It’s hard to believe that 50 years ago this week, one of the world’s most iconic starships first graced the grainy television screens of America. A show unlike its counterparts at the time, “Star Trek” slowly rocketed to fame through its groundbreaking style and stories, which were bolstered by the combined talents of actors William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelly, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Majel Barrett, and Walter Koenig in their adventures as the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise.
Though the current legacy of the popular television series and subsequent franchise is familiar to many, the story of its rise to fame is less well-known. Technically, “Star Trek” began in 1965 as an hour-long pilot episode entitled “The Cage.” Pitched to NBC studios by producer Gene Roddenberry, a full series was contemplated but later skipped in favor of the more popular “Lost in Space.” However, studio officials were impressed by the scope and ambition of the pilot, and in a rare move asked Roddenberry to produce a second, more action-based pilot episode. This next attempt, “Where No Man has Gone Before,” re-imagined the story with a new cast (save Nimoy’s Mr. Spock, the sole character carried over from “The Cage”) and a more adventurous tone. On Sept. 8, 1966, the series finally premiered with the episode “The Man Trap.” The history of space opera and science fiction would never be the same again.
Despite a general fan base, the original “Star Trek” series suffered from relatively poor ratings, which eventually resulted in its cancellation in 1969 after only three seasons. However, the show lived on in syndication in the 1970s, where its popularity began to grow. A subsequent animated series featuring the return of the original actors also premiered in 1973, which served to boost its status. This belated cultural interest in the show, coupled with the success of the then-recent space-themed movie “Star Wars,” resulted in the release of the first feature film based on the series, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” in 1979. This was the first of six films to star the original cast in their continued adventures aboard the refitted Enterprise.
After “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” in 1991, the story of the show’s original characters ended. The story of “Star Trek,” however, was far from over. In 1987, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” hit TV screens, continuing the adventures with an all-new Enterprise and crew. Running an impressive seven seasons, “The Next Generation” eventually spun off into four additional feature films throughout the 1990s. Several other spin-off shows have followed throughout the years, including “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” “Star Trek: Voyager,” and “Star Trek: Enterprise.”
In a half-century-long story of science, exploration and humanity, “Star Trek” has become forever ingrained in the popular culture of the nation. The most recent incarnation, a trilogy of reboot films, have brought the franchise back to the big screen, each with varying degrees of success. It’s fascinating to think that this one-shot television series that was barely picked up by a major network has spiraled into the multimedia phenomenon it is today. It can be hoped and assumed that the legacy of “Star Trek,” for both fans and casual viewers, will continue to go where no man has gone before in the many years to come.