The Unfettered Critic – September 2016

Brace yourself. The cultural phenomenon known as Star Trek is about to turn 50. In the coming weeks, you’ll likely hear a lot about the celebratory gatherings taking place. But we like to think this monumental anniversary calls for a look back to the beginning.

On September 8, 1966, Star Trek premiered on network television. Although categorized as science fiction, creator Gene Roddenberry had pitched it to NBC as “Wagon Train to the stars,” with a brave captain and his crew aboard the Starship Enterprise (rather than a covered wagon), warping through outer space (rather than the old West), encountering strange aliens (rather than Indians).

Roddenberry garbed his cast in uniforms of bright primary colors, and introduced them to equally colorful guest characters: green-skinned Orions, blue Andorians, and swarthy Klingons, among others. In fact, he was highly motivated to push the show’s color palette.

Pioneers in television development had been experimenting with color transmissions as early as 1904, yet the U.S. Federal Communications Commission did not approve a standardized system for broadcasting in color until 1953. Electronics company RCA—also the home company of broadcast network NBC—had developed the approved system. Despite the fact that American viewers seemingly remained content to watch programming in black-and-white, RCA invested an estimated $130 million in perfecting color television sets, then began a campaign to promote color viewing.

By1966, NBC promoted itself as “the Full Color Network,” and RCA commissioned the A.C. Nielsen Company to survey television viewers about their preferences. While the results indicated that top-rated shows kept their loyal viewers whether the program was in black-and-white or in color, it also established that the most watched series specifically in color was Star Trek.

Encouraged, RCA executives placed a full-page ad in Life magazine declaring, “When you’re first in Color TV, there’s got to be a reason.” The ad displayed a family-sized RCA console set, and on its screen was a color picture of Star Trek’s Kirk and Spock; the background art incorporated additional pictures of the space-traveling duo. And in a nudge directed at the viewers Nielsen had discovered, a tiny copy line noted: “See ‘Star Trek’ on RCA Victor Color TV.” Cross-promotion at its finest!

Of course, it wasn’t only color that sold the show. Episodes contained the usual quotient of rock’em-sock’em action (the captain was as inclined to defend himself with his fists as with his high-tech phaser pistol), and sexual provocation (alien women wore cleverly constructed costumes that appeared ready to fall off in a strong breeze). In addition, a forward-thinking subversive quality drove the series’ content. The stalwart bridge crew wasn’t composed only of U.S.-born Caucasian males. We met an Asian helmsman, a Russian navigator, and a black female communications officer. The series strongly emphasized a brotherhood between species, along with the concept of secular humanism and gender equality.

Star Trek didn’t die when the original series was cancelled. As the decades passed, there have been new Star Trek television series, movies, books, and merchandise. And, of course, conventions, like the one that drew tens of thousands of fans (and your intrepid columnists) to Las Vegas in August. Or the mammoth event this month in New York City. Or the sold-out gathering in Birmingham, England coming in October. Or any of the other gatherings that will take place to honor the anniversary. By now it’s pretty clear that Star Trek will live into the enlightened future it portrays.

So live long and prosper, Star Trek. May we all generate as much excitement when we hit the five-decade mark!