Welcome back, Trekkies!
We’ve finally reached the third part of our Story of Star Trek series. We opened in Part One by describing how an upstart writer named Gene Roddenberry made his dream come true, selling his vision of the future to NBC (with a lot of help from Lucille Ball & Desilu Productions). Part Two delved into the creation of ‘Star Trek’s pilot episodes, including the various casting permutations that took us to the core cast of characters we grew up loving.
Today, in Part Three, it’s time to look at the latter seasons of The Original Series and the letter-writing campaign that set a new precedent and created a precursor to the crowd-source funding of projects we see today.
So where we left off, the second ‘Star Trek’ pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” had been picked up to series and NBC ordered sixteen episodes. The crafty Roddenberry was always looking for ways to best stretch their budget (despite the fact that the first pilot, “The Cage,” was the most expensive pilot ever made at the time), and he had a scheme: by incorporating “Where No Man Has Gone Before” into the episodic rotation and then using footage from “The Cage” to create a two-part story, Roddenberry was able to cut the number of new scripts required down to thirteen. Roddenberry reached out to science-fiction writers from print and feature film to entice them to add their voice to his growing menagerie. The first season of ‘Star Trek’ is truly a team effort with a myriad of different writers adding important details that are now legend in Trek fandom; but every single script was still overseen by Roddenberry himself, the man fans would later dub The Great Bird of the Galaxy.
“When they say on a show ‘Created by Gene Roddenberry,’ that is not true. I laid out a pathway and then the only thing I will take credit for is that I surrounded myself by very bright people who came up with all of these wonderful things.” - Roddenberry
Samuel A. Peeples had written “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” wherein the new Captain of the Enterprise, now named Kirk, attempts to rescue his dear old friend from the consequences of his transformation into a godlike being. This would be only the first such philosophical struggle to play out on ‘Star Trek’ regarding a mortal gaining abilities traditionally reserved for mythology and folklore. The era that gave birth to ‘Star Trek,’ America in the 1960s, the Cold War, coming off of a second World War that brought horrors unforeseen into our lexicon and consciousness... the spectre of science spiralling beyond human ethical control was very real. The devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had forced all humans--but particularly Americans--with the reality of holding godlike power and the newfound question of how best to regulate it. These questions were at the fore of American consciousness and most television shows and films were quite content to sweep such concerns under the rug. These concerns, however, were precisely what ‘Star Trek’ was designed to play out on screen, through the “infinite possibilities” banner of the future in deep space.
Following Peeples were writers like D. C. Fontana, whose episodes would introduce Andorians and Tellarites, two founding races of the United Federation of Planets that would persist in Trek lore through to ‘Enterprise’ in the 2000s. S. Bar-David’s “Dagger of the Mind” gave us the Vulcan Mind-Meld, the race’s ability to share consciousness with another being through meditation and contact. Various writers were contributing and the world of ‘Star Trek’ was getting bigger... which was assisted by Roddenberry’s clever handling of “The Cage” in creating a two-part episode “The Menagerie.”
Roddenberry decided he could use the footage from “The Cage” as part of a flashback sequence, with Mr. Spock as the common link between the old crew and this one. “The Menagerie” brought the return of Captain Pike, the former Captain of the Enterprise, who was now disabled. The episode’s plot featured Spock and Pike hijacking the Enterprise in order to return to Talos IV, the setting of “The Cage.” The original actors from “The Cage” were paid more for the reuse of their appearances and “The Menagerie” helped to solidify in fans’ minds that ‘Star Trek’ took place in a rounded universe with other ships, other planets besides the Enterprise and her particular missions. The creation of a past did more to enrapture audiences than any stand-alone episode ever could.
“Where No Man Has Gone Before” also introduced the relationship between Captain James Kirk and Mr. Spock, an interaction that would become the most beloved hallmark of the series in fans’ minds. The episode explained Spock’s half-human heritage, yet the preliminary episodes of the Original Series showcase a Mr. Spock that is even more cold and calculating than he would become later. For instance, in “Where No Man Has Gone Before” it is the cold emotionless Spock, in his first appearance to audiences, who suggests killing Gary Mitchell (the Captain’s friend with the godlike affliction), as he poses a threat to the Enterprise and its crew. Thus, the triumvirate of the emotionless Vulcan Spock, the emotional all-too-human Bones, and the human but responsible Kirk got to play out before audiences for the first time.
Roddenberry espoused Humanist beliefs and was outwardly disdainful of organized religion, as many science-fiction writers are. The irreligious aspect of putting godlike beings on a stage for drama factored into these scripts as much as the ethical power dilemma described above. In a letter to a cousin written in 1984, Roddenberry would write “The real villain is religion -- at least, religion as generally practised by people who somehow become sure that they and only they know the ‘real’ answer. How few humans there are that seem to realise that killing, much less hating, their fellow humans in the name of their ‘god’ is the ultimate kind of perversion.”
The theme of encountering a godlike being is prominent in the series: episodes “Charlie X,” “The Squire of Gothos,” “The Return of the Archons” and “Space Seed” each feature the problem in various forms. These powers that are demonstrated by beings in the episodes come with some degree of immaturity or lack of wisdom: The titular Squire of Gothos is actually a child; Balok in “The Corbomite Maneuver” is child-like; Apollo is overwhelmed and out of his depth in “Who Mourns for Adonais?”
“Space Seed” delivered the most obvious example of a super-human, with the character Khan Noonien Singh. Khan was engineered to be genetically superior to humans during the Eugenics War of Earth’s 1990s. This physical and mental prowess gave Khan the idea that he was right to dominate all those around him. Khan would facilitate a hostile takeover of the Enterprise and Kirk’s judgement call to exile the offenders after regaining control would serve as the basis for the second ‘Star Trek’ feature film, the beloved ‘The Wrath of Khan.’
Godlike or superhuman powers were not the only salient theme in the Original Series: of the seventy-nine episodes that comprise the series, a full twelve of them deal with artificial intelligences set on dominating organic life. “The Return of the Archons” displays the descendants of Starfleet officers under the control of a supercomputer; “A Taste of Armageddon” showcases two warring cultures abiding by a computer’s assessment of virtual casualties of war, causing both cultures to calmly murder their own people as a result. This prominent theme comes from the emphasis on individuality present in 1960s American consciousness, with some of the episodes also acting as an allegory for the futility of war.
Artificial overlords play out in various ways in the remaining episodes with one fact in common: in Roddenberry’s future, the human element can always win out over technological domineering.
By November of 1966, ‘Star Trek’ was building a fanbase and having mild success on the air... but its ratings were not enough to ensure a renewal for a second season. Almost as soon as ‘Star Trek’ was on the air, Roddenberry enlisted fans and science-fiction personalities in a “Save Star Trek” campaign of letter-writing to earn the series another year on the air. ‘Star Trek’ was consistently placing around the 51st or 52nd highest rated series on television; it would have to appear in the 30s or below to ensure an automatic renewal in the cutthroat world of network television.
Still, the ratings weren’t bad either, and with the help of the “Save Star Trek” campaign, NBC ordered ‘Star Trek’ to a second season. Interestingly, ‘Star Trek’ was most popular with teenagers at the time. Just to show you how different society was compared to today, teenagers were not a sought-after demographic for advertisers; the prevailing notion in the 1960s was that parents did the purchasing, so appealing to teens was a waste of time and money. As we’re well aware today, the teenaged market is now considered far and away the most important for advertising in the vast majority of industries.
The second season of ‘Star Trek’ brought along a new character designed to appeal to this teenage fanbase--even if NBC or advertisers didn’t appreciate their younger viewers, Roddenberry did. Pavel Chekov, an Ensign with a thick Russian accent joined the crew. With his mop-top hairstyle designed to resemble the Beatles, Chekov also represented something very important: he represented a future where Americans and Russians co-existed in peace. To introduce this character amidst the Cold War is an unbelievably brave and risky maneuver on ‘Trek’s part... but not as risky as featuring the first ever interracial kiss on network broadcast television.
It was wildly controversial and the actors had to battle through prejudice to even film the scene... but that famous kiss took place between Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) in the 'Star Trek' episode "Plato's Children" in 1968. The episode featuring the kiss was shelved by several southern network affiliates in protest; after it aired, even more affiliates were bullied into agreeing to never rerun the scene. A simple, swift, harmless kiss was sufficient to terrify that many people a mere forty-five years ago. (Fun fact: Bill Shatner was also the first person to ever say "Hell" on network television, in the episode "City on the Edge of Forever").
Nearing the end of the second season of ‘Star Trek,’ ratings had held steady but hadn’t improved. Despite the groundbreaking storytelling featured on screen, the bulk of American audiences remained unwilling to take any science-fiction seriously. In many ways, this fact gave ‘Star Trek’ its subversive aspect, allowing it to tackle difficult themes and get away with it... however it wasn’t doing NBC any favors financially. Once again, “Save Star Trek” campaigns were sparked up in earnest, with a reported 150,000 letters flooding NBC offices, begging them to renew the series...
As much as it would make for a poetic story, it wasn’t the unprecedented outpouring of fan support that saved ‘Star Trek’ for season three--even though Roddenberry would credit the fans with the rescue until the day he died. The fact was, after two seasons, NBC didn’t have enough episodes of ‘Star Trek’ in the can to facilitate a sale into syndicated re-runs. If the network wanted any hope of recuperating financial losses in the years to come, they needed at least another season... so they rolled the dice and season three of ‘Star Trek’ was ordered.
Unfortunately, along with NBC’s third-season order came a massive reduction in the ‘Star Trek’ episodic budget, a move that caused Roddenberry to take a step back and allow other producers to come in and take over the day-to-day operation of the series. The combination of a new showrunner and a slashed budget lead to many third-season episodes that are widely considered below the standard set by the previous two seasons of the series. Finally, January 1969 saw the shooting of “Turnabout Intruder,” the last live-action episode of the Original Series... and widely considered one of the worst episodes in ‘Star Trek’ history.
Paramount had purchased Desilu Productions from long-time ‘Star Trek’ supporter Lucille Ball--and they had a 4.7 million dollar deficit in their ‘Star Trek’ books. Paramount declared ‘Star Trek’ to have been a failure; NBC sold the series into syndication after the third season, having branded it a failure as well. It seemed by 1970 that ‘Star Trek’ was to become a relic of the past...
But by 1972, ‘Star Trek’ was airing in syndication in 100 different US markets, along with another 70 markets overseas...
Stay tuned for Part Four, where we see how a small, three-season drama spawned a new kind of fandom and launched a franchise earning billions of dollars to this very day, in 2013.