This week marks the actual 50th anniversary of the premiere of the original Star Trek television series (TOS). On September 8, 1966, NBC broadcast “The Man Trap,” which was actually the 5th episode filmed (Or 6th, if you count the original pilot, “The Cage.”). Despite the show’s cancelation after season three, the 79 episodes of TOS have run continuously somewhere since then thanks to syndication and, more recently, streaming. Fans of the show know these episodes inside and out. To this day, if you let me watch about 2-3 minutes of footage, I can probably tell you which episode it is from.
Honestly, though, the making of the show is almost as interesting as Star Trek itself. The broad strokes of what happened over those three seasons have become part of Star Trek lore. We know about the first and second pilots, Gene Roddenberry’s fights with the network, the letter writing campaigns to save the show from cancelation, and the banishment to the Friday night death slot during the third season leading to the show’s end followed by its massive success in syndication.
Details beyond that, though, are readily available through a number of books. The first was The Making of Star Trek by Stephen E. Whitfield and Gene Roddenberry, which was published in 1968 while the show was still on the air. It’s admittedly fairly sanitized, but it still gives a great look at the start of the series and what it took to get an episode from script to broadcast.
Many of the cast members have also written about their time on the show, including Nichelle Nichols in Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories, George Takei in To the Stars: The Autobiography of George Takei, Star Trek’s Mr. Sulu (That one’s a mouthful), and Jimmy Doohan in Beam Me Up, Scotty (Co-written with my favorite Star Trek novel author, Peter David.). Leonard Nimoy first claimed I Am Not Spock before later changing his mind in the book I Am Spock. The most famous of these cast memoirs is probably William Shatner’s Star Trek Memories, which he followed up with Star Trek Movie Memories.
But if you really want to know how TOS was made, there’s are three recent books that will fill you in. Marc Cushman’s These Are the Voyages: TOS: Season One, Two and Three go into an exhaustive level of detail about the creation of the series and the development of every single episode. Cushman includes information about drafts of the scripts, the budgets, and the ratings of each episode. Considering the stories about how TOS was canceled due to low ratings, I found the perspective provided by Cushman’s research to be fascinating. These books are daunting, though. Each volume is over 600 pages long. I have read them all and found the time investment to be well worth it. I’m hoping he is able to continue with the movies or Star Trek: The Next Generation. Hell, I’d love to read a volume about the animated series.
Once you’ve read Cushman’s volumes (or if you want something a little more personal), The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek: The First 25 Years by Mark A. Altman and Edward Gross is a great companion piece. The book uses snippets of interviews gathered over the years to tell the story of Star Trek from its creation through the six films featuring the original cast. The recollections of the participants are unvarnished, and some of the tensions are still apparent all of these years later. There’s an old cliché about never meeting your heroes in real life. While I will never meet Gene Roddenberry, these books pretty much had the same effect. He may have been the Great Bird of the Galaxy, but he was also very human.
And if you want to watch the original series, this week is your perfect chance (If you have Amazon Prime in the US, you could be streaming it anytime, but moving on)! Starting this Thursday at 8:30PM Eastern Time (The exact day and time Star Trek premiered 50 years ago) BBC America will be running the series uncut in a marathon of every episode. Set your DVR now!
- Alan Decker
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