into the episodes. For anyone who wants to revisit this historic series or watch it for the first time, this updated version is the one I would recommend.
Words by Nick Sauer
Originally published on themoviewaffler.com