Forget Khan and Klingons, Star Trek's greatest trick was simply surviving

How, by the numbers, Star Trek should – but didn't – go red shirt

The good ship Enterprise

Remember that nautical theme? According to Herb Solow’s Star Trek: The Inside Story, CS Forester’s Lieutenant Hornblower series was a great inspiration for Roddenberry. The captain of Roddenberry’s ship had, initially, been described in the story outline as rather Hornblower like: “A strong, complex personality, he is capable of action and decision which can verge on the heroic and at the same time lives in a continued battle with self doubt and the loneliness of command.”

This was the captain in the original, rejected in The Cage – a leader brooding on his mission and responsibility for 203 lives. In this respect, Roddenberry went too far – even by his own standards. No wonder it was red-pencil time for NBC.

Think NBC went too far?

The captain of the USS Enterprise in The Cage was Pike, in a story of a complicated relationship that featured the famed green alienness. But it was back to the drawing board for Roddenberry, who re-configured the crew and shook up the captain and the concept to write Where No Man has Gone Before, the official pilot that ran on September 22, 1966. The green alienness remained in the program's credit sequences, at least, but the man in the swivel seat? The baton passed to James Tiberius Kirk, swashbuckler, alien-lady killer, no respecter of authority and a philosopher commander. The rest is history.

Star Trek: Putting the sci in sci-fi

The thing, however, that really gave Star Trek muscle was, in a word: science.

Roddenberry strove for scientific legitimacy in Star Trek and employed consultants from Rand Corporation, NASA and Caltech to channel the latest thinking and developments on space travel, space suits and ship design. At end of the second season, Roddenberry reckoned more than 100 high school science classes assigned Star Trek as a credit and that education journals were analysing the show.

US aircraft Vietnam photo via Shutterstock

Star Trek played out as the US-led forces' war in Vietnam escalated

It was a comment on the success of this aspect that scientists and engineers mobilised in Roddenberry’s campaign against the 1968 cancellation.

However, the scientific roots of Star Trek extended beyond that the white heat of post-War, nuclear America.

Skylark had already tackled the idea of warp travel – that you can travel faster light. It was an idea Albert Einstein, writing just before Skylark, had said was impossible. What speed does the Enterprise travel at? Warp speed. When it’s working, that is. Skylark also references matter-energy conversion and black holes, topics found in Star Trek.

Roddenberry, however, was careful not to get too caught up in the wonder of science and he kept the human interest angle alive: dinner parties with ambassadors, Scotty getting drunk on the off-puttingly blue Romulan ale. Roddenberry wanted the science, but Star Trek wasn’t some a documentary. In a New York Times’ interview, Roddenberry said of the future: “People aren’t going to stop eating, sleeping or getting dressed in a few hundred years. We’re trying to imagine… what they’ll most likely be eating or thinking or wearing.”

Upon this foundation came that drama and also the codes and the universe. Roddenberry used writers such as Theodore Sturgeon who developed the concepts of Vulcan Culture and of Spock of logic and suppressed feelings that we now take so much for granted and would use to describe somebody in real life without giving it a second thought. It was the episode "Amok Time" from September 1967 that showed how Spock must return to Vulcan to marry his betrothed – or die.

Writer Dorothy Fontana, who also worked on Vulcan culture with Sturgeon, went on to write some of what are regarded as the best episodes of the original TV series: they include "This Side of Paradise" (September 1967), where the logical Spock feels and then must contain his feelings saying: “For the first time in my life, I was happy”, and "Charlie X" (also September 1966) where a 17-year-old boy is rescued by the Enterprise with unwanted consequences – particularly for Yeoman Rand.

And here’s where we encountered another influence on Star Trek, something that’s set the framework for everything since and that’s also made Star Trek so universal: Roddenberry wanted the TV series to be a 20th century version of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, marrying adventure and social commentary.

Like Swift’s hero, Gulliver, Kirk and crew deal with different races, cultures and civilizations, from the warlike through to cerebral – just like sea adventurers of old.

According to Star Trek and American Television Roddenberry told the Washington Post at the time: “When Swift wanted to comment on his time, on crooked prime ministers, insane kings and queens... he would have gotten his head chopped off for it if he’d written it straight.

“So I did much the same thing. I talked about... sex, religion, union management, labor all that stuff… it went right over the network’s heads. But all the 14- and 16-year-olds in the audience knew exactly what I was talking about.”

He told the LA Times in 1967: “We did shows last year about sex, bigotry, unionism, racism and religion. We even did on the Vietnam war – disguised of course.”

The show put a stake in the ground, on race: the Enterprise’ has a multi ethnic crew at the centre of the core line up, not in the periphery, that departed from the standard sliced white variety of 1960s US TV. Cast members included George Takei as helmsman Hikaru Sulu, an actor of Japanese descent, and Nichelle Nichols' African-American Lieutenant Nyota Uhura. A Japanese-American so close after the conclusion of the War against Japan and the US’s terrible treatment of its Japanese-US citizens with internment and black woman at a time when America, and particularly the southern US states, was grappling with civil rights and integration and the right of black people to vote.

Apollo 11 Lunar Module July 1969 photo via Shutterstock

NASA provided technical input on Star Trek as it worked on the first moon landing

Roddenberry also factored in a Russian – Walter Koenig's Pavel Andreievich Chekov – at a time of the Cold War when Russia was a Communist country.

This following the 1950s McCarthyite Reds-under-the-beds scare, the Bay of Pigs stand off between US president Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev over nukes for Communist Cuba and the Vietnam War, where US forces were locked in a military struggle against Communist-backed forces in Vietnam. 1968 is regarded as a pivotal year in the War’s intensity and in the fortunes of US forces.

Takei was an actor who’d struggled with his place in American society: along with his parents, he’d been interned during the second World War for being of Japanese, with his mother stripped of her US citizenship and his father nearly deported.

Takei wrote: “This was unbelievable…. The project was a quantum leap ahead of anything on the air, the role, a real trailblazer. And this was happening to me.”

But, while gripping for an emerging fan base responding to real science and real stories, herein also lay the seed of the death of the TV series’ death.

Rodenberry’s willingness to tackle controversial topics and present challenging scenarios for the comfortable US TV viewing public of the time got him in trouble with NBC and was responsible for the program’s demise as friction ensued.

US TV in the 1950s and '60s was a self-censoring beast: a finely balanced set of interests of conservative networks, conservative advertisers and very conservative local TV affiliates.

The advertisers, the real moneymen, in particular, wanted raw viewing numbers. Getting them it was believed programmes must target and reflect the biggest socio-economic demographic: white, middle-class and conservative America. It was a TV culture where, if you got to peek into the characters’ bedrooms, you saw the characters slept in separate beds – no hint of sex of physical relationship.

Fan lore has it that Star Trek gave US TV audiences their first taste of an interracial kiss – a muscular clincher between Kirk and Uhura in 1968’s "Plato’s Stepchildren", an episode where the crew become pawns of an alien race who are directing their actions – so, therefore, not actually responsible for what they are doing.

Some dispute this, but whether it was first or not, NBC was extremely concerned about how the scene would play in southern sates, a place reeling from new laws giving US African American’s equal citizenship and voting rights following massive violence. The network wanted two scenes filmed, one a kiss and one a hug, but William Shatner is said to have deliberately fluffed the hug scene with Nichols so that the network was forced to run with the full-on lip smacker.

How Lucille Ball saves Star Trek

What was good drama was proving bad for NBC. In The Fifty Year Mission: the Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek, the network reckoned it was receiving too many letters from too many offended members of the public.

There was no love lost between the network and Roddenberry. Worse, Roddenberry’s 1967 Save Star Trek letter-writing campaign, while it prolonged the series, ensured Roddenberry was seen as a hostile to the suits of NBC.

Indeed, it’s said it wasn’t the campaign itself that saved Star Trek: it was the presence of Lucille Ball at Desilu Studios – which had produced The Cage and the TV series – who had personally intervened to save Star Trek. Such was NBC’s desire to do business with Ball.

So, yes, while NBC committed Star Trek to a third series, it did so on terms that ensured the program’s demise. NBC shunted Star Trek around the time slots, including 10-11pm Eastern on a Friday. Audience numbers inevitably fell off and that gave NBC the excuse it needed to set its phaser to the kill setting and fire.

Enterprise warp drive

And Einstein said it couldn't be done: Star Trek's warp drive for the JJ Abrams' generation

The death shot was made all the easier by the fact that Roddenberry had left day-to-day writing duties of Star Trek and had become a more distant executive producer, having burned out because of constant battling with NBC and the censors. Series three started in September 1968, but NBC had Star Trek canned eight months later.

Barring an animated series, that was it for Star Trek until 1979, when The Motion Picture kicked off what would become an on-again-off-again film franchise. This was later followed by a new TV series – The Next Generation in 1987 with Roddenberry on board – and spin offs. The latest – Discovery, another attempt to mine the prequel genre – is due in 2017, from CBS.

That CBS is going where others have gone boldly before should be regarded as a testament to the strength of what Roddenberry and his team laid out in the original series 50 years ago. Yes, it got them in trouble, but they get the last laugh.

As a Klingon might observe: revenge is a dish that has indeed been served cold. ®

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