Thursday, September 8, 2011

This Day in Television History (Space-Age Western “Star Trek” Premieres)

September 8, 1966—The show came from the Desilu production company, but Star Trek, which premiered on NBC on this date, was as far as network TV could get from the adventures of Lucille Ball.

Forty-five years before Cowboys and Aliens, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry made his pitch for his cult sci-fi series by using the same premise as this summer’s Harrison Ford-Daniel Craig flop, only in a metaphorical rather than literal sense.

In Hollywood, then as now, you promote a series with a new concept on the basis of what is widely known already. Roddenberry’s description of his creation, “Wagon Train in Space,” might not mean anything to anyone born after, say, 1960, but those at the receiving end of his pitch would have understood it perfectly at the time.

Ever since The Great Train Robbery in 1903, audiences had made the Western the quintessential genre of the big and small screens. You couldn’t make so many of them over so many decades without finding it an unbelievably adaptable genre. You could have Westerns as rousing shoot-‘em-ups (most of the bunch), Westerns as explorations of psychology (Gregory Peck’s The Gunfighter), Westerns as historical pageants (the 1931 Best Picture Oscar-winner, Cimarron), or, increasingly, the Western as conveyor of coded contemporary messages (High Noon).

In 1964, when Roddenberry created the first Star Trek pilot, “The Cage,” Westerns were only slightly off their peak from 1959, when 29 of them dotted the prime-time schedule and eight of the top 10 series belonged to the form. Nobody had to be told about the conventions of the genre—and, in particular, everyone knew about Wagon Train.

Wagon Train was a TV Western inspired by the 1950 movie Wagonmaster by the grand cinema master, John Ford. For its first couple of seasons, it even starred a frequent Ford cast member, Ward Bond (until, that is, Bond died on the set of the series). The show, near the end of its eight-year run when Roddenberry created Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Co., involved a leader—the wagonmaster—who led a small group across the frontier.

The self-contained episodes allowed for special guest stars playing those following the wagonmaster’s intrepid lead.

Now, focus on the underlying theme of the show for a second: America in the mid-1860s, having just concluded a war in which democratic ideals triumphed, was now following its doctrine of Manifest Destiny well past the edge of civilization, into dangerous, unknown, alien territory. What could be more parallel to that situation than John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, and especially the space program?

You might think of the crew of the Enterprise, in fact, as a literal representation of JFK’s wish, stated in his landmark American University address calling for a limited nuclear-test ban treaty, for a “world made safe for diversity.” You have a Midwesterner, an “old country doctor,” an African-American woman, an Asian-American, a half-human, half-Vulcan exemplar of logic—and even, beginning with Season 2, a young Russian ensign who bears the last name of his country’s short story and theater master, but who looks like a more exotic version of the Monkees’ Davy Jones.

As his first choice to play the commander of the Enterprise, Roddenberry, who had written for a TV western himself (Have Gun, Will Travel), offered the role to an actor quite accustomed to the genre. After performances in the John Ford classics The Searchers and Sergeant Rutledge, Jeffrey Hunter had increasingly taken to TV, including guest appearances on the long-running western series Death Valley Days and Daniel Boone.

Before long, however, Hunter, heeding the objections of his wife that a sci-fi show would be beneath his dignity as an actor, had effectively taken himself out of further participation in the show following his work on the pilot, "The Cage."

This spurred Roddenberry into rethinking the show, something that had been urged on him anyway by TV execs. So, for the second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” he not only got a more toned-down interpretation of Spock from Leonard Nimoy (who had played the pointy-eared one in “The Cage” as less cerebral than tight and shouting, as if he’d just graduated from the Vulcan Military Academy), but also replaced Hunter’s intense, taciturn Captain Christopher Pike with William Shatner’s brash Capt. James Tiberius Kirk.

If Captain Pike was a reluctant hero in the mode of Gary Cooper’s High Noon sheriff, then Kirk was more like Davy Crockett: “half horse, half alligator, a little touched with the snapping turtle,” and not above proving it, whether battling evil outside life forms from the bridge of his ship or by romancing interplanetary babes.

(Several years ago, there was a hilarious YouTube clip showing Kirk’s various women. This being YouTube, it was a very abbreviated clip, you understand--less than 10 minutes. If you wanted the complete, unexpurgated annals of the Worlds According to Jim, you’d need a whole CD.)

As more than one person has noticed, there’s more than a bit of ham in Shatner. For the first several years after Star Trek was canceled, this led him to act a bit put out about being identified with one of the great cult series of all time, until—like Kirk faced with one of those doe-eyed, lissome females out in distant galaxies--he decided: Oh, hell, why fight it?

I witnessed one of those moments when Shatner realized that resistance was futile.

It occurred at, of all things, a convention of high-school journalists held at Columbia University in the mid-’70s.

Now what, you are undoubtedly asking, did Shatner have to do with journalism? Nada--certainly a thousand times less than another convention speaker, critic Judith Crist. But Shatner was a draw who could put fannies in the seats. For the actor’s part, perhaps his agent thought this could be a useful forum to promote his latest, low-profile project: a series of educational films.

So here was Shatner, dutifully going on for 20 or 30 minutes about this project most of his audience would forget within a week, finally opening the floor to questions. After a couple of people politely asked about his latest venture, one person posed what was surely on everyone’s mind: Could he recite the opening lines of Star Trek?

Shatner grinned wanly. “Sorry, I can’t do it,” he said. “You see, I’ve forgotten the lines…

That last sentence was met with the same amused disbelief that a number of Americans had when Bill Clinton claimed he didn’t inhale (or when Mitch McConnell said that Capitol Hill Republicans would listen “politely” to President Obama’s economic ideas, even if they disagreed with them).

“…No, really,” Shatner protested. He then went into this spiel about how, with every new role, he expunged from his memory what he had previously learned, the better to recollect whole new chunks of dialogue.

This part of the talk was getting long--almost as sustained a projection of himself as the earlier part of Shatner’s talk--and many in the audience were as restless as they were skeptical.

All except for one young man, scribbling furiously in one of the front rows in the packed auditorium.

I thought the guy was transcribing Shatner’s remarks. Little did I know. Suddenly, when Shatner was able to catch his breath, the young man was thrusting his sheet of paper at him.

The puzzled actor reached down and began to read, “Space, the final frontier…”

A wave of laughter and applause swept from one side of the hall to the other.

Shatner stopped, shook his head and chuckled slightly: “Okay, you win,” he said, before launching into the preamble he could be heard intoning in nearly 80 episodes of the show over three seasons.

When at last he came to the lines, “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” the cheers might have been twice as loud as for anything else he had said since he walked into the auditorium.

I knew positively then that Shatner would never really leave Captain Kirk behind, and I’m sure he knew it, too. Four years later, he was talked into doing the first Star Trek film for the big screen.

Gene Roddenberry’s “Wagon Train in space” had set out again, this time leading a virtual caravan of spinoffs, novelizations, games, etc. that has not stopped since.

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