Fifty years ago, Gene Roddenberry's galaxy spanning Star Trek saga debuted on NBC and helped transform sci-fi television from tired stereotypes into a genre rich with multi-layered drama, ethnically diverse characters, and real world issues. While it wasn't a big hit at the time, Star Trek eventually developed a loyal following that continued through an animated series, the long-running film franchise, and other live-action television series from the late 1980s onward. The show sometimes hired iconic sci-fi writers including Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Theodore Sturgeon, and Harlan Ellison (who won a Hugo Award for his episode, "City On The Edge Of Forever"), while Isaac Asimov developed a friendship with Roddenberry.
To commemorate this momentous occasion, let's look back at the groundbreaking series, during which the crew of the Enterprise journeyed on far-flung peacekeeping and rescue missions, answered distress calls on distant planets, and faced confrontations with warmongering aliens. There has been plenty written about this iconic show, but there always seems to be something new to learn.
1. CAPTAIN PIKE PRECEDED CAPTAIN KIRK.
The unaired pilot “The Cage” (which finally debuted on home video in 1986) featured an almost entirely different cast and crew, with Mr. Spock being the lone holdover on the bridge when the classic team appeared in the first official episode. Jeffrey Hunter (The Searchers) starred as Captain Christopher Pike, who gets abducted by telepathic aliens for psychological experiments involving a human woman. The original pilot was actually pretty good, but the cast lacked the same warmth and diversity that would ultimately emerge. When the studio rejected the original pilot—allegedly for being too cerebral and lacking in action—creator Gene Roddenberry sought to make another, but Hunter chose to move on to other projects. In the end, it was good that NBC rejected the original pilot, because the show was revamped into something much stronger.
2. PIKE RETURNED FOR TWO EPISODES AND THE MOVIE REBOOT.
Several episodes in, the producers of Star Trek created a two-part episode called “The Menagerie” that utilized much of the original pilot. Mr. Spock was taking a now battle-scarred and disfigured Captain Pike back to the planet Talos IV (which was off limits to Federation vessels) for unknown reasons, and he would not reveal why until he seized control of the Enterprise and faced a court-martial. It was a clever and cost-effective way to reuse the unaired material and craft a new storyline. In J.J. Abrams' 2009 movie reboot, writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman brought back Pike (played by Bruce Greenwood) as Kirk’s superior officer and mentor on his first mission in space. It was a nice nod to the original series.
3. THE ORIGINAL NUMBER ONE WAS A WOMAN.
In the original pilot, Gene Roddenberry’s girlfriend and future wife, Majel Barrett, was Kirk’s first officer (who still had to deal with the Captain’s presumptions about women on the bridge). Test audiences allegedly did not like her character because they thought she was too pushy and tried to be like the men, but modern audiences would not think of any of those things. When Pike was kidnapped, she led a mission to the planet to rescue him and proved herself to be a capable leader, but this was about a year before the women's liberation movement began gestating in America. The Star Trek universe finally got its first female captain with Captain Kathryn Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager, which aired between 1995 and 2001.
4. MAJEL BARRETT RODDENBERRY HAS WORKED ON EVERY STAR TREK SERIES.
Majel Barrett Roddenberry returned in many episodes of the original series to play Nurse Christine Chapel, who had unrequited romantic feelings toward Mr. Spock. She played a more nurturing character, but did not have the command duties of her original role. Following that, Barrett Roddenberry—who has been called “The First Lady Of Star Trek”—had roles in every Star Trek series, playing Nurse Chapel, Lt. M'Ress, and other characters on Star Trek: The Animated Series; Lwaxana Troi and the voice of the Enterprise Computer on Star Trek: The Next Generation; and the computer voices on Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise. She also appeared as Dr. Chapel in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and as Commander Chapel in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and she provided voice work to other films (including the 2009 reboot) and various video games. After her husband died in 1991, Barrett Roddenberry served as executive producer on two series he had created: Earth: Final Conflict (1997-1999) and Andromeda (2000-2005). She passed away in 2008, but not before recording—you guessed it—the Starfleet Computer voice for J.J. Abrams's 2009 movie reboot.
5. KIRK HAD A DARK PAST BEFORE STAR TREK.
Prior to venturing into space and encountering all sorts of intergalactic nemeses like the Romulans, Klingons, and the superhuman Khan, William Shatner appeared in a variety of dark film and television projects. In Roger Corman’s underrated film The Intruder, he played a racist agitator in a Southern town who pushes things too far. In Incubus, a film shot entirely in the Esperanto language, he played a good-hearted man with whom a succubus falls in love, angering her sister and setting about retribution. His appearance as a man terrified of a gremlin on the wing of a plane in an episode of The Twilight Zone is famous, but he also made a turn in possibly the best horror TV episode ever, “The Grim Reaper” on Thriller, as a man who warns his aunt that the previous owners of the portrait of the titular character, which she now owns, have died violently.
6. SPOCK HAS GREENISH SKIN, BUT IT WAS ORIGINALLY MEANT TO BE RED.
While Spock’s skin has a slight green tint to it, the original plan was to give him red skin. But back in the mid- to late 1960s, a majority of households still had black and white televisions, so his skin would appear very dark when viewed on their sets. In one early episode, however, Spock looked really green. Someone messed up the color palette that day. One wonders if the chance to see the shows in color during their subsequent syndicated runs helped lure new viewers and give excited longtime fans the chance to re-watch the episodes in a way they had never seen them before.
7. WILLIAM SHATNER AND LEONARD NIMOY BOTH GOT TINNITUS ON SET.
After an explosion on the set of one of the Star Trek films, both stars developed tinnitus, a ringing or buzzing in the ears than is often permanent and can be debilitating for some sufferers. After seeking help all across the country, Shatner learned to deal with it through habituation by wearing a hearing device for a time that produced white noise to help him cope. He has helped others as well. "I’ve talked people down from suicide," Shatner told me earlier this year in an interview for The Aquarian. "A famous musician got a hold of me cold. I didn’t know him. He knew I got it because I was the official spokesman for tinnitus at one period, and I talked him down and encouraged him to do habituation, you know, the white sound, because when I was asked when I first got it how it affected my life from 1 to 10, it was 9 1/2. Now I don’t hear it except when you and I are talking about it."
8. A LOT OF STAR TREK TECHNOLOGY BECAME REALITY.
If one looks at the original series, much of the technology being used ultimately became real. The communicators are like modern cell phones, the earpieces worn by Uhura and Spock are basically Bluetooth devices, the Universal Translators are echoed by the use of modern voice recognition software, tricorders have become the LOCAD-PTS, a portable biological lab used by NASA, and the use of interactive video screens (telepresence) is akin to current video conferencing. While Enterprise crew members recorded audio on hard-cased cassette tapes, they looked like soon-to-be modern floppy discs, which are now outdated in our digital era.
9. THERE HAVE BEEN MORE THAN 125 STAR TREK-RELATED VIDEO GAMES.
Since 1971, more than 125 video games based on or inspired by the Star Trek series have been created, beginning with a text game written in BASIC in 1971, a standup arcade game in 1972, and later early computer and gaming systems like the Commodore 64 and Atari 5200 through to modern PS3 and Xbox 360 consoles. Many of the titles are quite colorful, like The Kobayashi Alternative, Klingon Honor Guard, and Delta Vega: Meltdown on the Ice Planet. It would probably be hard to collect them all at this point—or to be able to play them, unless one owns all the various video game platforms required—but perhaps someone has.
10. THE VULCAN SALUTE IS ACTUALLY A HEBREW BLESSING.
Leonard Nimoy did not create the Vulcan salute that means "Live Long and Prosper" out of thin air for the season two opener "Amok Time," which was the first time we got to see Spock among his people on Vulcan. It was actually borrowed from something he had witnessed as a child when he was attending a service at an Orthodox Jewish synagogue with his family.
"Five or six guys get up on the bimah, the stage, facing the congregation," Nimoy told the Yiddish Book Center in 2014. "They get their tallits over their heads, and they start this chanting—I think it's called duchening—and my father said to me, 'Don’t look.' So everyone’s got their eyes covered with their hands or they've got their tallit down over their faces ... And I hear this strange sound coming from them. They’re not singers, they were shouters. And dissonant. It was all discordant … it was chilling. I thought, 'Whoa, something major is happening here.' So I peeked. And I saw them with their hands stuck out from beneath the tallit like this [does salute with both hands] towards the congregation. Wow. Something really got hold of me. I had no idea what was going on, but the sound of it and the look of it was magical.”
The hand gesture represents the Hebrew letter Shin, which represents the word Shaddai, a name for God. It looks like a lot of people have been blessing each other without knowing it.
11. THE KIRK/SPOCK CONNECTION CONTINUED IN REAL LIFE.
The bond that Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock enjoyed throughout their long onscreen association was also echoed by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy's off-camera relationship. It's interesting to note that while Spock seemed like the more isolated member of the crew who needed that human connection with Kirk, in real life Nimoy was an important person for his co-star. In an interview for The Aquarian earlier this year, Shatner admitted that he never had had a close, intimate friendship with anyone before then. "I had that with Leonard, and that was the only time I had it," he confessed. "I envied it for the longest time, achieved it, then the book [Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man] continues on. It’s a very interesting aspect of life, developing a friendship. Not the 'Let’s go get a beer' friendship, but deep, deep down, 'Here’s my problem, I need your help.'"
12. IN A WAY, STAR TREK WAS THE ORIGINAL BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER.
Despite not really having many ass-kicking women on the original show, Star Trek was the predecessor to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and like-minded shows that were not ratings toppers, but which hit a key demographic effectively every week. When Roddenberry's show was canceled after just three seasons, the advertising people at NBC allegedly complained to programming executives because, while the show was not highly rated, they were reaching the target audience they wanted. That statement is supported by the success that the series experienced in off-network syndication, especially since the show's three seasons (1966-1969) were one shy of what was generally required for daily syndication, and the emergence of the first Star Trek convention in January 1972. Today, a show like Star Trek would have likely lasted at least twice as long.
13. ONE OF BONES'S SIGNATURE LINES WAS TAKEN FROM A 1933 FILM.
"I'm a doctor, not a bricklayer!" Bones was always making a variation on that gripe when asked to ascertain or do something outside of his medical expertise, and it is one of many Star Trek lines that has become a permanent part of pop culture lexicon. However, the idea originated with a 1933 film called The Kennel Murder Case, which starred William Powell and Mary Astor. In the film, the character of Dr. Doremus utters these quips: "I'm a doctor, not a magician." "I'm a doctor, not a detective." "I'm the city butcher, not a detective." Bones McCoy had many variations to offer throughout the Star Trek TV and film series, and he certainly made the gag his own.
14. THE SERIES HAS A CONNECTION TO STANLEY KUBRICK.
Before he appeared as an astronaut on the Jupiter mission sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s classic sci-fi film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gary Lockwood appeared in the episode "Where No Man Has Gone Before," which was the third episode of season one. His character attained godlike powers that made him drunk with power and posed a grave threat not just to the Enterprise, but to the galaxy itself.
15. THE SHOW STRIVED FOR ETHNIC AND GENDER DIVERSITY, BUT THE WOMEN STILL HAD TO LOOK SEXY.
While Gene Roddenberry strived to push boundaries as much as he could, women were still sexed up for the show. Consider that Lieutenant Uhura, Yeoman Rand, Nurse Chapel, Dr. Helen Noel, and other female members of the Enterprise crew all wore mini-dresses. Further, close-ups of the female crewmembers were given a slightly softer focus to make them look dreamier, which was a common Hollywood trick at that time. While some of the female characters were strong, others—like Lt. Marla McGivers in the "Space Seed" episode—were rather frail when it came to men. Things got better for women in later Star Trek series, but then they came about in more enlightened times.
16. MANY OF THE EFFECTS IN THE ORIGINAL SERIES WERE UPGRADED FOR HD BROADCAST AND RELEASE IN 2006.
When Star Trek: The Original Series was being prepared for its initial HD broadcast (and subsequent HD-DVD release) for the fall of 2006, Paramount decided to take a chance and upgrade all of the sequences involving the Enterprise flying and any background shots of space or environmental matte paintings. While some fans (and Leonard Nimoy, at least at first) thought this was heresy, visual effects producer Michael Okuda—who had been involved with the franchise since Star Trek V: The Final Frontier—made sure that the new CGI sequences and backgrounds were integrated smoothly with the old footage.
17. MARK LENARD WAS A ROMULAN, A KLINGON, AND A VULCAN.
Actor Mark Lenard had a dramatic visage that lent itself well to space opera, and he was the first actor in the franchise’s history to have played members of three different alien races. In the season one episode "Balance Of Terror," he played the Captain of an ultimately doomed Romulan vessel that has invaded Federation territory. In the opening to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, he plays a Klingon commander on a doomed ship caught in the path of the mysterious cloud that is wiping out anything in its path. But his biggest role in the franchise was portraying Spock’s father, Sarek, in the second season episode "Journey To Babel," the Animated Series episode "Yesteryear," and in the third, fourth, and sixth Star Trek films.
18. MALCOLM MCDOWELL RECEIVED DEATH THREATS AFTER KILLING CAPTAIN KIRK ONSCREEN.
McDowell played the charmingly misanthropic droog Alex DeLarge in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, but he was on the receiving end of Star Trek fans’ wrath when his character, Dr. Tolian Soran, killed Captain Kirk in Star Trek: Generations—the first film born from the Star Trek: The Next Generation series that bridged the two series onscreen. In 2010, McDowell admitted that he was shocked at the vitriol of devout Trekkies—and that he actually received death threats.
"I didn’t take it seriously," McDowell told me. "The studio took it seriously. I suppose they had to because they didn’t want a lawsuit. They assigned two detectives to come with me to New York to do the press. It was a complete waste of time and quite funny. I kept telling the guys to go home, and they were going to stay outside my room the whole night at the Carlyle Hotel. I went for a walk, and they came with me. I literally came out of the Carlyle at 10 o’clock at night. I looked this way and that way, and there wasn’t one person on the street. Not one. I went, 'Wow, this is some death threat.' I said, 'I feel embarrassed that nobody’s tried to kill me, for Christ’s sake! I feel like I’m letting the detectives down.'"
19. THE EPISODES ARE NOT IN CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER.
If one lists the stardates for each episode, it is soon apparent that the series is not told in order—not that it was intended that way, since the episodes of the original series were not always broadcast in production order, leaving some fans to scratch their heads. Roddenberry improvised an explanation that worked at the time. "I came up with the statement that 'this time system adjusts for shifts in relative time which occur due to the vessel's speed and space warp capability. It has little relationship to Earth's time as we know it. One hour aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise at different times may equal as little as three Earth hours. The star dates specified in the log entry must be computed against the speed of the vessel, the space warp, and its position within our galaxy, in order to give a meaningful reading,'" he told The Making Of Star Trek author Stephen E. Whitfield. "Therefore stardate would be one thing at one point in the galaxy and something else again at another point in the galaxy. I'm not quite sure what I meant by that explanation, but a lot of people have indicated it makes sense. If so, I've been lucky again, and I'd just as soon forget the whole thing before I'm asked any further questions about it."
20. SHATNER PISSED OFF STAR TREK FANS WHEN HE HOSTED SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.
While the thespian with the famously quirky cadence has embraced his Star Trek legacy, he has not let it define his life since he has become known for other roles in other shows as well, most notably T.J. Hooker and Boston Legal. But back in the 1980s, when the movie franchise was a hit and conventions kept growing, the befuddled star decided to make a statement about the ardent fandom that he had not yet understood by doing a skit when he hosted Saturday Night Live on December 20, 1986.
In the sketch (which you can watch above), Shatner played himself attending a convention of newly renamed "Trekkers" and, once he started getting ultra nerdy questions, he literally told the crowd to get a life. "You're turned an enjoyable little job that I did as a lark for a few years into a colossal waste of time," he griped. "I mean, how old are you people? What have you done with yourselves?" Some fans did not appreciate the joke. In 1999, Shatner penned a book called Get A Life!, which examined the cult of Star Trek fandom, and was turned into a documentary in 2011. It seems like Kirk decided to appreciate his followers after all.