How ‘Star Trek’ Survived the Vietnam Era and Took Over the World

Star Trek Mr Spock Capt Kirk
Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner star in the original "Star Trek" series. (Paramount)

The original “Star Trek” television series premiered on NBC in September 1966, and while it initially made a splash in the ratings, the science fiction tale of a futuristic mission to the outer galaxies quickly weeded out the casual fans. Ratings dropped, but the viewers who remained were devoted and passionate.

“Star Trek” was created by World War II veteran and U.S. Army Air Corps pilot Gene Roddenberry, who enlisted in December 1941 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Stationed at Bellows Field on Oahu, Roddenberry piloted the B-17 on 89 combat missions before a crash in August 1943. He returned to the States and served as a crash investigator for the rest of the war.

Gene Roddenberry stands second from left in front of "Los Lobos." Talbert “Shorty” Wollam, at far right, was later killed when "Yankee Doodle" crashed at Espiritu Santo. (Courtesy of Roddenberry Entertainment)

Roddenberry worked as a pilot for Pan Am Airways after the war before joining the Los Angeles Police Department in 1949. Fascinated by television, the young cop worked as a technical consultant on the series “Mr. District Attorney” before resigning in 1956 to pursue a television career full time.

“Star Trek” draws heavily on the positive aspects of its creator’s military and law-enforcement careers. Ever the idealist, Roddenberry presented a structured organization with a defined chain of command as a force for good as a counterpoint to the rising protests against the Vietnam War.

At its heart, “Star Trek” presents a universe where the world has embraced the American post-WWII policies that tried to spread Western democracy throughout the world. The Federation that oversees much of the universe is essentially an idealized version of the American foreign policy mission, minus all the messy stuff that interfered with those policies in the real world.

A military force that avoided the use of weapons whenever possible and tried to avoid interfering in the alien cultures it encountered (the “Prime Directive”) was in stark contrast to the government intelligence paranoia that fueled the decision for us to engage in Vietnam. Kirk and Spock would have run the war in a very different way or avoided the conflict altogether.

After two seasons of struggle with the network, Roddenberry quit his own show, and NBC moved “Star Trek” to a terrible time slot on Friday nights. It limped along for a few months before the series was canceled in 1969 after 79 episodes.

That should’ve been the end of the story, but “Star Trek” fans are stubborn. Science fiction book publishers kept the flame alive with a series of novels inspired by the series, and there was one season of a Saturday morning cartoon series in 1973-1974 that featured the voices of the original cast.

Then, a miracle happened. Hardcore Trekkies may not want to admit it, but George Lucas created an opportunity for “Star Trek” to make its comeback. The runaway success of Lucas’ “Star Wars” in 1977 shocked the movie industry, which never considered science fiction stories as potential blockbuster material.

When Paramount Studios wanted to get into the space movie race, it checked out the archives and committed to a “Star Trek” feature film a decade after the show had been canceled. The original cast signed on for the reboot.

Roddenberry got a big budget and hired Oscar-winning director Robert Wise. While Wise had won his awards for the musicals “West Side Story” (1961) and “Sound of Music” (1965), he’d also directed the sci-fi classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951) and the war movies “Run Silent, Run Deep” (1958), “The Sand Pebbles” (1966) and “The Hindenburg” (1975).

What we got in 1979 was a “Star Trek” movie with a plot that could have been covered in a 46-minute episode of the original series with a cast that was older, thicker and wearing some amazing wigs to cover their bald spots.

Still, the effects were first-rate and the loving pre-CFG effects shots of the Starship Enterprise hold up more than 40 years later. The cast followed in 1982 with “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” the best feature in the series.

Both movies were hits, and the original cast followed with “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock” (1984) and “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” (1985). All four movies have just been released on 4K UHD for the first time in “Star Trek: The Original 4-Movie Collection,” and it’s amazing just how great they look in high definition.

The movie successes led to the series “The Next Generation,” “Deep Space 9,” “Voyager” and “Enterprise,” alongside two more original series movies and four movies based on “The Next Generation.” After a break, three features rebooted the original series starting in 2009, and now there are three more series running on the Paramount+ streaming service: “Discovery,” “Picard” and “Lower Decks,” with a new show called “Strange New Worlds” premiering in 2022.

There are multiple “Star Trek” movies in various stages of development, including one based on an original idea from Quentin Tarantino and another from the “Fargo” series creator, Noah Hawley.

We now have more than a dozen movies and hundreds of hours of television. There are more than two dozen novels based on the Star Trek universe and an alarming number of games (board, tabletop and video). This idealized military organization is one of the most valuable entertainment properties of all time, right up there with Marvel and Star Wars.

That’s not a bad legacy for a B-17 pilot who was looking to feed his family in Los Angeles after World War II. Roddenberry had a vision, stuck to it even when Hollywood didn’t understand what he was doing and supported the fans who kept his dream alive. “Star Trek” no doubt will be with us for generations to come.

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