Saturday, September 8, 2012

It’s a Geek Holy Day!

All dressed up in their pajamas and ready to go "Where no man has gone before."

For many today is a red letter holy day.  I am talking about the universe of dedicated nerds and geeks who are taping their glasses frames back together today to settle in for a marathon viewing of the original Star Trek series which made its debut on NBC Television on September 8, 1966.
Writer/Producer Gene Roddenberry had pitched the science fiction series to Desilu Studios as “Wagon Train in space,” referring to a perennially popular network western in which the wagon master, scout and other regulars interacted with new people and situations each week as it made its way west.  And when you think about it, it was as good a description of the basic plot and plan as any.
Roddenberry was born in Texas in 1921.  His father was a police officer.  The family relocated to Los Angeles while he was young and where he attended public school planning to follow in his father’s footsteps.  He took classes in police science at Los Angeles City College and went on with his education hopping from Columbia University, to the University of Miami, and the University of Southern California all without ever obtaining a degree. 
Along the way he picked up a fascination with aviation and obtained a pilot’s license.  With the outbreak of World War II he enlisted in the Army Air Corps where he became a B-17 pilot in the Pacific Theater.  He survived one crash, flew 89 combat missions, and was awarded both the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal before leaving the service in 1945.  After the war he joined Pan Am World Airlines as a commercial pilot.  He earned high praise for his rescue efforts after his plane crashed in the Syrian desert in 1947.
While flying he developed an interest in writing.  In 1949 he resigned from the airline to take up his long abandoned career as officer with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) both so he could stay home with his wife and family and to be close to Hollywood where he hoped to sell his scripts.  Roddenberry rose to sergeant of patrol by 1953.  He used his knowledge of police work to peddle scripts the Broderick Crawford’s syndicated  program Highway Patrol using a pseudonym to avoid complaints from the force.  He also contributed scripts to Richard Boone’s classic Have Gun Will Travel.
In 1957 Roddenberry took a leap of faith and quit the police force to concentrate on writing full time.  He became a moderately successful member of the legion of freelance script writers.  Dissatisfied with not having control of his own career, he took another chance to become a producer, pitching series ideas to the networks.  After one failed development he sold The Lieutenant, a drama about the peace time Marine Corps starring Garry Lockwood and Robert Vaughn.  The series was a critical success and a moderate hit for NBC but was cancelled after one season because the escalating Vietnam War made the lead characters’ fate uncertain.  Also Vaughn wanted out to take a role in the upcoming The Man From Uncle.
Desilu green-lighted Roddenberry’s pitch for his proposed space adventure and a pilot was made starring Jeffrey Hunter as Starship Enterprise Captain Christopher Pike and Lenard Nimoy as his alien second in command.  The pilot went way over budget and was rejected by the studio.  A second pilot was made with Roddenberry on a tight budget leash and William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk.  NBC picked up the series for its fall 1966 season.  In later episodes there would be references to Captain Pike, a doomed former commander of the starship.
The Space Race with the Soviet Union and the exploits of Mercury and Gemini astronauts helped whet the public appetite for a series set far in the future when intergalactic travel was possible and a powerful but benign United Federation of Planets could afford to let one of their prized starships go on a five year voyage to “boldly go where no man has gone before.”
Despite somewhat cheesy sets and costumes and special effects not much more advanced than the days of Buck Rogers serials, the show quickly developed a devoted, but small audience.  Key was the three way chemistry between the swashbuckling, decisive Captain Kirk; Spock the half alien science officer whose dominant Vulcan heritage relies on cold logic and suppressed emotion; and Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy played by Deforest Kelly, a former country doctor who wears his sympathies on his sleeve and lets emotion rule. 
Although the Enterprise served a multi-species planetary federation, the rest of the deck officers and most of the crew were Terrestrials notable for their multi-ethnicity.  African American Communications Officer Uhura was the woman on deck portrayed by Nichelle Nichols; Helmsman Hikaru Sulu played by George Takei; and Walter Koenig as Navigator Pavel Chekov.  The ships mysterious warp drive engines were in the capable hands of Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott portrayed by James Dugan.  The crew was meant to be living testimony that the ugly history of national conflict on Earth, which had once nearly resulted in the planet’s destruction, could be overcome by goodwill and different people could work together.
The none-too-subtle message was all part of Roddenberry’s plan.  Although he sold the studio “wagon train in space,” he told friends he really wanted to make a version of Gulliver’s Travels with picaresque adventure masking little morality plays.  Episodes of the series took on all of the issues of the day—racism, authoritarianism, conflicts like Vietnam and those involving planetary destruction, environmental catastrophe, class warfare, feminism, and crime—all seen through Roddenberry’s notably  liberal philosophy.  He often expressed gratitude that network censors, busy looking for sex, missed the symbolism obvious to everyone one else.
NBC nearly cancelled the series after the first year, but an unprecedented letter writing campaign saved it.  It was however, moved to Friday nights, the “death spot” because it was the least watched night of the week.  The shift was especially hard for the core audience, which skewed younger and male, some of whom might actually be out on Friday doing other things.  The budget, never high, was also cut back.  Nielson rationings remained low and the series was canceled after its third season.  Subsequent examination of data, however showed that the program was a hit with what became the most desired of all network demographics, 18-30 year olds.
Star Trek became a phenomenon when it went into syndication in 1969.  It has not been off the air or on cable since.  Devoted fans could see and re-see each episode until they had memorized all of the details and immersed themselves in the Star Trek universe.
The success of the series in re-runs sparked one of the most successful motion picture franchises in history with the original cast members reprising their roles, a Saturday morning animated series, and four more syndicated series—Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Next Generation, Star Trek: Voyager, and Star Trek: Enterprise.  In addition there have been countless novels—some by Shatner—fan fiction, comic books, and merchandising of every sort.  Star Trek conventions have become a cultural phenomena and Treckies—or Treckers as they prefer to be called—a recognizable sub-culture.
And it continues.  The 2009 film Star Trek “rebooted” the franchise into an alternative time line with the major characters from the series re-uniting in Star Fleet Academy.  The film was a summer block buster and two more are planned in the alternate universe.
Creator Roddenberry oversaw most of this until his death on October 21, 1994 at the age of 70.  At his family’s request his ashes were later launched into space.

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