Klingons, Romulans and blue-skinned Andorians roamed the corridors of a Las Vegas casino recently during the nation’s largest annual Star Trek convention. Other fans were dressed up as Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and characters who appeared more fleetingly in the franchise’s six TV series and 13 movies. The most obscure reference to the Star Trek universe came from a young woman wearing a vintage dress and red curls piled on her head: a Lucille Ball costume.
The star of “I Love Lucy” played a key role in launching one of the most influential and enduring pop-culture franchises. In the mid-1960s, her Hollywood production company was in search of new TV shows. Lucy might not have ever read a “Star Trek” script (she initially thought the show would be about movie stars on a trek to entertain U.S. troops, producer Herbert Solow recalls), but the comedy mogul and her Desilu studio gave creator Gene Roddenberry’s space adventure a green light.
Now a 50-year enterprise, “Star Trek” continues its fierce hold on pop culture, with more TV and film projects in the works including a show set to debut in January.
The pilot episode fell behind schedule and was over budget, costing $616,000—or about $4.7 million in today’s dollars—only to get rejected by NBC. The network asked the producers to try again, and “Star Trek” finally made it to air, premiering 50 years ago, on Sept. 8, 1966. It was groundbreaking (a diverse crew represented all regions of Earth on the Starship Enterprise) and prescient (their “communicators” were flip phones 30 years before their time). But “Star Trek” was no hit. Ratings were modest and critics were indifferent—Variety dismissed the show as a “lowercase fantasia.” William Shatner recalls, “We were always about to be canceled, always a sword of Damocles hanging over us.” The series survived just three seasons.
It was a wobbly start to a commercial venture that is now more robust than ever. On the big screen, a 2009 reboot from director J.J. Abrams grossed $385.7 million world-wide and led to two sequels. Though this summer’s “Star Trek Beyond” lost some speed at the box office, fans are looking forward to the next chapter: a TV series called “Star Trek: Discovery,” set in a time before the adventures of Kirk and crew. It debuts in January on CBS, with subsequent episodes appearing on the broadcaster’s subscription streaming service, CBS All Access. The show is being overseen by Bryan Fuller, creator of the NBC series “Hannibal” and a “Star Trek” geek who wrote for previous incarnations of the series.
CBS, which owns the merchandising rights to Star Trek, is going on a spree for the 50th anniversary. With more than 150 licensees, CBS Consumer Products says revenue related to “Star Trek” has more than doubled in the last five years. CBS has sanctioned everything from a $275 multilevel chess set to dolls for the Barbie collection, including a Spock figure flashing his Vulcan salute. The MAC cosmetics brand is selling a line inspired by four female characters and has sent makeup teams to conventions to help fans get into character. CBS also ramped up event licensing, with added conventions and a sold-out cruise to the Bahamas where passengers will party at an “intergalactic gala.” (Outside producers are getting in, too, including Leonard Nimoy ’s son, Adam, who directed a documentary film about his father, “For the Love of Spock,” due on Sept. 9.)
How did a show that stumbled out of the gate become so successful after the fact? Though “Star Trek” didn’t catch on with a broad audience in prime time, its enormous following later on became testimony to the growing power of reruns. At the same time, the trappings of modern fan culture took shape around the show. The first major Star Trek convention took place in 1972—three years after the show was canceled—and served as a model for other tribes of pop-culture obsessives. Even if the visual effects of the original series didn’t age well, it was built on a thematic DNA that remained relevant: humans and alien crew members cooperating on a mission of exploration and altruism enabled by technology. As people increasingly celebrated and pored over those 79 original episodes, producers fed the fandom with spin-off movies, TV series and books and games (of varying caliber) that expanded the core story with new space vessels, crews and settings.
Addressing hundreds of fans at the recent Las Vegas convention where he was on a panel, Clint Howard (who is Ron Howard ’s younger brother and was 7 years old when he played the alien Balok in season 1) said: “Look at this. They don’t do this for ‘The Beverly Hillbillies.’ Even as a little kid, for me, ‘Star Trek’ was another job. No one had any idea that 50 years later, the story would have a heartbeat.”
Herbert Solow, an executive producer of “Star Trek,” was hired at Desilu in 1964: “They called Lucy ‘Madam President.’ When I met her on my first day, she said, ‘Get me some shows.’ The only thing she had on the lot was ‘The Lucy Show,’ and the rest of the stages were rentals for other shows. Desilu was suffering at the time, and they desperately needed some continuing flow of income.”
Solow met with Gene Roddenberry, a former pilot and policeman who had a military drama on the air called “The Lieutenant.” Roddenberry pitched the concept for “Star Trek,” which he summarized as a “‘Wagon Train’ to the stars.”
Besides the potential cost of producing such a show, there were other drawbacks. Roddenberry had imagined Spock as a half-Martian with reddish skin and a pointed tail.
Mr. Solow: “No network or advertiser was going to buy a show where one of the heroes is the devil.”
Dorothy Fontana, who wrote scripts as D.C. Fontana, started out as Roddenberry’s secretary before becoming a story editor during season 1. She says many recognized Spock as a potential breakout character—a factor that would later cause tensions on the set.
Ms. Fontana: “The fact that Spock was half human intrigued me. What about him is human and what is not? It wasn’t someone we were seeing every week on national television.”
NBC commissioned a pilot episode from Desilu, but not all of the Enterprise’s iconic crew members were on board yet. The captain, then named Christopher Pike, was played by actor Jeffrey Hunter. NBC rejected the pilot as “too cerebral,” and a little too sexy, featuring a suggestive dance by a scantily clad female slave from the planet Orion.
Mr. Solow: “A dancing green girl is great in California, but it’s not going to work in Tennessee.”
NBC gave the producers a rare second chance. The original captain jumped ship, however, and producers hired Mr. Shatner for the second pilot. The Canadian actor, a rising star who had appeared in “The Twilight Zone” and the film “Judgement at Nuremberg,” took on the character with a new name, James T. Kirk.
William Shatner: “I heard Patrick Stewart [who later led “Star Trek: The Next Generation”] say that Gene told him to study a book about Captain Horatio Hornblower, the fictional navy officer. Gene gave me the same book. Well, he didn’t give it to me. I had to go get it myself.”
Long before marketers relied on comic-cons to hype new shows and movies, Roddenberry recognized that science-fiction lovers could be a critical support network for “Star Trek.” Shortly before the first episode hit the air on NBC, he screened a film print of it at the World Science Fiction Convention, an annual gathering since 1939. Such sneak peeks were almost unheard of, as was Roddenberry’s idea to bring “Star Trek” costumes for the convention’s sci-fi fashion show, organized by a fan named by Bjo Trimble.
Bjo Trimble: “He brought two women’s costumes, and he hired a cute little model to wear the [revealing] harness outfit from the episode ‘What Are Little Girls Made Of?’ The fans loved it and of course the guys especially loved it.
“Up to then, science fiction was about taking a Western and changing the six-shooter to a laser and the horse to a rocket ship. Gene was hiring real science-fiction authors for the story lines, which gave them quality and depth. There was always a message, even if it was heavy-handed at times.”
George Takei, a Japanese American whose family spent several years in a World War II internment camp, says Roddenberry was overt about his vision for a multicultural crew on the Enterprise, including Mr. Takei’s character, Sulu.
Mr. Takei: “I was auditioning for the character representing Asia, and Gene struggled to find a name for my character, because all Asian surnames are nationally specific. Tanaka is Japanese, Wong is Chinese, Kim is Korean, and 20th-century Asia was turbulent, so he didn’t want to take sides. He had a map pinned to his wall and was gazing at it one day and saw off the coast of the Philippines the Sulu Sea. He thought the waters of the sea touch all shores. That’s how he came up with the name.”
For Nichelle Nichols, the role of Nyota Uhura, the Enterprise’s communications officer, meant more than just a job for an African American actress in the 1960s: “I understood the impact of my role from day one.”
With a price tag of about $200,000 per episode during season 1, “Star Trek” was a costly show, but inevitable budget gaps gave birth to some of its most famous elements. It was too expensive and time-consuming to show the Enterprise landing on alien planets, and producers ran out of time for plan B, building a more manageable landing shuttle.
Ms. Fontana: “We couldn’t get our shuttle craft done by the time we needed it, so Roddenberry, in a stroke of genius, came up with the Transporter.” A pinging sound and a visual effect involving glittery aluminum dust shot in slow motion helped sell the notion of beaming someone instantly from place to place.
NBC didn’t meddle much with the show’s plot lines and characters once it was on the air, but its exotic look often drew attention from the network’s censors.
Ms. Fontana: “Network notes very often had do with how one of [costume designer] Bill Theiss ’s gowns for a girl would be depicted. His trick was that he would reveal a lot of flesh, but in a less-sexy area, like the leg or the back.”
Though the mainstream response to the show was relatively muted, Spock became an immediate fan favorite. As actor Leonard Nimoy refined the character’s Vulcan traits, like his taciturn response to danger, writers explored the human side of his character.
Ms. Fontana: “One of the big ones was ‘This Side of Paradise,’ [episode 24]. The original story [by writer Jerry Sohl ] featured a love story between Sulu and Leila [a colonist on the planet Omicron Ceti III]. I went into Gene’s office and said, ‘This is a Spock story.’ He agreed with me and I rewrote it that way, so the spores [from alien flowers] transformed Spock and make him smile and hang from a tree limb and express his love for Leila. That was huge for Spock to be able say what was in his heart.”
The fan mail for Spock soon outweighed the letters addressed to the ship’s captain.
Mr. Shatner: “Spock fever made me think, God, where is this taking me? But it wasn’t too long before I was reassured that was a character and this was the leading man.”
Nichelle Nichols, too, was becoming frustrated. Uhura wasn’t being given enough to do, she thought, and she also had an offer to do theater. Soon after telling Roddenberry she was quitting, she met Martin Luther King, Jr. at a fundraiser. Declaring himself a fan, King reminded her of the symbolism of having an African American character on the bridge of the Enterprise.
“I wasn’t happy about my role in the show. At that time, I thought it wasn’t going well for me, and it wasn’t. Dr. King came along and suggested I keep going.” After that encounter and her decision to stay with the show, “suddenly everything settled down and was more workable.”
In 1967, Paramount (then owned by the Gulf and Western conglomerate) bought Desilu, which had launched the TV series “Mission Impossible” the same year as “Star Trek.”
Mr. Solow: “‘Mission’ was the hit—the real loser was ‘Star Trek’—but on the basis of what we had, Lucy could sell the studio for $17 million bottom line.”
Ratings were low enough that even a second season was uncertain, and the third was even more so. With Roddenberry’s help, Ms. Trimble and her husband John organized a “Save Star Trek” campaign. Fans picketed NBC offices and flooded the network with letters. NBC renewed the show, yet dealt it a blow by bumping “Star Trek” to Friday to make room for “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” on Monday.
Ms. Fontana: “We knew we were dead. Friday nights were not our audience. Our audience was in high school and college, and they went out and went to games on Friday nights.”
For season 3, Roddenberry walked away from his role as a hands-on producer. Saddled with new leadership and a smaller budget, the final season offered some embarrassments, including a plodding, sexist episode in which primitive-minded female aliens steal Spock’s brain.
After the show was cancelled and a groundswell of fan support grew for the show in syndication, “Star Trek” was reimagined as a short-lived Saturday morning cartoon. Despite grassroots support to get the flagship relaunched, the studio ignored it until a different “Star” vehicle came along in 1977.
No one had any idea that 50 years later, the story would have a heartbeat.
—actor Clint Howard, who played Balok in season 1
Mr. Shatner: “They cancelled us and everyone accepted it. Years later something called ‘Star Wars,’ done by a fan of ‘Star Trek’ named George Lucas, explodes. At Paramount they were running around saying ‘What do we have like that? There’s this thing that we cancelled under another management called ‘Star Trek.’ Let’s resurrect that!’ So ‘Star Wars’ created ‘Star Trek’ [the movie].
Rushed into production and released to middling reviews in 1979, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” wasn’t quite the glorious rebirth that fans envisioned, but it was a box office hit that led to a more worthy sequel, 1982’s “Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan,” and a bright future for the franchise.
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