Star Trek turns 50 this year. Think about it. One of the greatest sci-fi franchises is now half a century old. While there are countless other sci-fi properties that are older than Star Trek, very few will match the popularity, relevance and staying power of Gene Roddenberry’s TV creation. As with other properties, Star Trek has had its highs and lows, but it has had a positive impact in our culture and society. That is why we are celebrating Star Trek’s 50th anniversary. Many of us will take this figure for granted but diehard fans know too well that Star Trek has often been on a touch and go basis, especially in its early years.
Noble, But Rocky Beginnings
From its inception Star Trek faced an uphill battle. The pilot episode “The Cage” was rejected by the network NBC for being too cerebral and having then-outrageous concepts like a woman in a leadership position and a character who looked like the devil. But Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, would not give up and fortunately, others recognized its potential.
Star Trek, the actual series, debuted on September 8, 1966 with the episode “The Man Trap”. Following the cold opening, a starfield filled TV screens, wistful music played, the iconic and majestic Enterprise spaceship appeared and William Shatner’s bold voiceover announced that we were witnessing the voyages of the starship Enterprise and its crew with a mission to explore space and “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
At first glance, it looked like another schlocky monster-of-the-week episode that defined most sci-fi fare at that time. But this being Star Trek, there was more to the episode than some ugly monster that had to be destroyed. It had a moral dilemma for one of the show’s main characters, Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley), in that the monster took the shape of a former lover and he had to confront it. Then there was the morality of killing off an endangered species versus the threat of the creature to the crew of the starship Enterprise.
Other episodes also had even more intriguing and smart plots and multilayered characters that made Star Trek stand out from most genre efforts. A huge factor in the show’s appeal was not just its imaginative and provocative scripts but its characters. The suave and confident Captain James T. Kirk (Shatner), the stoic and collected Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and the opinionated Dr. “Bones” McCoy formed the perfect triumvirate as they explored new worlds. These were complicated people with strengths and weaknesses, and we identified with them. In fact, most of us wanted to be in their place as they explored the unknown.
At the same time, the show had wild imagery for its time. Think of the time a giant hand appeared in space and grabbed hold of the Enterprise. Or when Abraham Lincoln showed up without warning or when ancient Roman soldiers donned firearms. Matching the imagery and action scenes were the fantastic plots that often dared viewers to think. Star Trek wasn’t afraid to make veiled social commentary and broke cultural and racial taboos. In the futuristic world of Star Trek, it was commonplace (as it is now) to see non-whites and women in prominent positions. We take it for granted now but this was groundbreaking for TV at the time and fortunately Gene Roddenberry’s hopeful vision of the future was validated as our society began to catch up to his vision. We’re still not there yet, but we’re making progress.
For all these reasons, the show caught on with fans, who could enjoy it on many levels, but it wasn’t enough. After three seasons the show was killed due to low ratings, however, it would not stay dead.
Comebacks & Striking Gold Again
Fervent fandom kept the memory of the show alive as it dominated syndicated runs after cancellation. During the ’70s Star Trek increased its presence in the public consciousness thanks to the reruns, merchandising and a short-lived animated show. It wasn’t long (though it was long enough for fans) before Star Trek returned in the form of a successful film series starting with Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979.
By the time the franchise celebrated its 20th anniversary, Gene Roddenberry was given the chance to strike gold again. He returned to TV and created the first of many Trek spinoffs Star Trek: The Next Generation. When the show first aired in 1987, it had many detractors who complained that basically it wasn’t the old Star Trek because of undeveloped characters and dull and preachy scripts.
But ultimately the spinoff succeeded as the writing improved and the characters were allowed to grow. Now that Roddenberry had more of a free reign with his show, he indulged in creating his version of a more perfect futuristic society where no one squabbled over pettiness. Whether or not this utopian view is viable is besides the question. Being that humanity had evolved in Roddenberry’s viewpoint, the human conflicts were gone, which led to problems with the scripts that needed conflict.
Gone were the bombastic space captains and cantankerous frontier doctors. In some ways it was as if the stoic character of Mr. Spock was replicated many times over with most of the new characters. That is an exaggeration of course, but Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) was the anti-Kirk in that he was more level headed, collected and cerebral than the swaggering Kirk we all love.
Over time Picard and his crew won over new fans who saw the spinoff’s merits. People saw the value of creating a show that was decidedly different than its predecessor. Gene Roddenberry passed away in 1991, but left behind a timeless legacy that was in competent hands (such as executives Rick Berman, Michael Piller, Ron Moore and others) who ensured that his vision remained intact. On the whole, Star Trek was reinvigorated since the original cast were obviously much older and passed the torch to the new generation. Meaning, that Star Trek: The Next Generation concluded its successful run in 1994 and the cast were graduated to the big screen starting with Star Trek Generations in the same year.
Trek At Its Peak
In the same time period of the early to mid ‘90s, Star Trek could be considered to be at its peak creatively and in popularity. Two more spinoffs debuted, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager and the Next Generation crew were promoted to the film series.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which premiered in 1993, set out to be the most distinct Star Trek show of all time. It didn’t take place on a spaceship, most of the main characters weren’t even human and its lead character was an African-American. Incredibly enough, back then there wasn’t much hoopla made about having the lead character be a non-white person and it shouldn’t have. The showmakers bravely let the character of Ben Sisko and the actor (Avery Brooks) sell the character who stood apart from Kirk and Picard as being more of a military commander with his own doubts but a similar thirst for knowledge and exploration. From the start, most viewers forgot about Sisko’s race when he was surrounded by a bunch of non-humans.
But Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had its detractors who complained they wanted to old familiar shtick of a spaceship-based show and that it was too dark. In reality, this darkness birthed many of Star Trek’s best and most complex episodes and is why Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is very highly regarded by many today who recognize its merits. In fact, it can be argued that it was the best of the Star Trek shows, but that is for history and fans to decide.
As a further sign of the strength of Star Trek’s brand, Paramount Studios decided to produce yet another spinoff which would be used to kickoff its new network UPN in 1995. Star Trek: Voyager premiered to a lot of hoopla and fanfare. This was due to the fact that the lead character was a woman named Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew), a first for Star Trek. However, while the franchise was at its zenith at the time of its 30th anniversary, the first signs of problems began to seep in as it started to feel tired creatively. But like any solid property, Star Trek would weather the setbacks as it did in the past. Each time the franchise would find a way to reinvent itself and move beyond Gene Roddenberry’s vision of Wagon Train To The Stars.
To Be Continued…