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50 Years Ago, ‘Star Trek’ Boldly Went Where Hardly Any TV Shows Had Gone Before
July 3, 2017  | By Alex Strachan  | 2 comments

Several years ago, in a memorable exchange on HBO’s Real Time, host Bill Maher and guest Seth MacFarlane were discussing the nature of actual war, as opposed to the sanitized version so often seen on the nightly news.

Maher, knowing MacFarlane’s affection for the original series Star Trek, recalled a 1967 episode, “A Taste of Armageddon,” (top) that touched on that very subject.

In the episode, written by co-producer Gene L. Coon and directed by veteran 1960’s TV director Joe Pevney, a planet has been at war with a neighboring planet for 500 years. Over time, that war had been reduced to a computer simulation, with the victims of presumed attacks dutifully reporting to “disintegration chambers,” designed to reflect casualties without exposing the two planets to the destruction and carnage of actual war.

Captain Kirk, appalled, orders the destruction of the disintegration chambers, forcing the two planets to contemplate the horrors of the real thing, and giving them the incentive — finally, after 500 years of sanitized conflict — to make peace.

As Maher looked on in open-mouthed astonishment, MacFarlane immediately launched into a word-for-word recital of Kirk’s summation speech, complete with William Shatner’s mannerisms and penchant for pregnant pauses.

KIRK:  “Yes, (war) is instinctive. But the instinct can be fought. We're human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands, but we can stop it. We can admit that we're killers, but we're not going to kill today. That's all it takes. Knowing that we won't kill today. . . . Peace or utter destruction. It's up to you.”

Referencing Star Trek might seem like trivializing a discussion about war. In one way, it is — Star Trek was just a TV show, after all — but in another, it’s entirely valid. In the same way politically active playwright Rod Serling famously created The Twilight Zone as a way to tackle social issues on TV without running afoul of network censors — or Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee hearings into alleged communist influences in Hollywood — by wrapping his cautionary tales in the guise of a sci-fi series, Star Trek was much more than a silly space opera. 

Star Trek tackled the social issues of the day, everything from civil rights, gender equality, race and the peace movement to the morality of waging of illegal wars in faraway places — this, at a time when U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was ramped up to unprecedented levels — and did it in a way that, even today, 50 years later, a show originally designed to sell color TV sets, and color ads, is still part of the conversation about popular culture.

Few TV shows have left such a distinctive legacy, though it can be said that the era in which Star Trek was made — the late 1960s and early ‘70s — produced a steady parade of classic, ground-breaking dramas and comedies reflective on a particularly tumultuous time in American history, whether it was M*A*S*H and the way it reflected the Vietnam conflict through the prism of the Korean War, or All in the Family and the way creator Norman Lear riffed on the culture wars underway at the time, culture wars that would eventually rip at the very heart  of American society.

I grew up with Star Trek. It was the first TV show I saw in color. As a child, it was the first TV show, comedy or drama, that I made a point of seeing, each and every week. To a child of the late ‘60s, Star Trek was fun. It was cool, it was neat. Yes, we can look back at it today and giggle at the sight of Capt. Kirk — Shatner, giving it his all — wrestling a rubber alligator man, making eyes at the comely green-skinned maidens of Orion and being buffeted about the head by styrofoam rocks on Cestus IIII, but looking past the occasionally tacky set design and dated psychedelic visual effects, it’s remarkable how timely the issues are, how true-to-life the main characters seem, how easy they are to relate to and understand. Spock, McCoy and Kirk are arguably the most memorable fictional characters to form a trio in a mainstream commercial TV drama.

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, a Los Angeles City College graduate, former U.S. Air Force and Pan American pilot who became a Los Angeles police officer and LAPD’s public information officer, once said he wanted Star Trek to depict an optimistic, hopeful future, where good people, for all their human — and non-human — frailties, try their utmost to do the right thing, while spreading humanity’s vision of peace and prosperity throughout the universe.

Roddenberry famously once said he sat down on a Friday afternoon, knowing that he had to come up with at least 50 workable episode story ideas by Monday, or else the idea wouldn’t work as a proper series. (Given how quickly some promising series run out of ideas, that should be an unwritten law of TV in present-day series production.)

By 1966, parent network NBC — like the other major broadcast networks at the time — was anxiously looking for story ideas that would show off then-new color TV technology to its best effect. Star Trek, with its bright primary colors and promise of a different world every week, was tailor-suited to the task.

Even so, Star Trek proved a tough sell with viewers more used to earthbound dramas like Bonanza and Gunsmoke than, as Roddenberry pitched it, “a Wagon Train to the stars.”

After a bright start in the ratings, Star Trek clung to life, barely, for just three seasons. It was costly to make for its time and, by 1970, color TV sets were no longer the novelty they were in 1966.

And yet, as we now know, the original Star Trek has left a legacy that — no pun intended — is practically timeless.

Later this month, the Television Critics Association will bestow its annual Heritage Award, given each year to a classic TV series that changed the culture in some tangible, recognizable way.

Star Trek has been a contender in the past, and small wonder. The organization — which represents some 200 TV critics across the U.S. and Canada — has recognized such seminal programs as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers and M*A*S*H in the past. This year’s recipient will be revealed Aug. 5, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif.

As someone who grew up watching Capt. Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. “Bones” McCoy bring their civilizing influence to the far reaches of the universe, I can think of worse choices than a classic ‘60s space opera that boldly went where few programs had gone before.

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Bob Lamm
Sorry, my previous posts needs a rewrite. (I wish we could edit our comments.) Of course Mr. Strachan did mention and praise THE TWILIGHT ZONE. But I wish it had been included in a chronology to show that the best shows of the late 1960s and early 1970s built on important work that came before them.
Jul 4, 2017   |  Reply
Bob Lamm
This is a wonderful piece. I just wish there had been one slight revision. Mr. Strachan's comments about the best shows of the late 1960s and early 1970s-- (there were also plenty of terrible shows then--are absolutely right. But he hasn't mentioned the shows that came before them, the shows that broke ground by bringing social issues consistently to the forefront in nighttime television. These include THE DEFENDERS, THE NURSES, ROUTE 66, EAST SIDE WEST SIDE, and, right from this article, THE TWILIGHT ZONE (which began in 1959).
Jul 4, 2017   |  Reply
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