Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The Star Trek West

Whatever visions Gene Roddenberry had of depicting a future, or of using allegory to comment on contemporary issues, he was first faced with a problem he knew very well. He had to come up with a premise for a very specific form of storytelling: the television drama series.

When GR was working on his proposal for Star Trek in early 1964, the television drama series was still young, but had established itself as pretty much what it is today.

Network television was only in its second decade then. It had begun by copying, borrowing and stealing formats (as well as characters, shows and stars) from radio, motion pictures and theatre, especially Vaudeville comedy.

Soap operas, comedies and adventure dramas were imported from radio. Drama consisted of plays that were written or adapted for the limitations of set and camera, and performed live. At first the movie studios would contribute only old cartoons and adventure serials, but eventually dramatic films of decent quality were regular features on network and local station schedules.

In the middle 1950s, there were anthology shows of mini-movie dramas, usually built around minor movie stars like Loretta Young or Dick Powell, but these series could also include comedy and even musical stories. Eventually television drama would define itself simply as not being comedy or musical.

As television technology got better, the measure of quality became how "real" the show looked. (In some sense, this meant how much TV looked like the movies, but since TV was also starting to broadcast news and actual events, it did begin to develop its own style of presenting "reality.")

Probably the breakthrough in the drama series was the so-called "adult western," which was the most popular primetime format in the late 1950s and early 1960s: Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Wagon Train; and the series GR wrote for the most--Have Gun, Will Travel. They were "adult" because they paid attention to character as well as shootouts, saloon brawls and long chases on horseback. Adults could identify with these characters: they had relationships and problems; they argued, worried and made mistakes. But of course, they were still larger than life heroes.

The stories were more believable, and more nuanced than good guys in white hats and bad guys in black. In other words, they were more like quality movie westerns-- more "High Noon" and "The Virginian" than Roy Rogers. This was really a new approach for TV westerns---even though we now think of early westerns like "The Lone Ranger" and "The Cisco Kid" as Saturday morning kid's shows, they had been on network evening schedules, even shown in prime time.

The adult westerns helped establish the format of one-hour filmed drama: continuing characters within a single premise, and usually set in one definite time and place. The characters and stories were now not very far from those in movies (which emptied out movie theatres for awhile) but it would soon become evident that the television drama series had some peculiar characteristics that made the form unique, not only in their time but in the history of drama.

Though Star Trek would exemplify some of these characteristics---and even help reveal the peculiar power of the TV drama series---this was not yet on the list of GR's concerns in 1964. At the proposal stage, he had to satisfy the new conventions of the format. Yet he was also going to do something daring---he was going to propose a new genre for the drama series to explore.

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