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  • Writer's pictureMichael W Rickard II

Star Trek: The Show That Almost Didn't Make It. Part Two.

Roddenberry scrambled to put together a new pilot that would make it into a series. Unfortunately, the show’s star Jeffrey Hunter opted not to return. No one who signed for the pilot was obligated to return as there was no contractual obligation for a second pilot (Not surprising since second pilots were unheard of). Roddenberry wasn’t crushed by the loss of Hunter but he did want two people back, Leonard Nimoy’s Spock and Majel Barrett’s Number One. Roddenberry felt they were both essential to the show, especially his paramour Barrett.

Getting either one of them was going to be a program. Network executives were concerned that the Spock character might scare the audience and they simply did not like Barrett’s acting. Eventually, Roddenberry went with Spock, telling Barrett he would find a way to bring her back (which he did as recurring character Nurse Christine Chapel).

With Hunter out of the picture, Roddenberry looked for a new starship captain. One candidate was Jack Lord. Lord had caught attention with his role as Felix Leiter in the James Bond film Dr. No. Lord wanted half the profits from Trek for his participation. This wasn’t the first time Lord’s demands got him shown the door. Reportedly, he’d asked for co-star billing, a larger salary, and more screen time for his next appearance as Leiter. His stiff demands put an end to any future appearances. Eventually, Lord would find a starring role as Steve McGarrett on the smash hit CBS series Hawaii Five-O.

Eventually, Roddenberry went with rising star William Shatner. The Canadian native had established himself as a rising star, receiving rave reviews for a number of television appearances as well as several film roles. Shatner’s good looks, acting skills, and instant chemistry with co-star Leonard Nimoy helped define the show’s lead, James T. (or “R” in the pilot) Kirk.

Star Trek also benefited from the addition of several recurring characters. NBC wasn’t impressed with many of the secondary characters in “The Cage,” which led to two important additions in “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” The first was Mr. Scott (played to perfection by James Doohan), the ship’s engineering officer and helmsman Lt. Sulu (played by George Takei). Both characters would eventually play secondary but important roles in the regular series.

Star Trek faced a number of problems once the show was approved. One of them was finding writers. The show had struggled with finding a good writer for the pilot. Now it had to deal with finding writers familiar with science fiction and television. There were no shortage of good science fiction writers. The problem was getting ones that were also accustomed to writing teleplays and conforming their plots to the Star Trek universe. A writer might have a great idea but if it didn’t fit into the show’s concept of the 23rd century, it had to be revised or scrapped. There was also the problem of finding writers willing to gamble on a show that might be cancelled halfway through the season (Star Trek did not get a full season order). Also, writers suspected (and were proven right) that writing for Trek would require more time than usual for scripts due to the show’s complex production.

Another problem was the show’s special effects. The starship Enterprise’s mission was to explore strange new worlds and to seek out new life and new civilizations. If the audience tuned in to see this, they’d be expecting something more than phony spaceships on a string. Star Trek needed credible special effects but they had to be made on a limited budget and within a limited time. Like everyone else involved in the show, the special effects people learned on the job, inventing techniques to make the incredible seem believable. Granted, not all of them held up over time but the show was cutting edge for its time.

Related to this were the show’s props and costumes. With so few science fiction shows out there, Star Trek had to make a lot of things from scratch. Whether it was phasers or the ship’s sickbay, the people involved with Star Trek were making things up as they went alone. People like art director Matt Jeffries, costume designer Bill Theiss, and artist/sculptor Wah Chang created a very believable vision of the 23rd century. Even so, things could get expensive and frustrating. The prosthetics for Mr. Spock’s pointy ears proved expensive and difficult to affix (much less keep on). Leonard Nimoy endured pain and frustration just to give his character an exotic look, a look that some network executives had fought Roddenberry tooth and claw over.

Inherent with all of this was the dreaded budget. Each show was allocated a certain amount of money. Since Star Trek was doing a lot of things from scratch, there were considerable costs. These restraints also meant that scripts had to be changed to avoid the show going over budget. Otherwise, Desilu would see its profits cut into for producing the show.

Despite these many challenges, Star Trek began production. A problem arose with the show’s director of photography, Jerry Finnerman, one of Hollywood’s youngest cinematographers at the time. Finnerman had worked for his godfather, Academy Award winning cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr. and got a try-out job at Trek based on Stradling’s recommendation. The first day of shooting, Finnerman told executive in charge of production Herb Solow he couldn’t handle the show and that he knew he would fail. After a gentle pep talk (“Do it or you’ll never work in Hollywood again”), the cameraman got back to work. By no means did he fail. Instead, he developed a signature look for Star Trek, bringing a motion picture quality to the TV show. At a time when color TV was still a matter of choice, Trek’s impressive visuals helped sell color TV’s, something factored into a show’s marketability. With the show scheduled to begin in September, Roddenberry had to scramble to get an episode on the air. There were several scripts, the problem was which ones to showcase in the series’ premiere. Roddenberry felt the episode “The Corbomite Maneuver” was an excellent episode to introduce America to the Star Trek concept and its characters. However, the special effects could not be finished in time so Roddenberry had to go with “The Man Trap,” an episode involving a shape-shifting salt vampire preying on the Enterprise crew.

“The Man Trap” wasn’t the best show to start out with given Roddenberry’s desire to avoid Star Trek being pegged as a “monster of the week” show. Fortunately, the plot was much deeper than that and although it isn’t considered one of Trek’s best outings, it caught enough attention to bring viewers back the next week.

Star Trek would face many battles over the next three years, eventually being cancelled. However, the show would become a cultural phenomenon in syndication, eventually returning as a motion picture series. Star Trek has shown an amazing resiliency both from its earliest days to the time when its cancellation seemed to mean its finish.

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