STAR TREK'S ORIGINAL FIGHT FOR SURVIVAL
Star Trek, the show that wouldn't die. A TV show that died despite a core of loyal fans who'd rallied to save it. These same fans and new ones then supported the show in syndication, turning it into a cultural phenomenon and ultimately, a blockbuster franchise for Paramount Pictures. Most people are familiar with the story of Trek's amazing revival, but they might not know the enormous battle Star Trek faced in getting on the air. Star Trek was a show that demonstrated an incredible will to live from its very inception.
When Gene Roddenberry pitched the idea of Star Trek in 1964, the idea of a weekly science fiction drama wasn't unheard of. Anthology shows such as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits had met with some success. In those cases, they were shows that featured a new story each week, a new cast appearing as well. However, weekly science fiction television programs, as clichéd as it sounds, were seen by many as Flash Gordon zapping people with ray guns, and flying around in terrible looking spaceships. While a close examination of television history shows there were science fiction shows that aimed for an adult audience, they were rare.
A science fiction show faced several problems. First, there was the limited audience believed to be associated with science fiction. Second, there were the costs involved with producing a science fiction show. Third, there was the stigma that science fiction was for kids and belonged on Saturday mornings. With all due respect to Lost in Space, that show did little to advance the idea that science fiction was about more than monsters of the week.
When writer Gene Roddenberry developed Star Trek, he had established himself as a good writer turned troublesome producer. Roddenberry's show The Lieutenant had ruffled feathers due to his insistence on producing an episode that dealt with racism in the military (the show was about life in the military and made with the U.S. military's cooperation) but not enough to blacklist him. He had an idea for a new show, a dramatic one-hour series involving a spaceship and its crew exploring the galaxy. Now he just had to find someone willing to pick it up.
Roddenberry was fortunate that Lucille Ball, owner of Desilu Studios was in desperate need of some new programming. Lucy and her ex-husband Desi Arnaz had built Desilu up during the 50's but after their divorce, Ball had trouble continuing the studio's success without Desi running things from the office, Lucy was second-to-none when it came to producing her own TV series but negotiating with networks over new ones simply wasn't her strong suit. Reviving her studio would require someone to produce TV shows which in turn, would be picked up by a network. Herb Solow, her Vice President of Production went to work to develop some successful series.
While Star Trek was a risky proposition, NBC agreed to pay for a pilot. The show was filmed with actor Jeffrey Hunter in the lead as starship captain Christopher Pike, Leonard Nimoy playing the ship's alien science officer Mr. Spock, and Roddenberry's girlfriend actress Majel Barrett playing the starship's enigmatic first officer. The ninety-minute pilot "The Cage" was shot with NBC ready to air it as a special should the show not be picked up.
It was not picked up.
Normally, that would be the end of things but even in its infancy, Star Trek
was showing an amazing refusal to die. Network executives were impressed by the show's production values. They had never seen anything so realistic that brought the concept of space travel to life. The problem was with the plot and some of the acting. Despite Roddenberry's mantra that Star Trek
was too cerebral for NBC, the truth seems to be that executives were more concerned with Roddenberry's penchant for erotic overtones in his stories (just watch "The Cage" and note how Captain Pike's alien abduction is basically to serve as a stud for the planet's sole Earth woman. Add in some risqué comments when two of Pike's female crew members are captured and you can see why NBC was cautious) and the network's concern with the demonic-looking Mr. Spock. Despite these concerns, NBC made the unprecedented move of commissioning a second pilot.
Roddenberry scrambled to put together a new pilot that would make it into a series. Unfortunately, the show's star Jeffrey Hunter opted not to return. No one who signed for the pilot was obligated to return as there was no contractual obligation for a second pilot (Not surprising since second pilots were unheard of). Roddenberry wasn't crushed by the loss of Hunter but he did want two people back, Leonard Nimoy's Spock and Majel Barrett's Number One. Roddenberry felt they were both essential to the show, especially his paramour Barrett.
Getting either one of them was going to be a program. Network executives were concerned that the Spock character might scare the audience and they simply did not like Barrett's acting. Eventually, Roddenberry went with Spock, telling Barrett he would find a way to bring her back (which he did as recurring character Nurse Christine Chapel).
With Hunter out of the picture, Roddenberry looked for a new starship captain. One candidate was Jack Lord. Lord had caught attention with his role as Felix Leiter in the James Bond film Dr. No.
Lord wanted half the profits from Trek
for his participation. This wasn't the first time Lord's demands got him shown the door. Reportedly, he'd asked for co-star billing, a larger salary, and more screen time for his next appearance as Leiter. His stiff demands put an end to any future appearances. Eventually, Lord would find a starring role as Steve McGarrett on the smash hit CBS series Hawaii Five-O
Eventually, Roddenberry went with rising star William Shatner. The Canadian native had established himself as a rising star, receiving rave reviews for a number of television appearances as well as several film roles. Shatner's good looks, acting skills, and instant chemistry with co-star Leonard Nimoy helped define the show's lead, James T. (or "R" in the pilot) Kirk.
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