Entertainment Today and Beyond

Never Met a Zombi I Didn’t Like…

The Origins of Star Trek 45 years ago


by Michael Cooper

This weekend marks the return of Gene Roddenberry’s dream of a better future for mankind – 45 years after his first pitch to NBC. Let’s journey back into time  to the beginnings of this hallowed franchise…

Star Trek began as the first television show to ever have two pilots shot. Normally a show idea was pitched, a pilot produced, and it was given thumbs up or down by network executives, but Star Trek become the first show to get a second chance and by none other than Desi Arnez and Lucille Ball, owners of Desilu Studios… 

In 1963 Gene Roddenberry was an up and coming screenwriter and producer who was coming off an NBC series he created starring Gary Lockwood called The Lieutenant.

A few months later Roddenberry was sitting in the executive offices of NBC pitching his idea for Wagon Train in Space. Wagon Train had an 8-year run the_cage_ldon both NBC and ABC and told the tales of a group of people making their way from Missouri to California. Gene made a great pitch and NBC executives were expecting a shoot’um up space drama about travelers to the stars.

What Roddenberry gave them was not what he pitched.  Gene produced a one-hour episode entitled “The Cage”.  It is still one of the_cage_stillthe greatest pieces of Science Fiction work in my memory but NBC lunkhead executives didn’t understand it.  Why was a woman second in command?  Why was there a devil officer?  Where was all their shoot’um up violence they had been promised – and, finally, where was their Wagon Train to the stars.

The show was thrown onto the shelf. Gene kept at it and finally Desilu gave him a second chance with “Where No Man Has Gone Before”.  His original captain Christopher Pike played by Jeffrey Hunter was not available shatner20mftbecause Hunter was committed to another movie at the time. Canadian actor, William Shatner, who impressed Roddenberry with a memorable appearance on The Twilight Zone, took the new role of Captain Kirk. Gene also recast his Lieutenant star, Gary Lockwood, and two other actors from the Lieutenant series, Leonard Nimoy and Majel Barrett. The latter two had also been in “The Cage” pilot but Roddenberrymenagerie-poster-240x320 had to fight to keep them in this new pilot because NBC didn’t want either one of them. 
NBC knew Barrett was having an affair at the time with the married Roddenberry and felt that was the reason he cast her in a leading role as second in command.  As for the devil-eared actor, that was just a television no-no for an actor playing a good guy in the 1960’s. Gene compromised and turned his original “Number 1” into a nurse while managing to save the devil by making him the Captain’s second in command.  Roddenberry also made another historic cast choice by adding actress Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura. Studio executives would spock-wnmhgbhave really blown their stacks if they had known ole Gene was having an affair with Nichols too. The doctor was also replaced from the Cage  but not by DeForest Kelly.  Kelly had to wait his turn until the series got going. 

NBC finally accepted the second Desilu pilot on the condition that Roddenberry incorporate the very expensive first pilot into the season one budget. Gene agreed and that’s how the two part Menagerie was cleverly born – it would take another 22 years before the st1Original “The Cage” came to video release.

NBC buried the show on Friday night at 10pm but it quickly caught on with college students.  Roddenberry  pushed NBC for a prime time slot and they finally caved in giving him 8pm on Monday night for the start of the third season. At the last minute NBC pulled the Monday night plug on Star Trek and replaced it with a new show “Laugh In”.  Gene, feeling betrayed, left the show and it was rudderless in the third season, leading to some of the most ridiculous episodes being produced and cancellation after 79 voyages.

Now JJ Abrams rediscovers Gene Roddenberry’s original Trek franchise and, just like Gene, incorporates Captain Christopher Pike with Kirk, Spock, McCoy. Uhura, Scotty, Sulu and Chekov. Roddenberry was actually going to recreate the series himself in the mid 80’s but opted for his Next Generation crew instead.

I’m looking forward to this reboot and another 45 years of Trek adventures where humans have learned to solve their differences on Earth and seek a peaceful Federation in the Stars.


May 6, 2009 - Posted by | And Beyond - Trailers & News | ,

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