May 20, 2002
-- Can you imagine a world, a universe, without Captain Kirk? Today, the very thought somehow seems…illogical. But to network executives in the mid 1960s, a television galaxy absent of Star Trek
hardly seemed out of the question.
Even the creator of the series, Gene Roddenberry, needed two shots to come up with his most recognizable character. His first attempt included a Captain Pike, a Dr. Boyce, and a Vulcan Lieutenant called Spock, but no Kirk.
NPR's Margot Adler
reports for Morning Edition
that when Roddenberry delivered the pilot of his "space western" to the network in 1965, the project was met with little enthusiasm. As part of NPR's ongoing series Present at the Creation
, she looks at how an idea that ran into a good deal of early resistance went on to become the most successful science-fiction franchise of all time.
To the network, a series set on an odd-shaped craft connecting the dots between distant worlds seemed far-fetched enough. But a racially mixed crew? With a pointy-eared alien crew member? And a woman on the bridge? And nobody smokes? Why would anyone bother to tune in?
His initial pilot scrapped, Roddenberry tried to sell the idea that his series wouldn't seem so foreign to viewers. It would be like a western, with heroic good guys in a sometimes desolate and unfriendly environment, battling evildoers and regulating peace. He described it as "a wagon train to the stars," with "zap guns instead of six shooters, space ships instead of horses."
Of course, the series would delve much deeper than these ingredients might suggest. Roddenberry always intended that his show would examine the whole of human nature, from the politics of war to love and sex, but thought that shrouding these potentially controversial topics behind a science-fiction façade might distract the censors.
On the strength of a second pilot, this one introducing a young Captain Kirk played by William Shatner and bearing many of the trademarks that would come to define the series over the next four decades, Star Trek
was put on the air.
At the time, however, it hardly looked like the show would leave much of an impression. It drew poor ratings, and in June 1969, after only three seasons on the air, Star Trek
What should have been the end of Trek
's ride proved only the beginning, however, as the relative few who had tuned in while the series was still on television bonded over their loss. Instead of merely grieving, they worked to keep Trek
alive as best they could, starting fanzines and meeting at conventions that would become the trademark of the devoted.
Devra Langsam, creator of the fanzine Spockanalia, helped to put together the very first convention, which met in January of 1972. She says that the number of visitors exceeded all expectations.
"We ran out of everything," she remembers. "We were cutting and sticking labels and pinning them on with straight pins."
It didn't take long for television bigwigs to notice the fans who couldn't get enough of the show. Soon reruns were back on the air, the start of a seemingly non-stop syndication run despite the fact that only 79 episodes were produced.
But that was hardly everything. In 1973, an animated version of Star Trek
debuted on Saturday mornings, and the next year, the Movieland Wax Museum unveiled statues of the crew.
And then, of course, came the movies. The first Trek
film opened in 1979, and proved successful enough that a new film would be produced every few years after. And in 1987, the series was reborn on television as Star Trek: The Next Generation
Today, there have been a total of nine films (with a 10th coming soon), four television spin-offs from the original show, more than 400 novels based on the series, and billions of dollars made in licensing revenues from products related to the series. Not to mention the ever-popular conventions, attended by countless masses of fans, some of whom would go so far as to learn the alien languages spoken on the show.
So what was it about the series that inspired such a dedicated following?
John Ordover, an executive editor at the Star Trek
division of Simon and Schuster, says that Roddenberry succeeded because he "set out to build a world." Ordover notes that "it is in the future, it is something that can be achieved…. We went out and had good values, and we spread those out."
Not to mention the fact that during a time when America was consumed by the Cold War, a time when humankind seemed bent on destroying itself, a little optimism went a long way. At a 25th anniversary celebration for the original series, Roddenberry, who passed away in 1991, had this to say: "It speaks to some basic human needs: that there is a tomorrow, it's not all going to be over with a big splash and a bomb, that the human race is improving, that we have things to be proud of as humans."
Previous NPR Coverage
Listen to a Feb. 27, 1992, Morning Edition
report about the opening of the Star Trek exhibit
Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.
Listen to Morning Edition
's Oct. 25, 1991, obituary of Gene Roddenberry
Listen to a 1998 Talk of the Nation
discussion about the science
of Star Trek
Search for more stories
about Star Trek
Visit the Star Trek official site
, which includes comprehensive episode guides, a timeline and fan club information.
Learn more about Star Trek
creator Gene Roddenberry
Learn about the animated Star Trek
Attend the Klingon Language Institute
Visit a NASA site about the possibilities of interstellar travel
Visit a Star Trek fan site
See a listing of Star Trek books