HISTORY OF STAR TREK
Star Trek premiered on NBC TV on September 8, 1966… 56 years ago. It is my favorite show; I was glued to the TV for the first episode and every one after that. It significantly influenced my life and my choice of a career in technology.
An Optimistic Future
The show 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 depicted as still being wrestled with centuries into the future. Set circa A.D. 2266–2269, it is just over the horizon. The Original Series showed a utopian view of science fiction that is somewhat different from current dystopian Sci-Fi movies and television today. And the franchise is still creating new shows, as I’ll describe below.
Star Trek did not just envision the future; it imagined and helped drive it. It inspired generations of scientists, engineers, and technologists like me around the world. Many scientists today will say that Star Trek influenced the projects they are working on, especially in space exploration, physics, optics, electronics, computing, and communication — as I’ll recount near the end of this article.
Though the original show ended in 1969, the dream of exploration did not die. It lived on: six weeks later, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon: one small step for man… where no man had gone before.
In 2004, when Armstrong was the keynote speaker during the “Beam Me Up One Last Time, Scotty” convention honoring James Doohan, who had gotten a star on the Walk of Fame, the Moon astronaut said:
“So, I’m hoping for my next command, to be given a Federation starship. And, when I get that command, I would like to have a crew like Captain James T. Kirk had. Spock and Chekov and Uhura and Dr. McCoy and Sulu and the others we all remember.
“Now I have a confession to make. I am an engineer. And if I get that command, I want a chief engineering officer like Montgomery Scott. Because I know Scotty will get the job done and do it right. Even if I often hear him say, ‘But Captain, I dinna have enough time!’
“So from one old engineer to another, thanks, Scotty.”
I remember the first episode like it was yesterday, though it was over half a century ago. In the summer of 1966, there was a preview of an upcoming new Fall TV series with this line that stirred the imagination and made it so you couldn’t wait to see the show:
…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 taping on December 12, 1964, at Desilu Productions. This pilot, “The Cage,” starring Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike, was only seen by the public two years later inside a more extended, 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 a rather excitable pointed-ear “half-Martian” named Mr. Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy.
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
“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 even he didn’t recognize her when he walked past her. They figured if he hadn’t recognized 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 precisely 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 U.S.S. Enterprise
Matt Jeffries designed the iconic starship from concepts provided by “The Great Bird of the Galaxy” show creator Gene Roddenberry. It was initially produced at the Production Model Shop of Burbank, California. The Smithsonian Institution was presented with the 11-foot filming model of the Enterprise on March 1, 1974. I saw it five 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 National 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.”
I was an undergraduate student and didn’t know that a visiting scholar is usually a post-doctoral fellow. I did know that I was visiting D.C., I was a scholar, and the Star Trek parts were all true. And they let me in. The exhibit was not yet finished. I took tons of pictures while lying on the floor to get a full view of the hanging model.
When I returned to Berkeley, I presented the photos to a college friend who was also a Trek junkie.
He was a budding professional plastic model builder specializing in WWII airplanes at the time. He built me an A.M.T. 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 been 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 latter. I’ve personally seen or met all of the cast of “Star Trek” (The Original Show) and about half of the cast of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
When I was a student at Berkeley in the 70s, the “Federation Trading Post” was a local store on Telegraph Avenue that featured Star Trek mementos and occasionally had the original cast member 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 theatrical 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.
Mr. Doohan 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 significant Star Trek Convention was in New York in January 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 two years of college in a Berkeley dorm I had once stayed in. He had done his lower-division studies in architecture 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.
The Star Trek Films
Don’t let anyone tell you Star Trek is a cult; that is not at all true. It’s more like a religion.
This religion requires that I always be there on 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 at the movie’s end, hinting at the possibility of new life.
By the way, here’s the question 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 backdrop.
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 the 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 N.C.C. 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,” “Voyager,” and “Discovery.”
“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 films were better than the odd-numbered ones.
The last general TV series, “Enterprise,” had a relatively short life, only four years, compared with the 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).
Star Trek: The Reboot
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 2016, just two months before the 50th anniversary of the original show. My review of the third movie is here.
Star Trek: Today and Beyond
The principal stars of the first three “reboot” movies had extended their original 3-movie contracts to do a fourth movie. Other stars are expected to follow suit. This has stalled, and rumor has it that Noah Hawley is tagged to direct the next film. Stay tuned for the fourth movie in the reboot series.
There is a new TV series that began in the Fall of 2017. “Star Trek: Discovery” launched on CBS All Access. Yes, it’s an over-the-top subscription streaming service. But I had to be there. The U.S.S. 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. I compare the two franchises in my article here.
The 13-show first season is set 10 years before the U.S.S. Enterprise’s original 5-year mission. And rather than starring a Captain, it features a black female character who is “Number One,” a lieutenant commander named Michael Burnham. This was done in honor of Majel Barrett, who had that name in the original pilot. It covers an incident in Star Trek history that was mentioned but never explained. You may have noticed that the ship’s name is the same as the titular one in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
While it did not feature any of the lead characters from the original show (at least when it premiered), it featured Spock’s father, Sarek of Vulcan as a younger man. But you did see Harry Mudd. There was a cliff-hanger at the end of the first season: sensors detect another starship approaching the Discovery; it’s the U.S.S. Enterprise. This is at a time when Christopher Pike is captain, and his first officer is Mr. Spock. In the second season, we meet a younger Spock, the step-brother of the lead character Michael Burnham.
Following the end of the second season, the Enterprise crew featuring Pike, Number 1, and Spock spun off a show titled “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.” Oh, and there was talk that Michelle Yeoh is to get a spin-off as an agent of Section 31.
Patrick Stewart returned to reprise the role of Captain Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation. While it is not a continuation of The Next Generation, it is the next chapter of the captain’s life, 20 years after “Star Trek X: Nemesis.” The show’s name is “Picard,” and it appeared in early 2020 on CBS All Access (now Paramount+.) With a new cast, fans were pleased to see Brent Spiner, Jeri Ryan (“Voyager”), Marina Sirtis, and Jonathan Frakes make return appearances.
More Star Trek?
There are two other animated series. In August 2020, CBS released “Star Trek: Lower Decks,” an adult comedy created by Mike McMahan of Rick and Morty fame.
The other: Nickelodeon commissioned a children’s cartoon, “Star Trek: Prodigy,” released in 2021.
Star Trek’s Legacy
Star Trek remains one of the most enduring and profitable franchises and one of the most successful media franchises in American history. It spawned eight TV series, including the Saturday morning animated one, a series of ten initial movies (grossing $2B,) plus a renaissance of three new films (so far), the first of which earned over a third of a billion dollars.
Star Trek has spawned 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 (and yes, I have the PJs.)
Star Trek Parodies
The film “Galaxy Quest” is a send-up of the world of Star Trek and Trekkies. But it is so true to the ethos of Star Trek fandom that it brings back that old nostalgia.
Star Trek Tributes
Several interesting fan ventures have appeared. Of particular note is “Star Trek Continues,” produced, written, directed, and starring Vic Mignogna. It continues the 5-year mission and features some guest stars from the original show. James Doohan’s son Christopher Doohan plays “Scotty.” You can find it on YouTube here.
With five currently running shows on Paramount+ streaming service:
Are you seeing more but enjoying it less?
Then check out “The Orville,” an homage to Star Trek created by and starring Seth MacFarlane, about the U.S.S. Orville set 400 years in the future. I find it is closer to Gene Roddenberry’s original spirit of the show than the current Paramount offerings.
While it started as a comedy Sci-fi show in its first couple of seasons, that format has been dropped. The episodic format follows an ensemble cast of characters with current-day issues and challenges.
The Most Interesting Man In The World
A little-known fact is that “The Most Interesting Man In The World,” Jonathan Goldsmith, was on #StarTrek
Star Trek Technology Inspiration
Star Trek has inspired:
- The invention of the StarTAC mobile flip phone by Motorola, like the communicator
- A prototype tractor beam at the University of St Andrews
- Voice-activated computing like Siri, Alexa, and Google’s ubiquitous computing
- Matter replication is now seen in early 3D printing
- Aluminum oxynitride (ALON) is transparent aluminum
- Cisco’s TelePresence, a hyper form of H.D. telecommunication, is used across multiple locations
I have lots of Star Trek stories; what’s yours?
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood Trek junkie
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