Fifty years ago, one of the most culturally significant television shows of all time began to air. It was unusual in its style and content and while most science fiction shows were made for children, this had mature themes. Other shows at the time avoided controversial subjects, yet this one contained elements that both challenged people’s beliefs and suggested new ideas. The show almost never made it to air, and was under constant fire once it did. This was, of course, Star Trek.
After years as a pilot during WWII (he flew 89 missions and was involved in multiple plane crashes) and as a speech writer for the Los Angeles Police Department, Gene Roddenberry started working in television as a technical advisor on Mr. District Attorney, writing under the pseudonym “Robert Wesley.” In 1956, he became a staff writer on The West Point Story. Roddenberry also wrote scripts for Highway Patrol, and Have Gun, Will Travel where his style stood out as philosophical in tone. He started his own series–The Lieutenant–in 1963, starring a lead character named William Tiberius Rice. He regularly clashed with the Department of Defense over storylines, and they finally withdrew their support when he wrote an episode about racial integration that starred a young woman named Nichelle Nichols.
The Lieutenant was cancelled after a year due to its continuous controversies, but Roddenberry was already developing an idea called Hawaii Passage that involved a multi-racial ship crew that explored the ocean. One of his influences for the series had been The Voyage of the Beagle, which referred to Charles Darwin’s five year journey around the world to discover strange, new species of animals. Roddenberry then decided to switch the concept from a sea-going ship to one in space, and Star Trek was born.
Roddenberry wrote up a script, but rather than calling it “Episode 1” it was called “Voyage 1”. He took it to Desilu Productions, the production company that made I Love Lucy. They loved the idea and went with him to pitch it to several networks. CBS already had a science fiction show in the works called Lost in Space, and had to pass. Desilu’s second stop was NBC, where producer Herb Solow had a connection. He emphasized Roddenberry’s past work on westerns, the most popular genre at the time, and pitched it as “Wagon Train to the stars.” NBC agreed to make a pilot, and Roddenberry got to work on the episode called “The Cage”.
One of the people Roddenberry wanted to work with was a female writer named Dorothy “DC” Fontana, despite the fact that women writers were not often welcome in Hollywood. But Roddenberry was insistent that his programs push the envelope both in front of and behind the camera. Fontana’s first question was “Who’s going to play Spock?” The character not only stood out as the only alien on the ship, but Roddenberry had wanted him to have a look similar to Satan in order to challenge people’s beliefs in what is evil. The show also had a female first officer, was supposed to have a multi-ethnic crew, and made commentary on the idea that a person cannot be “put in a cage” with the wool pulled over their eyes.
Executives at the network, however, felt that it was too cerebral, and didn’t believe audiences would connect with a show that challenged their minds, so they passed on the pilot. However, they made the unprecedented step of financing a second pilot. They wanted the show to stay closer to the pitch; it needed to feel more like a western in space, with a fight scene at the end and a combat-ready captain. Roddenberry didn’t like the idea of Star Trek becoming an action program, but he was also going to be allowed to have his mutli-racial crew, so he went with it. He cast William Shatner in the lead role, kept Leonard Nimoy and Majel Barrett, whom he married, and brought in Nichelle Nichols and other actors of varying ethnicities.
The show ran for three years before it was cancelled–the same year that mankind first landed on the moon. However, its re-runs in syndication made it a cult hit, and its subsequent movies and “next generation” shows solidified it as a major part of our culture. Now, fifty years later, we’re celebrating what Gene Roddenberry brought to the screen to change television forever.
Tell us how Star Trek has affected you, and what some of your favorite episodes or movies are in the comments below.
Image Credit: Star Trek