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March 09, 2016

Energize! Part I

Star Trek at 50: The fourth in our series of golden anniversary articles.  Part I: The origins of Star Trek.

Herbie J Pilato, Special to the Television Academy
  • The orignal cast of Star Trek

  • Gene Roddenberry

  • D. C. Fontana

  • Jeffrey Hunter, Susan Oliver

  • Rod Roddenberry

  • Gary Lockwood, Sally Kellerman

  • William Shatner, DeForest Kelley, Leonard Nimoy

"Live Long and Prosper."

So spoke the alien Vulcan Mr. Spock, as played by Leonard Nimoy on the classic science-fiction television series, Star Trek, which boldly premiered September 8, 1966 on NBC where it remained until June 3, 1969.

Spock's salutation was more premonition of the show's now 50-year legacy than a term of respect frequently utilized within the logical realm of the character's culture. Soon after ending its original network run, Star Trek rocketed into a stratospheric quadrant of syndication where no TV show had ever or even slightly gone before - or since.

Created by writer/executive producer Gene Roddenberry, the "Great Bird of the Galaxy" (as he's known in Trek-lore), Star Trek (ST) has influenced a variety of novels, comics, and lucrative small and big screen follow-ups, reimaginings, reboots, and even one highly-regarded Saturday morning animated series (NBC, 1973-1975).

Sequels with Star Trek in the main title (and screened in first-run syndication) have included: The Next Generation (1987-1994), Deep Space Nine (1993-1999), Voyager (1995-2001), and Enterprise (2001-2005), while 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture ignited a numerical feature film franchise that followed with subtitles like The Wrath of Kahn (1982), The Search for Spock (1984), The Voyage Home (1986), The Final Frontier (1989), among others.

Live events, exhibitions, video and gaming franchises soon materialized, joining the perpetually-popular fan conventions which served as precursor to the now-numerous past and present television, cinema, celebrity and all-media festivals of every kind (i.e. Comic-Con).

The ST cultural saturation is so pervasive that most likely everyone on the planet (Earth, and maybe a few others) is familiar with the show's optimistic view and shape of better things to come, while the "fictional" technology presented, such as "communicators" (with the flip-cell-phone-similar design), and "tricorders," and portable and/or mobile computers (likened to laptops, iPads, and notebooks) continues to engage pop-culture and modern science enthusiasts alike with real, workable mechanisms.

Star Trek's massive following was sparked by Bjo Trimble, the show's "Number 1 Fan" who sparked the letter-writing campaign that saved the series from cancelation after its second season.

From there, "Trekkers" (hardcore followers who espouse the more esoteric aspects of the series), "Trekkies" (novice fans who focus on the more aesthetic accents like costumes and make-up), and mainstream watchers of all things media gathered and continued to celebrate and find "fascinating" (as Spock might say) the show's content, and enormous contributions to entertainment and society across the board.

None of it, however, would have been possible without Roddenberry, who envisioned a "Wagon Train to the stars," a reference to the classic NBC/ABC 1957-1965 TV western, and further inspired by his experience as head writer for another TV western called Have Gun, Will Travel (CBS, 1956-1963). The concept, essentially, was to present Cowboys and Aliens long before that idea was adapted from the comic book as the 2011 feature film of the same name.

Star Trek actress Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, who died in 2008, was married to Gene from 1969 until his passing in 1991. Best known for her commanding performance as "Number 1" in the first of what amounted to two different ST pilot episodes, and as Nurse Christine Chapel when the show went to series, Barrett also provided various voiceovers for the franchise.

On the original live and animated shows, she can be heard as the ship's computer, to which she gave further vocal clarity in the feature films (the first few in which she also reprised her on-screen role as Chapel, who had graduated to physician status), and the numerous TV off-shoots (such as The Next Generation, in which she also played Ambassador Lwaxana Troi, the overbearing but adoring mother to Marina Sirtis' Counselor Deanna Troi).

As Barrett once recalled of her husband's genius, in relation to the Trek "western" world analogy, "Gene knew people… and if you took those early [Star Trek episodes] that we did, and put us in a western wardrobe and on a wagon train going west, we can say the same lines."

A former World War II bomber pilot and Los Angeles Police officer, Gene also invented Star Trek by combining his knowledge of the military and law enforcement with his sense of decency and justice, infusing his ethereal imagination and hope for the future throughout each episode of the original series (and beyond).

In the process, he created what has simply become one of the most beloved and popular TV programs of all time - and he did so with integrity. As he once explained, "It is a crusade of mine to demonstrate that TV need not be violent to be exciting. [On Star Trek] we stress humanity, and this is done at considerable cost. We can't have a lot of dramatics that other shows get away with promiscuity, greed, jealousy. None of those have a place in Star Trek."

Rod Roddenberry, son of Gene and Majel, is executive producing the new CBS-TV-based Trek series (set for January 2017), along with his company's COO Trevor Roth, Alex Kurtzman (who executive produced and penned J.J. Abram's initial big-screen Trek reboot and sequels), and Bryan Fuller (who wrote for Deep Space Nine and Voyager, the latter on which he also served as co-producer).

Rod adds his insight on the formation of his dad's original dynamic design.

"When my father started Star Trek, he had had an amazing career… and amazing life experiences. He traveled the world. He walked the beat on Hollywood Boulevard as a police sergeant. He had seen the best that life had to offer and the worst, and that really gave him some perspective. So, he just put into Star Trek how he saw the world, and the potential of what we [as a collective human race] could become.

"That's what drove him. He was excited every time he saw the good in people and in life."

While conceiving the show, Rod believes his father thought, "Hey – we could really do something wonderful, if we could just work together."

Acclaimed Trek writer D.C. Fontana (a.k.a. Dorothy Fontana) has authored several superior episodes of both the live show, including "Journey To Babel" (which first aired November 17, 1967), and the animated series, such as "Yesteryear" (September 15, 1973), both of which explored Spock's ancestry in depth.

Her literary contributions to these shows, combined with her position as Associate Producer/Story Editor for the pilot and first 13 episodes of The Next Generation, helped the franchise to retain its consistency and linear logic, in a way that was pleasing to viewers, critics and industry insiders. She offers her thoughts on ST's original and continued success.

"Star Trek's popularity was no surprise to us when we were doing the series. We [received] tons of fan mail every week – so much so that neither we nor the studio could handle it. In a time when there was no internet, no cell phones, no texting, etc., people wrote letters to tell us and the actors, how much they liked the show.

"Nielsen ratings came from the few people in any community who had the devices on their TV sets – and that did not include as many of our viewers as were out there. Our core audience was high school and college students, young professionals, young marrieds, and a strong backing from older people as well – people who loved science fiction.

"While we could point to the huge outpouring of mail to support how well liked we were, it was only the Nielsens [ratings] that counted then. After NBC put the show in a 'dead zone' for ratings [Friday night at 10:00PM in the third season] our fans complained, but no one seemed to want to listen. The show was cancelled. But – as most people know now – it went 'gold' in syndication.

"I believe it's been in syndication almost continually ever since."

"As we were writing/producing the show," she continues, "we did want to present a hopeful look to the future of mankind, of technology, and of science. We had worked with established science fiction writers who shared that vision, and certainly our audience conveyed to us that they shared it too.

"We weren't doing a family adventure [like Lost in Space] or a based-on-Earth creature of the week show [such as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea]. We were trying to envision a hopeful, progressive and informed future. I think we got there."

Star Trek's central premise certainly bespeaks that promise, as it logs the voyages of the United Starship Enterprise, originally christened "United Spaceship Enterprise" (a.k.a. "U.S.S. Enterprise"), which was commissioned by the intergalactic Federation of Planets for a "five year mission to explore strange new worlds."

Gene Roddenberry knew the pertinent role casting plays in the success of any television show (or feature film or play for that matter), and applied that understanding in carefully selecting actors who would bring to life the Enterprise crew for the original Star Trek (as well as hand-picking the cast for The Next Generation, the last sequel that included his input before his demise).

In choosing ST actors, Rod Roddenberry says his father trusted his colleagues like casting directors Joseph D'Agosta (who was there for Star Trek's entire three years) and William J. Kenney (who worked on seven episodes), and mingled his instincts with a given performer's experience.

"You have to have the right actors [when producing a TV show] and, whether it was my father directly or the show's casting director, they got the right people. My father created the characters, but then the actors took over and re-created the characters and I think brought them to another level… which is what probably my father had hoped for."

The initial Enterprise was headed by the charismatic William Shatner as the stoic Captain James Tiberius Kirk, the aforementioned Leonard Nimoy, as the analytic Mr. Spock (whose first name, apparently, no human could pronounce), and DeForest Kelley, so earnest as the impassioned country Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy.

These three lead actors formed an on-screen team of characters that fans would come to define as the sacred "Triad of Stability, Logic and Emotion" (respectively).

Solid support from fellow cast members included: Nichelle Nichols as the loyal communications officer Lt. Uhura, TV's first female African-American character (of Swahili descent, no less, whose surname means "freedom," and whose first name "Nyota," was not utilized until the 2009 J.J. Abrams Trek feature reboot); George Takei, as the dedicated and astute helmsman Mr. Hikaru Sulu; Walter Koenig as Kirk's protégé Mr. Pavel Chekov (a second season arrival with a Russian accent and a Beatle haircut); Majel Barrett's Nurse Chapel (who's in love with Spock); Grace Lee Whitney playing Yeoman Janice Rand (who's essentially in love with Kirk); and James Doohan as Chief Engineer Montgomery "Scotty" Scott (who's in love with the Enterprise).

It was a delicate dance in how each of these actors came to their roles in Trek, which was brought to the small screen by way of two different pilots.

"The Cage," which did air at the end of season one as a two-part story, featured the character of Captain Christopher Pike, portrayed by Jeffrey Hunter, and Susan Oliver as Vina, an alien figment of Pike's imagination who took on many guises for Pike, including the green-skinned Orion slave, who appears in the end-credits of ST, coupled with Alexander Courage's iconic theme music.

The second pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before," debuting September 8, 1966, featured Shatner as Kirk. Also in that pilot was guest star alien-possessed crew member Commander Gary Mitchell, played by Gary Lockwood, after he had starred in Roddenberry's first series, The Lieutenant (NBC, 1963-1964), and before his performance in 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

"Where No Man" also featured Sally Kellerman as the similarly-possessed character Dr. Elizabeth Dehner, before she played "Hot-Lips" in 1970's big-screen M*A*S*H.

For Lockwood, performing in "Gone" segment "was a piece of cake" and, because of it, he's enjoying "a nice after-life effect," due to various Star Trek conventions, and other similar festivities. The role was not without challenges, however. "The toughest part of the job was putting on those damn contact lenses," he says in referring to special white other-worldly eye-wear he wore for the part. "They were a nightmare."

The candid actor, who is writing his memoir, Gary Lockwood: Beyond the Pod Bay Doors: The Adventures of a Hollywood Cowboy Surfer Dude, believes "there's more of a connection between The Lieutenant and Star Trek than one would think. And that's just to stand back and simply analyze the basic structure of their stories.

"Because there's only certain ways that drama works, and Roddenberry was a bit of a classicist like that. When he was doing Star Trek, he very often took simple plots, and made them work effectively in space."

Although Fontana was not in on the actual casting of these original Treks (those "were Gene Roddenberry's choices, and only his"), she remembers how Shatner came to play the show's lead and Mitchell's adversary: James T. Kirk.

"After Jeffrey Hunter's demands to repeat as Captain Pike were too much [for Roddenberry to consider for the second Trek pilot], Gene began to look around at other actors for a new captain. A number of actors were considered, but Bill Shatner got the role as he had a strong personality, an outstanding acting record [in theater and on television], and he was enthusiastic about it."

Shatner's Kirk certainly proved effective over the years. He brought an assertive gentleness and a measure of grace to the role, accenting and balancing Kirk's humanity with his obligations and extensive responsibilities as captain to a ship of over 400 crew members.

Kirk had a job to do, and remained dedicated to that job, but when push came to shove, his inherent sense of justice, even at the potential sacrifice of his position, would always win out.

Shatner shares his thoughts on all of this. "Captain Kirk was a classical hero… in the classical mold of the hero with a heart that is most frequently placed in an uncomfortable position of having to make a choice between duty and heart, depending on the circumstances. His decision was made, but he was always the humanist.

"He always had a sense of humor about himself and about the world around him, acknowledging the final joke as life itself. And that he was humble at his place in history, in that anybody else could have done his job. But he was there at the right time and at the right place."

In addressing the central relationship between Kirk, Spock and McCoy, Shatner adds, "The attempt was to have in one place an emotional human being, perhaps too emotional, being a scientist and a doctor, McCoy, and in the other position [Spock], a living being that attempts to use logic only. Each of those two characters had within themselves a struggle to maintain what they held dear.

"And in the center of those two poles was Kirk, torn between those two conflicting ideals. He emerges stronger for the struggle, bent by the necessity of completing the struggle and uplifted by the success of that struggle."

Shatner conveys that same message in his new book, Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man, about his off-screen, real-life rapport with Nimoy, who passed away in early 2015.

As the actor explains, that book is about "… my love for him, and what friendship means, and how difficult it is to make friends and to cultivate a friendship, to hold onto a friendship. It's difficult anyway and because of the circumstances of the way show business is run, it's even more difficult if you're an actor or someone going from one project to another."

In recounting the original search for Spock, Fontana recalls her own bond with Nimoy, whose passing for her was devastating. Describing the beloved performer as a "[dear] old friend," Fontana says he had arrived home from the hospital the day before he died. "And there was no indication that he was near death. So, it really came as a shock."

Nearly 50 years before, Roddenberry had Nimoy in mind even before began writing the first pilot. As Fontana relays, "When Gene asked me to read his 12-page basic ST bible [writer's guide], my first question was, 'Who plays Mr. Spock?'"

At that point, Roddenberry pushed across his desk a photo of Nimoy, who had guest-starred on The Lieutenant. "Gene liked his [Nimoy's] work," recalls Fontana, who had known Nimoy since 1960, when he appeared on her first episodic TV segment, "A Bounty for Billy," for The Tall Man (NBC, 1960-1962), which was created by Samuel A. Peeples, who had penned the second Trek pilot.

"Funny how that works," she concludes of her apparent destiny to work with both Peeples and Nimoy, the latter of whom once recalled winning his most famous role, "My folks came to the U.S. as immigrants, aliens, and became citizens. I was born in Boston, a citizen, went to Hollywood, and became an alien."

Nimoy another time discussed how his portrayal of Spock "caught a lot people by surprise. I must say that I was somewhat surprised by the response, but I understood it… The [fan] mail told me a lot about what people were responding to.

"Certainly, the network was totally caught off-guard. NBC had actually asked Gene Roddenberry to eliminate [Spock] or to keep him in the background, because they were concerned that [he] was not a positive character. Some of the earliest promotional materials [presented] to potential advertisers had retouched the photographs of me as Spock [without] the pointed ears.

"They were concerned that [Spock] looked devilish and that a [such a] character might have a negative connotation, particularly in the Southern states, where people might be uncomfortable having a [devil] on their TV set."

The core message of humanity and acceptance, and the respect shared between Spock, Kirk, and McCoy was far-removed from any such negative image or insinuation.

The casting of McCoy, however, along with ST's other remaining regular characters, was not so easily accomplished.

As Fontana explains, the first two doctors in "The Cage" (John Hoyt as Dr. Philip Boyce) and "Where No Man Has Gone Before" (Paul Fix as Dr. Mark Piper) "were a lot older than the captains they served. At the time, I think Gene felt that was kind of standard. As he thought about it, though, he decided to make the doctor in the series younger. More of a friend and advisor instead of the older, far more experienced man that had been portrayed before."

Cue Kelley, who had already enjoyed a lengthy career in film and on television, and was selected for McCoy, his first recurring role, because he had co-starred in a previous pilot Roddenberry created that same year in 1965. For his part, Kelley once noted, "Star Trek has brought so much of what I want within my grasp. [It] is perhaps the best thing that ever happened to me, in a career sense."

Regarding Nichelle Nichols as Uhura, Fontana "wasn't there. So I don't know why Gene chose her, aside from her ability and beauty. But there were some stations in the South who told NBC they would not carry the show if there was a black woman on the Bridge. Gene told NBC to tell those stations to stuff it. They lose. And that was that on that question."

Adding to the controversy was the red-letter on-screen interracial kiss Uhura shared with Kirk in the ST episode, "Plato's Stepchildren," debuting November 22, 1968, the fifth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, who was a strong advocate of civil rights.

Into this mix, Nichols at one point considered leaving the series to pursue a career on Broadway. But as documented in the book Glamour, Gidgets and the Girl Next Door: Television's Iconic Women from the 50s, 60s and 70s, that all changed after a conversation with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had personally encouraged the actress to remain on board the Enterprise of Star Trek, of which he was a significant fan.

As she revealed, "Dr. King told me I should not 'give up the ship,' if you will. He believed I was an important role model for young black children and young women around the country.

"But not only that, he also thought I was a positive image for people, young and old, of every color, heritage, and culture who would see blacks as equals. After that, I knew I could not leave the series. I realized just how responsible and important a role I had as Uhura, a part that to this day has proved to be a blessing not only in my life – but in the lives of countless others.

"And for that, I am deeply grateful, humbled, and honored."

According to CinemaSpy, Takei's take on Sulu had a similar effect for the Asian population. Years after being cast on the original series, the actor helped to put director J.J. Abrams' mind at ease in choosing John Cho for the same role in the 2009 Trek feature.

Apparently, Abrams was slightly anxious because Cho was Korean-American and not Japanese-American (like Sulu and Takei), and Abrams thought it might become an issue with Trekkies and Trekkers alike. But Takei told him, "Gene's idea was to have Sulu represent all of Asia. Apparently J.J. didn't know that, so he was quite comforted by that background information and went ahead and cast John Cho."

Takei then explained how he thought "Gene Roddenberry was a real visionary and he incorporated a lot of his own personal philosophy into Star Trek. He felt that the Starship Enterprise was a metaphor for Starship Earth and the strength of this starship lay in its diversity coming together and working as a team in concert, each contributing his or her unique talents, unique vantage points and unique experiential background.

"That's what made the Enterprise that much stronger and more competent at solving problems and challenges. We would represent different parts of the Earth. He wanted my character to represent Asia."

Sulu's closest comrade, Chekov, as played by Koenig, first appeared in the show's sophomore season (1967-1968) "because Gene was aware of the craze for the Beatles," Fontana reveals, "and he felt the need for at least one younger character in the show and on the bridge.

"Chekov was created with three ideas in mind – young character, Russian, to show that as countries we found we could work together, and the [hippie] haircut. At first, Walter had to wear a wig – but then he grew his own hair out and he said 'Bye bye' to the wig."

As explained on IMDb, Koenig was only one of two people who auditioned for the part which, he thought was "quite extraordinary," considering his life would be forever changed.

"A couple of hours after I auditioned," he said, "I heard that I had gotten the role."

Koenig addressed how the show has granted him "a considerable amount of satisfaction and a certain amount of respect in the industry community and among people who watch television and movies. I enjoy that. I enjoy feeling good about myself. Star Trek deserves the respect it has received.

"If I'm going to be aligned with something, it might as well be something that makes a worthwhile statement most of the time. No, I don't have any regrets about my involvement with Star Trek."

The wide range of talent and diverse vocal accents belonging to James Doohan (who died in 2005) prepared that actor for a similar international (and intergalactic) influence as "Scotty," the ship's Chief Engineer.

According to Wikipedia, Roddenberry wondered which accent Doohan preferred to use. "If you want an engineer," he replied, "in my experience the best engineers are Scotsmen." He then named the character "Montgomery Scott" after his grandfather.

Scotty subsequently became renowned as the show's most catch-phrase-quoted character due to terms like: "Beam me up, Scotty!" (which was never exactly stated as such on the series); "She can't take it. She's breaking up!" (translation: "The Enterprise is going too fast!"); "I'm doing the best I can, Cap'n"); and other phrases involving references to "Dilithium crystals" (which regulated the ship's warp drive), and the like.

Barrett's role as Number 1 in "The Cage" presaged Jonathan Frakes' Number 1 role as Commander William Ryker on The Next Generation and, in the process, became the first female character to take a leading role in the franchise. Her follow-up part as Nurse Chapel remains poignant in Trek tradition because of her unrequited love for the unresponsive Spock.

Grace Lee Whitney, who died in 2015, was only on the original series in the first season, but also left an indelible mark with ST supporters due to her portrayal as the ardent but professional Yeoman Janice Rand. A kind and sincere individual in real life, Whitney, who struggled with substance abuse, always appreciated her admirers, and fortunately found a measure of peace before her demise. As she once said, "I'm at a great place, because I've gone full-circle."


For Part II of this story, click here.

For more 50th Anniversary stories, click here.

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