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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.”
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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.
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“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.”