On this date in 1966, the television world and, indeed, the science fiction world, changed dramatically with the television premiere of Star Trek. For those of us who were either small children or not-yet-born at the time of this auspicious occasion, it’s hard to grasp the full perspective. If you’re too young to remember the Star Trek premiere, you’ve grown up in a world where science fiction television programs and movies have “always” been there, and, really, there’s nothing new under the sun. Sure, sometimes, someone comes up with some really amazing special effects or a particularly compelling story, and we all appreciate those things, but nothing since Star Trek premiered has had the same impact.
Although I grew up on the original series of Star Trek, I saw it all in re-runs and in an age where it had peers like Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and the miniseries made from The Martian Chronicles. I wondered about the perspective of people who saw the premiere and lived through the time when science fiction became a staple in television and movies.
One fan-from-day-one, Jim Menotti, told me, “Back then, television was mostly westerns, and a few corny shows like Lost in Space. Star Trek was fascinating because it had well thought-out plots, and things you could really see happening on a star ship. It was pretty well set up in a military manner and it was somewhat factual [in that sense], like how things would work on an ocean ship.
“There wasn’t a lot of publicity about the premiere, just a few ads, and of course, it was in TV Guide. I wasn’t expecting much; I thought it would be dumb, but Star Trek was fresh and plausible. It wasn’t corny, and it didn’t have corny lines like, ‘Danger, Will Robinson!’ It was aimed at adults, it wasn’t a kid thing; it was realistic. The special effects seemed good at the time, the sounds and the visuals met up with what we could imagine, and the parts that weren’t excellent weren’t bad enough to be a distraction.
“A lot of other shows of the time, you couldn’t follow the plot. Of course there were also the short skirts. I liked that they were using actual technology, but in a future version.”
Bjo Trimble, best known in fandom as “The Woman Who Saved Star Trek” and author of The Star Trek Concordance, said in a 2011 interview with StarTrek.com she appreciated, “the grown-up approach to the stories, instead of the standard ‘there’s an ugly alien, let’s kill it!’ story that was so common. Star Trek presented the ugly alien as a loving mother, an amazing twist. We also liked the sense of wonder presented in an adult manner, plus the three-dimensional characters.”
Another long-time fan I spoke to, Jay Mayer, told me why he missed the premiere. “I was working at McDonnell Douglas in Long Beach at the time, and we had a bowling league. We’d been playing for a while, and were coming down to the league finals, and this one night [the night of the Star Trek premiere] about half of the people didn’t show up! We had to re-group the stragglers so we could even play.
“We worked in this huge room, kind of like a cubicle farm, only there were no walls. Just desks lined up, and I swear there were like a hundred feet of desks in a row. The next morning, the whole room was buzzing with everyone talking about Star Trek!
“Color television programs were still a pretty new thing at that time, so the color and the special effects were a big deal!”
Menotti added, “The audience at that time were people who’d been through WWII and Korea; they expected that fight scene in every episode. There would be a problem, the hero would solve it, and shoot ‘em up a little, too. It kind of was a western in space. They rescued someone and there was a shoot-out.
“The play between the characters was great, like Scotty with his ‘you guys are dispensable, my ship is not’ attitude. Spock was one of my favorite characters immediately. He was all about logic, like Sherlock. I always figured Spock was the real star of the show, because he’d just sit there and watch all the B.S. fly, then suggest a rational solution.”
Star Trek already has three generations of fans, and a fourth generation is coming up now. How is it that this 1960s show with special effects, props, sets, and makeup that are risible by today’s standards continues to gain new fans? The series forever changed the expectations of audiences. We’re no longer satisfied with a neat little package that pits black against white and wraps up neatly in the span of an hour. And though today’s production technology is light years beyond what was available in 1966, the effects in Star Trek were a giant step above its contemporaries. The show set the bar far above what was common and accepted in its own time, and established a standard to which future shows would aspire.
The original series was written well, and in a way that’s held up to the test of time. It was also grounded in imagined technology that was just above the surface of reality, yet it was so forward-thinking that today, 48 years later, much of that foundational technology is still just out of reach; the original series still piques our curiosity and imagination, and still turns our eyes toward the stars and the future.