Captain’s Log, Star Date, September 8th, 2016: Star Trek Turns 50

CBS didn’t want it. Lucille Ball almost killed it.

Ok, I’m being just a little sensational.

To be clear, Lucy, arguably the most powerful woman in Hollywood at the time, was a fan of Star Trek. But it’s expensive to develop a new TV show, and Desilu was developing two adventure-dramas, Trek, for NBC, and another adventure-drama that would turn up on CBS’ Fall 1966 schedule; this, after not having successfully sold a pilot to anybody since The Lucy Show in 1961. So Ms. Ball was concerned about the company’s finances. Wikipedia says it was Herb Solow, Desilu’s Director of Production, who convinced Lucy the investment in Trek would pay off.

Solow and Lucy first met Trek creator Gene Roddenberry in 1964 and were impressed enough with the concept, and Roddenberry, to sign him to a three-year contract. From there, head of programming Oscar Katz and Roddenberry pitched Star Trek to CBS, who had first dibs on Desilu product.

CBS’s turned them down, but not because they didn’t like the show; it was because CBS was already developing its own science-fiction show, Lost In Space.

But NBC liked the concept and commissioned a pilot, “The Cage”, in late 1964. And although NBC found the pilot “too cerebral”, they liked the concept of Star Trek enough to order another, “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”

William Shatner arrives at the opening of "Destination Star Trek London", first official Star Trek event in the UK in a decade, in 2012. (Photo credit: LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)

William Shatner arrives at the opening of “Destination Star Trek London”, first official Star Trek event in the UK in a decade, in 2012. Shatner’s Captain Kirk was seen as a key component of the second Star Trek pilot. (Photo credit: LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)

 

Leonard Nimoy, taken in 2009. He'd worked with Gene Roddenberry on ABC's "The Lieutenant" and was considered tailor-made for the role of Mr. Spock. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Leonard Nimoy, taken in 2009. He’d worked with Gene Roddenberry on ABC’s “The Lieutenant” and was considered tailor-made for the role of Mr. Spock. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

One character – Leonard Nimoy’s Spock – made it thru both pilots into the actual show, which premiered fifty years ago tonight, Thursday, September 8th, 1966, on NBC. Here in Pittsburgh, it was seen on what was then known as WIIC, Channel 11.

 

Star Trek boldly went where no scripted show had gone before: Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) was the first African-American woman to hold such a prominent role in an American TV series. Never before had there been such a diverse cast in a prime-time show.

The first interracial kiss…Kirk and Uhura.

Issues were addressed that had never been broached before in prime-time.

And although Star Trek had its loyal viewers, NBC was also concerned about its investment in what was arguably the most-expensive prime-time production to date. After 79 episodes, the show was cancelled, despite a massive letter-writing campaign to save it.

But 79 episodes is enough to sell a series in syndication. And syndication is where Star Trek REALLY took off. The Original Series, as Trekkies now call it, ended up being more popular in syndication than it ever was in prime time. The Star Trek movies…The Next Generation…Deep Space Nine…Voyager…all of it, was birthed by Star Trek’s popularity in reruns.

It’s said to be the second most-watched syndicated franchise in history, right behind I Love Lucy.

What you may not know about Lucille Ball is that she and Desi saw the potential to make extra money showing reruns of TV programs, back in 1951, when most every show aired once and then was destroyed. They talked CBS into filming I Love Lucy for posterity and offered to pay the extra expenses required to film; believing they could sell the show in reruns and recoup their investment once CBS was finished with its first run.

Lucy felt Star Trek could live in reruns for ten years. If only she’d lived long enough to see the legend Trek – and the “another adventure-drama”…Mission: Impossible, have become.

Watch a “50 Years of Star Trek” special HERE.

More from Charlie Mitchell
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