Friday, September 16, 2016

Trek50/B4 Trek: Taking Flight

World War II was a pervasive and defining experience during the young adulthood of Star Trek’s eventual creators, just as the Great Depression had been during their childhood and adolescent years.

 But in the late 1940s and through the 1950s, Gene Roddenberry and his contemporaries were mostly pursuing their individual careers and destinies.

 Public events and trends were in the background. They were still important and formative, however, especially for creative and thinking people.

 These public events and trends as well as personal experience can be discerned as influences on Star Trek—on its existence and nature, its form and content, its soul.

After his discharge from the US Army Air Force in 1945, Captain Gene Roddenberry officially went to work for Pan American Airways as a pilot.

 It wasn’t just another job. Pan Am was the first and most prestigious international airline. With the best- trained personnel in these early years of expanded commercial air travel, it was the gold standard. “Pan Am was not an airline,” says a former pilot in an Arthur Miller play, “it was a calling, a knighthood. A Pan Am Captain...hell, we were the best of the best.”

 GR flew out of Miami and then on long international routes out of New York City (and they were long—the flight time from Miami to Buenos Aires, Argentina was more than 70 hours.) He also took university writing courses in both of these base cities (he would have been eligible for education vouchers from the GI Bill of Rights.)

 In World War II, a flyer doing the standard 30 missions had more than a 70% of being killed. Roddenberry had flown more than 80 missions. He’d survived a ground accident in which two of the crew died, and told a friend that he’d been a passenger in a military aircraft that crashed, and helped pull survivors from the burning wreckage. But nothing compared to Pan Am Flight 121 out of Karachi, India in 1947.

Pan Am had a long record of no fatalities, but when Flight 121 crashed in the Syrian desert, it was the worst accident in the company’s history. Roddenberry was aboard as a passenger, “deadheading” from his last flight as a pilot to his next assignment. When trouble arose the pilot—a personal friend-- sent Roddenberry back to calm the passengers, which saved his life. The entire cockpit crew was killed in the crash.

As the senior surviving Pan Am officer, Roddenberry reportedly took charge of rescuing passengers from the burning plane, shepherding the survivors through the night, and summoning help. Months later, after an unexplained mechanical problem almost brought down a plane he was piloting, Roddenberry decided not to tempt fate any further. He retired from flying in 1948 and returned to Los Angeles. He needed a new career.

Meanwhile, there was a lot going on in the world. Shortly after he was elected to his fourth term, President Franklin D. Roosevelt died in 1945. His vice-president, Harry S. Truman, presided over the end of the war.

 By the late 1940s, President Truman was guided by a vision for the postwar world. From the age of 10, Harry Truman had carried in his wallet a piece of paper with part of a poem by Tennyson, first published in 1842. The first lines were: “For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,/Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be...” 

 The final lines were: “Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer and the battle-flags were furl’d/ In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.”

 Truman enthusiastically supported the United Nations, and the Marshall Plan to aid Europe and foster its unification.

 But soon after the war, the US detected ambitions by its former ally the Soviet Union to control Europe. There were moves and countermoves and moments of tension for several years. Then in a single week in 1949, the Soviet Union exploded their own atomic bomb, and the corrupt regime in China allied with the U.S. was overthrown by Chinese Communists.

Fears of a new world war, this time with atomic bombs, suddenly accelerated. There were real dangers in the world, but politicians like Senator Joseph McCarthy exploited these anxieties for their own purposes. Not content with legal efforts to catch and prosecute spies, they attacked dissenters and persecuted the innocent with lies and innuendo.

They became so powerful throughout the early 1950s that few dared oppose them. The House UnAmerican Activities Committee and self-appointed watchdog organizations stopped and often ended forever the careers of hundreds of Hollywood screenwriters, actors and directors as well as teachers and civil servants. They suddenly became unemployable social outcasts, with financial ruin, broken families and even suicide often following.

 Eventually it did not even take an accusation or a subpoena from HUAC to end a career—only a name mentioned in the Red Channels publication. This was the phenomenon known as the Blacklist.

 The fate of famed German playwright Bertolt Brecht suggests some of the consequences beyond the personal. Brecht had escaped Nazi tyranny in the 1930s and fled embattled Europe for Hollywood in 1941. He wrote film scripts and was part of a German expatriate community of similar exiles that included distinguished directors and actors. Together with other European exiles of the war, plus a number of Americans like writer William Faulkner, they became the center of a Hollywood intellectual community. In touch with the latest art and thought, they brought a heady influx of high culture as well as intellectual inquiry. Some, like Brecht, felt it was important to deal with current social and political realities in their work.

But then came the Blacklist. Brecht found himself called before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.  They questioned him based on bad translations of some of his songs.  He denied ever being a Communist—and left America for Europe the next day. 

After he fled the Nazis in the 1930s, he fled the American Blacklist in the 1950s.

During the Blacklist era, many faced accusations and suspicions over meetings they had attended decades before in the 1930s, when people were desperately searching for solutions to the Great Depression. Some went to Communist Party meetings, but many explored forms of socialism or reform.

 Others got in trouble because they saw the threat of fascism early, and opposed the overthrow of the Spanish government by fascists in the Spanish Civil War of the mid-1930s. Because that elected government was partly supported by the Soviet Union, and even though the U.S. soon was at war with fascism in Italy and Germany, with the Soviet Union as a principal ally, these people were condemned in the 1950s as “premature anti-Fascists.”

 Still others were accused of support for causes that the Communist Party also supported, like civil rights for African Americans.

 A lot of the Blacklist can be seen now as the result of partisan politics and political ambition. But the assertion that stoked the fear was something called “Communist subversion.” This was described as a set of techniques for tricking people into supporting Communism through dangerous ideas and associations.

 Suddenly, even discussing social problems or causes could be suspicious. Intellectual inquiry itself became dangerous. Reading the wrong books or magazines, and having the wrong friends (or even relatives) could cost a career—in the military, in government, in universities and schools, and in movies and television.

 So whatever intellectual groups existed in Hollywood simply melted away. Some of their members left the country, a few went to jail. Others went silent, prudently or fearfully.

 Once the Blacklist got started, movie studios and television sponsors feared that any social comment or even seriousness would attract the unwanted attention of powerful politicians. Controversial topics began to fade from movies and television. Bland entertainment was the standard.

first adaptation of Orwell's 1984 was TV's
Studio One in 1954
In its earliest days, live television drama was centered in New York, and heavily influenced by New York theatre. In fact, some young playwrights and directors were attracted to television because of dwindling opportunities for cutting-edge drama on Broadway as well as movies.

 But basically, commercial television was less a direct descendant of theatre or even movies that it was of radio. Like radio, it was a mass medium that flowed into every home (or barroom, barber shop or office) that had a receiving set, requiring no price of admission or any exertion beyond tuning in. (Although early television sets might also require a few well-placed thumps, twisting of vertical and horizontal-hold knobs while re-positioning an antennae and swearing, in order to get vaguely watchable picture and sound.)

 Many of the first programs made for television originated in radio, which continued well into the 1950s. Like radio, TV absorbed and adapted every form of entertainment that came before. There were stars of early television like singer and comedian Jimmy Durante who started in vaudeville, starred in clubs and on Broadway, then in movies, recordings and on radio.

 Movie stars disdained television at first, but lesser lights in movies became its first great stars—especially an actress named Lucille Ball.  I Love Lucy was her enormously successful sitcom, and it defined the 50s and television comedy.

 William Boyd bought up his movie serial westerns, made some new half hour adventures and put them on television. He became the first great western star, playing Hopalong Cassidy.

 But the most important element of radio that transferred to television was advertising-- “but first a word from our sponsors”: the ubiquitous commercials. When Gene Roddenberry became a television writer, he was most conscious of the tyranny of the commercial sponsors. When he later produced a series about a contemporary military base, he encountered opposition when he tried to deal with social issues like race, so he railed against the timidity of television studios.

 But the residual and ongoing effects of McCarthyism and the Blacklist were also powerful factors. They resulted in an atmosphere of repression—though it was mostly cheerful repression, as repression often is. And part of it was that by then, nobody talked about the Blacklist.

 Eventually GR would find a way to explore contemporary social topics as well as perennial conundrums and human drama by turning them into allegories set in the future, in Star Trek. 

 Gene Roddenberry was not yet a Hollywood writer when the Blacklist began. When he brought his wife and daughter back to southern California from New York in the late 1940s, he joined the family business: like his father and brother, he signed up with the Los Angeles Police Department.

 After a short time as a beat cop he became a public affairs officer, working directly for the Chief of Police. He researched and wrote press releases and speeches for the now legendary Chief Parker, on community relations and professionalism in law enforcement.

It was at pretty much this moment that television took off. The number of sets grew from a few thousand after the war to 15.5 million by 1951, and then added another 7 million just in 1953. By the end of the decade 86% of American homes would have a television set.

 As television became truly national, program production moved from New York to Hollywood, and began rapidly expanding. A fast-growing new form often provides opportunity for those with talents uniquely suited to it, even if they lack education and social and professional contacts. For 30 year old Gene Roddenberry, that form was television.

Jack Webb & Ben Alexander in Dragnet
 He got his chance when a new Los Angeles-based show began in late 1951, called Dragnet. It used real stories from the LAPD as the basis for its half hour shows, and as the producer as well as the star, Jack Webb asked the Public Affairs office for help. Dragnet paid $100 for every story they used, and Gene got stories from other cops, wrote them up and split the proceeds with them.

 The next step would be to write scripts, and Gene set about learning how. He got Dragnet scripts in advance, and followed along when the show aired. To learn dialogue, he listened to programs with his back to the set. To learn how to tell stories visually, he watched with the sound turned down. He wrote as much as he could, every day.

 Then an independent production company called Ziv asked him to be the technical advisor for a new TV series, Mr. District Attorney. He sold them story ideas, and finally convinced them to let him try a script. He sold his first in 1954.

 Roddenberry wrote for several other related Ziv shows like the iconic Highway Patrol. In 1955 he wrote a story treatment for Ziv’s Science Fiction Theatre, an anthology series and among the first meant for prime time to take science fiction seriously (among new and well-known actors who appeared on it was DeForest Kelley, playing a doctor.)

Roddenberry’s story, which bears some resemblance to a later tale by Philip K. Dick, was judged too expensive to produce. (Later as producer of Star Trek, GR often made the same sad analysis.)

 By 1956 GR was earning far more from his writing than from his police salary. Ziv was starting a new series called West Point, about the military academy, and they wanted him as head writer. He resigned from the LAPD in June. The first episode of West Point went on the air in October.

 Like many others in his generation, Roddenberry was sharing in the prosperity of the 1950s. But together with suburban expansion and a cornucopia of shiny new products, there were nagging social problems and consequences. Juvenile delinquency was a big topic, as were consumerism and conformity, and the stirrings of civil rights focused on desegregating schools and public facilities, mostly in the South.

Although they were largely avoided in entertainment programming, some of these debates and especially some of these events were seen by millions of Americans on television, including the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott in 1955 and the National Guard escorting black students to school past spitting mobs as Little Rock, Arkansas high school was desegregated in the fall of 1957.

 Also that fall, America experienced a major shock.

 West Point Story had just ended its run, and on the last Saturday in September, Gene Roddenberry’s script called “The Great Mohave Chase” was broadcast as the third episode of Have Gun, Will Travel, one of the major new “adult westerns” that were becoming a powerful trend sweeping through network television.

On the following Friday it was just after 5 p.m. in Los Angeles. Rush hour commuters could 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.

 It was just after 8 p.m. on the East Coast, the start of prime time for television (though it wasn’t yet called that.) On stations that had until recently carried West Point Story, a series called Court of Last Resort was beginning. A panel reenacted crime experts reviewing criminal cases in which those convicted might be innocent. Gene’s friend, the mystery writer Eric Stanley Gardner, had started this panel in the real world, though an actor portrayed him in the series.

 A few minutes after 8, an NBC announcer broke into programming to tell viewers: “Listen now for the sound which forevermore separates the old from the new.

 The sound was a gentle insistent beeping, that came from an object shooting around the world. It was a transmission from the first artificial satellite ever to orbit the Earth, the first human-generated sound from space. 

It was a surprise. Because the satellite was called Sputnik, and it was launched by the Soviet Union. The U.S. had confidently announced that as part of the first International Geophysical Year, it would launch the world’s first satellite. But acting in complete secret, the Soviet Union had done it first.  It was a shock to the nation, and would eventually result, for one thing, in a cry to teach more science in American schools.

 A flyer and science fiction fan like Gene Roddenberry would recognize this an historic achievement, a stepping-stone to an onrushing future of human space travel. This was itself a shock to many people. Referring to Sputnik, science fiction writer and historian Brian Aldiss wrote, “It is hard for people now to realize how stubbornly the idea of any form of space travel was opposed before that date, and not only by the supposedly ignorant.

 But as a flyer who piloted bombers over World War II targets, GR also would have instantly understood other implications—especially when the Soviets launched an even larger satellite a month later. If the Soviet Union had missiles that could carry a satellite into space, their missiles could carry bombs over America.

 More specifically, they could carry The Bomb--which by then meant the hydrogen bomb, orders of magnitude more powerful than the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

1954 US hydrogen bomb test
Before this, the Bomb could be delivered only by airplanes, which could be tracked by radar and seen by the naked eye on their relatively slow journey to their targets. Airplanes could be shot down. But rockets—or guided missiles, as they would be called—could deliver the Bomb so fast that they could barely be tracked, and there was no defense against them. Eventually they could be produced in much greater numbers more cheaply than bombers.

 Amazement and fear, once again hand in hand.

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