Star Trek: The Show That Almost Didn't Make It. Part One.
Star Trek, the show that wouldn’t die. A TV show that died despite a core of loyal fans who’d rallied to save it. These same fans and new ones then supported the show in syndication, turning it into a cultural phenomenon and ultimately, a blockbuster franchise for Paramount Pictures. Most people are familiar with the story of Trek’s amazing revival, but they might not know the enormous battle Star Trek faced in getting on the air. Star Trek was a show that demonstrated an incredible will to live from its very inception.
When Gene Roddenberry pitched the idea of Star Trek in 1964, the idea of a weekly science fiction drama wasn’t unheard of. Anthology shows such as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits had met with some success. In those cases, they were shows that featured a new story each week, a new cast appearing as well. However, weekly science fiction television programs, as clichéd as it sounds, were seen by many as Flash Gordon zapping people with ray guns, and flying around in terrible looking spaceships. While a close examination of television history shows there were science fiction shows that aimed for an adult audience, they were rare.
A science fiction show faced several problems. First, there was the limited audience believed to be associated with science fiction. Second, there were the costs involved with producing a science fiction show. Third, there was the stigma that science fiction was for kids and belonged on Saturday mornings. With all due respect to Lost in Space, that show did little to advance the idea that science fiction was about more than monsters of the week.
When writer Gene Roddenberry developed Star Trek, he had established himself as a good writer turned troublesome producer. Roddenberry’s show The Lieutenant had ruffled feathers due to his insistence on producing an episode that dealt with racism in the military (the show was about life in the military and made with the U.S. military’s cooperation) but not enough to blacklist him. He had an idea for a new show, a dramatic one-hour series involving a spaceship and its crew exploring the galaxy. Now he just had to find someone willing to pick it up.
Roddenberry was fortunate that Lucille Ball, owner of Desilu Studios was in desperate need of some new programming. Lucy and her ex-husband Desi Arnaz had built Desilu up during the 50’s but after their divorce, Ball had trouble continuing the studio’s success without Desi running things from the office, Lucy was second-to-none when it came to producing her own TV series but negotiating with networks over new ones simply wasn’t her strong suit. Reviving her studio would require someone to produce TV shows which in turn, would be picked up by a network. Herb Solow, her Vice President of Production went to work to develop some successful series.
While Star Trek was a risky proposition, NBC agreed to pay for a pilot. The show was filmed with actor Jeffrey Hunter in the lead as starship captain Christopher Pike, Leonard Nimoy playing the ship’s alien science officer Mr. Spock, and Roddenberry’s girlfriend actress Majel Barrett playing the starship’s enigmatic first officer. The ninety-minute pilot “The Cage” was shot with NBC ready to air it as a special should the show not be picked up.
It was not picked up.
Normally, that would be the end of things but even in its infancy, Star Trek was showing an amazing refusal to die. Network executives were impressed by the show’s production values. They had never seen anything so realistic that brought the concept of space travel to life. The problem was with the plot and some of the acting. Despite Roddenberry’s mantra that Star Trek was too cerebral for NBC, the truth seems to be that executives were more concerned with Roddenberry’s penchant for erotic overtones in his stories (just watch “The Cage” and note how Captain Pike’s alien abduction is basically to serve as a stud for the planet’s sole Earth woman. Add in some risqué comments when two of Pike’s female crew members are captured and you can see why NBC was cautious) and the network’s concern with the demonic-looking Mr. Spock. Despite these concerns, NBC made the unprecedented move of commissioning a second pilot.