Sunday, September 25, 2016

Trek50/B4 Trek: New Frontiers

Launch of the first American to orbit the Earth 1962
At the iconic 1939 New York World’s Fair, the popular exhibit called Futurama depicted extensive freeway systems in the American future of 1960. Called “Building the World of Tomorrow,” the Fair also exhibited a future technology called television.

Although not everything the Fair envisioned came true in the Los Angeles of the actual 1960, Gene Roddenberry drove on its freeways, and he had a television set in his home.

 More than that, at the age of 39, Gene Roddenberry was making a somewhat uncertain but still substantial living writing for television, a mass medium that hadn’t existed when he left for war in 1942.

 America was a great deal different as well—it was prosperous, productive, more urban, and inundated with ever-changing technologies. If it did not entirely fulfill the future envisioned in the 1939 Fair, in many ways it had moved in its direction.

Thanks in part to the federal highway program in the Eisenhower administration, the country was crisscrossed with highways and superhighways. Many led out of the cities to the new suburbs, where the phenomenon called the Baby Boom was centered.

 In the six years before 1953, there were more babies born than in the previous 30 years combined.  That brought the US population from 123 million in 1930 to 160 million in 1953. Just seven years later in 1960, it was 180 million.

 Not coincidentally, the American economy grew at a similar pace. Manufacturers had geared up with unprecedented speed to produce the guns and planes and other military materiel needed in World War II. At war’s end that productive capacity turned to serving this growing population with new cars, refrigerators and washing machines.



But it wasn’t utopia. At the upper and middle reaches of the economy there was prosperity and consumerism but also something called conformity. Its essence was captured in titles of popular books that became catchwords: The Organization Man, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, The Lonely Crowd. The uniformity of the frozen smile had become the living symbol of the decade.

And the economic boom had not reached everyone. There was poverty that rivaled that of the Depression—in large swaths of Appalachia, other isolated rural areas and in growing slums in America’s largest cities. African-Americans did not benefit from some postwar federal programs that helped build suburbia, their segregated schools were often inferior, and they were often excluded from economic opportunities across the country as well as from voting booths and whites-only services in the South.

 By 1960 a certain discontent was stirring, even in suburbia. It was even felt in Hollywood.

Even though he had come pretty far in a short time, Gene Roddenberry was feeling his own discontent. He’d become a very successful writer of television drama, particularly his scripts for one of the most popular and most literate westerns, Have Gun, Will Travel.  One of his scripts won a Screenwriters Guild award.

 But his imagination turned to developing ambitious new shows, often different from those on the air. Because television thrived on the next great idea, executives listened. But because television didn’t like risk, executives mostly said no.

 For a British production company with international ambitions, he suggested a current affairs program to be called Controversy, and a sweeping documentary series based on H.G. Wells’ Outline of History.

 Then under contract to Screen Gems for a hefty fee, he developed a dramatic series about members of the American military in the South Pacific during World War II. A pilot half-hour was made but didn’t sell. Still, there were a few character names that would stick, like Pike and Jellicoe, and a basic interplay of three characters: a leader and his two friends, one emotional, the other cerebral.

 In the summer of 1960, Gene Roddenberry watched a television story he’d written and helped produce air on the Alcoa Goodyear Theatre anthology series. It was a pilot for a series about a crusading San Francisco lawyer, starring DeForrest Kelley. Though the program was broadcast in June to good reviews, ultimately the series didn’t make the network schedule. Meanwhile, Roddenberry was getting more production experience on an ill-fated western.

But at least at the periphery of his attention, there was something else happening that summer. The Democratic National Convention was coming to Los Angeles in July to nominate its presidential candidate.

Thousands of delegates and members of the media were flooding into the city, necessitating extra duty for the police in traffic and crowd control. Though Gene had left the LAPD when his television career took off, his father and brother were still on the force.

 This convention attracted a lot of interest because it really would be selecting the nominee—no candidate was coming to town with a sure majority. Contenders included Senator Lyndon Johnson of Texas, and former Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, who had been the party nominee twice before, and twice defeated by General and then President Dwight Eisenhower.

 But Eisenhower couldn’t run this time, and Stevenson was arriving with a groundswell of support, especially from party elders like Eleanor Roosevelt. As a native of Los Angeles, Stevenson was attracting local interest as well.

The candidate who had won the most primary elections and was arriving with the most pledged delegates was the junior Senator of Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. He was just a few years older than Gene, and had served in the Navy in the same Pacific theatre. In fact, when Kennedy’s PT boat went missing, Gene would have been one of the fliers searching for him, except that his plane was smashed up from a runway accident.

 After PT-109 was cut in half by a Japanese destroyer, Kennedy led the surviving crew members in swimming to a remote island, towing one wounded man by means of a rope he held in his teeth. They were found after six days. His heroism helped get him elected to Congress and then the Senate.

 But like Gene and many other veterans, Kennedy emerged from the war with mixed feelings and at times a low opinion of the military. Like Gene, his skepticism of superior officers had been fed by decisions that needlessly cost lives.

 The nomination contest was to some extent a battle over a change in generations. Much of the opposition to Kennedy was based on his youth.

 The drama began to unfold on July 11 in the Sports Arena Convention Hall. It climaxed two nights later when the tense and majestic roll call of the states went down the alphabet to Wyoming until the first ballot voting produced a majority for John F. Kennedy as the 1960 nominee.

But the drama continue as Kennedy broke precedent by giving his official acceptance speech Friday evening, not in the convention hall, but outdoors, in the Los Angeles Coliseum. Although 1960 television cameras could not do it justice, it began before 80,000 people just before dusk, at the “magic hour” favored by movie directors for its warm, sharp light.

It was the first of the speeches that created the Kennedy legend. In his own way, Roddenberry had learned the power of public words just the month before, when his statements as part of a Writers Guild panel made television industry news. Daily Variety quoted him as criticizing sponsor censorship of television scripts and even of casting (no African Americans were allowed to appear on a series depicting life on the Mississippi in 1860, he claimed.)

 Kennedy of course was speaking on a larger stage, about the world in 1960 from the perspective of his generation. Roddenberry might well have been interested in what he said, since they suggest elements of what he would create in Star Trek.

Kennedy spoke of the ultimate horrors of a nuclear war that had grown throughout the 50s: "But now man, who has survived all previous threats to his existence,” Kennedy said, “has taken into his mortal hands the power to exterminate the entire species some seven times over."

 But he also saw the start of a different future, led in part by new technologies and “a peaceful revolution for human rights—demanding an end to racial discrimination in all parts of our community life.” 

 Both perils and opportunities required action. "Too many Americans have lost their way, their will and their sense of historic purpose,” Kennedy said. And in a call that would become a campaign theme: “ It is time, in short, for a new generation of leadership…" 

 Then he used that Los Angeles sunset to anchor the theme that would remain the reason this speech is remembered: "I stand tonight facing west on what was once the last frontier,” he said. “From the lands that stretch 3000 miles behind me, the pioneers of old gave up their safety, their comfort and sometimes their lives to build a new world here in the West….Their motto was not 'Every man for himself,' but 'All for the common cause.'" 

 "…we stand today on the edge of a new frontier—the frontier of the 1960s, a frontier of unknown opportunities and paths, a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats…" 

 "The new frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises—it is a set of challenges…Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus." 

 "…I believe the times demand invention, innovation, imagination, decision. I am asking each of you to be new pioneers on that new frontier."


After an exciting campaign, the most extensively ever covered on television that included the first televised candidate debates, and after a very close election, John F. Kennedy took the oath of office on a cold January day in 1961.

In his Inaugural Address, President Kennedy returned to some of the same themes of his Los Angeles speech. He spoke again of generational change, in the lines that were the most quoted at the time:

 “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans--- born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.”

He spoke of the future, and challenged the Soviet Union to join with the U.S. to “explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems that divide us…Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.” 

 He pledged support for the United Nations, “our last best hope in an age where the instruments of war have far outpaced the instruments of peace…”

He pledged help for the world’s poor, “not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” 

 He asked his fellow citizens to join him in “a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.” 

 These idealistic goals were surrounded by pragmatic assessments and a caution: “All this will not be finished in the first 100 days,” he warned. “Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.” 

 Though the line that became a lasting soundbite (“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”) was also quoted often at the time, the immediate clarion call that electrified the country was expressed in those three words: Let us begin.


Like GR, JFK loved to sail

Members of Kennedy and Roddenberry’s generation flocked to Washington to be part of what quickly became known as the New Frontier. Soon members of an even younger generation were enlisting in the Peace Corps.

 With the Kennedy style of wit and vigor (pronounced in his unique New Englandish accent as “vigah”), and the elevation of intellect and the arts, Washington became an exciting, glamorous, hopeful place.

Yet with all the utopian promise, there were apocalyptic moments: the disastrous attempted invasion of Cuba by Cuban exiles; a crisis in Berlin that pitted JFK against the boisterous and mercurial Soviet Premier Khrushchev, warfare in southeast Asia, and finally the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, when the world came as close as it ever had to thermonuclear holocaust.

When American aircraft flying over Cuba photographed an installation of Soviet missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads to all parts of the United States, and the Soviet ambassador denied their existence, President Kennedy revealed the evidence to the American public in a televised address.

 He demanded the missiles and their not yet completed installations be removed immediately, and announced that U.S. naval forces would prevent any Soviet ships from bringing more missiles into Cuban ports.

A month earlier, the Soviet government announced that any U.S. attack on Cuba would trigger a nuclear war. In his October address to the nation, President Kennedy announced that any attack on the U.S. by missiles from Cuba would trigger a “full retaliatory response” on the Soviet Union. But even a confrontation on the high seas was likely to lead to the same apocalyptic result.

 At several points in the next 13 days, American and Soviet ships drew closer to a confrontation. This was the moment to which the Cold War and nuclear history since Hiroshima in 1945 had been leading.

 The first atomic bomb leveled the city of Hiroshima and reduced human beings within a half mile radius of the blast to lumps of charcoal. As many as 75,000 people were killed by the bomb’s blast and fire, both of an intensity never experienced before on Earth. Three days later a second bomb dropped on Nagasaki killed 40,000.


The first reaction, even among policymakers and the military, was revulsion. "No one questions the vulnerability of mankind to the destructive effects of this devastating new weapon of war,” wrote retired Admiral Jonas H. Ingram, former Commander-in-Chief of the Atlantic Fleet. “In fact it is such a destructive weapon that it should be outlawed in warfare, for the general use of it over any protracted period of time would spell the end of our civilization."

 But attempts to outlaw the Bomb or place it under strict international controls fell quickly to accelerating events and reactions to them, as the Cold War began and as both sides sought supremacy in ever more powerful nuclear weapons, with ever more efficient and unstoppable ways of delivering those bombs to distant cities.

 Meanwhile it became apparent that blast and fire were just the beginning of what atomic bombs did. Within five years, the death toll in Hiroshima more than doubled to 200,000, and an even greater proportion died in Nagasaki years after the blast. Atomic bombs released deadly radiation. Some illnesses from radiation were apparent within days and weeks, as people decayed from the inside. Other effects, principally cancers, took years.

For years, U.S. officials denied the severity of radiation. They continued to minimize it after its first thermonuclear bomb tests in 1952—commonly known as the hydrogen bomb, it was a thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, and vaporized an island in the Pacific. By 1955 both the US and USSR had functional thermonuclear bombs. Both sides continued to test ever more powerful bombs throughout the 1950s.

But the evidence of radiation effects accumulated and could no longer be ignored. By the mid-50s, there was strong evidence also of mutations in the next generation, including studies done on islands near Pacific test sites. Much of this was reported in newspapers, magazines and books.

By then a new word had entered the public vocabulary: “fallout,” which was dust contaminated by radiation that drifted into the atmosphere. Radiation from a 1951 Nevada bomb test was detected in the snow that fell on Rochester, New York.

 By early 1953, 20 atomic bombs had been exploded in the Nevada desert. A seven year old boy 70 miles from Ground Zero died of leukemia, and "became possibly the first baby boom casualty of the atomic age."

 But when questions arose, some officials and politicians were quick to accuse critics of being deluded or unpatriotic, showing weakness and division to the enemy. They might even be Communists themselves. The logic of the Cold War overrode objections.

Stories about radiation effects and fallout increased public skepticism of government claims. The proven lies made people silently distrustful--and fearful.

 “The fact that hydrogen bomb fallout could devastate entire territories was treated as a military secret, for it undercut prevailing ideas on nuclear war and civil defense,” writes Spencer Weart. “The government scarcely knew what to say to itself; let alone to the world public. In the absence of reliable facts, indeed with the world’s main source of atomic information largely discredited, anxieties could only continue to grow.”

 The immensity of the dangers, the psychological impulse to repress thinking about them, and the political pressure to be silent, helps explain the sense of panic and frenzy beneath the bright facade of the 1950s.

 But these anxieties got expressed in the arts, especially in the not quite respectable form of science fiction, and in sublimated and coded ways in the even less respectable form of pop culture, such as a popular 1950s genre: the monster movie.

Magazine science fiction stories dealt with the implications of atomic weapons since the 1940s. Such an approach reached movies in the 1950s, in a peculiarly haunting way.

In 1954 the US exploded its most powerful bomb at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific.   Its fireball alone was more than four miles wide.  It was twice as powerful as expected.

 Its 62 mile-wide mushroom cloud dropped radioactive dust on more than 7 thousand squares miles of the Pacific.  Directly susceptible to this fallout were several small islands and more than a hundred fishing boats. One of these boats was the Lucky Dragon #5, from Japan.

 By the time it returned to port two weeks later, some in the crew of 23 were covered with sores from burns, and many were suffering the classic symptoms of radiation sickness: nausea, bleeding gums, pain in their eyes, headaches. One crewman died.

 Doctors and scientists in Japan immediately recognized the radiation effects. They had seen them before. They also measured excessive radiation in the fish aboard the Lucky Dragon and other boats, and this new threat caused panic in Japan that spread around the world. But US officials insisted that radiation from the Bomb test could not be responsible.

This incident inspired the first Japanese monster movie, called Gojira.  It made clear that its monster was awakened and altered by hydrogen bomb testing.

 In its original form, Gojira would not be seen in the US for fifty years (just as the evidence that US officials were lying about radiation from this test would not be fully revealed for 30 years.)

 But a version was made for the US market in 1956, using much of the monster footage but excising most of the Bomb references, and centering it on an American reporter played by Raymond Burr. That movie was called Godzilla. It was an immediate international hit, with sequels not yet ended.

 American-made movies that illustrated the theme of radiation turning ordinary creatures into monsters became rampant in the 50s. One of the first and best was Them! (1954.) Set in the New Mexico desert, its protagonists gradually learn that Bomb tests have mutated a race of giant ants. It’s a tense drama that combines elements of detective stories with horror and science fiction.

 Once the ants are defeated, one character asks: "If these monsters got started as a result of the first atomic bomb tests in 1945, what about all the others that have been exploded since then?" The elder scientist answers, "Nobody knows. When man entered the atomic age, he opened the door into a new world. What we eventually find in that new world nobody can predict."

 Them! is also notable for featuring future TV stars James Arness (Gunsmoke), James Whitmore (The Law and Mr. Jones) and Fess Parker (Davy Crockett) as well as uncredited appearances by Star Trek’s Leonard Nimoy (as a laughing soldier) and Trek director and actor Lawrence Dobkin.

Fears of atomic attack and invasion from the skies were also reflected in a number of space alien invader movies, the best of which was the George Pal version of H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds. 

These anxieties were combined with fears of Communist subversion in such movies as It Came From Outer Space, Invaders From Mars, The Space Children and especially the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)—the film of genuine horror that depicted (depending on your politics) either the effects of alien/Communist subversion, or the spread of 1950s super-conformity--an interpretation that lived on in the expression “pod people.”

 It wasn’t until the end of the decade that a widely popular movie dealt directly with the consequences of nuclear war, in the quietly powerful On The Beach.

That the spectre of the Bomb awakened ancient terrors so that folk tales and Gothic horror were reborn as science fiction monster movies shouldn’t be surprising. The original meaning of “monster” is “a divine portent or warning.” Several of these movies (War of the Worlds and Them! for example) contain overt and spoken references to the Biblical apocalypse.

 Such references happened in reality as well as monster movies. “For both those who had witnessed the first atomic detonation and those who had only heard about it, Spencer Weart writes, “the explosion served less to introduce new ideas than to bring ancient thought of apocalypse to new and vivid life.”  According to sociologist Edward Shils, the atomic bomb brought the fear that the Biblical Apocalypse was at hand to society at large.

The Bomb made visions of the future seem preposterous. What future? The only future came from the Rand Corporation’s Herman Kahn, who measured tomorrows in "megadeaths." (His book On Thermonuclear War was published in 1960. Kahn was a chief model for Doctor Strangelove.)

 This sense was especially acute among the young, wrote Jeff Nettall in Bomb Culture (1968). “They never knew a sense of the future.”

 The causes of fear weren’t tangibly present, as in the Depression. It was an abrupt ending to come that seemed inevitable. For many, the future was not so much killed as simply disappearing.

By the early 1960s, both sides had arsenals of intercontinental and intermediate range missiles loaded with thermonuclear bombs, with launching sites around the world and on submarines. Both sides had announced policies of massive retaliation for an attack, and so each side was likely to start with as many missiles as they could launch. There were so many powerful bombs that there was nowhere in America that wouldn’t be devastated by blast, fire, radiation or fallout.

 So by the early 1960s, people lived with the possibility that, virtually without warning, they could be living their lives serenely one minute, and be sunk in unimaginable death and destruction the next, knowing that their fate was or would be shared by most of the world.

The difference in October 1962 was that there were 13 days to think about this imminent possibility and at least one or two days when thermonuclear war might start with an incident you could see reported on television.

 Then on the 13th day, a Sunday, news media announced that the Soviet Union had agreed to remove its missiles from Cuba, and the US pledged never to invade the island nation. The crisis was over.

 In the days following, President Kennedy spoke to intimates about how his thoughts kept returning to the impact of these decisions on the innocent children of the world, and the equally innocent future.

After that brush with oblivion, Kennedy took the initiative on two issues crucial to making the future better: internationally, to break the absolute us/them enmity with the Soviet Union and ease the world back from the brink of nuclear war, and nationally, to break the hypocritical barriers to racial equality with Civil Rights legislation.

 Both sides had been testing powerful bombs, sending immense quantities of radiation around the world. Negotiations to limit this testing had stalled, and in June 1963, Kennedy decided to make it a public issue, in his commencement address at American University.

He did so by shattering ideas about the Soviet Union, and advocating peace with a vision of the future.

  “I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children,” he said. “Not merely peace for Americans, but peace for all men and women; not merely peace in our time, but peace for all time.” 

 “Total war makes no sense,” Kennedy said, repeating the phrase several times, emphasizing devastation so extensive it would be visited on “generations yet unborn.” “I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary rational end of rational men.”

 “I realize that the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war,” he said. “But we have no more urgent task.” He rejected the charge that seeking peace was defeatist, but suggested that believing peace is impossible is the ultimate defeatism, because it means “that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. ”

 Then he used the phrase that more than any other sums up the Kennedy faith: “Our problems are man-made; therefore they can be solved by man.” 

Though he acknowledged the value of dreams and hopes, he advocated an attainable peace “ based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions…Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts…For peace is a process, a way of solving problems.” 

 In an era of demonizing the Soviet adversary, Kennedy called for realism (“However fixed our likes and dislikes may seem, the tide of time and events will often bring surprising changes in the relations between nations and neighbors”) and empathy.

 He honored the Russian people for their suffering in World War II, and subtly linked this theme with the effort to eliminate suffering in the world.  Because of the arms race, Kennedy pointed out, both nations were “devoting massive sums of money to weapons that could be better devoted to combating ignorance, poverty and disease.” 

 After complimenting the Soviet Union on its scientific accomplishments, Kennedy pointed out to the “ironical but accurate fact that the two strongest powers are the two in the most danger of devastation. All we have built, all we have worked for, would be destroyed in the first twenty-four hours.”

 Peace, he concludes, is a primary interest for both nations---indeed for all nations. In the most quoted phrases of the speech, Kennedy said: “For in the final analysis our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

The American University speech became instantly famous around the world. In England, the Manchester Guardian called it “one of the great state papers of American history.”

 Most importantly, the full text was printed in the Russian press, and its Russian language broadcast by the Voice of America was the first western program in fifteen years the Soviets did not attempt to jam. Khrushchev told Averell Harriman, in Moscow to negotiate the test ban, that it was the best speech by an American president since Roosevelt.

 Negotiations moved swiftly forward. Some six weeks after the American University address, the nuclear test ban treaty was signed.

 But the speech received little notice at first in the United States, partly because of an ongoing crisis: police violence against non-violent demonstrators and white rioting and firebombing in black neighborhoods of Birmingham, Alabama had pushed the civil rights struggle to a new level.

 Then Alabama Governor George Wallace announced he would personally bar the admission of the first two black students to be enrolled at the University of Alabama under federal court order. The drama, which turned out to be little more than a ceremony of defiance for cameras, played out the day after JFK’s American University speech.

 Kennedy spontaneously decided to speak to the nation that night. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders had made a strong moral case, and a quarter million Americans showed support at the peaceful and historic March on Washington that summer of 1963.  Afterwards, King and other leaders met with Kennedy at the White House.

 With little in the way of prepared text, President Kennedy delivered a speech on civil rights as perfectly timed and morally clear as he had the day before on world peace.

 Equality is a moral issue “as old as the scriptures and…as clear as the American Constitution….In short, every American ought to have the right to be treated as he would wish to be treated…”

 The day before he had urged empathy for the Soviet people; now he asked white Americans to imagine themselves in the place of black Americans. “Who among us then would be content with the counsels of patience and delay?”

 Kennedy sent a Civil Rights bill to Congress, which eventually became the Voting Rights Act. But the nuclear test ban treaty still required Senate confirmation, and there was substantial opposition. Conservatives as well as prominent military figures were decrying it as a threat to national security. Kennedy invited public debate, “for the treaty is for all of us. It is particularly for our children and our grandchildren, who have no lobby here in Washington.”

Kennedy traveled across America in the fall. Even in conservative parts of the country such as Billings, Montana and Salt Lake City, he received standing ovations when he spoke about the nuclear test ban and the issue of peace. He told friends that he was willing to pay the price of not being reelected if he got the test ban. Under public pressure the Senate ratified it.

 His Civil Rights bill did not make it through Congress, but Kennedy had high hopes for it after he ran for reelection in 1964. He also planned to scale down the modest American involvement in Vietnam.

Among the accomplishments of the Kennedy years, the most obviously exciting were American successes in manned spaceflight.

 Alan Shepard and Virgil Grissom made the first suborbital jaunts into space in 1961, and in 1962 John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. They were greeted as national heroes.

 Soon after Glenn’s three-orbit flight, President Kennedy committed the U.S. to sending a man to the moon before the 60s were out.  This would begin the Gemini and Apollo missions that landed American astronauts on the moon.
  

“I look forward to a great future for America,” Kennedy said in October 1963, "a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose.” 

 “I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment...And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction.”

His last speech was about the space program.
 On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas as his motorcade was leaving for the airport. In the national and global shock and grief that followed, it once again seemed to many that the future had died.

Without a leader, without a center or direction, the utopian enterprise seemed to recede, and in the turmoil of the mid 60s, to disappear. Once again there was the dread of a future out of control, heading for self-destruction.


In 1963, Gene Roddenberry was producing his first television series, The Lieutenant, set on a U.S. Marine base in peacetime, and shot at the real Camp Pendleton. It went on the air in September.

But he encountered resistance and censorship in his attempts to center stories on contemporary social problems. The Marines objected to a story about racial discrimination and when Roddenberry went ahead with it, they withdrew permission to film on the base.

 When the network refused to air the episode, he tipped off the NAACP. NBC aired the story but did not renew the series for another year.

 A few months after Kennedy’s death—in March 1964-- Roddenberry wrote the outline for a new television series set in the future he called Star Trek.

 It’s since been said that Kennedy influenced Roddenberry’s conception of Star Trek, but it’s often been in the context of characterizing Kennedy as a Cold Warrior. Yet reviewing these aspects of the JFK legacy suggests that Kennedy’s approach to war and peace, to space and technology, to human rights, human curiosity and the future, contributed much more to the soul of Star Trek and its characters and stories.

For eventually, the Star Trek universe would fulfill many of Kennedy’s dreams: an end to war, poverty and disease; an Earth of diversity, democracy and individual distinction; a united Earth, exploring the stars.

 Kennedy’s faith—“Our problems are man-made; therefore they can be solved by man”—seems an apt description of Roddenberry’s faith, and an operating principle of the Star Trek universe.

 While aspects of Captain Kirk may suggest JFK, isn’t it Mr. Spock who would be more likely to say this? “Total war makes no sense. I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary rational end of rational men.”

Friday, September 16, 2016

Trek50/B4 Trek: Taking Flight

World War II was a pervasive and defining experience during the young adulthood of Star Trek’s eventual creators, just as the Great Depression had been during their childhood and adolescent years.

 But in the late 1940s and through the 1950s, Gene Roddenberry and his contemporaries were mostly pursuing their individual careers and destinies.

 Public events and trends were in the background. They were still important and formative, however, especially for creative and thinking people.

 These public events and trends as well as personal experience can be discerned as influences on Star Trek—on its existence and nature, its form and content, its soul.

After his discharge from the US Army Air Force in 1945, Captain Gene Roddenberry officially went to work for Pan American Airways as a pilot.

 It wasn’t just another job. Pan Am was the first and most prestigious international airline. With the best- trained personnel in these early years of expanded commercial air travel, it was the gold standard. “Pan Am was not an airline,” says a former pilot in an Arthur Miller play, “it was a calling, a knighthood. A Pan Am Captain...hell, we were the best of the best.”

 GR flew out of Miami and then on long international routes out of New York City (and they were long—the flight time from Miami to Buenos Aires, Argentina was more than 70 hours.) He also took university writing courses in both of these base cities (he would have been eligible for education vouchers from the GI Bill of Rights.)

 In World War II, a flyer doing the standard 30 missions had more than a 70% of being killed. Roddenberry had flown more than 80 missions. He’d survived a ground accident in which two of the crew died, and told a friend that he’d been a passenger in a military aircraft that crashed, and helped pull survivors from the burning wreckage. But nothing compared to Pan Am Flight 121 out of Karachi, India in 1947.

Pan Am had a long record of no fatalities, but when Flight 121 crashed in the Syrian desert, it was the worst accident in the company’s history. Roddenberry was aboard as a passenger, “deadheading” from his last flight as a pilot to his next assignment. When trouble arose the pilot—a personal friend-- sent Roddenberry back to calm the passengers, which saved his life. The entire cockpit crew was killed in the crash.

As the senior surviving Pan Am officer, Roddenberry reportedly took charge of rescuing passengers from the burning plane, shepherding the survivors through the night, and summoning help. Months later, after an unexplained mechanical problem almost brought down a plane he was piloting, Roddenberry decided not to tempt fate any further. He retired from flying in 1948 and returned to Los Angeles. He needed a new career.

Meanwhile, there was a lot going on in the world. Shortly after he was elected to his fourth term, President Franklin D. Roosevelt died in 1945. His vice-president, Harry S. Truman, presided over the end of the war.

 By the late 1940s, President Truman was guided by a vision for the postwar world. From the age of 10, Harry Truman had carried in his wallet a piece of paper with part of a poem by Tennyson, first published in 1842. The first lines were: “For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,/Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be...” 

 The final lines were: “Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer and the battle-flags were furl’d/ In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.”

 Truman enthusiastically supported the United Nations, and the Marshall Plan to aid Europe and foster its unification.

 But soon after the war, the US detected ambitions by its former ally the Soviet Union to control Europe. There were moves and countermoves and moments of tension for several years. Then in a single week in 1949, the Soviet Union exploded their own atomic bomb, and the corrupt regime in China allied with the U.S. was overthrown by Chinese Communists.

Fears of a new world war, this time with atomic bombs, suddenly accelerated. There were real dangers in the world, but politicians like Senator Joseph McCarthy exploited these anxieties for their own purposes. Not content with legal efforts to catch and prosecute spies, they attacked dissenters and persecuted the innocent with lies and innuendo.

They became so powerful throughout the early 1950s that few dared oppose them. The House UnAmerican Activities Committee and self-appointed watchdog organizations stopped and often ended forever the careers of hundreds of Hollywood screenwriters, actors and directors as well as teachers and civil servants. They suddenly became unemployable social outcasts, with financial ruin, broken families and even suicide often following.

 Eventually it did not even take an accusation or a subpoena from HUAC to end a career—only a name mentioned in the Red Channels publication. This was the phenomenon known as the Blacklist.

 The fate of famed German playwright Bertolt Brecht suggests some of the consequences beyond the personal. Brecht had escaped Nazi tyranny in the 1930s and fled embattled Europe for Hollywood in 1941. He wrote film scripts and was part of a German expatriate community of similar exiles that included distinguished directors and actors. Together with other European exiles of the war, plus a number of Americans like writer William Faulkner, they became the center of a Hollywood intellectual community. In touch with the latest art and thought, they brought a heady influx of high culture as well as intellectual inquiry. Some, like Brecht, felt it was important to deal with current social and political realities in their work.

But then came the Blacklist. Brecht found himself called before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.  They questioned him based on bad translations of some of his songs.  He denied ever being a Communist—and left America for Europe the next day. 

After he fled the Nazis in the 1930s, he fled the American Blacklist in the 1950s.

During the Blacklist era, many faced accusations and suspicions over meetings they had attended decades before in the 1930s, when people were desperately searching for solutions to the Great Depression. Some went to Communist Party meetings, but many explored forms of socialism or reform.

 Others got in trouble because they saw the threat of fascism early, and opposed the overthrow of the Spanish government by fascists in the Spanish Civil War of the mid-1930s. Because that elected government was partly supported by the Soviet Union, and even though the U.S. soon was at war with fascism in Italy and Germany, with the Soviet Union as a principal ally, these people were condemned in the 1950s as “premature anti-Fascists.”

 Still others were accused of support for causes that the Communist Party also supported, like civil rights for African Americans.

 A lot of the Blacklist can be seen now as the result of partisan politics and political ambition. But the assertion that stoked the fear was something called “Communist subversion.” This was described as a set of techniques for tricking people into supporting Communism through dangerous ideas and associations.

 Suddenly, even discussing social problems or causes could be suspicious. Intellectual inquiry itself became dangerous. Reading the wrong books or magazines, and having the wrong friends (or even relatives) could cost a career—in the military, in government, in universities and schools, and in movies and television.

 So whatever intellectual groups existed in Hollywood simply melted away. Some of their members left the country, a few went to jail. Others went silent, prudently or fearfully.

 Once the Blacklist got started, movie studios and television sponsors feared that any social comment or even seriousness would attract the unwanted attention of powerful politicians. Controversial topics began to fade from movies and television. Bland entertainment was the standard.

first adaptation of Orwell's 1984 was TV's
Studio One in 1954
In its earliest days, live television drama was centered in New York, and heavily influenced by New York theatre. In fact, some young playwrights and directors were attracted to television because of dwindling opportunities for cutting-edge drama on Broadway as well as movies.

 But basically, commercial television was less a direct descendant of theatre or even movies that it was of radio. Like radio, it was a mass medium that flowed into every home (or barroom, barber shop or office) that had a receiving set, requiring no price of admission or any exertion beyond tuning in. (Although early television sets might also require a few well-placed thumps, twisting of vertical and horizontal-hold knobs while re-positioning an antennae and swearing, in order to get vaguely watchable picture and sound.)

 Many of the first programs made for television originated in radio, which continued well into the 1950s. Like radio, TV absorbed and adapted every form of entertainment that came before. There were stars of early television like singer and comedian Jimmy Durante who started in vaudeville, starred in clubs and on Broadway, then in movies, recordings and on radio.

 Movie stars disdained television at first, but lesser lights in movies became its first great stars—especially an actress named Lucille Ball.  I Love Lucy was her enormously successful sitcom, and it defined the 50s and television comedy.

 William Boyd bought up his movie serial westerns, made some new half hour adventures and put them on television. He became the first great western star, playing Hopalong Cassidy.

 But the most important element of radio that transferred to television was advertising-- “but first a word from our sponsors”: the ubiquitous commercials. When Gene Roddenberry became a television writer, he was most conscious of the tyranny of the commercial sponsors. When he later produced a series about a contemporary military base, he encountered opposition when he tried to deal with social issues like race, so he railed against the timidity of television studios.

 But the residual and ongoing effects of McCarthyism and the Blacklist were also powerful factors. They resulted in an atmosphere of repression—though it was mostly cheerful repression, as repression often is. And part of it was that by then, nobody talked about the Blacklist.

 Eventually GR would find a way to explore contemporary social topics as well as perennial conundrums and human drama by turning them into allegories set in the future, in Star Trek. 

 Gene Roddenberry was not yet a Hollywood writer when the Blacklist began. When he brought his wife and daughter back to southern California from New York in the late 1940s, he joined the family business: like his father and brother, he signed up with the Los Angeles Police Department.

 After a short time as a beat cop he became a public affairs officer, working directly for the Chief of Police. He researched and wrote press releases and speeches for the now legendary Chief Parker, on community relations and professionalism in law enforcement.

It was at pretty much this moment that television took off. The number of sets grew from a few thousand after the war to 15.5 million by 1951, and then added another 7 million just in 1953. By the end of the decade 86% of American homes would have a television set.

 As television became truly national, program production moved from New York to Hollywood, and began rapidly expanding. A fast-growing new form often provides opportunity for those with talents uniquely suited to it, even if they lack education and social and professional contacts. For 30 year old Gene Roddenberry, that form was television.

Jack Webb & Ben Alexander in Dragnet
 He got his chance when a new Los Angeles-based show began in late 1951, called Dragnet. It used real stories from the LAPD as the basis for its half hour shows, and as the producer as well as the star, Jack Webb asked the Public Affairs office for help. Dragnet paid $100 for every story they used, and Gene got stories from other cops, wrote them up and split the proceeds with them.

 The next step would be to write scripts, and Gene set about learning how. He got Dragnet scripts in advance, and followed along when the show aired. To learn dialogue, he listened to programs with his back to the set. To learn how to tell stories visually, he watched with the sound turned down. He wrote as much as he could, every day.

 Then an independent production company called Ziv asked him to be the technical advisor for a new TV series, Mr. District Attorney. He sold them story ideas, and finally convinced them to let him try a script. He sold his first in 1954.

 Roddenberry wrote for several other related Ziv shows like the iconic Highway Patrol. In 1955 he wrote a story treatment for Ziv’s Science Fiction Theatre, an anthology series and among the first meant for prime time to take science fiction seriously (among new and well-known actors who appeared on it was DeForest Kelley, playing a doctor.)

Roddenberry’s story, which bears some resemblance to a later tale by Philip K. Dick, was judged too expensive to produce. (Later as producer of Star Trek, GR often made the same sad analysis.)

 By 1956 GR was earning far more from his writing than from his police salary. Ziv was starting a new series called West Point, about the military academy, and they wanted him as head writer. He resigned from the LAPD in June. The first episode of West Point went on the air in October.

 Like many others in his generation, Roddenberry was sharing in the prosperity of the 1950s. But together with suburban expansion and a cornucopia of shiny new products, there were nagging social problems and consequences. Juvenile delinquency was a big topic, as were consumerism and conformity, and the stirrings of civil rights focused on desegregating schools and public facilities, mostly in the South.

Although they were largely avoided in entertainment programming, some of these debates and especially some of these events were seen by millions of Americans on television, including the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott in 1955 and the National Guard escorting black students to school past spitting mobs as Little Rock, Arkansas high school was desegregated in the fall of 1957.

 Also that fall, America experienced a major shock.

 West Point Story had just ended its run, and on the last Saturday in September, Gene Roddenberry’s script called “The Great Mohave Chase” was broadcast as the third episode of Have Gun, Will Travel, one of the major new “adult westerns” that were becoming a powerful trend sweeping through network television.


On the following Friday it was just after 5 p.m. in Los Angeles. Rush hour commuters could be listening to Jimmie Rodgers sing “Honeycomb,” the current number one hit, or the song it dethroned, “That’ll Be the Day” by Buddy Holly and the Crickets.

 It was just after 8 p.m. on the East Coast, the start of prime time for television (though it wasn’t yet called that.) On stations that had until recently carried West Point Story, a series called Court of Last Resort was beginning. A panel reenacted crime experts reviewing criminal cases in which those convicted might be innocent. Gene’s friend, the mystery writer Eric Stanley Gardner, had started this panel in the real world, though an actor portrayed him in the series.

 A few minutes after 8, an NBC announcer broke into programming to tell viewers: “Listen now for the sound which forevermore separates the old from the new.

 The sound was a gentle insistent beeping, that came from an object shooting around the world. It was a transmission from the first artificial satellite ever to orbit the Earth, the first human-generated sound from space. 

It was a surprise. Because the satellite was called Sputnik, and it was launched by the Soviet Union. The U.S. had confidently announced that as part of the first International Geophysical Year, it would launch the world’s first satellite. But acting in complete secret, the Soviet Union had done it first.  It was a shock to the nation, and would eventually result, for one thing, in a cry to teach more science in American schools.

 A flyer and science fiction fan like Gene Roddenberry would recognize this an historic achievement, a stepping-stone to an onrushing future of human space travel. This was itself a shock to many people. Referring to Sputnik, science fiction writer and historian Brian Aldiss wrote, “It is hard for people now to realize how stubbornly the idea of any form of space travel was opposed before that date, and not only by the supposedly ignorant.

 But as a flyer who piloted bombers over World War II targets, GR also would have instantly understood other implications—especially when the Soviets launched an even larger satellite a month later. If the Soviet Union had missiles that could carry a satellite into space, their missiles could carry bombs over America.

 More specifically, they could carry The Bomb--which by then meant the hydrogen bomb, orders of magnitude more powerful than the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

1954 US hydrogen bomb test
Before this, the Bomb could be delivered only by airplanes, which could be tracked by radar and seen by the naked eye on their relatively slow journey to their targets. Airplanes could be shot down. But rockets—or guided missiles, as they would be called—could deliver the Bomb so fast that they could barely be tracked, and there was no defense against them. Eventually they could be produced in much greater numbers more cheaply than bombers.

 Amazement and fear, once again hand in hand.