Boldly Golden: Star Trek at 50
When you first hear of the term “science fiction,” what’s the first thing that pops into your mind? You might think of aliens, planets, robots, space ships, or the stars. For many, Star Trek is the very definition of science fiction. In this year of 2016, the franchise is now celebrating its golden 50th anniversary. When the original series aired in September 1966 on NBC, the show was different in terms of its story and its diverse cast. While Star Trek was indeed groundbreaking, the show’s ratings said otherwise. After three seasons, the show was canceled in 1969. However, the fans (also known as Trekkies or Trekkers) didn’t let their favorite show die. As of 2016, Star Trek is still going strong. After the original series’ cancelation, the franchise became bigger and bigger. To date, there has been…
- 6 TV shows (5 live-action and an animated series), with a seventh starting in early 2017.
- 13 theatrical films.
- Hundreds of books and comics.
- An endless amount of merchandise.
Star Trek was the creation of a man named Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry was born in El Paso, Texas on August 19, 1921. Prior to Star Trek, Roddenberry had served in the Air Forces from 1941 to 1945. Soon after resigning, he became a freelance television writer. While Roddenberry was able to find work, he wanted to create his own series. In March 1964, Roddenberry started work on a new project. He called it Star Trek. Drawing inspiration from the work of A.E. van Vogt and Eric Frank Russell, Star Trek was about an interstellar spaceship in the 23rd century on a five-year mission to explore lesser known planets and life forms. Star Trek also took influence from TV westerns, specifically Wagon Train—which Roddenberry had worked on before writing Star Trek. Roddenberry’s vision of the future was different from other works of sci-fi. Whereas most sci-fi stories took place in a dark dystopian future, Star Trek envisioned a peaceful future where humanity had learned from its mistakes and people of all races and species were working and living together.
Sometime later, Desilu Productions took interest in Roddenberry and Star Trek. A pilot episode called “The Cage” was filmed in 1965. In the episode, the focus was around Captain Christopher Pike (played by Jeffrey Hunter) and his starship of the USS Enterprise. The pilot was rejected but the episode was later used in the two parter “The Menagerie” as a flashback. Come 1966, the second pilot was filmed and featured an almost entirely new cast. For the original series, the characters were…
James T. Kirk (played by William Shatner)—Kirk was the captain of the Enterprise and the show’s lead character. Played by Shatner, Kirk was a fearless captain who was determined and physically strong. He didn’t believe in no-win scenarios and took risks in many episodes.
Spock (played by Leonard Nimoy)—Spock was the first officer of the Enterprise and second in command next to Kirk. Spock is a pointy eared, green-blooded Vulcan man, although it is later revealed that Spock is of two backgrounds- with his father being Vulcan and his mother being human. Therefore, Spock is half Vulcan and half human. As a Vulcan, Spock does not see the need for emotions and thinks logically. However, Spock’s human side does come out at times in certain episodes. He also uses his peaceful “Live Long and Prosper” greeting, with the hand gesture coming from Nimoy’s Jewish upbringing.
Dr. Leonard McCoy, aka Bones (played by DeForrest Kelly)—McCoy is the main doctor of the Enterprise but works closely with the other characters. As a character, McCoy is sarcastic- as he hilariously declares “I’m a Doctor, not a ____” from time to time. McCoy is also impatient, especially when it comes to his relationship with Spock. However at heart, McCoy is a good ol’ Southern man that’s loyal to his crew.
Montgomery Scott, aka Scotty (played by James Doohan)—Scotty is the main engineer of the Enterprise and the third in command. Like McCoy, Scotty sometimes serves as comic relief as he is a very friendly Scottish gentleman. As engineer, Scotty is almost always doubtful of his work but comes out victorious in the end.
Hikaru Sulu (played by George Takei)—Sulu is a helmsman on the Enterprise. Sulu is a man with many hobbies and interests- including fencing. He is also of Japanese heritage, although Roddenberry's intent was to have Sulu represent all of Asia. His surname was inspired by the Sulu Sea in the Philippines.
Nyota Uhura (played by Nichelle Nichols)—Uhura works in communications on the Enterprise. Loyal to her crew and Kirk, Uhura also stood out as her actress Nichelle Nichols was a black woman- which would resonate with some people. Over the years, Nichols has told the story about how she met civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. at a party. When Nichols told King she was thinking about leaving, King told her she couldn't- as she was representing black people. Actress Whoopi Goldberg would also speak of the impact of Star Trek and seeing Uhura- which Goldberg told Roddenberry when he was casting for The Next Generation TV series. Goldberg was later cast as Guinan, the ship's bartender in TNG.
Pavel Chekov (played by Walter Koening)—Chekov joined the crew in Season 2 and was meant to be a short-term character. However, the funny talking Russian officer won the hearts of fans- who demanded he stay on the show. By the next season, Chekov was officially part of the cast.
The Original Series opening theme
Season 1 (1966-67)
Star Trek premiered on September 8, 1966 on NBC with the episode “The Man Trap.” For one reason or another, NBC decided to air the episodes out of order and not in their production order—which most Trekkies prefer to view them in. Nevertheless, the first season of Trek was filled with some of the franchise’s most beloved episodes. “Balance of Terror” was one of the franchise’s first battle episodes while “Arena” featured the iconic fight between Kirk and a creature known as the Gorn. Season 1 also showed that Trek was fun when it did time travel in episodes such as “Tomorrow is Yesterday” and the Harlan Ellison penned “The City on the Edge of Forever.” Both Shatner and Nimoy have spoke positively of “Devil in the Dark,” an episode about a silicon based creature that has been killer miners while “Space Seed” would be our introduction to Khan Noon-Singh, a super strong human played by Ricardo Montalban.
For its first season, Star Trek aired on Thursdays at 8:30 pm on NBC. Reviews for the show were mixed but the show started off well in the ratings. However as the show went on, the ratings declined. In those days, a show like Star Trek would’ve been canceled after its first season. However, the show did receive some praise and awards for the first season. It received five Emmy nominations and the episode “The City on the Edge of Forever” had won a Hugo award. According to sources, Star Trek also helped RCA—a parent company to NBC—sell color TV sets. With that, the show was renewed.
A trailer for Season 2
Season 2 (1967-1968)
For the second season, the show was moved to Fridays at 8:30 pm—which would prove to be difficult for some young viewers. Still, Season 2 would feature more classic episodes. “Amok Time” saw the introduction of Spock’s Vulcan hand salute while “Journey to Babel” introduced Spock’s parents—Sarek and Amanda. “Mirror, Mirror” played with the idea of parallel universes while the season left time for fun episodes such as “The Trouble With Tribbles” and “A Piece of the Action.” The ratings continued to decline during the second season to the point where the show was nearing cancelation. In an effort to save the show, Roddenberry funded the efforts of John and Bjo Trimble. The couple sent out letters to about 4,000 people who were guests listed for a science fiction convention. It came to the point where NBC had received a reported 116,000 letters (although it’s been later revealed that they received close to a million letters). In 1968, 200 Caltech students protested outside of the local NBC office. By March 1968, NBC announced they would give the show a third season.
The Famous Kirk-Uhura kiss
Season 3 (1968-1969)
Despite the support from the fans, Season 3 of Star Trek was a disaster. The show was moved to yet another timeslot—Fridays at 10 pm. At this point, it seemed as if NBC were letting the show die. Roddenberry wasn’t around as much and producer Fred Freiberg was brought in. As a result, the writing had declined in Season 3. Season 3 did have some good episodes such as “The Enterprise Incident, “All Our Yesterdays,” and “Day of the Dove.” It even pushed the envelope with episodes such as the racially themed “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” and “Plato’s Stepchildren,” which featured the first interracial kiss on TV—between Shatner and Nicholls. Aside from one or two other episodes, the episodes in Season 3 relied more on the “monster of the week” theme and led to some of the franchise’s worst episodes. In early 1969, NBC announced that Star Trek had been canceled.
From Syndication to Big Screen
Despite the show’s cancelation, Star Trek had reached the number of episodes required for syndication. It was in syndication that people started discovering the show. The public’s love for Star Trek would be more present in the 1970s with the first ever Star Trek Convention and even the unveiling of a space shuttle from NASA named Enterprise. Star Trek’s cult following was strong enough to warrant another TV series. However, this show was different as this was an animated series. Star Trek: The Animated Series aired for two seasons from 1972 to 1974. Sometime during the mid to late 1970s, work began on a second live-action Trek series called Star Trek: Phase II. The show had its cast set, some new episodes written and even props and sets ready to go. However in 1977, a movie called Star Wars had come to theaters. The movie became a worldwide phenomenon and every studio wanted in on the craze. Paramount Pictures was one of those studios. So instead of making the Phase II series, the decision was made to take the pilot episode of Phase II and make it into a feature length film with the original cast together again. With Robert Wise directing, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released in 1979. The movie, which was about the Enterprise stopping a planet destroying alien spacecraft, was a success at the box office. However, Trekkies came out of the theater confused and disappointed. Critics weren’t too impressed by the movie either, citing it was too slow and tried way too hard to be like 2001. According to Shatner and other sources, the filming for the first movie was chaotic. It’s also known for a fact that prior to directing the movie, Wise had never seen an episode of the series.
A Second Chance—The Other TOS Movies (1982-1991)
Much to the surprise of many people, Paramount decided to give Star Trek another chance with a second movie. Producer Harve Bennett was chosen to take on the second movie. In order to prepare for the movie, Bennett watched every episode of the original series. Of the episodes, the “Space Seed” episode from Season 1 impressed him the most with the character of Khan Noon-Singh, played by Ricardo Montalban. Bennett decided that the next movie should bring back Khan, with him wanting to get his revenge from Kirk stranding him while also looking for the Genesis device. With Montalban on board and Nicholas Meyer directing, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was released in 1982. The movie was immensely praised by both critics and fans, calling it a sci-fi classic. Montalban, who had been best known for his role as Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island, impressed audiences with his portrayal as Khan. The movie also had some Trekkies coming out of the theater in tears, as the movie bravely decided to kill off Spock, after he saves the Enterprise.
The Wrath of Khan’s success led to another two movies building off from that movie (many Trekkies consider II, III and IV to be a trilogy- sometimes called the Genesis trilogy). Despite his character’s iconic death, Leonard Nimoy came back to direct both Star Trek III: The Search for Spock in 1984 and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home in 1986. The former focused on the Enterprise resurrecting their old friend while the latter saw the crew traveling back in time searching for humpback whales to bring back with them to stop an alien probe. The franchise hit a new low with the Shatner directed Star Trek V: The Final Frontier in 1989. The movie, which focused on Spock’s half-brother’s crazed search for God, did not bode well with critics or fans. As a result, it tanked at the box office and became the movie series’ lowest grossing movie. Luckily in 1991, the original crew went out on a high note with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country- a movie about the Federation trying to make their peace with the Klingons, which was inspired by the US and Russia making peace after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The Next Generation (1987-2002)
With the success of the movies, Gene Roddenberry decided he wanted to make another Trek series—this time with a new cast and setting. In 1987, Star Trek: The Next Generation aired as a syndicated show. Taking place decades after the original series, TNG was about the adventures of the new Enterprise, with Captain Jean Luc Piccard (played by Patrick Stewart) at the helm. Other characters included first officer William Riker (played by Jonathan Frakes), Klingon officer Worf (played by Michael Dorn) and an android called Data (played by Brent Spiner). With TNG, Roddenberry was able to have more control and do the things he wasn’t able to do with the original series. Of the TV shows, TNG is said to fit Roddenberry’s vision of the future the best. Despite Roddenberry’s death in 1991, the show had a successful seven season run from 1987 to 1994. Soon after it’s run, the TNG crew were chosen to take over the original cast in the movie series. The cast was in four theatrical movies: Generations (1994), First Contact (1996), Insurrection (1998) and Nemesis (2002). As a whole, the TNG movies are not as good as the movies featuring the original cast. Of the four movies, First Contact is considered by many to be the best of them—as the movie had the crew battling the Borg. The other three movies received mixed reviews. Generations boasted a disappointing Kirk and Piccard team up while Insurrection was just mediocre as the follow up to First Contact. The last TNG film, Nemesis, was a new low for the franchise as it became the lowest grossing movie of the entire series, surpassing The Final Frontier. For a while, the Trek movie series was left in limbo.
Keep On Trekking: The Other Shows (1993-2005)
From 1993 to 2005, there were three other Trek shows on the air. Those shows were as follows…
Deep Space Nine (1993-1999)
Deep Space Nine was different from the other shows in the series. Unlike TOS and TNG, it was the first show not about the Enterprise. Instead, the show focused on the adventures of the crew of a space station—Deep Space Nine. With it being about a space station, the show was more about the life forms that would come across or visit it. The captain for DS9 was Captain Benjamin Sisko (played by Avery Brooks). To bring in more viewers, characters such as Worf and Miles O’Brien (played by Colm Meaney) from TNG were added to the crew. For DS9 and almost all of the shows that aired after Roddenberry’s death, there were some Trekkies that didn’t care for these shows for one reason or another. The Trekkies who do like DS9 appreciate the show for having darker storylines and well-written drama. The show lasted for seven seasons.
Like DS9, Voyager was another series not about the Enterprise. It was about the starship Voyager and its adventures. As with DS9, there are some Trekkies that don’t care for Voyager. Still, Voyager has its positives. For a captain, we have Captain Kathryn Janeway (played by Kate Mulgrew- who is perhaps better known today for her role as Red on Orange is the New Black). With Janeway, she was the franchise’s first female captain. Yes, there were female captains before her in other shows but this was the first Trek series that had a female lead. Also worth noting is the character Seven of Nine (played by Jeri Ryan), a Borg crewmember who was rescued from her collective and became an officer. Voyager had its share of dark storyline like DS9 and it revisited favorite villains such as the Borg. The show lasted for seven seasons.
Enterprise is a prequel to the entire franchise. This series followed the adventures of an earlier crew, with Captain Jonathan Archer at the helm (played by Scott Bakula). The reception to Enterprise was (and sometimes still is) mixed. Unlike the previous three shows, Enterprise struggled to stay on the air. With the ratings low, the show only had four seasons. Unlike TOS, Enterprise did get a series finale.
The Reboot (2009-2016)
At the time Enterprise was canceled, it had been some three years since the failure of Nemesis at the box office. Nemesis had been promoted as the last TNG movie so it was unlikely for there to be a movie from the other three shows. Another show was out of the question due to the ratings for Enterprise. For the first time in years, Star Trek’s future was uncertain. Sometime in 2007, work began on a new Trek movie. Using part of script that almost was the sixth movie instead of The Undiscovered Country, this new movie would be a reboot of the original series- with Kirk played by Chris Pine and Spock played by Zachary Quinto. Released in 2009, the J.J. Abrams directed Star Trek was a hit at the box office. While the movie received mostly positive reviews, there are Trekkies out there who didn’t like the movie (or the ones that followed it). The criticism that’s common with the new Trek movies is that the material has been watered down. While the original series and its successors dealt with philosophical questions and social issues, the new movies seem to focus more on the action/adventure elements. Despite these criticisms, the 2009 movie was able to breathe new life into a franchise that was considered dead without any TV shows or movies going for it. It also sparked interest in the franchise for younger viewers. The success of the 2009 movie resulted in two sequels: Into Darkness in 2013 and Beyond in 2016.
The Future of Trek and Conclusion
Now five decades after its premiere, the Star Trek franchise is still going strong. All of the TV shows are on streaming media services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, which now makes it easier for a whole new generation of people to get into this franchise. Come January 2017, there will be a brand new Trek series. The series, Star Trek: Discovery, will have its first episode aired on CBS in early 2017- after which the remaining twelve episodes will be posted weekly to CBS All Access.
When Star Trek originally premiered in September 1966, no one could’ve predicted what would come after it. So what is it that made Star Trek last for so long? The show’s loyal fan base refused to let this show die because they saw something in it that NBC and various others didn’t. Even today, the future envisioned by Gene Roddenberry is something to look up to. In this year of 2016, we’ve seen our share of violence in the form of mass shootings and terrorism. When it seems that the country has hit an all time low, Gene Roddenberry probably wouldn’t have changed his mind and maybe he was right: perhaps humanity will learn from its mistakes one day and the things shown in Star Trek could possibly become a reality. Look at all of the electronics that have been unveiled the last few years. We have smartphones and tablets, some of which look an awful lot like the gadgets used in Star Trek.
During its fifty year mission, Star Trek has certainly explored strange new worlds, new life forms and new civilizations. As for the future, it’s safe to say that Star Trek will continue to boldly go where no one has been before.
So are you a Trekkie? If so, which shows are your favorites? Have any favorite episodes? If so, leave a comment below.
With an article this long, there's bound to be a factual error or two in here. If you do find anything like this, leave a comment below and kindly tell me what it is.