50 years ago tonight

Tonight 50 years ago premiered …

Although Burt Reynolds was a megastar, the more important TV program premiered right now 50 years ago (in the Eastern, Central and Pacific time zones) on your favorite NBC station:

At a minimum, Star Trek was the best non-anthology science fiction TV series to that point, and for years afterward. Other than “The Twilight Zone” (hence my “non-anthology” description), most science fiction on TV was monster-related or rocket-related, each with bad special effects.

There has been considerable revisionist history in the ramp-up to Star Trek’s 50th anniversary. The hard truth is that Star Trek was not a commercial success in its first iteration. Despite having a lead-in of “Daniel Boone,”  rated 25th, and followed by eventually the color version  of “Dragnet,” rated 21st, and “The  Dean Martin Show,” rated 14th, Star Trek was third in its time period, behind ABC’s “Bewitched,” rated seventh,  and CBS’ “My Three Sons” and “The CBS Thursday Night Movie,” rated 29th. The second-season ratings were bad enough (CBS had “Gomer Pyle, USMC,” rated third) that  NBC considered canceling the series. Star Trek was canceled after its third season, unable to compete against CBS’ Friday movie and ABC’s “Judd for the Defense.”

Or was it a commercial flop? Star Trek Fact Check suggests otherwise:

Recently, however, author Marc Cushman has been challenging this account in a series of self-published books and a flurry of interviews promoting them (my review of Cushman’s first volume, These Are The Voyages: TOS – Season Onecan be found here). In one of those interviews, at Trek Core, Cushman said:

Star Trek was not the [ratings] failure that we had been led to believe.

It was NBC’s top rated Thursday night series and, on many occasions, won its time slot against formidable competition, including Bewitched, ABC’s most popular show. And when they banished it to Friday nights, as Book Two will reveal, it was the network’s top rated Friday night show. Yet NBC wanted to cancel it! Even when they tried to hide it from the fans at 10 p.m., during Season Three, it’s [sic] numbers were not as bad as reported. So, once I made this discovery, then, of course, I needed to find out the real reason for the way the network treated Star Trek, and the documents regarding that, which build as we go from Book One to Two and then Three, are quite fascinating.

Cushman elaborates upon his argument near the end of his first volume, These Are The Voyages: TOS – Season One:

One must wonder why a network would even consider cancelling a Top 40 series that was almost always a solid second place in the ratings — often hitting the No. 1 spot in its timeslot — against formidable competition, pulling in, on average, just under 30% of the TVs in use across America. (On the few occasions when it slipped to third place, it was always in a close race for the number two spot.)

– Marc Cushman with Susan Osborn, These Are The Voyages – TOS: Season One (2013), p. 541

The views expressed in These Are The Voyages about Star Trek‘s ratings performance are, needless to say, irreconcilable with previous accounts. Either the series was a ratings failure — as has been so often understood — or it was, as Cushman argues, a ratings success. …
Marc Cushman closes These Are The Voyages – TOS: Season One by asking why NBC would even consider cancelling Star Trek at the end of its first broadcast season. This question, however, is predicated on the assumption that Mr. Cushman’s argument about the ratings is correct. I believe I have pointed out enough flaws in his reasoning and presented enough counter-evidence that such claims should be held in considerable doubt.

Therefore, I believe a more appropriate question to ask would be this: why was Star Trek renewed for a second season? After all, the show was an expensive one to produce, and following an initial flash of success, its ratings had dropped to a level that was nothing to shout about. I can think of three reasons which may have been the tipping point convincing NBC to go forward with the program – although I hope my readers will be able to come up with others that I haven’t considered.

First, Star Trek had garnered some awards recognition at the close of its first season, with five Emmy nominations (including the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series) and a Hugo Award (for “The City on the Edge of Forever”). NBC may have hoped the publicity surrounding this recognition would have translated into increased viewership.

Second, as argued by Solow and Justman in their book, Inside Star Trek: The Real Story, at the time the series was produced, RCA was the parent company of NBC, and Star Trek helped sell color television sets for RCA:

In 1966, NBC, at the behest of RCA, commissioned the A.C. Nielsen Company to do a study on the popularity of color television series as opposed to all television series. The results were expected–and very unexpected.

Favorite series were popular whether or not they were viewed in color. For example, NBC’s Bonanza series was a top-rated series on the overall national ratings list as well as on the color ratings list.

However, in December 1966, with Star Trek having been on the air only three months, an NBC executive called with some news. The Nielsen research indicated that Star Trek was the highest-rated color series on television. I distributed the information to the Star Trek staff. We thought it was all very interesting, nothing to write home about, and went back to work. We were wrong; we failed to see the importance of the research

Perhaps those initial and subsequent Nielsen color series ratings contributed to giving Star Trek a second year of life. Putting aside low national ratings and lack of sponsors, perhaps a reason for renewing Star Trek, other than all the phone calls, letters, and demonstrations at NBC, was its position as the top-rated color series on the ‘full color network.’ NBC’s parent company was RCA. Star Trek sold color television sets and made money for RCA.

– Herbert F. Solow, Inside Star Trek: The Real Story (1996), p.305

Third, NBC may have simply had nothing better to replace the series with. Star Trekwasn’t generating huge ratings, but the ratings weren’t disastrous, either, at least not during its first season. According to Television Magazine in 1967:

Disaster…is the shock word in network programming. One of the best ways to avoid it is to put on even a weak grey-area show [a show ranked 30th-70th in the ratings] rather than take a chance with the least promising of the new batch of programs.

Fourth, renewing the series might have made sense because of the overall younger demographic it appealed to, which even in the late 1960s was becoming more important to advertisers. Paul Klein, the vice president of research for NBC, told Television Magazine in 1967 that “a quality audience – lots of young adult buyers – provides a high level that may make it worth holding onto a program despite low over-all [sic] ratings.” He went on to tell the magazine that, “‘quality audiences’ are what helped both Mission Impossible and Star Trek survive another season.” In a later TV Guide interview, Klein specifically mentioned Star Trek again, telling the magazine that the series was renewed in spite of weak ratings, “because it delivers a quality, salable audience…[in particular] upper-income, better-educated males.”

Even one of the writers most recognized for the series, David Gerrold, called “The Man Trap” “The Giant Salt Vampire.” It was not the best first episode the series could have begun with; the first filmed episode, “The Corbomite Maneuver,” would have been better.

At least the series got going by halfway through the first season, unlike Star Trek: The Next Generation, which took two seasons. (No series with episodes as poor as some of TNG’s were would have survived to two years had it not been for TOS’ post-cancellation popularity.)

Certainly TV critics weren’t fans, as StarTrek.com reveals from newspaper clippings:

They may not have been fans because of what had passed for sci-fi on TV before then, including CBS’ “Lost in Space,” the supposed reason CBS rejected Star Trek. (Interestingly, CBS now owns the Star Trek franchise thanks to being part of the Paramount world; Paramount purchased Lucille Ball’s Desilu studio, the original producer.)

Everything seems obvious in retrospect, and it’s obvious why Star Trek should have been able to be on the air longer. What creator Gene Roddenberry described as “‘Wagon Train‘ to the stars” (referring to an eight-season Western) was an ideal format for whatever kind of episode you wanted — adventure, action, drama, comedy, romance, camp, and whatever “Spock’s Brain” was. The format also allowed old stories (Moby Dick) and movies (“The Enemy Below”) to be recast as outstanding episodes (“The Doomsday Machine” and “Balance of Terror,” respectively). Roddenberry also demonstrated rare (for the period) ingenuity and courage in using the format to explore contemporary issues, including racism and war. (Not sexism, because this was the swinging ’60s.)

The series worked because of the characters Roddenberry created — characters that haven’t been equaled in any Star Trek iteration since then. James T. Kirk is one of the ultimate commanders in fiction. There was no character in fiction like Spock before Spock. In Kirk’s world Spock was his brain and McCoy was his heart. And the other characters as well — the always-loyal and inventive engineer Mr. Scott, Lt. Uhura, whose impact exceeded her role, and the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (or they could have been had they been used more together), Sulu and Chekov  — if Roddenberry’s work before and after Star Trek left a mixed record (quick: name something else Roddenberry did), Roddenberry hit a grand slam with Star Trek’s characters. (Which is one reason for the negative reaction to the J.J. Abrams reboots — he screwed around with the characters.)

I have written a lot about Star Trek on this blog, including about its failings, including bad economics and an excessively Utopian view of human nature. Another problem specific to the series that premiered 50 years ago tonight was the realities of 1960s TV. NBC at the time was the second-place network unwilling to devote enormous resources to something the suits probably didn’t understand. By the third season Star Trek was already recycling tropes from the first two seasons’ episodes, leading to Gerrold’s description of …

“The Enterprise approaches a planet (…) Kirk, Spock, and McCoy get captured by 6-ft green women in steel brassieres.
“They take away the spacemen’s communicators because they offend the computer-god these women worship.”
“Meanwhile, Scotty discovers that he’s having trouble with the doubletalk generator, and he can’t fix it. The Enterprise will shrivel into a prune in 2 hours unless something is done immediately. But Scotty can’t get in touch with the Captain.”

“Of course he can’t. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy have been brought before the high priest of the cosmic computer, who decides that they are unfit to live. All except the Vulcan, who has such interesting ears. She puts Spock in a mind-zapping machine which leaves him quoting 17-syllable Japanese haiku for the next 2 acts.

“McCoy can’t do a damn thing for him. “I’m a doctor, not a critic!” he grumbles. Kirk seduces the cute priestess.”
“On the ship, sparks fly from Chekov’s control panel, and everyone falls out of their chairs. Uhura tries opening the hailing frequencies, and when she can’t, she admits to being frightened… Scotty figures there’s only 15 minutes left. Already the crew members are wrinkling as the starship begins to prune.”

“Down on the planet, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are being held in a dungeon.”
“The girl Kirk’s seduced decides that she has never had it so good in her life and discards all of her years-long training and lifetime-held beliefs to rescue him, conveniently remembering to bring him his communicator and phaser. Abruptly, Spock reveals how hard he has been working to hide his emotions and then snaps back to normal. Thinking logically, he and Kirk then drive the computer crazy with illogic.
“Naturally, it can’t cope, its designers not having been as smart as our Earthmen. (…) It shorts out all its fuses and releases the Enterprise just in time for the last commercial. For a tag, the seduced priestess promises Kirk that she will work to build a new civilization on her planet – just for Kirk – one where steel brassieres are illegal.”

“GREEN PRIESTESSES OF THE COSMIC COMPUTER has no internal conflict; it’s all formula. Kirk doesn’t have a decision to make (…) It’s a compendium of all the bad plot devices that wore out their welcome on too many Star Trek episodes. It’s all excitement, very little story. (…) FORMULA occurs when FORMAT starts to repeat itself. Or when writers are giving less than their best. (…) Flashy devices can conceal the lack for awhile, but ultimately, the lack of any real meat in the story will leave the viewers hungry and unsatisfied.”

By that point Roddenberry was Executive Producer In Name Only, already thinking of his next project. Star Trek’s current existence may be to the credit, almost as much as Roddenberry, as Lucille Ball, whose Desilu Studios produced Star Trek until Paramount purchased Desilu. From all indications, Ball was as ardent a supporter of the series as anyone. (Which makes it too bad that there was never an on-camera role for Ball during the series, though screwball comedy was probably one of the few formats that didn’t fit into the series.)

It should be obvious that Star Trek went far beyond what even its creator, Roddenberry, thought it was capable of doing. Roddenberry was certainly a visionary, but necessarily imperfect, because the future is very difficult to predict, as the fact that we already have communicator- and tricorder-like devices, but we haven’t had a third world war, nor a eugenics war. As I’ve stated before, Roddenberry was, and Star Trek’s most ardent fans are, wrong about at least two things — (1) the idea that economic realities will go away in 300 years even if everything can be made in a replicator, and, even more importantly, (2) the fairytale that human nature will be overcome 300 years from now.
Given all of that, what has happened after Star Trek’s cancellation is nothing short of remarkable. Had you told me upon my fourth birthday, when the last (and arguably worst) TOS episode, “Turnabout Intruder,” aired, that the canceled series would be remade into six movies, four spinoff series (and three movies from the original spinoff), remade in its original premise into three movies, and spawn an entire universe of fan fiction, I wouldn’t have known what you were talking about, and neither would have anyone else with more knowledge than a 4-year-old has about the TV business.

At an absolute minimum, Star Trek was entertaining TV, and TV that even in its original iteration stands up better than most of what else was on TV in the late 1960s. Regardless of the series, there is no substitute for good characters and good stories.

 

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