Star Trek at 50
It’s easy to fall victim to the hype involving the entertainment industry, especially when it comes time to celebrate a show’s anniversary. In the case of Star Trek, it’s not hype though. The show that started fifty years ago changed the way people viewed science fiction on television, exploring themes such as bigotry, colonialism, technology, and most of all, what it meant to be human. Gene Roddenberry proved that TV science fiction could be much more than ray-guns and little green men (although to be fair, Mr. Spock was green-blooded).
In 1961, FCC Chairman Newton Minow made his famous “Great Wasteland” speech to the convention of the National Association of Broadcasters, criticizing what he saw as the networks’ shift from TV’s emphasis on high culture programming during its “Golden Age” to the then contemporary environment of formulaic programming and the proliferation of game shows. Minow challenged broadcasters to provide shows that stimulated the mind and broadened viewers’ horizons.
When it came to stimulating the mind and broadening viewers’ horizons, what better genre to do so than with science fiction? While narrow-minded people associated science fiction with ray guns and hokey looking spaceships, science fiction television could be done intelligently as shown by earlier shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits.
Enter Gene Roddenberry, a former police officer turned writer, and now a rising star in the television industry. Gene Roddenberry had learned a harsh lesson on his previous show The Lieutenant, that networks would only go so far with a frank examination of certain issues. In the case of The Lieutenant, NBC refused to air an episode that looked at racism in the military. Roddenberry learned from this experience, and if he could get it made, Star Trek would allow him to examine things by allegory.
Getting Star Trek made was easier said than done. Star Trek overcame tremendous obstacles getting to the air. The idea of an action-adventure show with science fiction elements had its appeal but there were costs involved. The first pilot, “The Cage,” ran over in terms of cost and shooting time, never a good impression to make for a studio. Fortunately, Desilu Studios was hungry for series and Star Trek got a second chance. Roddenberry shot “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” this time with a new captain (a role William Shatner would be typecast for), James T. Kirk. This pilot ran over on costs just as “The Cage” had but the studio liked it and the series was picked up.
The beauty of Star Trek was that it appealed on so many levels. The show had an obvious science fiction foundation but it didn’t overwhelm you. Little things like the Captain’s Log gave viewers a chance to pick up on the plot without having to have a vast background. The idea of “Wagon Trail to the Stars” was not just a marketing ploy by creator Gene Roddenberry. Star Trek involved drama, action-adventure, comedic elements, and sometimes even horror. The show didn’t try to be something for everyone but it was never afraid to try something different.
Science fiction has always been able to subtly explore social issues in the disguised setting of the future and Star Trek was no different. Whether it was societies trying to avoid mutual assured destruction (“A Taste of Armageddon”) or U.S. intervention in Vietnam (“A Private Little War”), Star Trek explored important issues through allegory. While Trek was set in the 23rd century, it was able to explore the turbulent times of the 1960’s with Vietnam, the Cold War, civil rights, and the counterculture movement seeming to tear the nation apart.
Any examination of Star Trek has to be taken in a historical context. Contemporary viewers likely have no idea how different television and society was in this era. The censorship standards were so much different and it’s no understatement that producers fought every week to get stories onto the air the way they were written. The book These Are the Voyages has some excellent examples of how Trek’s producers battle NBC over censorship and the sly ways they got things by the censors.
A thing that separated Star Trek from other science fiction shows was its rich character dynamics. There’s a reason “Where No Man Has Gone Before” appealed to network executives more than “The Cage,” the interaction between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. There was conflict and counterbalance; Kirk’s emotion vs. Spock’s logic. The addition of Dr. McCoy only intensified things as the three characters’ interaction led to some of the series’ greatest episodes. While Mr. Scott wasn’t one of the three main stars, the Scotty character was more than just a recurring one like Sulu, Chekov, and Uhuru. And Sulu, Chekov, and Uhuru were about much more than providing diversity, each character held an important role on the Enterprise.
Star Trek wasn’t perfect. The special effects were about as good as you could get with the technology of the time and the show’s budget. Much credit goes to the show’s effects people who usually punched out of their weight, bringing exotic worlds to life through the clever use of matte shots and other tricks. Still, a Styrofoam rock is still a Styrofoam rock and the effects can be hard for a modern viewer to get past. That makes it a shame because many of the stories still hold up well.
Star Trek’s amazing success has spawned a franchise encompassing three sequel series (and a prequel), a number of films, and a new series of films exploring the original series in a parallel universe. A new Star Trek television series is set to debut in 2017 and the franchise shows no sign of letting up. Over the next year, we’ll be looking at classic Trek (with no offense meant to its worthy successors Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, and Star Trek: Enterprise).