Space…the final frontier…on this day, fifty years ago one of the most important science fiction franchises was born when Star Trek appeared on television screens for the first time as classic episode “The Man Trap” (written by the late George Clayton Johnson) aired.
The brainchild of Gene Roddenberry, a former World War II pilot turned television writer, Star Trek was pitched as a sort of Wagon Train (a popular western series at the time) of the stars. That the series came into being at all is no small miracle, its original pilot episode (entitled “The Cage”, with The Searchers’ Jeffrey Hunter in the lead role as Captain Christopher Pike and which, some convention screenings aside, remained unseen until its home video release some years later) was rejected by television network NBC on the grounds that it was ‘too cerebral’. Yet executives saw potential in Roddenberry’s imaginative concept and commissioned a second pilot which with an almost complete change of cast (Leonard Nimoy’s Spock would be the only crewmember to transition from the original pilot) and the addition of more action and adventure elements would lead to Star Trek being given the greenlight.
Beneath the surface, Star Trek proved more than just a straightforward science fiction adventure series and Roddenberry utilised the format to tell stories that were essentially morality plays wherein the multicultural crew of the starship Enterprise would travel from planet to planet and face issues that paralleled social and political concerns of the turbulent 1960s. Whilst network sensors at the time remained largely unaware that Roddenberry and Star Trek’s various other writers were commenting on issues ranging from civil rights to the Vietnam War, its core audience fully latched on to it and although the series was ultimately cancelled after three seasons, syndicated reruns saw its popularity surge as a passionate fan base grew and grew.
Five decades on, Star Trek is a global phenomenon having spawned six television series (with the seventh, Star Trek: Discovery set to launch next year) and thirteen feature films as well as a plethora of merchandising including books, comics and video games and is beloved by generations of fans the world over, compelled by its rich mix of engaging, diverse characters and thought provoking tales that explore the human condition.
At the root of it all is the franchise’s greatest appeal – an optimistic and inclusive vision of humanity’s future where everyone, whether they be man or woman, black or white, of one faith or another can work together in peace in the spirit of Gene Roddenberry’s belief that humanity’s strength lies in its diversity, something that is not a hindrance or to be fought over but will allow us to achieve great things. So, let’s raise a glass of Romulan ale in celebration of fifty years of Star Trek…and to many more adventures ahead!
“The human adventure is just beginning…”