HISTORY OF STAR TREK
Star Trek premiered on NBC TV on September 8, 1966… 55 years ago. It is my favorite show; I was glued to the TV for the first episode and every one after that. It had a significant influence on my life in my choice of a career in technology.
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. The Original Series showed a utopian view of science fiction that is rather different from current dystopian Sci-Fi TV and movies today. And the franchise is still creating new shows presently, as I’ll describe below.
Paramount today is kicking off a month-long celebration of the legacy of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Details at StarTrek.com/Day. The campaign will launch at Paramount+’s red carpet event on September 8, featuring Star Trek actors LeVar Burton, George Takei, Patrick Stewart, and others.
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 — 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,” said Armstrong. “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.”
…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 longer, 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.
Lucille Ball, head of Desilu Productions, over-ruled the NBC executives who wanted to kill the show based on this first pilot and, asking for some changes, 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
“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 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 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
Matt Jeffries designed the iconic starship from concepts provided by “The Great Bird of the Galaxy” show creator Gene Roddenberry. It was originally 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.”
Now, 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 DC, 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 laying 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 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 an AMT 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 latter. 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.”
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 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 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 two years of college in a Berkeley dorm that 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
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 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 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 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 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,” “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 movies were better than the odd-numbered ones.
The last general TV series, “Enterprise,” had a relatively short life, only four 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).
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 movie. 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 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. I compare the two franchises in an article here.
The 13-show first season is set 10 years before the USS 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. Oh, 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 will spin-off titled Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. Oh, and Michelle Yeoh will 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 name of the show is Picard and appeared in early 2020 on CBS All Access. 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 additional animated series, one already out, another in development. CBS released in August Star Trek: Lower Decks, an adult comedy created by Mike McMahan of Rick and Morty fame.
The other: Nickelodeon commissioned a children’s cartoon called Star Trek: Prodigy to be released this year.
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 movies (so far), the first of which earned over a third of a billion dollars. An unnamed TV series is in the works, and an animated series Lower Decks is coming.
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.)
The film “Galaxy Quest” is a send-up of the world of Star Trek and Trekkies. The TV series “The Orville,” created by and starring Trek-fan Seth MacFarlane, is a tribute to Star Trek.
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 of the guest stars from the original show. James Doohan’s son Christopher Doohan plays “Scotty.” You can find it on YouTube here.
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 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
- Scanadu is a medical tricorder
- Matter replication is now seen in early 3D printing
- Aluminum oxynitride (ALON) is transparent aluminum
- Cisco’s TelePresence, a hyper form of HD telecommunication is used across multiple locations
I have lots of Star Trek stories; what’s yours?
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood Trek junkie