Thursday, September 8, 2016

The 50th Anniversary of Star Trek

It was fifty years ago tonight that Star Trek debuted on NBC as part of a "sneak preview" that also included The Hero and Tarzan (NBC's 1966-1967 schedule would not officially begin until the following week). Since September 8 1966 Star Trek has become the stuff of television legends. It was the low rated science fiction show saved by its fans from cancellation that became a phenomenon in syndicated reruns. While there is some truth to the legend (in its initial network run Star Trek's ratings were always moderate to low), there is much about the legend that simply isn't true. Indeed, even while in its first run there were signs that Star Trek was on its way to becoming a phenomenon.

As many people already know, Star Trek was initially conceived by Gene Roddenberry, although later producer Gene L. Coon and story editor D. C. Fontana would play pivotal roles in shaping what we now know as Star Trek. It was on March 11 1964 that Gene Roddenberry wrote a short treatment for a prospective science fiction series to be called Star Trek. He initially pitched the idea for his new science fiction show to MGM, who had produced his single season show The Lieutenant. MGM turned Star Trek down. He found a buyer in Desilu, then best known for having produced the classic I Love Lucy. Desilu first took the prospective series to CBS, with whom they had a first-look deal. CBS turned Star Trek down on the grounds that they were already developing another science fiction show, Lost in Space.

Desilu then took Star Trek to NBC, who commissioned the production of a pilot, "The Cage". "The Cage" differed a bit from Star Trek as we know it. It starred Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike. The pilot did feature two regular members of the cast of Star Trek, although one of them would play a different role in the series. Majel Barrett played Number One, Captain Pike's female first officer, in "The Cage", but played Nurse Christine Chapel in the regular series, as well as providing the voice for the ship's computer. Leonard Nimoy appeared as Mr. Spock, who was not yet the first officer of the Enterprise, but was its science officer. He was a bit more emotional than he would be on the regular series.

While NBC was impressed by "The Cage", they ultimately rejected it in February 1965 . They commissioned a second pilot in March 1965. Contrary to popular belief, Star Trek was not the first prospective television show to have a second pilot made (it is difficult to say what show has that honour, but Lum & Abner, whose first pilot was made in 1948, would ultimately have four different pilots made).  While other shows before Star Trek had second pilots made, it was an unusual step for NBC to take at the time. NBC did ask for changes before the second pilot was shot. The network was not particularly keen on the characters of Number One and Mr. Spock. Gene Roddenberry eliminated Number One, but kept the character of Mr. Spock, who became the breakout character on the series. It was before the second pilot was made that Jeffrey Hunter decided that he did not want to do the show. It was then that William Shatner was cast as Captain James T. Kirk.

Fortunately NBC accepted the second pilot ("Where No Man Has Gone Before") and ordered Star Trek  as a series. As mentioned earlier, the show debuted on September 8 1966 as part of a special "sneak preview". Unfortunately Star Trek received less than auspicious reviews upon its debut. At the time Television Magazine did a survey of 24 critics and found that five critics found the show good, eight critics found it bad, and eleven critics were simply indifferent to the show. Among the critics who liked the show was Terrence O’Flaherty  of The San Francisco Chronicle, who wrote that  the “..opening yarn was a breath-catcher.” Among the worst reviews was the one published in Daily Variety, which referred to it as "an incredible and dreary mess of confusion and complexities."  One has to suspect that many of the bad reviews of Star Trek could well be blamed on the episode that NBC decided to air first. While not a truly bad episode, "Man Trap" centred on a monster called a "Salt Vampire". Many critics seeing the episode may have thought Star Trek was a typical, kiddie, sci-fi show complete with a new monster every week.

While Star Trek upon its premiere did not fare very well with critics, it did  perform fairly well in the ratings. With its competition on CBS and ABC consisting primarily of reruns, it received a 40.6 share in the Nielsen ratings and won its time slot. Unfortunately, it would not fare so well the following week. The show dropped to a 29.4 share and then dropped further in the ratings for the next two weeks. Ultimately the ratings for Star Trek in its first season could be described as "moderate" at best. For the 1966-1967 season Star Trek ranked 52nd out of all the shows on the air. With over 100 shows in prime time in the 1966-1967 season, this was not terribly bad, but it was not very good either. In earlier years NBC might well have cancelled Star Trek save for one thing: demographics.

It is a myth that the networks only discovered demographics in the late Sixties. In fact, in 1963 NBC began paying attention not only to how many people were watching a given show, but who was watching it as well. Namely, NBC wanted well-educated, wealthy, young adults. According to the executive of audience measurement at the time Paul Klein (today perhaps best known for developing the theory of the least objectionable programme) in an article in Television Magazine in 1967, Star Trek was renewed after its first season because it delivered an audience of well-educated, upper income, young men. Of course, the audience for Star Trek did not simply consist of wealthy, educated, young men in the key demographic (18 to 34 years old). It also proved popular with teenagers. In the July 27 1968 issue of TV Guide there was an article ("Who Watches What?") by Dick Hobson on A.C. Nielsen Co.'s demographic surveys made from October 23 to December 3 1967. Star Trek ranked no. 4 in the Top Ten Among Teenagers 13-17, right below another NBC show, The Monkees.

While Star Trek in its first season attracted an audience largely made of teenagers and wealthy male twentysomethings and thirtysomethings, it also attracted an audience that was very loyal to the show even in its original network run. Indeed, even as Star Trek first aired from 1966 to 1969 there were signs that it was already a bit of a phenomenon. It might have been a show with low to moderate ratings at best, but it was also a show that had already developed a cult following. This could explain why Star Trek had a higher profile than many shows with similar ratings during the era. Indeed, Star Trek received more newspaper coverage than many shows with similar sized audiences. In today's jargon, one could say that even in the late Sixties there was a "buzz" about Star Trek.

Among the earliest references to Star Trek occurred in the July 8 1964  "Tele-Vues" syndicated column by Terry Vernon, in which it was mentioned that Desilu had made a deal with NBC to produce "an hour-long science fiction series Star Trek." Another early reference to Star Trek was in gossip columnist Hedda Hopper's December 4 1964 column, in which she wrote about Susan Oliver playing Vina in the series pilot. Of course, once the show debuted references to Star Trek became much more frequent in newspapers. Star Trek was featured on the cover of the weekly newspaper supplement TV Showtime on September 18 1966. In syndicated columnist Charles Witbeck's December 4 1966 column Gene Roddenberry discussed the casting of Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock. An article that appeared in many newspapers across the United States in July and August 1967 told how DeForest Kelley, then best known for playing heavies in Westerns, was cast as Dr. McCoy by getting a different haircut, one that resembled that of the late President John F. Kennedy. Bob Thomas's May 6 1967 "Inside Hollywood" column discussed Star Trek as an intellectual show.

Not only did newspapers cover Star Trek a good deal during its original run, so too did national magazines. As might be expected, TV Guide covered Star Trek, and even devoted two covers to the show during its original run. The January 1967 issue of Ebony featured Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura on the cover and included an article about her. Teen magazines such as Tiger Beat and 16 regularly covered the show. Even Mad magazine did a parody of Star Trek while it was in its first run.

Many of the newspaper articles about Star Trek during its original run centred on its status as a "prestige show". Bob Thomas in his May 6 1967 "Inside Hollywood" column noted Star Trek's status as a show with appeal to intellectuals. With regards to its renewal for a second season, he noted, "Trade observers also believe the NBC decision was influenced by the fact that Star Trek was a prestige show in a season sadly lacking in prestige." In an August 25 1968 article on TV shows changing time slots, Associated Press television-radio writer Cynthia Lowry included Star Trek alongside Mannix as shows that "may suffer from undeserved inattention."  While reviews upon its debut may have been decidedly mixed, Star Trek developed a reputation over its original run as a quality show.

Even the television industry seemed to recognise Star Trek as a quality show. For the 1966-1967 season it was nominated for four Emmy Awards, including  Outstanding Dramatic Series, Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series (for Leonard Nimoy as Spock),  Individual Achievements in Cinematography - Photographic Special Effects, and Individual Achievements in Art Direction and Allied Crafts - Mechanical Special Effects. It would again be nominated for Outstanding Dramatic Series in the 1967-1968 season and Leonard Nimoy would be nominated for the Supporting actor award for each year the show was on. Over the three seasons it was also nominated for awards for Film Editing and Art Direction.

Not only did Star Trek appear to be regarded as a quality show, but it also appears to have infiltrated American pop culture even in its initial American run.  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?" RCA, NBC's parent company, ran print advertisements for their colour TV sets that featured Star Trek.  Leonard Nimoy appeared in full Spock regalia at the end of a skit on the twelfth episode of the first season of The Carol Burnett Show that aired on December 4 1967.  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). While Star Trek only had moderate to low ratings its entire run, both the series itself and its characters (at least Mr. Spock) seemed recognisable to the general public in a way that many other shows with similar ratings probably were not. 

Not only did Star Trek  begin infiltrating American pop culture even as it first aired, but there was even Star Trek merchandise on the shelves in the late Sixties, more than one would expect for a show that at its best ranked no. 52 for the year out of all the shows in prime-time. While the Golden Age for Star Trek merchandise might well have been the Seventies, the Sixties did see a number of Star Trek items of note. Among the earliest and most famous bits of Star Trek merchandise to appear was the Enterprise model kit issued by AMT in 1966. AMT would follow the highly popular Enterprise with a Klingon Battle Cruiser model kit in 1968. Of course, the Seventies would see yet more model kits based on vessels and hardware from the series.

As might be expected given the era, there was also a Star Trek lunchbox made by Aladdin in 1968. Leaf Candy Company issued a series of Star Trek bubblegum cards in 1967. Ideal Toys also published a Star Trek board game in 1967. It was in July 1967 that Gold Key Comics began publishing their notorious Star Trek comic books, which continued until 1978 when the licence shifted to Marvel Comics. Of course, some of the Star Trek merchandise made in the Sixties appeared to have very little to do with the show. In 1966 Rayline made a tracer gun and tracer rifle (toy guns that shoot lightweight discs) that looked nothing like the phasers of Star Trek. Remco made a Star Trek Astrocopter that came with plastic soldiers in 1967. Not only would the crew of the Enterprise have no need of an "Astrocopter", but the plastic soldiers looked nothing like Starfleet officers. Remco also put out a Star Trek Astro-Helmet in 1969. The Astro-Helmet looked like nothing from the show. In 1969 in the United Kingdom, at least, Kelloggs Sugar Smacks included Star Trek pinback buttons in specially marked boxes. I don't know if the same offer existed in the United States or not.

Not only was there Star Trek merchandise on store shelves in the late Sixties, but there were also books. In 1967 Bantam Books issued a collection of short stories adapted from episodes of Star Trek by science fiction writer James Blish. The first title, Star Trek, was followed by two more similar collections while the show was still on the air and ultimately ten more such books. Star Trek also saw the publication of one of the earliest books devoted to the making of a television show. The Making of Star Trek by Stephen E. Whitfield was published in 1968 in between the second and third seasons.

Of course, it wasn't just professional publishing houses publishing material related to Star Trek. The earliest fanzines appeared while the show was still on the air. The first such fanzine, Spockanalia, was published in 1967. It was followed by such fanzines as ST-Phile, T-Negative, and Deck 6. Many more would be published in the Seventies.

While it was still in its first run Star Trek was regarded as a prestige show. It was also a show that received a good deal of coverage in newspapers and magazine, and one whose characters (at least Mr. Spock) appear to have been recognisable even to people who didn't watch the show. It appealed largely to well-educated, affluent, young men and teenagers, and many of them were fiercely loyal to the show. Sadly, while it would appear that while Star Trek had a cult following even in its original run, its audience was still relatively small when compared to high rated shows such as Bewitched or The Beverly Hillbillies.

Indeed, for its second season NBC moved Star Trek to Friday night at 8:30 Eastern/7:30 Central. Given it aired on Friday night when much of its audience would go out for the night, it should be no surprise that its ratings would drop. The fact that it was scheduled against the high rated Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. and the first half hour of The CBS Friday Night Movies only made matters worse. Still, with an audience comprised of largely wealthy, well-educated young men, Star Trek did well enough for NBC to renew it.

Unfortunately for NBC, rumours began spreading as early as November 1967 that Star Trek would be cancelled. Even several media outlets reported the cancellation of the show as fact. As a result of these rumours Star Trek fans manned a campaign to "save" the series. Between December 1967 and March 1968 NBC received around 116,000 letters asking them to renew Star Trek. Star Trek fans didn't just write letters, but they also held protests as well. Over 200 Caltech students protested at NBC's Burbank studios on behalf of Star Trek. Similar protests were held in San Francisco and New York City.

Even though Star Trek was in no real danger of cancellation, the reaction of fans who thought the show might be cancelled was impressive. In fact, it was impressive enough that following the March 1 1968 episode, "The Omega Glory", NBC announced that Star Trek would continue to air on the network. They aired the same announcement following the March 8 1968 episode, "The Ultimate Computer" the next week.

Sadly, the third season of Star Trek would be its last. Initially NBC planned to move Star Trek to Monday night at 8:00 Eastern/7:00 Central. Unfortunately, that time slot was then occupied by Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, a mid-season replacement that ranked no. 1 for the 1967-1968 season. Its producer George Schlatter objected strenuously to Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In being moved from its Monday night time slot. NBC then scheduled Star Trek on Friday night at 10:00 Eastern/9:00 Central, a Friday night death slot if there ever was one. Its older fans would be out for the night by that time, while its youngest fans would already be in bed. Worse yet, it aired opposite the last hour of The CBS Friday Night Movies. To make things even worse, Star Trek was now seen on only 181 out of the 210 NBC affiliates.

As might be expected given the circumstances, the ratings for Star Trek plummeted. NBC cancelled Star Trek in February 1969. While fans once more started a campaign to save the show, it was to no avail. Star Trek's ratings had fallen so low that millions of letters probably would not have saved it. Here it must be pointed out that even given the audience for Star Trek in its original run, the show's demographics could not save it as they did in the first and second seasons. Even at its height in its first season, Star Trek still received fewer viewers in the key demographic than such hit shows as Bewitched and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. By its third season its audience, even in the key demographic, was so small that NBC felt cancellation was its only choice.

Of course, as history shows Star Trek would have a phenomenally successful afterlife as a syndicated rerun. Perhaps as yet another mark of a show that was somehow different from similarly rated shows, as early as its first season there were those who saw potential in reruns of Star Trek. In 1967, while Star Trek was still in its first season, Kaiser Broadcasting bought the syndication rights to the show. Once Star Trek entered syndication in 1969 Kaiser Broadcasting scheduled it in early afternoon or evening time slots on its stations where it was often opposite the local news on other stations. The end result was that Star Trek was receiving very high ratings on Kaiser Broadcasting's stations, not to mention an audience of primarily young males. Other independent stations took note of Kaiser Broadcasting's success, so that other independent stations picked up the series. In February 1970 Star Trek was airing on 61 stations. By March 1972 around 125 stations were airing the show. By May 1973 that number had increased to 143 stations.

Since then Star Trek has become a multimedia franchise. In 1973 Star Trek: The Animated Series debuted on NBC on Saturday morning, reuniting much of the original cast. Beginning in the Seventies there would be a series of original novels based on the show. The original cast and crew would reunite for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979),  the first of six movies. Star Trek would be followed by four spin-off series, with a fifth one set to debut in 2017. In 2009 Star Trek was rebooted with a series of films set in an alternate timeline. Of course, since Star Trek ended its original run in 1969 there has been a tonne of merchandise related to the show and its spin-offs, including toys, action figures, games, records, books, clothing, and much, much more.

Star Trek began as a show with a cult following that survived primarily because it appealed to a small audience in a key demographic. Through a highly successful syndication run it became a television phenomenon and eventually a multimedia franchise. There can be no doubt that it is one of the most successful shows in the history of American television. That Star Trek is still airing fifty years after its debut is remarkable. That it spawned an entire industry is more remarkable still.

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