Is Star Trek the Most Important TV Show?

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The year is 1964, the time of the first Star Trek pitch. America is near the end of the Vietnam War, and still recovering from the shock of the JFK assassination.

The average cost of a new car is only $3,500, and a loaf of bread is only $0.21. Arguably one of the most influential events that happened this year occurred on April 24th, when Gene Roddenberry mailed three copies of his script and two dollars to the Writers Guild of America. This was for a new idea that he had, a sort of Wagon Train to the stars.

This was the first pitch of Star Trek. It is hard to imagine this beloved series as anything other than the massive franchise it is now, but it was hardly ever that way.

As a matter of fact, Star Trek was close to being cancelled before it even began. If it wasn’t for Lucille “Lucy” Ball, the show would never have even started. Her affinity for Gene Roddenberry and favor of the general goals of the series have been cited as reasons her studio persisted after NBC rejected the original pilot, “The Cage”. This was later confirmed by Ball’s daughter, Lucie Arnaz, albeit in more flowery terms;

‘At one point, her own studio chiefs said, “And the two most expensive shows are Mission: Impossible and Star Trek, so they have to go.” She used to always listen to everything the dyed-print suits said. But she said, “No, I like ’em!” And they said, “They cost too much!” And she said, “But I like ’em!” So they left them!’

Unfortunately, not everyone viewed Star Trek with as much favor as Lucy.

Star Trek
The original crew in all their glory.
Image taken from wired.com

In 1968, Gene Roddenberry stepped down as the showrunner for Star Trek, and Fred Frieberger became the new producer. The third season was abysmal at best. Critics and fans constantly derided it, production budgets were reduced, and, to make matters worse, it was assigned the Friday night death slot, when fewer audiences were likely to be watching.

The Original Series was cancelled in the spring of 1969. Nichelle Nichols and William Shatner refuse to attribute the cancellation blame onto Frieberger. Nichols wrote in her autobiography that “Star Trek was in a disintegrating orbit before Fred came aboard. That we were able to do even what we did is a miracle and a credit to him . . . He was a producer who had nothing to produce with.”

Rod Serling, the creator of The Twilight Zone, said that “Star Trek was a very inconsistent show which at times sparkled with true ingenuity and pure science fiction approaches. At other times it was more carnival-like, and very much more the creature of television than the creature of a legitimate literary form.” Although the series lasted only three seasons, it would completely redefine the Sci-Fi genre, be a proponent for African-American Civil Rights, and even change how technology would develop.

Martin Luther King Jr Star Trek
You might be surprised by some of Star Trek’s fans.
Image taken from biography.com

In 1970, there were less than five shows that featured Aliens, Space Travel, Robots, or Time Travel.

After the 9/11 terrorist attack, American TV changed to deal less with the fantastical, and more with reality. Indeed, it wasn’t until after Star Trek that shows like Battlestar Galactica, and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century became more prominent.

One could also say that it was Star Trek that led to the success of X-Files, and the modern revitalization of Doctor Who. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Longevity may have its place, but Star Trek’s impact goes well beyond this.” It isn’t an obscure fact that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the biggest supporters of the show. In addition to being a leader of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, he was also an avid Trekkie. He didn’t just like the show, he saw it as one of the best examples of how African-Americans should be viewed by society.

Nichelle Nichols was going to leave Star Trek to pursue a career on Broadway. At an NAACP fundraiser, she was told that her biggest fan was here, and he desperately wanted to meet her.

‘I stand up and turn and I’m looking for a young Star Trek fan. Instead, is this face the world knows. I remember thinking, “Whoever that fan is, is going to have to wait because Dr. Martin Luther King, my leader, is walking toward me, with a beautiful smile on his face.”

Then this man says “Yes, Ms. Nichols, I am that fan. I am your best fan, your greatest fan, and my family are your greatest fans. We admire you greatly. And the manner in which you’ve created this role has dignity.” I said “Dr. King, thank you so much. I really am going to miss my co-stars.” He said, dead serious, “What are you talking about?” I said, “I’m leaving Star Trek.”

He said, “You cannot. You cannot! Don’t you understand what [Gene Roddenberry] has achieved? For the first time on television we will be seen as we should be seen every day – as intelligent, quality, beautiful people who can sing, dance, but who can also go into space, who can be lawyers, who can be teachers, who can be professors, and yet you don’t see it on television – until now. If you leave, that door can be closed because your role is not a Black role, and it’s not a female role, he can fill it with anything.’

Nichelle Nichols - Star Trek
Nichelle Nichols in her role.
Image taken from startrek.com

Star Trek didn’t just help out dramatically with the Civil Rights movement – it also redirected the course of technology. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (okay, in some cases, it does) to compare today’s technology with that featured prominently in Star Trek. To name a few, Star Trek has been using cell phones, video conferencing and intercoms long before the technology was developed. Even one of the fictional technologies, a Tricorder, is now the subject of the XPrize; a $10 Million competition to bring healthcare to the palm of your hand.

So is the world a better place after Gene Roddenberry made that $2 submission all those years ago?

If it wasn’t for this historic show, movies and television wouldn’t be as heavily Sci-Fi oriented as they are now. Without the equality shown in the show, the Civil Rights movement might still be going on to this day.

Without the scientific focus it presented, technology would be far behind where it is now. And if it wasn’t for this show, we wouldn’t have as many cosplayers at Comic-Con. Ultimately, it is up to the individual to decide on the impact that Star Trek had on global society, but the benefits definitely outweigh the demerits.

We’re still on the fence about the cosplayers, however.

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