In the early 60s, television was dominated by declining Westerns. Furthermore, the genre of Science Fiction was well past its Golden Age of Arthur C Cark, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and the best episodes of the Twilight Zone. Enter Eugene “Rod” Roddenberry, a former B-17 pilot in the Pacific, Pan Am pilot, and LAPD beat cop. He had a vision of combining the two genres. In 1964, he pitched a treatment for a very different television show to Desliu executives (a production company formed by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball), and the show was eventually picked up by NBC.
Roddenberry’s “Star Trek” was set on a futuristic 23rd century spaceship, the USS Enterprise, that explored the unknown expanse of our galaxy. Unlike Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, the star ship was a naval vessel with a lingo that seemed familiar to the World War Two generation, which was the original target and most lucrative audience at the time. The show’s liberal interventionist and character driven plots would revolve around the three main characters. This trio consisted of the Horatio Hornblower-esque captain and decision maker, and the two halves of his conscious: the coldly logical science officer and the emotionally charged medical officer. The agreement of the three was then supported by a diverse crew – the swashbuckling physicist and helmsmen (the first Asian character portrayed in a positive light), the stereotypical but willful nurse (and ship’s computer), the supremely competent, if irascible Scottish engineering officer (a hit with the generation that saved the world), and the stupid hot and always capable African-American communications officer (the first African American on prime time TV not in a menial role), among many others. (The youthful mop topped navigator, for the girls spellbound by the contemporary band The Monkees, did not join the crew until the second season.)
The first episode of Star Trek, “The Man Trap”, aired on NBC at 8:30 pm on 8 September 1966. Most critics hated it, particularly the New York Times and the Boston Globe. And it also opened to generally poor ratings among most viewers, except one key demographic: young people. They had never before watched TV in these numbers in this timeslot. Young viewers were drawn to the unheard of combination of heady science fiction, utopian respect, cultural diversity, egoless teamwork, unbridled optimism, and all wrapped up in good old fashioned American “Can Do” attitude. The show only lasted for three (glorious) seasons, mostly due to the peace movement, the Vietnam War, and the souring of American attitudes to intervening in other cultures.
However, the fans of the show wouldn’t be kept down for long. In 1972, a surprisingly successful convention for Star Trek enthusiasts was held in New York City, and the first “fandom” was born (not to mention the “con”). It was this fan base, and their renewed interest in Science Fiction, that would form the lines outside movie theaters to see the future Star Wars and Close Encounters, and lead directly to the intellectual property model of entertainment we enjoy today. These fan bases would go on to make Science Fiction, and its off shoots in comic books and fantasy, among America’s greatest cultural exports. The informal networks of the shared interests in these fandoms would not only precede social networking by 40 years, but form their models.
In many ways, Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scottie, Uhura, Chekov, and Sulu prompted America ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before”.