Reflections on Star Trek, 50 Years Later

star-trek-premiere-ad-1966There are people who can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing on December 7, 1941, or November 22, 1963, or January 28, 1986, or September 11, 2001.

Me? I can tell you exactly what I was doing on September 8, 1966. I was watching Star Trek, and I would go on watching it for the next fifty years.

I had just turned nine years old, and I was already a stone science fiction fan. The thing was, science fiction was very much a niche interest at the time. In the rural community where I lived, it was considered children’s entertainment—for children who weren’t very old or very bright.

To the extent there was science fiction on TV at that time, it was mostly animated (or marionettes, as in Fireball XL-5), aimed at children, and broadcast on Saturday mornings, when all three TV networks were given over to children’s shows from about 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM. On prime time, there was The Outer Limits, which looked pretty silly, and Lost in Space, which had debuted a season earlier, in 1965. I had watched Lost in Space avidly during its first season. It had started out reasonably grounded in reality. The first several episodes formed a story arc—something all but unheard of in those days—showing how the ship had gotten lost, crash landed on an unknown planet, and the crew exploring the new planet and learning how to survive on it. But it quickly degenerated into buffoonery: space pirates, space hippies, space bikers, whatever. And they didn’t even have spaceships. There was just a sound effect and they would appear.

The point is, Lost in Space was a prominent—indeed, the only—example of a science fiction show about space travel on prime-time TV. And as far as I could see, it was only serving to confirm to the adults all around me that science fiction was silly nonsense, suitable only for children.

By August of 1966, NBC was promoting Star Trek heavily, and the key phrase in the promotions was “adult science fiction.” Nine-year old me had mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, it was obviously a hit on CBS’s Lost in Space as juvenile, which made me want to cheer. They got it! Science fiction didn’t have to be childish. On the other hand, “adult” also sounded like code for “lots of kissing and innuendo,” which left nine-year old me cold.

In the end, it meant both things. The “kissing and innuendo” aspect of Star Trek was obvious as early as episodes like “Mudd’s Women” and “Charlie X,” neither of which meant much to me.

But it also meant mature and thoughtful stories. And that much was clear on the first night, when “Man Trap” was broadcast. It was 8:30 on a Thursday evening, and I was already giddy with anticipation. I had read the entry on Star Trek in the TV Guide fall preview issue about thirty times already. TV Guide gave the new show a distinctly mixed review, but to me, the aspects of the show they complained about looked perfectly fine, and the aspects of the show they liked sounded wonderful.

My mother had already gone to bed that night, but my father was up and watching with me, which made me nervous. My father had already declared The Outer Limits stupid after about five seconds of viewing. My hopes were so high, and I worried that all it would take would be one silly little thing he didn’t like (or didn’t understand) and Star Trek would be banned from our TV, just as The Outer Limits had been.

We watched the teaser together, and when that was over and the show moved on to “Space…the final frontier…,” my father asked me, “Did each of those men see a different woman?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh. Well, I’m going to bed.” And he got up and left the TV to me. Oh, joy! Oh, rapture unmeasured! He’s not going to stop me from watching it. I even get to watch it alone!

It was an exciting, if creepy episode. The things that stood out for me were: Uhura flirting with Spock, culminating in “Vulcan has no moon, Miss Uhura.” “I’m not surprised.” Kirk taking the death of a crew member to heart and snapping at McCoy for losing his focus. And Kirk’s final line: “I was thinking about the buffalo.” Yes, it was an action/horror sort of episode, not the best, not representative. But even here, there was a message. Humans have something to answer for, when other species go extinct.

Star Trek was a challenging show to watch. This was the era of appointment TV. There were no DVRs, or even VCRs. There were no DVDs or Blu-Rays. You watched the show when it was on, and you made time for it. And you had to watch closely. If you missed a line, or a shot, there was no pausing and going back. You missed it. And there was a lot to soak up before you really understood the show. What is a Vulcan? A phaser? What can transporters do and not do? How about tricorders?

For the next three years, Star Trek was the highlight of my week. But I was worried. I seemed to be the only person I knew, adult or kid, who watched the show. Today, I hear stories from other people who were young at the time who report that the show was massively popular among their peers. Not mine. Star Trek mostly got sneers from the other kids.

So was it going to last? I had no idea. Back then, TV ratings were not publicly reported. Newspapers did not announce the new season ahead of time—at least not the shitty newspaper in my town. The way you found out which of your favorite TV shows got renewed was, you waited until the new season got going the following autumn, and your show was either in the new schedule, or it wasn’t.

For me, TV was now Star Trek and everything else. I was excited and delighted that Star Trek got a second season. That was a good sign. And the second season was as good as the first. As I watch them now, I can see a drop-off in quality even late in the second season, but I wasn’t aware of it at the time.

One of my frustrations had been that you only catch brief glimpses of the ship on the TV show. It was a complex, gorgeous ship, and I wanted to study it. Why wasn’t there a plastic model kit of the Enterprise? Well, in the second season, one turned up at the store. I bought it, of course, assembled it, studied it, played with it, flew it to every corner of my imagination, until it disintegrated from all that love. I also tried hanging it with strings and photographing it to make it look as real as possible. (I still have one of those photos. I’ll have to post it here someday.)

The second season also saw the publication of The Making of Star Trek, a fat paperback book chock full of information about the series. Needless to say, I bought one and wore it out. It had a complete list of episodes (for the first two seasons.) It had a photo section in the middle that gave you some better views of phasers and tricorders and such. Plus, I learned how to spell “Klingon.” An invaluable reference.

Was there going to be a third season? Yes, there was. I knew because, late in the second season, there was an announcement. Right there, on network TV, a voiceover during the closing credits, that said, more or less, yes, there was going to be a new season of Star Trek, so don’t worry, and please stop writing us letters.

That was very encouraging, right? The show must be wildly popular, if the network had taken the unprecedented step of announcing the show’s renewal early, and during the show itself! Nothing like that had ever happened before.

But there were worrisome signs. That summer, Star Trek re-runs were getting pre-empted at an alarming rate. Weeks and weeks went by with not even so much as a repeat episode. What was up with that? And when the new season started, Star Trek was on Friday nights at 10:00? I was only eleven years old. Ten o’clock was my bedtime! Except that my parents were willing to make an exception for Star Trek, but only because it was a Friday, and I wouldn’t have to go to school the next morning.

The first episode of the third season, “Spock’s Brain,” was a huge disappointment. People point to it as the worst episode. Ha! It isn’t even the worst episode of the third season. But part of the stigma of this episode, for people like me who were watching the show in its first run, was that it was the kickoff of a whole new season, after a summer when Star Trek was sparse. Excitement was high, hopes were high, and then…this.

The rest of the season was a disappointment, too, although I looked forward to each new episode with anticipation, hoping the tide would turn. My parents got their first color TV that season, and I saw Star Trek in color for the first time. The episode was “The Lights of Zetar,” a terrible episode, but a mind-blowing experience for someone to whom color TV was a brand new thing. I had had no idea how colorful Star Trek was, how colorful the bridge was, or that the uniforms were different colors. Wow.

Gene Roddenberry had set up his own business, Lincoln Enterprises, to sell Star Trek-related merchandise. The address to write to was printed in the back of The Making of Star Trek. By this time, I had gotten up the nerve to write and ask for a catalog.

I got the “catalog” (actually more of a mimeographed flyer) in April, 1969. I wish I still had it; it must be quite the collector’s item today. On top of the second page, in big letters, it said, “Yes, Star Trek Has Been Cancelled…” So that’s how I knew. We were in the middle of another drought. There had been no Star Trek in weeks. The article underneath explained that Star Trek would return with one final new episode, “Turnabout Intruder,” in early June. And that was it. No more Star Trek. The article encouraged us to write to the network, and also to write to the ABC network, which, the piece said delicately, typically needed more new shows than the other two networks. (ABC was very much the junior network at the time, with notably inferior programs.)

So that’s how I found out. I cried. Except for a couple of other really horrible moments in my life, that was the last time I cried. The last time I cried as a child, let’s say.

The upside to cancellation was, as I saw at once, that the show would go into syndication, which would provide me with opportunities to watch some of those great episodes of the past all over again.

I spent my high school years watching Star Trek after school, every day. I skipped extracurricular activities so I could watch Star Trek. I bought a tape recorder so I could record the audio tracks of Star Trek episodes and listen to them whenever I wanted. I recorded every episode that way, off the TV.

By the time I went to college in 1975, I was thoroughly steeped in Star Trek, and could rattle off large blocks of dialog from memory. By that time, there was talk of a new series, or of a movie.

I could go on, but you know what happened next, and I need to save some of my reminiscences for future blog posts. But by 1975, I was convinced that Star Trek was part of our culture forever, whether or not there was a new series or film. By then, people who never watched Star Trek knew who Kirk and Spock were, in the same way that everyone knows who Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are, even people who never read Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. “Beam me up,” or “Highly illogical,” were catchphrases as well known as “Elementary, my dear Watson.”

And I learned lessons from Star Trek that I have taken to heart ever since. Lessons I have lived my life by. It is essential to understand the other person’s point of view. “Different” is not a synonym for “dangerous.” Strangers are just friends we haven’t met yet. Violence must always be the last resort, never the first response. As life lessons go, you could do a lot worse.

Happy anniversary, Star Trek!

2 thoughts on “Reflections on Star Trek, 50 Years Later

  1. Thank you for this walk down memory lane, Mark. I remember first watching Star Trek in the Friday night at 10 p.m. slot, so it must have been the third season. If it hadn’t been on Friday, it would have been past my bedtime, too, and I never would have seen any episodes the first time they aired. I loved it. When it went into syndication, I got to see all the original episodes and became a lifelong fan. My sons grew up watching the second generation, and, even though they’re now adults, we still make it a point to go see the new movies together when they hit the theaters. 🙂

  2. A very personal remembrance.
    I was a bit too young to make demands on the rest of the family as to what should be on the TV.
    I got turned on to Trek in the 70’s and now I own every DVD (except Voyager). But then again, as a Sci-Fi geek, I have many others as well.

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