HISTORY OF STAR TREK
Star Trek premiered on NBC TV on September 8, 1966… 57 years ago. It is my favorite show; I was glued to the TV for the first episode and for 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 on Earth had been addressed. But many other issues – relevant to the ’60s – were depicted on other planets as still being wrestled with centuries into the future: free speech, civil rights issues, and never-ending war. Set circa A.D. 2266–2269, it is just over the horizon.
Star Trek: The Original Series showed a utopian view of science fiction that was somewhat different from current dystopian Sci-Fi movies and television. 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 worldwide. Many scientists today will state that Star Trek influenced the projects they are working on, especially in space exploration, physics, optics, electronics, computing, and communication – as I’ll recount at the end of this article.
Though the original show ended in 1969, the dream of exploration did not die; it lived on. Six weeks after the show ended, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon: one small step for man… where no man had gone before.
In 2004, Armstrong was the keynote speaker during the “Beam Me Up One Last Time, Scotty” convention honoring James Doohan. (Doohan had just gotten a star on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood.) Armstrong 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.”
Star Trek: The Beginning
Gene Roddenberry, the creator, had originally pitched the series to NBC as a
“Wagon Train to the stars,”
referring to the then-popular long-running TV western about pioneers exploring the frontier of the West and encountering adventures each week.
I remember the first episode of Star Trek like it was yesterday, though it was over half a century ago. In the Summer of 1966, there was a preview of the upcoming new Fall TV series with this line that stirred my imagination and made it so I couldn’t wait to see the show:
…a starship the size of a city.
So, 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 Star Trek Pilots
The first pilot began taping at Desilu Productions on December 12, 1964. This pilot, “The Cage,” starred Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike. It was only seen by the public two years later inside a more extended, 2-part episode in November 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 Kirk’s middle initial as “R” on his tombstone. Later in the series he calls himself James T. Kirk, and only in a subsequent book, and in Star Trek: the Animated Series, 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.
Star Trek: 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 he
“would not have had it the other way around.”
The story is told how Barrett dyed her hair blonde and waited in Gene’s reception office, and 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 (a play on the Sistine Chapel.) The guy with the pointed ears became less emotional, more logical, and Vulcan-green rather than Martian-red (the red makeup wouldn’t photograph correctly.)
Lucille Ball, head of Desilu Productions (Desi Arnaz + Lucile Ball), over-ruled the NBC executives who wanted to kill the show based on the first pilot. With some changes, a second pilot was made. This second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” starred William Shatner as Captain James Kirk and aired as the third episode of the first season on September 22, 1966. Desilu Productions also shared the cost of production with NBC. The show premiered with a 47% Nielsen rating, meaning almost half the American viewers were tuned to Star Trek.
In 1968, Gulf+Western purchased Desilu Productions, which became part of Paramount Pictures, specifically Paramount Television. Paramount cut the budget for the production of Star Trek episodes at the same time NBC moved the show to Friday night, “date night.”
Roddenberry had threatened the network that he would pull back from the show if NBC refused to give the show a good time slot, but NBC instead scheduled “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-in” during the plumb Monday evening slot. They had called his bluff. Roddenberry did pull back, ratings suffered, and the show fell to the high 20% by the end of the third series.
The series lasted for 3 of the “5-year mission” of the United Star Ship Enterprise. Ironically, the following year, demographics were used for the first time in TV ratings, and it was discovered that Star Trek had been appealing to precisely the kind of audience that advertisers wanted – 18 to 49-year-olds, the kind of younger viewers who spend money!
The April 29, 1967 issue of TV Guide featured an article 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,” namely show creator and producer Gene Roddenberry. It was initially produced at the Production Model Shop in 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 public display. Here’s how.
I was visiting Washington DC, while in college. I knew the wood and plastic model was at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, awaiting the opening of the “Life in the Universe” exhibit. I arrived early one morning in August at the museum on the National Mall, 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 open to the public. I took many photos 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. 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.
Star Trek: The Animated Series
Fifty years ago this month, in 1973, Paramount released the animated series known simply as “Star Trek.” The associate producer was Dorothy (DC) Fontana, writer and script editor from the original series, who led a group of science fiction writers to produce stories for the show. Fontana saw it as an unofficial 4th Season to the original series. It aired on Saturday mornings, and I watched every one of the 22 episodes for the two years it ran when I was in college. The themes were adult, making it an odd addition to Saturday morning cartoons.
Nevertheless, some stories were sequels to the original show (and by the same writers); another featured Mr. Spock’s childhood on Vulcan as a prequel to the original episode “Journey to Babel.” The show featured the voices of most of the original cast, except for Walter Koenig as Checkov. But he was asked to write one of the episodes.
This series was the first Star Trek to win an Emmy award for best children’s series. Fans argue about whether it should be considered “canon,” but subsequent Star Trek shows have made references to episodes in the animated series.
Star Trek: Its Continuing Mission
Star Trek remained incredibly popular in syndication on 150 American and over 60 international TV stations for years. Nineteen years after the original show was canceled, 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 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.”
While 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. I caught Nichelle Nichols (lovely) and William Shatner there. I met James Doohan in 1976 after I was rehearsing 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 perform in 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 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 the first Star Trek Convention I attended 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. He’s fluent in Japanese and Spanish.
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 didn’t wear “Vulcan ears” to Star Trek Conventions.
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 stars are still participating in conventions today. Last month, William Shatner was here in Colorado Springs doing a local Comic-Con convention.
The Star Trek Films
Don’t let anyone tell you Star Trek is a cult; that is not true. It’s more like a fanaticism.
This fanaticism requires I always be there on the first day of the movie premiers. On December 7, 1979, the first full-length movie opened, “Star Trek: The Motionless Picture.” Despite a plodding plot, the movie did amazingly well financially and led to several more films. Indeed, this first film was the second highest-grossing film in the movie franchise until the 2009 reboot.
The second film, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn,” was considered the best by the faithful, featuring a return engagement of Khan – played by Ricardo Montalbán – a notorious villain from the episode “Space Seed.” A futile boycott was called when it was leaked that Spock would die. 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 Star 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” (“The Final Frontier”) was his first and last directorial excursion. Even the camping 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 cast 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,” “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 (for 13 years), “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 featured a 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 Borg (Seven of Nine) and 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 have extended their original 3-movie contracts to do a fourth movie. Other stars are expected to follow suit. This has stalled, and rumors abound about who is to direct the next film. Stay tuned for the fourth movie in the reboot series.
After more than a decade, a new TV series 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 of Discovery was set 10 years before the U.S.S. Enterprise’s original 5-year mission. 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 title in the original pilot. It covers an incident in Star Trek history that was mentioned but not explained.
You may have noticed that the ship’s name, Discovery, is the same as the titular one in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The fifth and final season will be in early 2024.
While Discovery did not feature any of the bridge 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, a character from the original series.
There was a cliffhanger at the end of the first season: sensors detected another starship approaching the Discovery. It’s identified as the U.S.S. Enterprise. This is at the time period when Christopher Pike is Captain, and his Science Officer is Mr. Spock. In the second season, we meet this younger Spock, the step-brother of the lead character Michael Burnham.
Following the end of the second season, the Enterprise crew featuring Pike, Number One, and Spock spun off a show titled “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.” That spinoff has recently concluded its second season.
Oh, and there has been talk for over four years that Oscar-winner Michelle Yeoh will get a spinoff of her own as an agent of Section 31, the autonomous intelligence and counter-intelligence agency of the United Federation of Planets. This is still in development as a Paramount+ movie event.
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 Jeri Ryan (Seven of Nine from “Voyager”), Brent Spiner, Marina Sirtis, and Jonathan Frakes (from TNG) make return appearances. It ran for three seasons.
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 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 after the original 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 several currently running shows on the 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.
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 twelve 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.)
As of this writing, the Star Trek franchise is valued at almost $11 billion.
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 high-definition 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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