Tonight it will have been 40 years since Star Trek debuted. At the time no one, not even creator Gene Roddenberry, could have guessed that it would have become a pop culture phenomenon. In fact, during its network run, that probably seemed like a very remote possibility. While it may have a legion of fans today, during its original run on NBC Star Trek was constantly plagued by low ratings. The show performed the best in the Nielsen ratings during its first season. Even then it only managed to rank 52 out of all the shows on the air. Towards the end of its second season, only a letter writing campaign by fans saved Star Trek from cancellation. Unfortunately, the show's ratings declined even further in its third season. It ended its network run in 1969.
To many at the time it must have seemed that Star Trek was simply a cult series with an extremely loyal, but small following. It would not surprise me if many thought that the show would simply fade away after its cancellation. But even while the series was still airing on NBC, there were signs that Star Trek was something more than a cult show. Indeed, for a show as low rated as Star Trek, it received quite a bit of coverage in the media. It was covered in such magazines as TV Guide (even receiving a cover featuring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy), Ebony, and even such teen magazines as 16 and Tiger Beat. Star Trek also received Emmy nominations for Outstanding Dramatic Series two years in a row--a remarkable achievement for a series as low rated as it was. Leonard Nimoy was nominated for a Supporting Actor Emmy three times for his role as Spock.
Indeed, the show was well known enough that the first pop culture references to Star Trek appeared while it was still airing on NBC. In the letter column of the December 8, 1967 issue of Time, a Time reader asked what was behind fashion designer Rudi Gernreich, "...Refugees from Star Trek maybe?" Leonard Nimoy was a guest on the December 4, 1967 episode of The Carol Burnett Show--I've never seen it, but this could be the purported episode in which Nimoy appears in full Spock regalia at the end of a sketch dealing with an invisible man. Nimoy also appeared in a February 26, 1968 episode of Laugh In. In a 1968 episode of Bewitched, "Samantha's Secret Saucer," Aunt Clara makes a reference to Mr. Spock (for you trivia buffs out here, I might also mention that because of Marion Lorne's death this was the last time Clara appeared on the show). It would seem, then, that Star Trek was somewhat better known than other similarly low rated series from the era. It must be noted that such shows as Iron Horse and Captain Nice didn't receive the coverage from magazines which Star Trek did. Nor were there very many pop culture references to them either.
If Star Trek and its characters were recognisable to a good number of Americans while it was still airing on NBC, it was probably largely due to its fiercely loyal following. The first fanzine dedicated to Star Trek, Spockanalia, appeared in 1967, while the show was still in its first season. Other fanzines would follow even as the show still aired on NBC. Of course, the letter writing campaign which saved the show for a third season is well known. While Roddenberry himself is believe to have instigated the campaign, it would not have succeeded had it not been for fan support. In fact, the network received so many letters that it even announced the renewal of Star Trek on the air.
Of course, the obvious question is that if Star Trek was well known even while it was still in its initial network run, if it had a fanatical following even then, why did it fail? There are those who have claimed that the show was ahead of its time, but I must vehemently disagree. Star Trek was a show very much of its time. In many respects, the format of Star Trek was similar to many other action shows of the Sixties. Like The Man From U.N.C.L.E and The Wild Wild West, it featured a handsome, dark haired lead. In fact, Napoleon Solo, James West, and James Kirk look enough alike to almost be cousins. Like The Man From U.N.C.L.E and The Wild Wild West, Star Trek gave its lead a sidekick who complimented him perfectly. Napoleon Solo had the quiet, cerebral Illya Kuryakin. James West had the inventive, sly Artemus Gordon. James Kirk had the cool, logical Mr. Spock. Like The Man From U.N.C.L.E and The Wild Wild West, Star Trek had plenty of action, with fight scenes that would be considered extremely violent by the standards of the Seventies and Eighties. And while Star Trek gave women a bit more equality than other shows of the era (Uhura and Nurse Chapel were, after all, lieutenants serving on a starship), women were still there primarily as window dressing or romantic interests for the male characters. Indeed, like other action shows of the era, there were many episodes in which Kirk would have a romantic interest (in fact, I am pretty sure he saw more action than either Napoleon Solo or James West...).
Indeed, another factor which identifies Star Trek as being of its era is the fact that it is essentially a show set in space. In the Sixties the American space programme was at the height of its popularity. Television naturally recognised this fact, giving viewers such space oriented shows as My Favorite Martian and Lost in Space. Many sitcoms had episodes dedicated to outer space in some form, from Bewtiched to Gilligan's Island. Space oriented toys were popular with children--this was, after all, the era of Major Matt Mason. If there was ever a time for the original Star Trek, it was the Sixties.
A more likely reason for the poor ratings performance of Star Trek is the fact that NBC consistently placed in time slots where it faced some strong competition. In its first season it aired opposite My Three Sons on CBS and Bewitched on ABC (Bewitched would rank #7 in the overall ratings for the year). In its second season Star Trek aired opposite Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. on CBS, then the #3 rated show for the year. In its third and final season, Star Trek was scheduled on Friday nights at 10:00 PM EST/9:00 PM CST, a time when the young viewers who were the show's biggest audience would either be out on the town or fast in bed. To make matters worse, it was against the highly rated CBS Friday Night Movie. Without a decent time slot for the entirety of its run, it is no wonder Star Trek did poorly in the ratings. It never had a chance.
Regardless, the show appears to have been well known even in its initial network run and even then it had a fiercely loyal following. That having been said, it should not be surprising that a show which performed miserably in its run on NBC would prove to be one of the biggest syndication successes in the history of television. Local TV station managers learned that when placed in a late afternoon, early evening, weekday time slot, Star Trek would draw legions of young male viewers. Word of the success of Star Trek in the ratings would spread among local TV station managers so that more and more TV stations picked the show up. Naturally, this increased the show's fan base beyond what it had been when it first aired. The first Star Trek convention was held in New York City in 1972. Naturally, there also grew up an entire industry around Star Trek. In the Seventies there were model kits, books, posters, record albums, the famous Mego action figures, and much, much more. Not bad for a show that only ranked #52 for the 1966-1967 TV season.
Of course, there was talk of the show's revival. And it was revived after a fashion in 1974 when an animated version of the show debuted on Saturday mornings on NBC. At one point Paramount had planned a new series, Star Trek Phase II, which would have debuted in 1978 as part of a new Paramount network. When Paramount decided against trying to launch a fourth network, plans for the series were scrapped and they instead decided to produce Star Trek: the Motion Picture. With the original cast reunited, Star Trek: the Motion Picture launched the Star Trek franchise. Since then there have been several more movies and four spinoff series.
As to the reason for the success of Star Trek, that is perhaps a difficult question to answer. As I pointed out above, in many respects it was a typical action series of its time. That having been said, it was also different from anything seen on television before. In fact, it was the first science fiction series with continuing characters which was largely driven by its characters and not its plots. If people who have never seen Star Trek can name several of the characters from the series, perhaps it is because they were much better developed than characters on any science fiction series before its time. And while the overall qualtiy of the show was uneven (the orignal Star Trek did produce some stinkers when it came to episodes), Star Trek produced some of the best television on the air in the Sixties. Its best episodes compare favourably to even the most critically acclaimed shows of that era.
Another factor in its success may be the fact that Star Trek offered an optimistic view of the future. Though those of us who came of age in the Seventies and Eighties often forget this fact, the Sixties were a tumultuous time in America. There was racial unrest, the Vietnam War, protests against the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution... It was a time of great change, when many people were uncertain of the future. The Seventies were not much better, particularly in light of the Watergate scandal. Despite all of this, Star Trek offered a world of the future in which not only are all races equal, but so are men and women. What is more, humanity even lives at peace with many alien species (Vulcans, Andorians, and so on). The very optimism of Star Trek probably appealed to many. Too, while Star Trek resembled action series of its era to a large degree, I must also admit that it was also a bit "edgy" for its time. Through the format of a science fiction action series, it tackled such issues as race relations, the Vietnam War, and so on. It was in the epsiode "Plato's Stepchildren" that the first interracial kiss took place on American television.
Ultimately, I don't know that anyone will fully be able to explain why Star Trek became the phenomenon that it did. Besides Gilligan's Island and I Love Lucy, it could well be the most successful show of all time in syndication. And the Star Trek franchise shows no signs of ending. Even though no Star Trek series are airing in first run right now, there are plans for yet another Star Trek movie--the tenth such film. I rather suspect that by the time the 23rd century does roll around, Star Trek will still be around in some form or another.