Monday 9 May 2016

Star Trek at 50: The Original Series

In early 1966 NBC and Desilu Productions signed an agreement formally committing to producing a full season of television based on Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek. To get to that point Roddenberry had had to create two pilots, hire a cast and build elaborate sets over a period of eighteen months, and still nothing had actually made it to the screen. The formal greenlight allowed him, his writers and his actors to breathe a sigh of relief.

"Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Her five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no man has gone before."

Just a few weeks later, Desilu almost killed the series. Although the production company was influential and capable, it was not the largest in Hollywood and it could not afford to mount a number of large projects simultaneously. Bruce Geller had proposed a new, expensive spy drama series to Desilu that had gotten a number of networks very excited, more excited than they were over Star Trek. Desilu agreed to proceed with this series, but it put the future of the Star Trek deal in doubt, as it financially overextended the company. Herb Solow, the Desilu director of programming who was Star Trek's champion, had to meet the head of Desilu, the formidable actress and producer Lucille Ball, and convince her to back both shows simultaneously. Ball agreed and work resumed on both Trek and the spy show, which became known as Mission: Impossible, making this one of the more notably successful such gambles in the history of Hollywood.

For the series itself a number of additional castmembers were added. The second pilot, Where No Man Has Gone Before, saw William Shatner cast as Captain Kirk, Leonard Nimoy retained as Mr. Spock and them both joined by James Dooham as Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott and George Takei as Mr. Sulu. Sulu was initially characterised as a scientist but for the show itself became the helmsman of the Enterprise. Paul Fix played Dr. Piper in the second pilot but for the series he was replaced by DeForest Kelley at Dr. Leonard McCoy. Gene Roddenberry was interested in diversifying the cast with female roles, so retained Majel Barrett from the original pilot, The Cage, in the new role of Nurse Christine Chapel and cast Grace Lee Whitney as Janice Rand, the captain's yeoman. However, Roddenberry wanted a female character front and centre on the bridge, so cast the young African-American actress Nichelle Nichols as communications officer Lt. Uhura. This was an unusual move in the racially sensitive period of the 1960s, but Roddenberry felt it was essential to show an aspirational future free of the petty prejudices of the day.

Filming commenced in the summer of 1966 and the first episode, The Man Trap, was aired on 8 September 1966. The show initially had favourable ratings, but a mixed critical reception. The show's ratings also dipped as the season continued. However, NBC had started studying the demographics of viewership rather than just the raw numbers and concluded that Star Trek's audience, although small, was committed and also young. Using these figures, it was able to still sell advertising space at a favourable rate which kept the show on the air for the rest of the first season.

The Hugo Award-winning City on the Edge of Forever is widely (but not unanimously) regarded as the best episode of The Original Series. It was written by Harlan Ellison, with rewrites by a team including D.C. Fontana, Gene Roddenberry and Gene Coon.

The first season of the original Star Trek is often regarded as the best, featuring episodes such as The Galileo Seven, Balance of Terror and, most memorably, Space Seed and The City on the Edge of Forever. Space Seed saw Ricardo Montalban cast as Khan, a genetically-engineered super-criminal who nearly seizes control of the ship with the help of a Starfleet traitor. Kirk exiles Khan to the planet Ceti Alpha V at the end of the episode and them promptly forgets about him. City on the Edge of Forever, written by popular SF novelist and short story writer Harlan Ellison, was unusual for Star Trek in that it mixed in time travel with a love story, featuring William Shatner's Kirk falling in love with a political activist played by Joan Collins. The script would be partially rewritten by D.C. Fontana and Roddenberry himself, amongst others, to bring it in on time and budget. The episode won the 1968 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and became something of a pop culture phenomenon even outside Star Trek's own fanbase: the 1990s British sitcom Men Behaving Badly set an entire episode around the characters watching this episode on a rerun.

Star Trek's first season also saw NBC receive a large amount of praise for the show. It received 30,000 pieces of mail about the series, including letters from scientists, doctors and engineers praising the show. The Smithsonian Institution requested a copy of the series to be stored in its archives as it was of scientific and cultural interest. NBC was taken aback and this support helped it make the decision to renew the series, even though the ratings had already been good enough to ensure that anyway.

The second season saw only a few cosmetic changes to the formula from the first. The most notable was the addition of Walter Koenig to the cast as Ensign Pavel Chekov. Roddenberry had decided that adding a Russian character was a good idea to show that in the future the United States and Russia would have put aside their differences and reconciled, which he thought was a healthier message than other shows which were using the Cold War as a source for action and conflict.

More subtle, although irritating to some of the cast, was the fact that William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy had emerged as the stars of the show and were now given the lion's share of the action. DeForest Kelley's Dr. McCoy became an excellent foil to the two so the show became centred on the three leads (although McCoy had relatively few episodes about him specifically, compared to Kirk and Spock), with the other characters becoming supporting roles. Nichelle Nichols considered leaving the show at this point and to use her newfound fame to get work on Broadway. However, at a charity fundraiser she met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose civil rights movement was at its height. He told Nichols that she was an inspirational role model for both women and people of colour across the United States and asked her to stay. She agreed.

The second season saw additional memorable and classic episodes, including Amok Time, The Changeling, The Doomsday Machine, Journey to Babel (which introduced Spock's parents) and The Trouble with Tribbles. The show continued to gain fans but the ratings remained less than what NBC would have preferred. However, Star Trek was outperforming the opposition and the demographics continued to show that affluent and professional people were watching the series. A change in transmission date meant that some of the younger viewers from the first season were no longer watching, which have led to some brief discussions at NBC and the rumour that they were considering cancelling the series. This does not appear to have been seriously on the cards, but Gene Roddenberry fanned the flames of the rumour at a series of SF conventions. 116,000 pieces of fan mail flooded the NBC letter room begging them to keep the show on the air. NBC made the unusual step of announcing the renewal live on air, just to let the fans know the show would definitely be coming back.

Things looked rosy for Star Trek but then a problem emerged: internal network politics. The plan had been to move Star Trek to a Monday night, which was considered prime airing real estate. However, the producer of the comedy show it would have replaced angrily objected and, due to contractual agreements, that show could not be moved. Trek had to be dropped back to Friday nights. This was considered the kiss of death as Trek's target audience frequently went out on a Friday evening, but there was no other slot available. The advertising revenue for this slot was also lower than Trek's old slot, so this resulted in a 10% budget cut compared even to Season 1.

Shatner and Nimoy were "unimpressed" with the quality of scripts for the show's third and final season, but particularly despised Spock's Brain, possibly the nadir of the entire Star Trek franchise.

Roddenberry was utterly furious and spent months locking horns with NBC to get them to change their minds, to no avail. He was so annoyed that he withdrew from day-to-day production duties on the show. Roddenberry's previous co-producer had been Gene L. Coon (aka "The Forgotten Gene"), who had joined halfway through Season 1 and won the respect of the cast and the writers as a skilled, even-handed showrunner with a fine eye for quality scripts. Unfortunately, Coon had been offered an excellent deal at Universal and left towards the end of Season 2 (to the later woe of the cast and crew alike), although he continued to contribute scripts under a pseudonym. NBC appointed Fred Freiberger to take charge of the production instead. Freiberger was less interested in serious SF stories and instead mandated more action and monster stories, to the consternation of the cast, writers and fans. The third season was critically mauled compared to the first two, especially the mind-bogglingly awful episode Spock's Brain which opened the season. Nimoy and Shatner were both embarrassed and annoyed by the script, and Nimoy considered the episode the most appalling thing he'd ever worked on. Freiberger's influence on the show was regarded as highly detrimental, replacing the more serious SF of the first two seasons with shlock and cheap sensationalism. A decade later, he would do the same thing when he took over the running of Space: 1999 for its second season and likewise sent the quality of the show right off the edge of a cliff.

Later episodes were better, however, with The Enterprise Incident, The Tholian Web and Day of the Dove considered to be quite strong pieces. The season also managed to score two notable points for political commentary: Plato's Stepchildren featured a kiss between a mind-controlled Kirk and Uhura. Although not quite the first interracial kiss on American television (Sammy Davis, Jr. and Nancy Sinatra had kissed on a TV show a year earlier), it was still considered provocative and daring, and attracted complaints from NBC affiliates in the South. Let That Be Your Last Battlefield was an allegorical episode, featuring the Enterprise crew stumbling on a planet with an overclass who consider themselves racially superior to the underclass, yet both are identical: black on one side of the face and white on the other. The crew are baffled when they realise that the sides of the colours are inverted between the two sides, a completely arbitrary distinction. The racial allegory was unsubtle but somewhat effective.

Ratings for the third season, as expected, tanked and this time no amount of letter-writing could save the show. Turnabout Intruder, the final episode of Star Trek, aired on 3 June 1969. The sets were struck and the actors moved onto other projects. Leonard Nimoy, in fact, only moved across the lot to join the cast of Mission: Impossible. Star Trek, it appeared, was done.

Or maybe not. One month after the final episode aired in the States, the show aired in the United Kingdom for the first time, on the BBC. Glossy and in full colour, Star Trek showed up the BBC's own Doctor Who as looking a bit tired and antiquated, helping inspire a full, dramatic revamp of that show (less episodes, higher budgets and a move to full colour). The show also started airing in many other countries, where it quickly became popular. Star Trek also finished airing just a few weeks short of Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. Suddenly science fiction was a hot property, and everywhere. NBC's cancellation of Star Trek after just 79 episodes fell short of the normal number required for syndication (roughly 104, allowing stations to show two episodes a week year-round), but they found a lot of interest anyway and sold the entire series to local networks to air as and when they pleased.

The result was an explosion of popularity. Suddenly Star Trek was in constant reruns all over the United States and many other countries. Books started appearing, and in December 1972 a Star Trek-specific convention was organised in New York City, attended by Gene Roddenberry. Soon Trek conventions became an annual event, attracting thousands of attendees with castmembers regularly showing up.

Star Trek: The Animated Series ran for two seasons in 1973 and 1974. It reunited most of the original cast for a new series of adventures, mostly scripted by writers from the original series. Gene Roddenberry was not a fan of animation and later "decanonised" the series. However, it was restored to official status in the 1990s.

This belated success caused Roddenberry and NBC to consider a revival of the show. The actors and writers had other commitments which made this difficult, but in 1973 the cast did regroup to make Star Trek: The Animated Series. This ran for two seasons on NBC and was a moderate success, particularly for the way it allowed much more alien creatures and worlds to be used, but the fans were keen for new live-action adventures.

What followed was story of conflicting interests, with Paramount keen to use the name appeal of the show to launch a feature film series and Roddenberry and the fans generally more inclined to want another TV series which would allow them to see more of the characters. Other factors came into this, such as Leonard Nimoy's reluctance to reprise the role of Spock for long periods (his first 1975 autobiography, I Am Not Spock, saw him engaging in this debate publicly) out of fear of typecasting. This series of battles and corporate conflicts was finally settled in May 1977: the release and massive success of Star Wars led - somewhat bafflingly - to Paramount concluding that no-one would go and see two science fiction movies so close together, so they formally greenlit Star Trek: Phase II, a new TV series reuniting the original cast but adding new characters and featuring Spock only as an occasionally recurring role.

Star Trek was on its way back to the screen.

1 comment:

Ed Rybicki said...

I fondly recall watching the original series in monochrome in Zambia in the 1960s, in the middle of south-central Africa, as one of the first big shows on what was then a new TV network. I then spent a fair bit of 1990 and 1991 going home from work while on sabbatical in Ithaca NY, to watch the original series daily at 5 pm - with ST:NG following once a week. I got some strange looks...but to see ALL of the original shows, in colour, was fantastic - tempered with nostalgia, with some squirm-worthy moments for some of the cheesier bits. Thanks for this!