Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The Next Big Thing

By the early 60s, the stranglehold adult westerns had on network schedules was loosening. There were popular police and detective, doctor and lawyer shows set in contemporary times. GR tried his hand at a lawyer show, with a pilot starring DeForest Kelley. So did William Shatner---apart from guest appearances on the popular series, "The Defenders," he starred as a crusading assistant district attorney in "For the People," which lasted several months on CBS in 1965.

GR did get a series of his own on the air, "The Lieutenant," a contemporary drama set on a Marine base (GR had used his military as well as his police experience in earlier shows he'd written for, such as syndicated series' on West Point and Annapolis.) But he found the "realism" of these shows was limited. Censorship and timidity kept stories within safe bounds, along with language and sexuality.

Though contemporary realistic dramas were successful, nothing had quite replaced the westerns. Some producers tried to find a premise for bringing a contemporary sense to exotic locales in a different time by adapting a genre in a different past. (Shatner was set to star in a series about Alexander the Great.)

GR had already figured out that he needed some distance from contemporary realism to get away with the kind of stories he wanted to tell. He'd seen stories dealing with moral issues in Saturday morning adventures for young audiences, and even contemporary political issues in the British-made series' like Robin Hood, which dealt with anti-Semitism as well as injustice towards the poor. It was no coincidence that these imports often were written by American screenwriters in exile, victims of the Hollywood Blacklist, which helped limit critical comment and social consciousness in TV and film.

But while other producers and writers were looking to the past for their premises, GR looked to the future. Science fiction could become the new western. And the future offered even better opportunities for dealing with meaningful contemporary issues, because you weren't tied to any sort of historical fact. To a certain degree, you could invent things about the past in a western. But in science fiction, you could invent an entire future.

GR had already tried his hand at science fiction stories for television, and he knew what he was up against. The overwhelming conventional view was that science fiction was too incredible; it was not realistic, it was crude, a little crazy, and only for kids. It was not believable, and could not therefore be television drama.

But GR thought he could make it credible and dramatic. He thought he could sell it, too. After all, there were some network executives looking for the New Western, just like fashion mavens today are looking for the New Black. There were so many possibilities---the universe is the limit. Even the conventions of movie and early television science fiction showed potential, at least in terms of pictures. You could invent a future that was great to look at, and with the networks interested in using color in prime time...

So why not make the idea completely explicit? Sell the future as a naval adventure on the new ocean of space (as JFK called it), with rockets instead of sailing ships. But really sell it as a western, except even better. They're out there where the skies are really not cloudy all day--- at the ultimate frontier---no, make that the final frontier...A Wagon Train to the Stars.

Eventually Desilu and then NBC bought it. And then the real problems began.

As a producer, GR had to face the reality of creating a future from scratch. Not the ideas, exactly. From the reading and watching he'd done before, and from reading and watching he did once he was really going to be doing this series, GR along with his collaborators could pick and choose, tweak and refine or turn completely around many concepts that science fiction writers and dramatists had put in print or on film or on the air, doubtless having adapted the ideas of earlier writers and dramatists. That's how storytelling works. It's how everything works.

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