Keeping Trek - Part 1

by Ben Potts

Keeping Trek – Part 1
October 28, 2019 Ben Potts

Rubber ears, communicators that look like flip phones, and a familiar spaceship chassis with a forward saucer section and two rear nacelles — Star Trek has some of science fiction’s most recognisable hallmarks. To the uninitiated, Trek can seem like the older, nerdier cousin of Star Wars, and the two franchises are often in competition for the same audience. Fans of Trek are often derisively labeled ‘Trekkies,’ a pejorative they have accepted and turned into a rallying cry. Once you understand the full context and vision of Star Trek, however, it’s clear that the world of Vulcans, phasers, and Starfleet is a truly unique and divergent universe.

In the first of a two-part series, we look at the origins and early history of this famous franchise.

A 60s visionary

The 1960s was a revolutionary period of social change in the United States, and indeed the world as a whole. Whole nations were engaged in the bone-chilling enmity of the Cold War. A rising postmodern movement was challenging conventional wisdom about warfare, and pushing back against a costly and unpopular war in Vietnam. Powerful rights revolutions were beginning to alter the United States’ and global perceptions of blacks, women, and other oppressed groups. The creation of ‘the pill’ led to a different  kind of revolution: one in sexual norms and standards. Finally, and of particular interest to readers of this publication, the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a thrilling ‘space race’ that would culminate in 1969 with Apollo 11 and the moon landing.

In the midst of this dramatic change, a television show appeared. It suffered from budget constraints and wasn’t particularly popular; due to a lack of public support, the show only lasted for three seasons. However, the show touched the minds and hearts of millions around the world, and spawned one of the most famous franchises in screen history.

A man named Gene Roddenberry was the driving force behind the original Star Trek. A former military pilot, he retired after a traumatic crash-landing in the Syrian Desert and turned his attention to the burgeoning medium of television. He had a hunch, one of many throughout his life, that television was about to become a hugely important influence on culture. After spending a number of years working freelance writing scripts for a number of shows, using his military experience and time working with the LAPD for inspiration, he created a new show based around the Marine Corps, The Lieutenant. All of these experiences were valuable, and indeed, one was pivotal; one episode of The Lieutenant was not broadcast by the network because it centred around racism, including Nichele Nichols — a name that is now familiar to every Trekkie — as the fiancée of an African-American marine. Gatekeepers at the time considered the topic of racial prejudice to be too controversial to be the subject of television. Roddenberry was outraged by this decision, and by the time he came to work on his new project, Star Trek, he vowed that it would be an allegorical show.

Star Trek got off to a rocky start. Roddenberry made an initial pilot for the show for NBC, famously pitching it as “a Wagon Train to the stars,” starring Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike. He brought on former cast members of The Lieutenant in starring roles, including Majel Barrett as Number One, the ship’s unnamed first officer, and Leonard Nimoy as the iconic Spock, an alien science officer. The TV executives were impressed with this initial pilot, called ‘The Cage,’ but ultimately turned it down. They thought it was “too cerebral” for the average viewer. Roddenberry would later discuss another reason: the casting of a woman as a ship’s first officer was seen as preposterous, while the character of Mr. Spock seemed almost Satanic due to his makeup and ears. According to Roddenberry, the network offered him a choice: he could either keep Barrett as Number One or Nimoy as Spock, but not both. Roddenberry jokes that he “kept the Vulcan and married the woman, ’cause he didn’t think Leonard [Nimoy] would have it the other way around.” Barrett would later join the series as the recurring character of Christine Chapel, and would play additional roles throughout later series in the franchise.

NBC liked the concept of Star Trek enough to commission a second pilot, an unusual choice at the time. This time, Roddenberry cast a younger actor, William Shatner, in the lead as Captain James T. Kirk, moving Spock up to first officer. The second pilot was more successful — NBC took up the show, and DeForest Kelley joined the cast as Doctor Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy. 

Initially, Star Trek enjoyed high ratings; but by the end of the first season those ratings had waned, and from that point on it was in perpetual danger of cancellation. Smart budget decisions and massive letter-writing campaigns kept the show on for three full seasons, at which point NBC finally dropped it.

The Original Series

Star Trek was unlike anything that had ever been seen on television before for a number of reasons. Viewers today will note that some aspects of the show are painfully of-the-times: objectification of female characters; some preposterous plot points (the widely-acknowledged worst episode is the second season opener ‘Spock’s Brain,’ in which a matriarchal society surgically removes the eponymous brain to power a machine that runs their society); and the special effects could be outdone by a capable college student with a laptop today. Still, a number of aspects of the show were not just new, but revolutionary.

First, the cast. The crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise was, by the standards of the time, breathtakingly multi-racial. George Takei as the Asian helmsman Sulu, and Nichelle Nichols as the black communications officer Uhura, were bold choices, which Roddenberry had to fight the networks tooth-and-nail to retain. During the first season, Soviet viewers of the show complained that the Enterprise ought to have Russian crewmembers—after all, Russia had done everything before America, right? Roddenberry thought they had a point, and in the second season, brought on Walter Koenig from The Lieutenant as Ensign Pavel Chekov, with the running gag that he believed that everything, from high-yield experimental grain to the Garden of Eden, were Russian innovations. This was an astonishing move, given that Russian characters at the time were overwhelmingly portrayed negatively in American media. 

Roddenberry, though, believed that by the time several centuries in the future the series was set, humanity would have set aside its nationalistic and racist ideologies, exploring the galaxy as one people. That meant having a Russian helmsman, a black (and female!) communications officer, and an Asian helmsman, each of whom were allowed to express elements of their respective cultures and adopt practices from others; Sulu, for example, was famously a student of fencing. Star Trek was the first show ever to broadcast an interracial kiss, one between Kirk and Uhura (although the context was problematic, as both participants were being controlled by sadistic aliens at the time).

The diversity of the show’s cast was hugely influential on a changing society. Nichelle Nichols considered leaving her role as Uhura at one point, but was talked out of it by none other than the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. King told Nichols that the character of Uhura had opened a door for blacks and women alike, and that if she left, that door might be closed. King told her that “For the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen every day, as intelligent, quality, beautiful people who can sing and dance, yes, but who can go into space, who can be lawyers and teachers, who can be professors — who are in this day, yet you don’t see it on television until now.” Nichols recalls that when she told Roddenberry about the conversation, Roddenberry replied, “God bless Dr. Martin Luther King. Somebody knows where I’m coming from.”

In addition to the cast, the technology of the show was inspirational, even predictive. The crew’s communication devices were accurate forecasts of the cellular flip phone. In addition, technology and the discovery of new sources of energy had enabled human beings to nullify the threat of famine and poverty. While our world today has not overcome these issues, we have cut down on starvation and other forms of poverty rapidly over the last several decades. The ship’s ‘transporters’, devices capable of moving people from place to place in the space of a few seconds, was less of a prediction and more of a handy budget-saving technique that allowed a simple special effect to stand in the place of animating a shuttle landing on a new planet every week.

Finally, Roddenberry envisioned that aliens would live and work alongside humans, and that we would be part of a ‘federation’ of united worlds that would join together for the purposes of cooperative exploration and defence. Even races that challenged us at first, such as the notorious Klingons, would eventually reach an accord with humanity.

The show itself employed some fascinating storytelling tropes. The three leads, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, often acted as representations of the Freudian ego, superego, and id, respectively. The ghost of this dynamic can be seen to an extent in the recent Star Trek reboot films. The show also made extensive use of allegory to bypass media watchdogs that would have quashed certain plots: for example, one episode centred around a race of people who were colored alternately white on one side, and black on the other. Some members of this race were black on the right side, while others were white on the right side, and the latter members were persecuted severely by their counterparts for no valid reason in spectacularly self-destructive ways that… you get it. The writing was considered clever at the time.

Star Wars, Phase II, and the films

In the 70s, Star Trek had been acquired by Paramount in their purchase of Desilu Productions. In an attempt to revive the series, Roddenberry and others tried to get a low-budget Trek movie made. From the beginning the project was on rocky ground, and by the late 70s it was barely hanging on. The release of a spectacular new science fiction film, Star Wars, was the final nail in the coffin; the breakout success of Star Wars led to the Star Trek film being cancelled altogether, and began the two franchises’ rivalry. Despite being technically part of the same genre, Trek and Wars had fundamentally different concepts about the future. Star Wars, for example, did not take place in the future at all, and was explicitly set “a long, long time ago.” Nonetheless, the franchises’ contrasts have led to enmity between their respective fanbases for many years.

Still, Star Trek refused to die, and only a few months later, a new series was in the works. Roddenberry pitched it to Paramount as Phase II, a project that would continue the adventures of the Enterprise with a slightly different crew at the helm. Paramount was somewhat looser on the reins than NBC had been, so Roddenberry planned to make some changes with this series. He wanted to show his conception of 23rd century Earth, for example, and include women in leadership positions (NBC had allowed a maximum of a third of all cast members to be women). 

Unfortunately, the project faltered and was ultimately cancelled. Paramount eventually realized its advertising couldn’t support a fourth network, and Phase II became impossible. Other members of the crew split from the project over disagreements, and by 1978, only one part of the project was still planned: the made-for-television movie that had been planned to kick off the series as a whole. Star Trek: The Motion Picture came to theatres in 1979. 

The first film in the franchise wasn’t a thrill ride like the new kids on the block from George Lucas (Star Wars) and Ridley Scott (Alien). The slow-paced cerebral adventure drew more inspiration from the original series and from films like Kurbrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that had been released ten years before. Star Trek series fans were an older crowd and flocked to theatres, making the film the best box office performance of 1979. However, it didn’t live up the expectations of Paramount, who were hoping for a genre break-out. The production budget had ballooned to $46 million — massive at the time, along with the marketing outlay, and the film didn’t recoup it.

Paramount blamed Roddenberry for the failure and jettisoned him from the project, then commissioned a sequel to be written, directed and produced by Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) was a commercial and critical success and is regarded as the best film of the franchise in all its incarnations. 

Throughout the 1980s, the Star Trek films kept the franchise alive. The ongoing plot of Meyer’s 1982 sequel left enough threads for several sequels, some successful, some not, but the aging crew of the original series stuck together. Leonard Nimoy took over the director’s chair, then William Shatner took a turn. The utilitarian look and feel of this future was quite some way from Roddenberry’s original concept, but it recruited a whole new generation of fans.

Next month, we explore the 1990s, 2000s, and Star Trek today.