Those of us watching an NBC channel on Thursday, September 8, 1966 at 8: 30 p.m. first saw a slowly rotating alien globe, and a gleaming white spaceship of a unique design flash across it from the screen’s left corner. For the 10% or so with color sets, the planet was dark orange with swirls of white. The first words we heard were “Captain’s Log...”
Sunday morning I awoke with a raging headache, so bad that I walked out the back door to get away from it and wasn't aware of where I was going until I realized I was walking on the side of the highway that led to my grandparents house. I turned back. Several hours later the call came that my grandfather had died during his afternoon nap of a cerebral hemorrhage. It was the first death I'd experienced among close family or friends.
At college the previous winter and spring, and among my remaining high school friends in the summer, we talked a lot about the Vietnam War. The bombing in the North had begun, and that spring for the first time, more American soldiers than South Vietnamese soldiers were killed in a single week. Selective Service put us on notice that if our grades dropped we could be drafted. The teach-ins of the previous year had turned into large scale protests against what many of us felt was an illegal and immoral war.
Earlier that summer there were riots in a Chicago ghetto. Earlier that year, an architecture student climbed a tower at the University of Texas and began shooting people below, killing 14 and wounding 33. The Navy salvaged a 20 megaton hydrogen bomb that had fallen into the sea off Spain in an aircraft accident and had been missing for 80 days. A Russian unmanned spacecraft became the first to orbit the Moon. Richard Speck murdered 9 student nurses in their Chicago dorm.
The Beatles got in trouble for a John Lennon quote that they were more popular than Jesus, and at the end of the summer played their last live tour date ever, in San Francisco. Bob Dylan went into seclusion after a motorcycle accident. California and Nevada became the first states to outlaw a drug called LSD.
On Thursday September 8 there was a new show starting on television. It was about the crew of a spaceship, which interested me since I'd grown up with Captain Video, Space Patrol, Johnny Jupiter, Science Fiction Theater and the Disney Tomorrowland episodes on space travel. On my childhood trips to our local movie palace on Saturdays, I saw War of the Worlds, When Worlds Collide, Forbidden Planet, The Day the Earth Stood Still and many more, featuring spaceships and aliens. I'd been watching manned space launches live on TV since Alan Shepard in 1961.
I'd read science fiction as well, so I knew there was potential for dealing with ideas and meaning. I watched The Twilight Zone, so maybe television wasn't all embarrassing now. So likely with a little hope and not much expectation, right after Daniel Boone on NBC (I remember Fess Parker from playing Disney's Davy Crockett but wasn't interested in that show), I tuned into something called Star Trek.
Star Trek wasn't the first television series purporting to be science fiction. Space Patrol had run in prime time for awhile in the 50s, and the earliest such series, Captain Video, started at 7 p.m. Lost in Space had begun the year before Star Trek. The Time Tunnel would started one evening later, on September 9, 1966.
Leonard Nimoy said more than once that since it was the first aired episode and featured a murderous monster, critics and people in the industry immediately dismissed the series as just another silly space show for kids.
But on closer inspection, there was much more to it than that. There were moral problems--didn't this creature have the right to survive? It was an intelligent changling capable of astounding feats of transformation, and the last of its species. Wasn't this genocide? Yet humans have a right to survive as well, and the Captain must protect his crew.
Kirk invokes the imprecise analogy of the buffalo, but it implies the tragedies, perhaps even the crimes, that result from human progress and expansion. The series is already on the road to the Prime Directive.
There's also, let's face it, a little sexual subtext or irony in the changeling first taking on the form of women to entice men in a story with a title that referred to a common expression of the time for a woman out to get a husband.
It had a kind of amazing climax. The creature again appears to McCoy as the woman he used to know, as it attacks a paralyzed Captain Kirk. The healer with a phaser in his hand must decide to kill the last of an intelligent species who is facing him in the form of a woman he once loved. It clearly wasn't My Three Sons (on CBS at the same time) or The Tammy Grimes Show (ABC.)
But it wasn’t completely different from other television shows. Paced with a few light moments, it was a drama that set up mysteries and dilemmas that came to a crisis just before commercial breaks, with a particularly crucial and intriguing moment halfway through, so that viewers weren’t tempted to switch to the CBS Thursday Night Movie at 9. It was still a one-hour episode of a network television series.
The episode is notable for giving Dr. McCoy more of a back story than he would ever get again. Uhura's flirtatious dialogue with Mr. Spock playfully emphasized Spock's alien difference ("Vulcan has no moon." "I'm not surprised") as well as perhaps suggesting a Uhura-Spock romance to the devisers of the J.J. Abrams 2009 reboot movie. (They reportedly wanted to adapt the salt vampire, too.)
I remember being impressed by the idea of the creature needing salt, and the absence of salt being fatal for the human body. So there was some science in this science fiction. At first each person sees the creature differently--this was skillfully and economically accomplished (though the vamping blonde doesn't wear well), which sets up an initial mystery. I also remember being favorably impressed by the visual effects. I'd worried that it would have the cheap effects of bad movies and TV, the kind that made the whole enterprise ridiculous. They didn't try to do what they couldn't do.
But it was just one episode, and I probably didn't see another one for awhile. I lived off-campus but didn't have a TV that year. I might happen on an occasional episode on the big color set in the student union, but I mostly caught up with the show in summer re-runs. I wasn't a devoted regular viewer--there was just too much else going on in my life in 1966 and 1967. Like many people then, I truly discovered the series in the 70s when it was on every day in syndication.
Still, I'd absorbed enough by the following fall (of 1967) when I went back on campus sporting a couple of buttons (buttons were big then.) One said: Totally Illogical. And the other said: Beam Me Up. There is no intelligent life down here.