‘Star Trek’ Turns 50

It was 50 years ago today -– September 8, 1966 -– that a new television show premiered on television. “Star Trek” was billed as a wagon train to the stars.

The young visionary creator named Gene Roddenberry had written episodes for a number of shows prior to “Star Trek,” but the groundbreaking series was a tough sell to network executives.

The show that was aired as the first episode, “The Man Trap,” was not the pilot but the third show filmed. The original pilot later became part of a two-part episode, “The Menagerie,” and only much later became available for fans to see. “The Cage,” shown as the series’ pilot, featured a very different crew from what fans came to know and love on the Enterprise. Of that original crew, led by Captain Christopher Pike, only two characters survived intact and one was recast to remain on the show.

Leonard Nimoy was originally cast as the alien science officer Mr. Spock. That character was not the logical first officer known to fans, but rather a very emotional character with a tendency to raise his voice in stressful situations. Actor William Shatner as Captain James Tiberius Kirk replaced Captain Pike’s character. Nichelle Nichols was cast as the Communications officer Lt. Uhura. And the unemotional “Number One” was played by Majel Barrett.

But in 1960’s America, women did not hold roles of authority on television…or seldom in real life; to have a woman of color in a prominent role was a rarity. And the network executives weren’t exactly thrilled with the alien (Mr. Spock) on the bridge either.

Roddenberry fought hard for his show and eventually earned the right to shoot a second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” with a few modifications. The alien on the bridge was now the unemotional first officer, “Number One” was gone (she later returned as Nurse Chapel) and Nichols retained her role as Lt. Uhura.

Gene Roddenberry’s dream broke through a number of barriers and spawned numerous inventions that have gone on to become a part of everyday life.

After breaking the taboo of a woman of color on the bridge of a ship, Roddenberry had Captain Kirk and Lt. Uhura sharing the first interracial kiss in “Plato’s Stepchildren” and he addressed several social issues on the series including race, robots in control, relationships outside the “norm” of the day, and war.

“Star Trek” fans marveled at the communicators, replicators, “beaming,” and medical equipment that in 1960’s America seemed so far in the future. The communicator became the flip phone, and while the 3D printer isn’t instantaneous, it does resemble the replicator. The US Navy has developed some medical equipment that was inspired by Dr. McCoy’s sickbay.

While the opening sequence of Star Trek spoke of a five-year mission, television executives only allowed for three. After making a number of schedule changes and eventually relegating the show to the 10 p.m. time slot on a school night when younger audiences were already in bed, the show was canceled. But devoted fans fought hard and although it would take another 10 years, “Star Trek” became a movie.

The movie turned in to several more films –- over a dozen — and there have been a total of six television series – the original “Star Trek,” “The Next Generation,” “Deep Space Nine,” “Voyager,” an animated original series, and “Enterprise.” Next year a seventh series will debut.

What started out as what the television executives saw as an insignificant little television show has exploded into a massive franchise that has crossed the generations and is still thrilling fans 50 years later.

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