Saturday, September 02, 2006

Countdown to 40: Star Trek as Sci-Fi Redefined

by William S. Kowinski

By the mid 1960s, prime time television was awash in westerns, still the dominant drama series form but starting to fade, and networks were looking for the next big thing. Gene Roddenberry thought he could sell them on science fiction.

In its first decade or so, as it became more technically sophisticated and experimented with what it could do differently, television relied on adapting successful formats and programs from radio, theatre and movie serials for its entertainment offerings. One of the primary genres taken from radio but especially from movie serials and B movies was the western. These were classic horse operas, very simple stories with clear heroes (and comical sidekicks) and villains, plenty of galloping palominos and barking six-shooters. They were family entertainment, especially popular with children. They usually played in the early evening, gradually migrating to weekend afternoons and Saturday morning, the kid heaven.

So when television was ready to make its own kind of programs, it reinvented this popular genre by adding more dimension and depth to characters, and some complexity to the plots of western adventures. “Gunsmoke” with James Arness at Marshal Matt Dillon, and “The Legend of Wyatt Earp,” with Hugh O’Brien in the title role, premiered the same week in 1955. They were wildly successful, and began the dominance of the “adult western” for more than a decade. At one time, there were some 30 of them on the three networks in a single season. (“Adult,” of course, didn’t mean that Marshal Dillon was graphically getting it on with Kitty, let alone Chester or Doc. It referred to the greater degree of realism and character interaction. It also meant they were broadcast later in the evening.)

As a successor to westerns, Gene Roddenberry pitched the potential of another genre imported from radio and movie serials that wound up on Saturday morning: he proposed the first adult science-fiction series. To make the connection clear, he described Star Trek as a “Wagon Train to the stars.” “Wagon Train” was the most successful adult western next to Gunsmoke. It peaked at number one in 1961 and went into a slow decline until leaving the air in 1965. As one of the chief writers for Have Gun, Will Travel, (starring Richard Boone) the third of the top three westerns and a top five show for nearly its entire six-year run, Roddenberry had the credibility to make the comparison.

There were good reasons why this could work. Humans had been in space, and the U.S. space program was entering its busiest decade, with launchings of space probes and manned rockets, as it ramped up to sending astronauts to the moon. Astronauts were the new American heroes. Plus, the kids who grew up on Saturday morning sci-fi were old enough for prime time shows.

NBC eventually found another reason: it pioneered color TV and was getting ready to do all its prime time shows in color. Some colorful spacesuits, florescent pink alien plants and maybe even a few little green men would help attract viewers.

But there were also formidable reasons why adult science fiction wouldn’t work, some of them part of the history of the sci-fi genre. Yet Star Trek’s eventual success over forty years and counting was due to learning the lessons of that history, and respecting all that good science fiction could do.

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