On September 8th, 1966, NBC aired the first episode of a new television show: Star Trek. The science fiction adventure series had been imagined by Gene Roddenberry as a bold new vision for the future. Little did he know that his creation would grow into one of the largest science-fiction franchises of all time, influencing innumerable authors and creators. But Star Trek’s greatest influence was greater: it helped to introduce science fiction to the world at large, in ways that magazines and novels hadn’t.
Gene Roddenberry had been a fan of science fiction from an early age. “I remember myself as an asthmatic child, having great difficulties at seven, eight and nine years old,” he recalled in The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek, “falling totally in love with Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle and dreaming of being him and having his strength to leap into trees and throw mighty lions to the ground.” He later found publications such as Amazing Stories and Astounding Science Fiction, as well as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter stories.
Roddenberry would later serve in the Army Air Force during the Second World War, and joined the Los Angeles Police Department. It was there that he took up writing, authoring scripts for television shows such as Highway Patrol and Have Gun – Will Travel before creating his own show called The Lieutenant.
The Lieutenant only lasted for a season before it was cancelled in 1964, and Roddenberry turned to another idea: space. “I was so tired of writing about what I considered nothing. I was tired of writing for shows where there was always a shoot-out in the last act and somebody was killed.” He pitched an idea for a show called Star Trek to MGM, and CBS but was turned down. NBC ultimately bought the concept, and greenlit a pilot called ‘The Cage’. The network wasn’t happy with the final result and rejected it. However, Lucille Ball, who owned the studio that produced the pilot, convinced the network to a second pilot, titled ‘Where No Man Has Gone Before’.
NBC aired the pilot on September 8th, following the new crew of the USS Enterprise, led by Captain James T. Kirk. Each week, they visited new planets and encountered strange situations deep in space.
Roddenberry was familiar with the science-fiction publishing world, and began reaching out to authors. One author was Jerry Sohl who had written The Haploids and The Transcendent Man, along with a number of other books throughout the 1950s and 1960s. “Roddenberry knew I was a science-fiction writer from people evidently telling him I was. So he called me up one day and asked me if I would like to go down to the studio,” Sohl said. Roddenberry had met with a number of additional authors, such as A.E. van Vogt, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon, and Fredric Brown, hoping to bring in some of the best stories possible for the show.
“In the beginning, I was very optimistic about Star Trek,” Ellison noted in The Fifty-Year Mission. At the time, he was the vice President of the Science Fiction Writers of America, and had pulled in some additional authors, telling them “This is our chance to get good science fiction on the tube.”
Bringing science-fiction authors into television wasn’t new: In 1949, a show called Captain Video and his Video Rangers premiered, which drew on the talents of such authors as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Damon Knight, C.M. Kornbluth, Walter Miller, Jack Vance, and others.
Star Trek’s original series ultimately saw episodes written by science fiction authors such as Richard Matheson, Theodore Sturgeon, Fredric Brown, Harlan Ellison, Robert Bloch, Norman Spinrad, and others.
Spinrad noted that the concept was brilliant: it allowed Roddenberry to explore numerous story types: “He devised a format in which you could do a self-contained anthology story every week. All you had were these people on a spaceship who could go to any damned planet they felt like.”
Ultimately, Star Trek lasted a mere three seasons before it was cancelled. By then, it had gained a small, core audience of science-fiction fans, who had been instrumental in keeping the show afloat: They organized letter campaigns to CBS and eventually were instrumental in growing interest in the show long after it was cancelled, leading to the return of the show as a motion picture, and eventually, new spinoff shows such as The Next Generation and Voyager. Upon its return, the franchise remained in television until 2005, when Star Trek: Enterprise was cancelled.
It’s impossible to over-estimate the impact that Roddenberry’s show has had on the science fiction world as a whole. In his book, Age of Wonders: Exploring the World of Science Fiction, David G. Hartwell noted that “It had become apparent that Star Trek is about ideals and idealism in a science fiction setting, ideals which are not discussed but rather embodied and projected,” even as it offered “a kind of Reader’s Digest approach to science fiction – snappy, compact summaries of standard SF plots and clichés.”
Despite that quality – or in spite of it, it offered a new entry point into fandom for fans. Where science fiction had been dominated at that point by dedicated readers who devoured the magazines and novels, television made science fiction accessible to millions of newcomers. Critic Adam Roberts noted in his The History of Science Fiction another side effect: “some critics suggest that Star Trek is more responsible than any other SF text for the increase of female interest in the genre.”
While science fiction was home to many female authors, Star Trek was certainly able to draw more women into the field in unexpected ways, such as with fanfiction and through cosplay.
Because of the audience that it eventually grew, as well as its closer ties to science-fiction professionals, Star Trek became a major conduit for science fiction, as would other science fiction properties, such as Star Wars, in the years to come. Science Fiction was no longer constrained by magazines and novels, or even just science fiction. Star Trek opened up an entirely new world of dedicated novels and tie-in stories. Roberts noted that “perhaps more important than the burgeoning body of TV and cinema texts is the role Star Trek has played as the focal point for a vigorous, worldwide fan base.” This body of work is often dismissed, Roberts explained, even though it does contain some excellent stories, from the likes of James Blish and Joe Halderman, amongst others.
Furthermore, it’s impossible to say just how many writers (published and unpublished) watched Star Trek at some point in their lives and found themselves wanting to explore those same worlds, and ended up along a creative path. In the fifty years since it began, Gene Roddenberry’s franchise has become one of science fiction’s greatest ambassadors, and will undoubtedly continue to remain as such in the next half-century.