HISTORY OF STAR TREK
On this day last year, we marked the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Star Trek on NBC TV in 1966, so this year is the 51st. It is my favorite show, I was glued to the TV for the first episode and every one thereafter. It had a major influence on my life in technology. It represented an optimistic vision of the future where challenges of poverty and hunger had been addressed, but many other issues — relevant to the ’60s — were still being wrestled with centuries into the future. The Original Series showed a utopian view of science fiction that is rather different from current dystopian sci-fi TV and movies today. Star Trek did not just envision the future, it imagined it and helped drive it. It inspired generations of scientists, engineers, and technologists around the world. Many scientists today will say that it was Star Trek that influenced the projects they are working on, especially in the areas of space exploration, physics, optics, electronics, computing, and communication. Though the original show ended in 1969 the dream exploration did not die, it lived on: six weeks later, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon.
Last year many celebrated the influence Star Trek has had on our lives:
- The US Postal Service released commemorative stamps last week
- Twitter has lots of tweets celebrating
- SyFy Channel is celebrating Star Trek Day by offering a tutorial on how to do the Vulcan Salute.
- Seattle’s EMP Museum has a major new exhibit with original sets, props, uniforms, communicator, phaser and tricorder
- Smithsonian Institution’s Air & Space Museum in Washington D.C. has spent 4 months again refurbishing the original 11-foot filming model of the USS Enterprise
- History Channel has a show on “Building Star Trek”
- Gizmodo is talking about the anniversary
- USA Today is covering the celebration
- NASA talks about the science
- The Telegraph discusses the celebration
- Facebook is celebrating with Trek “like” buttons.
I can remember the first episode like it was yesterday, though it was half a century ago now. In the summer of 1966, there was a preview of a coming new Fall TV series with
…a starship the size of a city.
Then, on September 8, 1966, the first episode of Star Trek premiered on NBC. It was called “Man Trap” aka the “Salt Vampire,” but that was not the first episode recorded.
The first pilot began on December 12, 1964, at the Desilu Studios. This pilot, “The Cage” starring Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike was seen two years later inside a larger, 2-part episode in November of 1966 called “Menagerie.” The pilot also featured an unemotional dark haired female Number One played by Majel Barrett, and an excitable pointed-ear “half-Martian” named Mr. Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy.
Lucille Ball, head of Desilu over-ruled the NBC executives and asked for some changes and called for a second pilot. This second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” starred William Shatner as Captain James Kirk.
Trivia: in this second pilot you see his middle initial as “R” on his tombstone. Later in the series he calls himself James T. Kirk, and only in a subsequent book is the T expanded to Tiberius, in honor of Roddenberry’s grandfather Samuel’s fascination with the Roman emperor. Nowhere in the original series is the T spelled out, though it is mentioned in the reboot movies.
The Original Series
The network had said to Gene Roddenberry following the first pilot, “Get rid of the woman and the guy with the pointed ears.” So Roddenberry married the woman, Majel Barrett, and kept the guy with the pointed ears. Leonard Nimoy was fond of saying that he “would not have had it the other way around.” The woman dyed her hair blond and waited in Gene’s reception office so that when he walked past her even he didn’t recognize her. They figured if he didn’t recognize her, NBC wouldn’t. She became Nurse Christine Chapel. The guy with the pointed ears became less emotional, more logical, and Vulcan green rather than Martian red (the red wouldn’t photograph correctly.)
The series lasted for 3 of the “5-year mission” of the United Star Ship Enterprise, a victim of poor ratings. Ironically, the following year, demographics were used for the first time in TV ratings and it was discovered that Star Trek was appealing to exactly the kind of audience that advertisers wanted! I read an article in the April 29, 1967 issue of TV Guide by famed science fiction writer Isaac Asimov who wrote that his adolescent daughter told him “Mr. Spock is dreamy!” He concluded:
“Well, just in case, while I’m being smart, I’ll also let my ears grow.”
The USS Enterprise
The iconic starship was designed by Matt Jeffries from concepts provided by “The Great Bird of the Galaxy” show creator Gene Roddenberry. It was originally produced at Production Model Shop of Burbank, California. The Smithsonian Institution was presented the 11-foot filming model of the Enterprise that had been on March 1, 1974. I saw it 5 months later before it went on display. Here’s how. I was visiting Washington DC while in college and knew the wood and plastic model was at the Air & Space Museum awaiting the opening of the “Life in the Universe” exhibit. I arrived early one morning at the museum on the Mall and walked in and said to the staff:
“I’m a visiting scholar from Berkeley with a greater than average interest in Star Trek and I’d like to see your model.”
Now, I was an undergraduate and didn’t know that a visiting scholar is usually a post-doctoral fellow. I did know that I was visiting DC, I was a scholar, and the Star Trek parts were all true. And they let me in. The exhibit was not finished. I took tons of pictures, laying on the floor to get the full view of the hanging model.
When I returned to Berkeley I presented the photos to a college friend of mine who was also a Trek junkie. He was a budding professional quality plastic model builder specializing in WWII airplanes at the time. He built me a Revell plastic model of the ship with authentic paint chip colors from the photos I’d supplied to him. The paint on the filming model at the Air and Space museum had come there badly damaged. They had to call in experts to provide high-resolution photos and videos from the original series to get the colors right.
Its Continuing Mission
The show remained incredibly popular in syndication on 150 American and over 60 international TV stations. Nineteen years later it spawned another TV series, “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Then there was “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” later “Star Trek: Voyager” and eventually a kind of prequel, “Enterprise.” There was even an animated Saturday morning series that ran from 1973-74 with the voices of some of the original actors.
There are Trekkies, Trekkers, Trekkists, and Trek junkies. I belong to the later. I’ve personally seen or met all of the cast of “Star Trek Classic” (The Original Show,) and about half of the cast of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
While an undergrad at Berkeley, the “Federation Trading Post” was a local store on Telegraph Avenue that featured Star Trek mementos, and occasionally had the original cast stop by for a visit. There I caught Nichelle Nichols (lovely) and William Shatner (virtually undetectable toupee). I met James Doohan in 1976 after I was practicing for a fencing show on campus. As I walked out of the theater and saw him sitting on the lawn, I said to my fencing partner “That’s Jimmy Doohan!” “Who is that?” he asked. “Scotty, from Star Trek!” I replied. James was there to do a play on campus and I sat down on the lawn with him and discussed “theater” for over an hour. I was dying to talk about Star Trek, but I didn’t want to seem like a sniveling fan. He admitted that he loved theater, but at the time TV paid the bills.
The Star Trek Conventions
The first major Star Trek Convention was in New York in January of 1972. At my first Star Trek Convention in Oakland in August of 1976 I had a long conversation with George Takei (Sulu) who was very friendly and outgoing. I learned that he had spent his first 2 years of college in a Berkeley dorm that I had once stayed in. He had done his lower division studies in architecture there at Cal, then transferred to UCLA to finish in theater. He was happy to discuss almost any subject.
At subsequent conventions and technology shows I’ve chatted with Majel Barrett Roddenberry (stunningly attractive), Wil Wheaton (bright and techie — one of the early bloggers), Marina Sirtis (striking, and with a British accent you don’t hear on the show) and Walter Koenig (he told me “I have an ear for accents… and my parents are Russian immigrants”). And no, I don’t wear “Vulcan ears.”
A new generation of fans had developed and the show was more popular than ever. A letter writing campaign succeeded in getting the first NASA space shuttle re-named Enterprise.
Now don’t let anyone tell you Star Trek is a cult, that is not true at all. It’s more like a religion.
This religion requires that I always be there the first day of the movie premiers. On December 7, 1979, a day that will live in infamy, the first full-length movie opened, “Star Trek: The Motionless Picture.” Despite a plodding plot, the movie did amazingly well and led to several more films. The second, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn” was considered the best by the faithful, featuring a return engagement of Khan, a popular opponent from Kirk’s past. When it was leaked that Spock would die, a futile boycott was called. A hasty tag-on was filmed and put on the end of the movie hinting at the possibility of new life.
By the way, here’s the question that I stumped the Trivia Expert panel with at a Trek Convention years ago in San Francisco. See if you know the answer:
In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Spock was “buried” in a photon torpedo shot into space to land on the Genesis Planet. What was written on that tube?
This movie was followed by the Leonard Nimoy-directed “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock,” which was followed by “ST IV: Still Looking for Spock.” Just kidding. “Star Trek IV: The Search For Whales,” I mean “The Voyage Home” was considered the most generally popular and successful of the movies, with plenty of humor and a modern-day San Francisco as a back drop.
Now that Leonard Nimoy had directed his second film, William Shatner wanted a turn. “Star Trek V: What Were They Thinking” came out, as his first and last excursion. Even the camp-out scene with the backdrop of Yosemite couldn’t pull this one out of the fire.
“Star Trek VI: Quoting Lines From Hamlet” or “The Undiscovered Country” was the last of the Classic-era movies, and featured Kirk’s last heard line as Captain of the Enterprise, a line I’ve been waiting for him to say for years… It’s a line quoted by another flyboy hero of mine:
Second star to the right and straight on till morning.
This was followed by “Star Trek: Generations,” a mixture of the old Classic-era generation and an extended Next Generation episode. Here we see the changing of the guard as Scotty, Chekov, and Kirk inaugurate the Enterprise NCC 1701-B.
Subsequent movies featured the cast of the Pepsi-Generation series: “First Contact” where we go back in time and meet the inventor of warp drive (faster than light speed travel.) It was the most financially successful of the ten pre-reboot movies. “Insurrection” followed with the Next Generation cast again, directed by ST:TNG First Officer Jonathan Frakes, aka Commander Will Riker as he had directed “First Contact” and episodes of “ST:TNG,” “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager.”
“Star Trek X: Nemesis” was released in 2002 — and should have been subtitled “Send in the Clones” — but it was not enough to push the franchise further for several years. Indeed, it was the least popular and least successful financially of all the movies. In general, the even numbered movies were better than the odd numbered ones.
The last TV series, “Enterprise” had a relatively short life, only 4 years, compared with earlier The Next Generation, Deep Space 9, or Voyager.
Star Trek both reflected and pushed the limits of American culture. The Original Show had a recurring bridge crew with a black woman (Uhura), a 4th generation Japanese American (Sulu), a Scotsman (Montgomery Scott) — “All good engineers are Scots” according to Jimmy Doohan — and a young Russian (Chekov) at a time when America was in a Cold War with the Soviet Union. But most remarkable was the half-alien Spock. In Star Trek: The Next Generation we’d see an android (Data), and in Star Trek Voyager we’d see a software holographic doctor (Doctor).
On May 8, 2009, I spoke at a premiere of J.J. Abrams‘ vision of a Star Trek reboot with the debut of the 11th Star Trek feature film. You can see my movie review here. In 2013 the second Star Trek reboot movie was released, Star Trek Into Darkness. My review of the second movie is here. The third movie of this franchise Star Trek Beyond opened in July, just 2 months before the 50th anniversary of the original show. My review of the movie is here.
Star Trek’s Future
The principal stars of the first three “reboot” movies have extended their original 3-movie contracts and will do a fourth movie. Other stars are expected to follow suit. Stay tuned for the fourth movie in the reboot series.
There is another TV series coming. Star Trek: Discovery launches later this month on CBS All Access. Yes, it’s an over-the-top subscription streaming service. I’ll be there. The USS Discovery ship is clearly an homage to concept art done by Ralph McQuarrie for an unproduced 1976 movie Star Trek: Planet of the Titans that did not see the light of day. You know McQuarrie for his iconic concept art for Star Wars.
The 13-show series is set 10 years before the USS Enterprise’s original 5-year mission. And rather than starring a Captain, it will be a minority female character who is “Number One,” a lieutenant commander. This was done in honor of Majel Barrett who had that name in the original pilot. Oh, and her voice will be back as the Computer, as it has in so many of the Star Trek series and movies. It will cover an incident in Star Trek history that was mentioned but never explained. You may have noticed that the ship name is the same as the titular one in 2001: A Space Odyssey. While it will not feature any of the lead characters from the original show, it will feature Spock’s father Sarek of Vulcan as a young man. And look out for Harry Mudd.
Star Trek remains one of the most enduring and profitable franchises, one of the most successful media franchises in American history. It spawned 6 TV series including the Saturday morning animated one, a series of 10 movies (grossing $2B) with a renaissance of three new movies, the first of which earned over a third of a billion dollars, countless books, comic books, games, music, street names, a space shuttle, parodies, traveling science tours, a Las Vegas amusement experience, conventions, lunch pails, coffee cups, shower curtains and pajamas.
The film Galaxy Quest is a send up of the world of Star Trek and Trekkies. This weekend the new TV series The Orville premiers, created by and starring Trek-fan Seth MacFarlane.
Star Trek has inspired:
- The invention of the StarTAC mobile flip phone by Motorola, like the communicator
- A prototype tractor beam at University of St Andrews
- Voice activated computing like Siri and Google’s ubiquitous computing
- Scanadu, a medical tricorder
- Matter replication is now seen in early 3D printing
- Aluminum oxynitride (ALON), or transparent aluminum
- Cisco’s TelePresence, a hyper form of HD telecommunication across multiple locations
I have lots of Star Trek stories, what’s yours?
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood Trek junkie