1966:Star Trek makes its network television debut.
Given the cultural impact and enormous franchise spawned by the original Star Trek series, it’s hard to believe that the show lasted just three seasons and was canceled by NBC in 1969 because of low ratings.
Star Trek Then and Now
Star Trek’s 10 Cheesiest Classic Creatures
But if network number-crunching and the shortsightedness of advertising sponsors doomed it, Star Trek’s long-term survival, evidenced by its ongoing syndication, not to mention the numerous TV spinoffs and feature-length films it’s inspired, is both a vindication of and a tribute to its creator and executive producer, Gene Roddenberry.
And Roddenberry was a guy badly in need of vindication. His career began promisingly: Roddenberry wrote scripts for some popular 1950s TV shows like Naked City, Highway Patrol and Have Gun, Will Travel. But the original Star Trek TV series, as well as the first feature-length film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, were conspicuous successes in an otherwise unremarkable and often problematic association with Hollywood.
The commercial success of the first Star Trek movie would spawn other films and a new TV series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, although Roddenberry’s involvement with those projects was diminished. But if his relationship with the industry had its rough patches, his reputation as a futurist and visionary — which begins and ends with Star Trek — is assured.
The original show’s most visionary aspects were social, not scientific, and that had everything to do with the times. The country was in turmoil, embroiled in Vietnam and the growing civil rights movement. Roddenberry said later that these events influenced many of the themes, as well as the multicultural makeup of the crew.
Roddenberry remained in demand on the lecture circuit to the end of his life, speaking not only at universities but at some other pretty significant places, too, including the Smithsonian Institution and NASA.
Star Trek’s impact on popular culture is matched by only a handful of other television shows, and surpassed by precious few.
The original cast members on the USS Enterprise’s 1966 flight deck became household names: Capt. James T. Kirk (William Shatner), First Officer Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott (James Doohan), Communications Officer Nyota Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Helmsman Hikaru Sulu (George Takei). Navigator Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig), who joined the cast in the second season to give the Russians their due in space, was also a popular character.
Phrases like “Beam me up, Scotty” and “Live long and prosper” and “to boldly go …” entered the lexicon, and the show’s cult following, kept visibly alive by the numerous and rollicking Star Trek conventions, remains strong to this day. An 11-foot model of the starship Enterprise is on display at the Smithsonian.
On the tech front, the communicator used by Enterprise crew members is said to have been the inspiration for the flip-open cellphone.
The original pilot episode for the series, “The Cage,” was filmed in 1964 but not aired in its entirety until 1988. After the original pilot was rejected by NBC, “The Cage” was chopped up and heavily edited, and eventually shown under the title “The Menagerie” during Star Trek’s three-year run.
Nimoy’s Mr. Spock was the only character from the pilot to later appear in the TV series, although he was most un-Spock like, showing a lot more emotion than your average Vulcan. In the pilot, the Enterprise was commanded by Capt. Christopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter).
Because of all the spinoffs that resulted from it, Roddenberry’s Star Trek is often referred to as The Original Series. For a lot of us who came of age watching Shatner chewing on all that alien scenery and nibbling on all those alien necks, it was The Only Series.
Kirk (William Shatner), Bones (DeForest Kelley) and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) all appeared in Star Trek: The Original Series. (Courtesy CBS Paramount Television)
This article first appeared on Wired on Sept. 8, 2008, and attracted lots of commentary on our Underwire blog.