Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.
Well, it’s September already. And you know what that means. It’s TV premiere season! I must admit that I get more excited about marking past television premieres than I do about current shows starting up again. Yeah, there are some cool shows to watch now in 2015, but let’s be honest. Even the best that today’s writers have to offer usually pales in comparison to the TV programs from decades ago.
One of my favourite premieres to mark was on Sunday the 13th — “Scooby Doo, Where Are You?” (1969). And coming up in the next two weeks, we of course have “The Addams Family” (1964) and “The Munsters” (1964). Hey, I like Supernatural, Once Upon a Time, Sleepy Hollow, and Gotham, but give me the former three over these ANY day of the week.
Speaking of television show premieres, last week, a good friend shared a super cool newspaper clipping with me.
I wasn’t able to discover what newspaper this is from, nor am I certain why it says here that Star Trek was set to premiere on September 15th, when all sources say that it actually ended up airing a week earlier on September 8th.* I suppose this article could have been written and published pre-September 1966, and we all know how schedules can get shuffled at the last minute. But shame on me for taking this article at face value and setting this post’s publishing date for the 15th instead of the 8th. :P But regardless of which day Kirk, Spock, and Bones first boldly went where no man has gone before, there’s no question that this little “science drama” became a world-wide phenomena, and is still going strong to this day. (*Special thanks to fellow blogging friend, Mike, who knew and shared the reason for the two dates in his comment below!)
Star Trek, the original series, debuted in the United States on September 8, 1966. It ran on NBC for three seasons, and racked up a total of 79 episodes, plus a pilot that never aired during the series’ original run. (Though footage from it can be seen in the season 1 episodes “The Menagerie”, parts 1 and 2.) NBC rejected the first pilot — “The Cage” — which starred Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike. A lucky break for those of us who can’t picture anyone but the in-com-para-ble William Shatner being captain of the very first USS Enterprise.
Now, I specified “captain of the FIRST Enterprise” because as far as I’m concerned, Jean-Luc Picard is the REAL captain of the Star Trek universe. I’m really more of a Star Trek: The Next Generation kinda girl myself. But that’s a topic for another blog post.
Like a lot of exceptional early television series — Batman and The Munsters, for example — it would be years before Star Trek’s popularity really took off, finding the bulk of its audience in syndicated reruns rather than its original three years on the air.
So what is it that made Star Trek such an endearing series?
In the first few paragraphs of the above article, writer Joseph Sullivan nails what science fiction television was still lacking at the time. Seems a bit surreal reading it nearly 50 years later, having already witnessed this very evolution of television writing.
“Science fiction, with the exception of Lost in Space and a few episodes of The Twilight Zone [I would venture to say it’s a lot more than just a few], has failed miserably on television. The overall fault, if one can risk generalization, is two-fold. Writers have concentrated on the gimmicks in the storyline rather than the characters, and the viewing public, despite the dawn of the space age several years ago, doesn’t seem ready to accept the reality of “way out there.” Even when writers have translated the proven works of science fiction into television terms, popular appeal has been severely limited. Science fiction plays on the Broadway stage have also met with the same general critical disaster. “Star Trek,” an hour-long NBC drama, which will debut Thursday, Sept. 15, at 8:30 p.m., hopes to reverse the failure.”
An interesting, well-dressed story is all fine and dandy, but it’s only going to get you so far. I think many will agree that the success of any show largely depends on whether or not the audience can sympathize with and care about the characters. You can write the most interesting adventure scene the world has ever known, but if the viewers are indifferent to the well being of WHO is in the scene, no one’s going to watch it. Star Trek was filled with colourful characters and creative new worlds. The stories truly captured the imagination. Whether it was Ted Cassidy’s ‘Ruk’ (“What Are Little Girls Made Of?”, S1E7) or ‘Vina’, the green Orion slave girl (“The Menagerie”, S1E11,12), the show was never lacking for interesting things to look at. But if we didn’t care what happened to Captain Kirk and the rest of the crew, the series would just be one big yawn with no reason to watch their exploits. Whether it’s characters on a TV screen or characters on a book page, we have to relate to them in some way. They need to become “real” to us. Human in ways that can’t be seen with the naked eye. And Star Trek definitely succeeded in doing that.
Star Trek is often heralded for its breaking of cultural boundaries, being touted as one of the most influential series of all time. And while I take nothing away from it, I must insist on a little side note here to give credit where credit is due. Yes, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry used the show to comment on social issues. In fact, the series boasts the first ever scripted interracial kiss on American TV. But it was Rod Serling who was first brave enough to boldly go where no man had gone before, nearly a decade prior to Roddenberry.
It was Serling who set the stage for future generations of writers, indeed for Roddenberry himself, to explore social and moral concerns on television. With “The Twilight Zone”, Rod Serling pioneered the way, bringing what was taboo out into the light, determined to make a difference in this world in the only way he knew how. So if you want to thank Star Trek for its contribution to society, you’d better first thank Mr. Serling. Without The Twilight Zone, there would be no Star Trek.
Anyway, back to Star Trek! The original cast featured William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk, Leonard Nimoy as Spock, DeForest Kelley as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, James Doohan as Scotty, Nichelle Nichols as Uhura, George Takei as Sulu, and Walter Koenig as Chekov. Also notable in the lineup was Gene Roddenberry’s real-life wife, Majel Barrett as Nurse Christine Chapel. Fun fact: She also voiced the ship’s computer in all six Star Trek series.
To reinforce my earlier point, I think that these characters were the true allure of Star Trek. We cared for these people. We weren’t just interested in seeing what new world they were visiting each week. It wasn’t just the excitement felt when the crew came face to face with aliens, monsters and intoxicating furry creatures. We wanted to see how our intrepid crewmates would deal with these strange, new worlds and the challenges they posed. Star Trek made you feel as if you were sitting right there on the bridge alongside the Captain and Mr. Spock — though hopefully you’re not wearing a red shirt.
“Blast off, anyone?” Mr. Sullivan asks at the end of his article. I think the millions of other Trekkies around the world will join me in saying, “Make it so, Number 1. Engage!” Oops! Sorry, wrong show. And wrong coloured shirt. Ahem. What I meant to say was, “Take us out of orbit, Mr. Sulu, warp factor one.”