better known as Gene to his friends. Or, as legions of fans have called him, "The Great Bird of the Galaxy." A World War II veteran and ex-Los Angeles police officer, Roddenberry believed in the early 1960s that he could dupe the television censors and use a weekly television series to address interracial romance, love, war, religion, and other hot button topics not normally addressed on TV.
He figured that he could cleverly disguise his parables by creating a science-fiction show and using the struggles of other planets' inhabitants to stand in for Earth's problems. And so Star Trek, pitched as Wagon Train in the Stars, was born.
The adventures of Captain James T. Kirk, science officer Mr. Spock, and Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy as they traveled the galaxy with the crew of the starship Enterprise did not simply spring into existence fully formed, however. Roddenberry had a difficult time getting a network to take a chance on the show, and when NBC viewed the pilot, they rejected it. The network channel saw something in the show's premise, however, and asked for a second pilot, which featured a revamped cast. This time they gave the series a green light, and Star Trek debuted in September 1966.
The show was never a major ratings hit, and only a massive letter-writing campaign saved it from cancellation after the first season. NBC effectively killed the show by giving it a miserable time slot for its third season, and Roddenberry and several writers quit in protest. Star Trek limped its way to 79 episodes—enough for syndication—before NBC put it out of its misery.
At that point, Dr. McCoy might have said "The show's dead, Jim," but a funny thing happened: its fan base grew, aided by a short-lived animated show and regular airings of the 79 live-action episodes in syndication. Conventions scheduled throughout the 1970s routinely attracted more attendees than promoters expected. Fan letters continued to pour in to the actors. And Roddenberry began to think that perhaps he could revive the property.
Why had people responded so positively? First was the fact that the crew of the Enterprise was multicultural: Russian helmsman Pavel Chekov, Japanese navigator Hikaru Sulu, black female communications officer Uhura ( "freedom" in Swahili), and Scottish engineer Montgomery Scott showed that people of different cultural backgrounds could set aside their superficial differences and work together. Even Mr. Spock, who was half Vulcan, showed that Starfleet was an equal opportunity employer when it came to non-Earthlings. And an internationally diverse crew meant that the show began to build a worldwide audience.
Second was Roddenberry's follow-through on his promise to address controversial topics: the episode "Plato's Stepchildren" featured the first interracial kiss in television history—between Captain Kirk and Uhura—with nary a complaint from viewers (NBC wisely decided not to warn affiliates ahead of time); "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" offered a bloody war between two races—one black on the left side of their faces and white on the right, the other bearing opposite markings—that mirrored the racism of the time period; and "A Private Little War" and "The Omega Glory" spoke against the Enterprise crew's involvement in planetary civil wars—a reference to the U.S.'s "police action" in Vietnam.
Roddenberry even tackled the hippie movement: "The Way to Eden" and "This Side of Paradise" both took a harsh look at the drug culture and concluded that commune-like lifestyles were not a realistic way to live one's life. (Of course, to enjoy Star Trek, one had to accept the premise that Earth will solve all its problems by the 23rd century and everyone on the planet will be united under one leadership. Naïve? Yes, but a necessary conceit for the stories that Roddenberry wanted to tell.)
Despite the show's cancellation, Star Trek's popularity began to rise. Paramount, which now owned the property through its purchase of Desilu Studios, gave Roddenberry the go-ahead for a new TV series. No, wait, a low-budget theatrical film. No, actually, on second thought, a TV series to anchor a fourth network.
When Paramount's plans for a fourth TV network failed and Star Trek seemed dead in space once again, another science-fiction brand exploded into popular culture: 1977's smash hit film Star Wars.
No one was surprised when Paramount revived plans for a theatrical Trek film, and this time it was willing to commit a big budget to it. The plan was for a splashy Christmas 1979 release. With little time to prepare and a tight schedule to keep, veteran director Robert Wise and his cast and crew released Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a mediocre film that many deemed plodding and uninteresting.
The movie did brisk business at the box office, however, and Paramount gave the go-ahead for a sequel. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) brought back one of the villains from the original series (Khan Noonien Singh) and offered an exciting romp through the galaxy that cemented the brand's revival as a film series.
Two more sequels followed, and then a new TV series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, premiered in syndication in 1987. Despite its new cast, the series caught on with fans and remained popular until its season finale in 1994. The same year, the last two films featuring the original cast had come and gone in theaters, and the movie Star Trek: Generations featured a passing of the baton of sorts as Captain Kirk and The Next Generation's Captain Picard teamed up to defeat a new villain, thanks to an anomaly in the space-time continuum that brought them together.
The new Star Trek cast has starred in two more films, with a third on the way later this year. If all goes well, they will pass the baton to either the cast of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999) or Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001), both of which fared well during their TV lives, although viewership steadily declined until Voyager staggered to its finale. The latest Star Trek series, Enterprise, debuted last year, and it features the adventures of the characters who journeyed into space before Kirk and company did.
Unlike its closest "competitor," Star Wars (Star Trek versus Star Wars debates are unfortunately popular among the most fervent fans of both franchises), Star Trek seems to be in a fallow period. The last theatrical film, Insurrection, was drubbed by fans and critics, and many fans haven't been happy with the way Paramount has handled the Trek brand, citing stale characters and recycled plots. Roddenberry's concept of parables disguised as science-fiction shows seems to have fallen by the wayside too.
Looking to the future, Enterprise has been credited with helping UPN's overall ratings improve during the past TV season, and the next Trek film, dubbed Nemesis, has had early positive buzz. For the brand to survive, though, it must reach beyond its niche audience and go where no Trek has gone before.