Happy Birthday, Star Trek

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Gene Roddenberry didn’t set out to create a phenomenon. He just wanted a hit television show after The Lieutenant was canceled. He had a handful of ideas but the one he managed to sell was a science fiction series. Not quite a fan of the genre, he received lessons from Samuel A. Peeples and adapted tropes from the many westerns and cop shows he wrote previously.

After a few hundred scripts, he knew what worked, what didn’t and knew the kind of stories he wanted to tell. He definitely wanted to tell mature stories, good, thought-provoking stories, and set out to assemble a team both before and behind the camera to bring those ideas to life.

You can see the seriousness of intent in “The Cage”, the first pilot. Bit by bit, you saw the ideas coming together, but you also began to notice the contributions from those around him. The tone was set by director Robert Butler, the makeup and props looked plausible, the cast took their roles seriously.

You see more of that in the second pilot, “Where no man has Gone Before” as his cast gets more multi-racial and fresh life was brought by the replacement captain. The equal doses of theme and action convinced NBC to greenlight the series and Desilu president Lucille Ball made the bold decision to deficit finance both Star Trek and Mission: Impossible at the same time.

One thing Roddenberry isn’t credited enough for is the amount of research done prior to airing. He and the team spoke extensively with de Forrest Research, visited the Jet Propulsion Labs, and met with science fiction writers. As scripts were written, de Forrest made certain the science was accurate, enhancing the show’s look and feel.

Roddenberry benefitted from the input from his team, notably D.C. Fontana, John D.F. Black, and especially Gene Coon and Robert Justman. The series was at its best from halfway through the first season until about halfway through the second season when Coon left and was soon after followed by Roddenberry himself, effectively abdicating control (and seemingly interest).

Star Trek endured through because when it was good, it was great. A generation of fans flocked to the show and shared with their friends, fueling countless fanzines, fan fiction, and ultimately the conventions which sustained us until there was new material.

I was there at the beginning, I attend the first con, I read all those Bantam novels, and was thrilled to write about the show for my high school and college appers, paving the way for my working on Starlog, extensively writing about the series and now feature films. All of that stood in me in good stead when I got to work on DC Comics’ adaptation, eventually coming to edit the line for eight years.

It was my work on the comic that led me to Pocket Books and coming to write for their novel line for over a decade.

While I no longer have the privilege of writing within the franchise, I can’t let the 55th-anniversary pass without acknowledging how much of my life has been intertwined with Gene’s creation. I was honored to be invited to join a roundtable talk about the original series over at Stefan Blitz’s Force of Geek. It’s a great collection of people to look back and chat.

Happy 55th, Star Trek.

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