Sunday, August 19, 2012

Cowboys in Space

In 1964, a former navy pilot had an idea for a tv show, a western adventure set in outer space. At least, that’s the way he pitched it to the networks: “a Wagon Train to the Stars.” 

Alas, tv execs were a bit underwhelmed with Gene Roddenberry's concept. Maybe it was Gene’s idea of having an inter-racial crew. Or Gene’s  love  for presenting social  and political ideas. And they flat out hated the first pilot, in which Jeffrey Hunt starred as Christopher Pike, captain of the Starship Enterprise.

William Shatner,
Captain Kirk
Even so, there was something about the show they liked. In an almost unheard of decision, they asked for a second pilot show to be produced. This one featured William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk and Leonard Nimoy as his pointy-eared, Vulcan First Officer, Spock. Now things started to click, and the show went on the air in 1966.

At first the show "took off like a rocket"--cough, cough--but by the end of Season One, the ratings were falling off. NBC considered dropping Star Trek from its line-up. Fan letters saved the show for a while, but the series was cancelled after only three seasons.

Apollo XI
NBC probably thought that was the end of cowboys in space, but if they did, they were wrong, wrong, wrong! Perhaps the lunar landing in 1969 helped people get more excited about life beyond the earth.

Like many shows, Star Trek actually became more popular in re-runs than it was during its original broadcast. The show developed a strong cult following. Filmation and Paramount Studios produced Star Trek: the Animated Series, which aired on Saturday mornings for kids. Then Paramount began to make Star Trek movies. One of the best was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, starring Ricardo Montalban as the evil Kahn, a character from the original tv series. 

Patrick Stewart,
Capt. Jean Luc Piccard
Then came the spin-offs! First there was Star Trek, the Next Generation, starring Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Piccard. Next came Deep Space Nine, starring Avery Brooks as Commander Benjamin Sisko. Then Voyager, with Kate Mulgrew as Captain Janeway, and finally, Enterprise, with Scott Bacula as Captain Jonathan Archer.

For a show that was nearly cancelled after one season, Star Trek has done rather well. A cartoon, four spin-off series on tv, 11 movies--and still counting! In the most recent movie, the young Kirk and company spin off into an alternate universe where just about anything can happen.

Kate Mulgrew, Capt. Janeway
Why so enduring? In the 20th century we began to ask in earnest if we are alone in the universe. The more we delve into astro-physics and quantum mechanics, we again find ourselves looking up in wonder and awe. PBS space specials are stranger than anything Star Trek has dramatized. And it turns out that sci-fi has a freedom to explore social and moral issues that many other genres do not.

Gene Roddenberry was a visionary. It was a tribute to that vision when the first Space Shuttle orbiter was named Enterprise. When Gene died in 1991, his cremated remains were launched into space aboard the space shuttle Columbia. A Martian crater and an asteroid are named after him.

Star Trek crew at launch of Enterprise
Gene boldly went where no writer has gone before. Let’s celebrate his birthday on August 19th by watching a favorte Star Trek episode or movie.  And Gene, wherever you are, live long and prosper!

Gene Roddenberry


  1. A man before his time, for sure! <3 Star Trek and Mr. Roddenberry!

  2. Okay Patty, I just stopped to say thanks for stopping by and commenting on The Diaries of Pontius Pilate, but I'm a treckey and learned one great lesson from Rodenberry. The star dates were screwed up cause the shows weren't released in order and Rodenberry got flack - then one fan wrote in and said since the ship is in different relation to different stars, it makes sense the dates wouldn't be consecutive. Rodenberry - "get their imagination and they'll think of better plot patches than you ever could!" Thanks again, Max Lewis

    1. Thanks, Max. I love that story about Gene Roddenberry. Best of luck with your writing projects. :-)