Popular culture is rife with either-or comparisons: Mac v PC; Marvel v DC; Coke v Pepsi.
Star Trek (1966) and Star Wars (1977) are each popular media franchises, and the question of “which is the better?”, common fodder. For its nod to science (over fantasy); its critique of racism (such as that interracial kiss); and its boundless optimism (“to boldly go where no man has gone before”), I side with the show that premiered on NBC on 08 September 1966.
Today, we know that show as Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS).
“Few ideas in the annals of motion picture and television history have inspired more passion and allegiance on the part of the audience than has ‘Star Trek,'” said Brandon Tartikoff, chairman of Paramount Pictures, which made the “Star Trek” series for television and all the feature films.
1966, a year of turmoil
In 1966, Lyndon Baines Johnson was president. We were in a Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union and fighting a land war in Vietnam. At least 30,000 marched in New York City that spring, demanding America withdraw from Vietnam.
Indira Gandhi was elected India’s fourth prime minister. Bill Russell became the first Black coach in the NBA. Sheila Scott was the first women to fly around, the world solo. The University of Texas was the site of the first U.S. mass shooting at a school.
Roddenberry believed that television “need not be violent to be exciting… that excitement is not made of car chases. We stress humanity…. [not] promiscuity, greed, jealousy. None of those have a place in ‘Star Trek.'”
TOS ran for three seasons and 79 episodes.
Fans save the show
During the second season, there were rumors that NBC was going cancel the show. “Fans led a national campaign” to prevent that from happening. Before email, cell phones or the Internet.
Action NOW is of the essence… Morton Werner, head of programming for NBC-TV, Rockefeller Center, New York, is one of the main people who will decide whether or not Star Trek lives. Letters should be personally addressed to him… it could happen that the man in charge of this sort of thing will be more impressed with our letters than with the damned Nielsen ratings…. So pass the word, and write some letters, people; it’s up to us fans to keep Star Trek on TV. Our own inaction will assure that it never sees a third season!
Saturday night, a throng of more than 200 chanting, banner-waving Caltech scholars conducted a torchlight procession through the streets of Burbank to carry a protest to the steps of the National Broadcasting Company.
In what some observers suggest may be the emergence of the college’s social conscience, the enraged students voiced opposition to rumored canceling of NBC’s science fiction series Star Trek.
I don’t remember how I learned about the letter writing campaign. Probably Galaxy or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. But I wrote a letter. In study hall. And got busted by the teacher, who proceeded to read my draft to the class.
The letter writing campaign worked. NBC extended TOS for the 1968-69 season, its last. NBC moved the show to 10 p.m. Fridays, however, “the so-called ratings ‘death slot’.”
That third season is what allowed the show to move into syndication, the move that kept the magic alive.
More than a TV show
The Enterprise showcased an interracial crew. In season two, Roddenberry added a Russian, Pavel Chekhov, “whose very presence was an implicit rebuke to the Cold War… because that was the future Roddenberry believed in.”
I do not remember being shocked by a television show that featured a Black woman, Nichelle Nichols (Lieutenant Uhura) even though I was a child of the Deep South who attended a segregated elementary school.
I now understand that was a big deal.
While at an NAACP event, Dr. Martin Luther King told Nichols, “I am your greatest fan.” He also said that Star Trek was the only TV show he and Coretta would allow their three children “to stay up and watch.”
She told him that she was planning to leave the series and pursue a career on Broadway.
King “said something along the lines of ‘Nichelle, whether you like it or not, you have become a symbol. If you leave, they can replace you with a blonde-haired white girl, and it will be like you were never there. What you’ve accomplished, for all of us, will only be real if you stay.’ That got me thinking. . . . I saw that this was bigger than just me.”
It wasn’t just Nichols who had a real-life influence. So did Leonard Nimoy.
In 1968, “a young girl with a white father and a black mother wrote to the half-Vulcan, half-human Spock for advice on fitting in.” Nimoy answered as Spock in the May 1968 edition of the teen magazine FAVE.
Now, there’s a little voice inside each of us that tells us when we’re not being true to ourselves. We should listen to this voice…
So Spock said to himself: ‘OK, I’m not Vulcan, so the Vulcans don’t want me. My blood isn’t pure red Earth blood. It’s green. And my ears — well, it’s obvious I’m not pure human. So they don’t want me either. I must do for myself and not worry about what others think of me who don’t really know me.
In 1969, I doubt even Roddenberry would have envisioned our extended fascination with “space, the final frontier.”
It was an idea that, in various permutations, consumed more than a third of Mr. Roddenberry’s life and made believers out of the most skeptical critics. It gave American popular culture such futuristic hardware as “phaser guns” and “transporter beams,” and a living-room window on worlds and aliens far beyond the reality of a bright new space age.
And it spawned a worldwide fascination that led to Trekkie conventions, products ranging from books and T-shirts to lunch boxes and toys, reruns of its 79 original episodes in 48 countries for more than a decade…
Newsweek reported in 2016 that Star Trek had sold “books, videos and paraphernalia” valued at more than $1,000,000,000.
In February 2022, SyFy reported more than 800 television episodes in the franchise.
From that singular TV show:
- 13 movies, with worldwide box office gross of $2,266,907,732 ($4,099,035,600 in 2022 dollars). Yes, billions.
- 10 spin-off television shows (two are animated series)
It’s 56 years after that debut, and the Star Trek universe continues to entertain and inspire as well as challenge me to reassess beliefs.
The ensemble cast in Star Trek: Picard reminds me (somewhat) of TOS. Like TOS, Picard will run only three seasons (albeit with far fewer episodes and with intentionality). I like Jean-Luc Picard much more than James T. Kirk and not just because he is played by a Shakespearean actor!
I no longer hold the technological optimism of my younger self, the one shaped by Roddenberry and Isaac Asimov (and, and, and). But I remain a Trekkie; a science/speculative fiction fan; and an advocate for a global community, working as one.