Saturday, August 19, 2006

Countdown to 40: On the Final Frontier

by William S. Kowinski

First in a brief series leading up to the 40th anniversary of the first Star Trek episode to air in the U.S.

On a Friday afternoon in October 1957, Gene Roddenberry could have been among commuters driving on the freeways of Los Angeles, with their radios playing. He was 36 years old, and finally and officially living in a world of stories, and now some of them were his.

His script, “The Great Mohave Chase,” had been filmed for the third episode of the new adult western series, “Have Gun, Will Travel,” which aired the previous Saturday. “West Point Story,” the first series he’d written for regularly, would have been on tonight except that a month ago it switched networks, and was broadcast on Tuesdays now. Tonight “Court of Last Resort,” would be broadcast on NBC, a drama about crime experts who reviewed cases in which convicted criminals might be innocent. Gene’s friend and mentor, the mystery writer Eric Stanley Gardner, had started this panel in the real world. An actor was portraying him on the series. Perhaps GR was planning to tune into that. In the east, where it was already 8 p.m., people were already watching it.

But a few hours before, news of an astonishing event began to spread quickly in government and scientific circles. At about 6:30 pm on the east coast, President Eisenhower had been alerted at Camp David.

Commuters in LA might 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. But a few minutes after 8 p.m in New York, NBC technicians recorded something completely unpredicted, shocking and alarming. Soon everyone would hear it. An NBC announcer broke into programming coast to coast.

“Listen now for the sound,” the announcer said, “which forevermore separates the old from the new.”
I don’t know when Gene Roddenberry heard this sound. I know when I did.

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