The original Star Trek was a failure.
CBS passed on the show during the pitch process. NBC saw the first pilot, an episode called “The Cage” starring Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike, and rejected it. The network asked for another pilot, but creator Gene Roddenberry was already working on other projects, including a cop show called Police Story. And even though NBC asked for a second pilot, the show’s studio, Desilu Productions, didn’t want to pony up any cash to make it. Star Trek, it seemed, would never make it to air.
But it did. Lucille Ball, who co-founded Desilu with her then-husband Desi Arnaz, agreed to help finance a new pilot over the objections of her own board of directors. A new episode—”Where No Man Has Gone Before,” starring William Shatner as James T. Kirk—was filmed, NBC picked up the show, and Star Trek eventually hit American living rooms on Sept. 8, 1966.
But what if it hadn’t? What if NBC hadn’t wanted another pilot? Or if Roddenberry had been too busy producing the first season of Police Story to make one? In that mirror universe, the next 50 years of sci-fi TV and movies look much different. So does the cultural breadth of television casts. So does your yearly pilgrimage to Comic-Con International. Our lives would be very different without Trek—and we almost didn’t get it.
Science Fiction About Us
Even trying to imagine a world without Star Trek is like visiting an alternate world as weird as any planet the Enterprise ever voyaged to. And, obviously, it’s impossible to prove a counterfactual, especially one about a show that has now had so many incarnations in TV, film, and other media. But the fact of the matter is even though the Space Age was in full swing in the mid-1960s and shows like Irwin Allen’s sci-fi hits Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Lost in Space were getting attention, nothing as smart and sprawling as Star Trek had ever been seen before. Where Lost in Space was a kid-friendly show that aired at 7:30 p.m., Roddenberry’s show was a more mature version of sci-fi, one that aired in a more adult-oriented timeslot.
And if that second Trek pilot hadn’t happened for whatever reason, NBC might have filled the gap with another goofy Irwin Allen show. The network did, after all, consider picking up two Allen productions in the late 1960s: Man From the 25th Century and City Beneath the Sea. But based on interviews with over a dozen experts, one truth emerges: If Gene Roddenberry hadn’t been willing to fight for his show, and Lucille Ball’s studio hadn’t been willing to take a chance on it, nobody else might have been able to make something as visually and intellectually ambitious as Trek.
“I think that Star Trek emerged from a unique convergence of very special talents, and it is very possible that in their absence, nothing of a similar quality would have appeared,” says science fiction scholar Gary Westfahl, author of The Mechanics of Wonder, adding that it’s easy to imitate the pulp 1930s space-opera of E.E. “Doc” Smith (as George Lucas and others later did), but vastly harder to imitate the more mature space adventures of Robert A. Heinlein (the way Roddenberry did).
And that’s really the crux of what made Star Trek different, especially for American TV of the time: It showed space exploration as a serious endeavor, one undertaken by a crew of professionals. That vision had existed in print science fiction for years, but it was extraordinarily difficult to bring to the screen.
“He made a science fiction series about humans, about us,” Eugene “Rod” Roddenberry says of his father. “I think a lot of the other science fiction of the day was more fear-oriented: ‘Look at this crazy alien. Look at them attacking us.’ It was one-dimensional science fiction.”
Star Trek got those additional dimensions by unifying disparate strands. Long before sci-fi allegories like Battlestar Galactica, the show was combining 1930s pulp space opera with the rising tide of social criticism in 1960s sci-fi novels. Trek also tied together the thought experiments of The Twilight Zone with Western-style action and Captain Video-style space adventure. Without that pioneering work, it’s not hard to imagine today’s world of sci-fi movies and TV looking very different.
However, the most influential science fiction TV show is not Star Trek—it’s The Twilight Zone. According to J.P. Telotte, author of the book Science Fiction TV, Rod Serling’s groundbreaking anthology show proved that science fiction could be “something more serious and connected to the real world,” and in the process made Star Trek possible. But where Twilight Zone raised thorny issues, Trek became part of the national conversation about racism and the Vietnam War, all while reinventing the space opera.
And while sci-fi had a huge year on the big screen in 1968 with the release of both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes, neither film had much impact on television—and definitely not the impact Star Trek enjoyed. In fact, without Trek, live-action sci-fi might have drawn primarily from Planet of the Apes, suggests science fiction scholar Henry Jenkins. In that case, “it would have been a bit goofy and larger-than-life, though much less campy than Lost in Space at its worst carrot people moments,” says Jenkins.
In the UK, science fiction was already blossoming on TV: Doctor Who had launched a few years prior, and The Avengers and UFO were both heading to telly. But when it comes to elevating the profile of sophisticated space dramas in the States, Trek was key. And, thanks to reruns, it remained the polestar of the genre through the 1970s. It wasn’t until 1987, when Star Trek: The Next Generation arrived, that small-screen sci-fi really began to proliferate.
The economics of television changed fundamentally in the late 1980s, thanks in large part to the rise of cable TV and direct-to-syndication programming—both of which helped break the three-network stranglehold that had prevented Star Trek from thriving, says Manu Saadia, author of Trekonomics. And while the ensuing boom might have happened without TNG, there’s no doubt the adventures of Captain Jean-Luc Picard and crew helped inspire that wave. “The resurgence in SF TV that began with TNG would have likely been very different—or even non-existent” without Star Trek, says M. Keith Booker, co-author of The Science Fiction Handbook.
With TNG, Star Trek proved that its real draw was just its expansive universe, full of different creatures and cool story ideas. By adding more TV shows, including Deep Space Nine and Voyager, to its legacy, Trek “started a ball rolling that has gotten bigger and bigger,” says Telotte, and the sheer wealth of material in various media “makes it hard to avoid the Star Trek influence.”
Without the original Star Trek, filmed science fiction might be pretty different. But without The Next Generation, it’s almost impossible to imagine what television might look like now. Babylon 5. X-Files. Battlestar Galactica. Firefly. The Expanse. Would all of these shows have emerged from the ether? Possible—but not likely.
Would There Be Star Wars without Star Trek?
As important as Star Trek was, screen-based sci-fi really divides into two eras: Before Star Wars and After Star Wars. George Lucas’ space fantasy gave rise to a whole explosion of space operas. And Star Wars did more than any other movie to give us the model for tentpole action films. But even Lucas’ galaxy far, far away isn’t too distant from the final frontier.
Of course, Lucas originally wanted to make a Flash Gordon movie but couldn’t get the rights—so his influences were much older than Star Trek, and it’s very possible Lucas would’ve made his movies without the show’s influence. He might still have asked King Features for the rights to Flash Gordon in 1971, and still might have ended up writing endless drafts of his space opera. But Lucas has admitted he watched Star Trek reruns while writing his movie, notes Chris Taylor, author of How Star Wars Conquered The Universe.
In fact, the initial spark for Star Wars came while Lucas was at USC—when the show was first on the air. Lucas saw all those static, submarine-style battles in Star Trek, and dreamed of a space adventure with dogfights instead. Maybe without Star Trek, Taylor says, Lucas never would have kept “searching for that vital sense of movement.”
It’s also possible that without the burgeoning Star Trek fandom of the 1970s, 20th Century Fox would have been less interested in giving Lucas money for his film. But in that case, some other director would have made a giant space fantasy movie, because lots of directors were interested in the notion at that time. “Maybe Spielberg would have turned Close Encounters into a space-bound trilogy,” Taylor adds.
A Whole New Era of Fandom
One of the hardest scenarios to imagine is what science fiction fans would look like without Star Trek. “Star Trek proved to be a watershed event in the development of modern fandom,” says Jenkins. And it wasn’t just because the show had hardcore devotees—it was because the show cared about them. Gene Roddenberry showed the pilot at WorldCon, and collaborated with fan campaigners like Bjo Trimble on the letter-writing campaign that kept Trek on the air.
Fans had been active in creating and shaping science fiction since the days of Hugo Gernsback, but Trek was the first big media franchise to engage fans in that way—and the fans reacted in kind by creating media-oriented conventions of their own. “Isaac Asimov remembers casually walking over to the first Star Trek convention in the 1970s, expecting it to be a relatively small affair for maybe a few hundred fans at most,” says Lisa Yaszek, a Georgia Tech professor and author of Galactic Suburbia: Recovering Women’s Science Fiction. “But when he got there, he was surprised and delighted to see thousands of fans patiently waiting to get into a venue that, as it turned out, was far too small to accommodate everyone there.”
And meanwhile, Star Trek gave a hypospray full of adrenaline to writers of fan-fiction. In particular, Trek created a whole new genre of fiction, “Kirk/Spock” stories (or K/S for short). These stories, in which Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock take their relationship to a more romantic level, helped launch a whole wave of “slash” fiction that remains important today, says science fiction novelist Gwyneth Jones. And just as women felt empowered to write stories about love affairs between Kirk and Spock, they also became key members of the Star Trek fan community in general. “Star Trek seems to have attracted more women to science fiction than any other speculative book, film, or television show,” Yaszek says.
Isaac Asimov remembers casually walking over to the first Star Trek convention in the 1970s, expecting it to be a relatively small affair for maybe a few hundred fans at most. But when he got there, he was surprised and delighted to see thousands. LISA YASZEK, AUTHOR OF GALACTIC SUBURBIA: RECOVERING WOMEN’S SCIENCE FICTION
From Star Trek to STEM
Beyond science fiction, Star Trek also brought a lot more women (and men) into plain ol’ science. While Trek gets credit for inspiring gizmos like iPads and medical scanners, it gets far less credit for the amount of people it energized to pursue fields like space exploration—especially women and people of color, who saw a diverse crew and realized that they, too, could go to the final frontier. The presence of Lt. Uhura on the bridge, for example, famously inspired Mae Jemison to become the first black female astronaut in the US space program.
“Throughout my life, I have heard so many people, from so many different areas and professions, say that Star Trek inspired them,” says Roddenberry.
It’s not just that Star Trek showed science being cool—it showed scientists as decent people. “It made a difference that the crew of the Enterprise were trying to be ethical space explorers,” says Jones. “Young people often want to be good guys.” The combination of diversity and idealism was transformative, and helped draw all sorts of young people into science. Star Trek “really did open doors, in the minds of a generation,” says Jones.
And even more than attracting people to science, Star Trek helped change how people thought about exploration and discovery. At a time when most science fiction was pessimistic—a lot of 1970s sci-fi, in particular, was post-apocalyptic or dystopian—Star Trek insisted that we were going to move past racism and greed, notes Christine Mains, who teaches about science fiction at Mount Royal University.
“We were going to unite as a planet and move out into space and meet strange and alien life as potential friends, instead of as natural enemies. That’s the life lesson I won’t forget,” Mains says. “At a time when we were all worrying about the Cold War and impending nuclear devastation, Star Trek showed us a possible future that was worth looking forward to.”
And it’s hard to imagine that we would have gotten all that from Planet of the Apes.