“The job of ‘Star Trek’ was to use drama and adventure as a way of portraying humanity in its various guises and beliefs.” - Gene Roddenberry, creator of ‘Star Trek’
This week, ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ opens in theatres, the second feature in J. J. Abrahms new offshoot of the classic ‘Star Trek’ lore we’ve loved for decades. I decided that it would be nice to pay homage to the role ‘Star Trek’ has played on television by writing a brief history of the franchise and its various television incarnations, here on TVRage.com. I fully admit: I did not know what I was getting into.
Where does one begin to discuss a television series that only lasted three seasons--and barely, at that--which unexpectedly went on to spawn over a dozen feature films, five more television series, magazines, comic books, video games, and a complete reinvention of the concept of fandom?
Truly, any of the topics above are worthy of their own column, but today we’re going to head all the way back to the beginning, before ‘Star Trek’ was the international juggernaut of a franchise that we know it to be today. I’m going to tell you about the man who created the show, the painstaking process of getting that show on the air, and just how close it came, so many times, to ‘Star Trek’ being left off the air forever.
So we’ll begin today with the Original Series and if you guys get a kick out of it, we can look at the impression that the ensuing series had on television history, as well. Fans of my Television Time Machine columns already know my adoration for my countryman, William Shatner, so it should be no surprise that I’m excited for an opportunity to talk about Captain Kirk. Hell, in the interest of full disclosure of just what a Trekkie I am, here’s a picture of the belt I’m wearing today:
Some of you just got creeped out and left the page. Those of you who thought “oh man, I wish I had that belt,” well, this column is for you.
As the Roddenberry quotation above illustrates, ‘Star Trek’ was always intended to be more than mere entertainment. In the vein of classic science-fiction literature, Roddenberry wanted ‘Star Trek’ to tell human stories focusing on social issues that you simply could not bring to light as easily in a realistic setting. While many people trace modern science-fiction back to Mary Shelley and her gothic tale “Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus,” I think the true seminal texts in today’s sci-fi came from Jules Verne and H. G. Wells; despite Shelley’s work being a brilliantly-written classic of literature, Shelley was playing with gothic tropes to get to the heart of humanity--science-fiction has always included a social, communal aspect that the gothic does not.
Why social? Well because the 19th and 20th Centuries shrunk the world incredibly, in regards to our knowledge and access to other countries, other continents, other cultures. We all recall Marshall McLuhan’s “global village” concept from high school lessons; the ever-growing population and the ever-increasing need to learn to live amongst people who view the world differently were the most pressing concerns of the time period which gave birth to science-fiction itself. The finest writers of the genre, names like Ray Bradbury, Issac Asimov, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., each wrote about people learning to live with other people--different people, strange people, but people. Science-fiction is about telling stories about ourselves by using a lens that can separate us from ourselves entirely; that dichotomy gives it the allure that has allowed it to sustain as a populist genre for decade after decade.
‘Star Trek’ did not inaugurate science-fiction on television, however in many ways it did mature the genre for the small screen. There had previously been hit series in the 1950s such as ‘Captain Video and his Video Rangers’ or ‘Tom Corbett--Space Cadet’ that had showcased adventures in space and on other worlds... but they didn’t have the fully-fleshed out universe to play in that ‘Star Trek’ would eventually bring to the table. And even though any television series is a result of the labor of countless individuals, perhaps more so than any other series in history, ‘Star Trek’ was the product of one writer: Roddenberry.
Gene Roddenberry was many things throughout his life: he was a bomber pilot in World War II, then later a commercial pilot for Pan-Am. He was a police officer in the LAPD, following in his father’s footsteps who was a cop before him. And, finally, he was a television writer. Just how did all of that happen?
Moving with his family to Los Angeles at a young age, Roddenberry was urged to become a police officer by his father and his father’s friends. While Gene complied with these wishes, the job was never his true passion--Gene wanted to write and he was constantly seeking any avenue through which he could make money doing what he truly loved. Roddenberry was not drawn to television out of a desire to revolutionize the industry; he simply saw TV as a chance for a writer to cut his teeth with short scripts that would be of little consequence--bear in mind, television in the 1950s did not hold the prestige that series hold today.
Roddenberry began using his experience with the LAPD to craft realistic stories for gritty drama series, shipping them off from home. His talent was readily apparent--in his first few years of scriptwriting he sold episodes to ‘Mr. District Attorney,’ ‘Highway Patrol,’ ‘The West Point Story’ and ‘Have Gun, Will Travel.’ Finally, at the age of forty-two, Roddenberry had risen the ranks enough to pitch his own series: ‘The Lieutenant.’
At this point, Roddenberry basically becomes what we now know in the business as David E. Kelley. Despite having other staff writers submitting scripts, Roddenberry was ruthless when it came to heavily editing and rewriting everyone else’s work to make sure it fit with his vision of what ‘The Lieutenant’ should be. Despite the fact that ‘The Lieutenant’ was short-lived, Roddenberry had a taste of control and he wanted more.
After ‘The Lieutenant’ was cancelled, it came time for Roddenberry to pitch his newest idea: one which he whetted the appetites of executives by describing it as “Wagon Train to the stars.” The idea, of course, was ‘Star Trek.’ Roddenberry had been heavily influenced by two feature films when it came to the formation of what ‘Trek’ should be: ‘Forbidden Planet,’ the epic space odyssey starring Leslie Nielsen that reinvented Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” on a faraway planet, and a foreign film called ‘Ikarie XB-1.’ The appeal to Roddenberry of ‘Ikarie XB-1’ was that the film depicted a crew of space explorers from various different ethnic backgrounds, ages and genders; Roddenberry knew that he had a responsibility to depict a future where the world was a better place and, even in the 1950s, he knew that place needed to have left ignorance and racism in the past.
So off he went, pitching ‘Wagon Train’ to the stars, enticing executives enough to see a pilot... but there was one major problem: money. Roddenberry’s pilot scripts (yes, plural, we’ll discuss that shortly) entailed massive sets, impressive make-up, special effects--entire new worlds. No studio was willing to front the cash necessary to float a risk like ‘Star Trek.’ Before ever filming a pilot it seemed as though ‘Star Trek’ would never get off the ground... until it was rescued by a beautiful television star: none other than Lucille Ball.
Bet you didn’t know that part, did you? The star of ‘I Love Lucy’ was, after her split from her husband, the sole operator of Desilu Productions, an absolute powerhouse of the small screen. Ball had access to a $600,000 development fund with CBS--that’s an amount that would add up to just under $5,000,000 by today’s inflation. Ball used this impressive production fund to create series like ‘Mission: Impossible’ and ‘Mannix’... and yes, ‘Star Trek’ as well.
So CBS’ cash funded Desilu and Desilu funded ‘Star Trek’--but upon reading Roddenberry’s scripts, CBS rejected ‘Star Trek’ outright. Luckily, NBC was willing to take a risk on Roddenberry’s ‘Wagon Train,’ and they ordered a pilot be made.
They got two.
Why did Roddenberry produce two pilots? Well beyond all else, Roddenberry saw ‘Star Trek’s strength as being serialized storytelling: each new episode would feature a new planet, a new species, a new idea for the crew to encounter. There was simply no way for a single episode to show anyone what ‘Star Trek’ would be about, as ‘Star Trek’ was about “infinite diversity in infinite combinations.” If you didn’t enjoy the plot or setting of a particular episode, just wait a week--you’d have an entirely different situation to take in.
Roddenberry submitted a handful of scripts to NBC brass, who eventually selected ‘The Cage’ to go to air. According to Desilu executive Herb Solow’s personal memoir, NBC didn’t believe that Desilu could pull off everything that Roddenberry had laid out on the page. It was ambitious, it was complicated... ‘The Cage’ chonicled a battle between illusion and reality, for instance.
Captured by powerful aliens, Captain April (precursor to Kirk) is forced to live through memories and fantasies in the company of another human captive, the beautiful Vina. His captors feed off the emotions generated by his turmoil, and in the end, April has to choose between the seductive illusions and a harsh reality.
The metaphor and meaning of such a story is abundantly clear.
‘The Cage’ included a bizarre menagerie of alien life forms in the script, including a six-legged “Rigelian Spider Ape.” While this stuff would be easy to bring to life on television today, it was simply impossible and unheard of back in Roddenberry’s day. The writer was always pushing the boundaries of what was possible to conceive on film, which actually accidentally lead to one of the most iconic images in ‘Star Trek’ history: the transporter which beams characters to and from any given location was invented on a whim when Roddenberry was told that it would be too difficult to make a shuttlecraft launch from the planet’s surface.
That was it. Someone said “we can’t do that” and Roddenberry responded “well then we’ll have them just appear” and one of the most famous images in science-fiction history was born.
So the script was rewritten, aliens were removed, characters were altered, and Captain Pike replaced Captain April (still no Kirk). Lietenant Spock, a character destined to be the breakout star in fans’ minds, appeared in the pilot but he looked somewhat devilish and demonic before being toned down in later episodes. Interestingly enough, the pilot for ‘Star Trek’ featured a character that never made it to the actual series: a second-in-command officer named Number One who was female.
It would be difficult to overstate how surprising it would be in the 1960s to watch a woman giving orders to men on television. As the hit show ‘Mad Men’ attempts to illustrate, sexism wasn’t only rampant, it was the status quo in America. Roddenberry’s insistence on featuring a woman in a position of authority came from the same impetus he had to include people of all ethnic backgrounds on the show: he wanted to create a world where things like sexism had been overcome. Despite pleading and urging from NBC executives, Roddenberry stuck to his guns and Number One appeared in the episode, giving orders to lower ranking males.
So: why didn’t the character appear in the series itself? The answer is surprising, to those of us here in 2013: the character was poorly-received by the female viewing audience.
That’s right: women who test-screened the pilot episode hated the Number One character, remarking how arrogant and detestable she was for daring to give orders to men. The original test reports include feedback from female viewers such as “who does she think she is?” This shows, once again, that sexism was ingrained in the hegemony of the age--the world simply wasn’t ready for a show as progressive as Roddenberry wished ‘Star Trek’ to become.
Despite sets and make-up that seem laughable today, ‘The Cage’ was the most expensive pilot in television history: ‘Star Trek’ had an episode in the can. Now, the work to sell the episode to series began...
That’ll come in part two. Check back tomorrow for more of The Story of Star Trek!