I t is August 1966, the rush to finish the first episodes of Star Trek and get them on the air is reaching a climax, and lost in the universe on Gene Roddenberry’s desk is a desperate memo from Bob Justman, one of Star Trek’s two associate producers. “It is important that you compose, without delay, our Standard Opening Narration for Bill Shatner to record.”
But Roddenberry’s first attempt was cumbersome, sounding as stilted as the legal language of the Constitution. It even included the phrase “regulate commerce.” It did however contain the words, “explores strange new worlds and civilizations.” And it ended: “These are its voyages...and adventures.”
“Think the narration needs more drama,” Black wrote in his return memo that same day, and added “an example of what I mean.” His draft began: “Space…the final frontier…endless, silent, waiting.” He then incorporated elements of Gene’s draft, adding, “to seek out and contact all alien life.” And he included the title of Sam Peeple’s script for the second pilot story, “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” “…to travel the vast galaxy where no man has gone before…a STAR TREK.”
Gene started scribbling on Justman’s draft, then did nothing more on it for a week. By that time Justman was frantic. The words to the standard opening would complete one of the last elements yet to be finished before the first show could air.
After a phone call and another pleading memo from Justman on August 10, Roddenberry took the best phrases from copies of the previous memos, cut them to the essential words, added what would become the world’s most famous split infinitive (“to boldly go”) and gave the words a reading rhythm. It was the final draft because it had to be.
And these would be the words first broadcast on September 8, 1966, and repeated by several actors to introduce hundreds of episodes, as well as included in a few feature films.
These were the words that would become one of the best-known poems of the twentieth century:
These words would also handily define the basic structure of Star Trek storytelling, placing it in an ancient tradition—perhaps the most ancient. Star Trek stories would be tales of adventure.
“The oldest, most widespread stories in the world are adventure stories,” wrote literary scholar Paul Zweig, opening his 1974 book The Adventurer.
These stories are most often about “perilous journeys, encounters with inhuman monsters,” Zweig continues. Such journeys, often by ships in unknown seas (These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise) are made to unexplored regions (Space...the final frontier) where the adventurer encounters previously unknown beings (new life and new civilizations.)
While the structure of the adventure tale survived in Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and H.G. Wells The Time Machine in the late 19th century, Zweig writes that it was already disappearing from modern novels, as they became more domestic and introspective, dealing more with thoughts and feelings than actions.
1930s of Gene Roddenberry’s youth.
The adventure tale also found a new home in the medium of motion pictures, from the Adventures of Robin Hood to the Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai. In adventure stories, character is revealed through action, which is perfect for the big screen.
Even without the word in the title, a great many more TV shows were (and are) basically adventures, whether primarily drama or comedy. And that’s a feature of adventure shows—they can be either, and usually they include elements of both. Few TV shows come as close to the classic adventure tale as Star Trek.
For Gene Roddenberry and some of the other Star Trek creators, the prototype for what they wanted to do was Gulliver’s Travels. In the fictional and fantastical places he imagined, Jonathan Swift examined aspects of his contemporary society.
But Swift himself had used an ancient prototype: the fantastic voyage as adventure in strange new lands among unknown beings and civilizations. The closest prototype for Swift’s saga was the Odyssey, Homer’s tale of Odysseus—also called Ulysses—and his encounters with strange beings like the Cyclops during his 10 year sea voyage.
Similarly, while the metaphorical or allegorical qualities of Star Trek episodes may emerge for viewers at different times in their lives or perhaps after several viewings, it is the basic elements of adventure that provide structure and story interest that everyone follows.
While Roddenberry and other Star Trek producers and writers would work with the double nature of adventure and social or moral commentary as exemplified by Gulliver’s Travels, the actors and others who realized the stories for the screen first and foremost had to play the adventure. More than anyone else, that responsibility belonged to William Shatner as Captain Kirk.
Roddenberry envisioned the captain of the Enterprise as like Horatio Hornblower in the C.S. Forester series of adventures published from GR's adolescence in 1937 to Star Trek's 1967. (Forester died a few months before Star Trek’s premiere.)
Hornblower was brave, resourceful and intelligent, but introspective and self-doubting. This description especially fits Jeffrey Hunter’s portrayal of Captain Pike in the first Star Trek pilot.
But William Shatner added other qualities and another idea. He played Captain Kirk also as Ulysses—brave, resourceful and intelligent, but also with a mixture of energy, openness, confidence and cunning. When confronting the unknown, the quality Shatner tried to project more than any other was wonder.
The word “adventure” comes from two Latin words (ad venio) which can be translated as “whatever comes.” Heroes of an adventure must be ready to respond to whatever confronts them.
Through the years, the notion of an adventure acquired the qualities of danger and risk. As Captain Kirk famously said, “Risk is our business.”
TrekCore for screencaps.)
According to Marc Cushman’s research (in These Are The Voyages), its story and production got special attention because it was originally meant to introduce the series. Gene Roddenberry wanted it to establish the Star Trek universe and the characters, especially Captain Kirk.
Eventually it was decided that this episode, which takes place almost entirely on the Enterprise, didn’t display enough aliens, strange new worlds and the more colorful aspects of science fiction adventure to attract viewers to the series.
In any case there were problems with visual effects that caused it to be postponed until the 10th episode aired. So by that time, the Enterprise crew had faced unforeseeable threats on alien planets and aboard ship that endangered their lives and their sanity—as did adventures of Ulysses’ crew in the Odyssey.
Under Kirk’s command the Enterprise tries to evade the cube by heading back the way it came, but the cube moves towards it. When harmful radiation from the onrushing cube becomes too dangerous, Kirk very calmly orders phaser weapons to destroy it.
Now Kirk is confronted with the decision of whether to leave the area or proceed. He reminds the bridge crew of their mission—to seek out alien life. So his decision is to continue into the unknown.
Doctor McCoy arrives on the bridge, and tells Kirk that Balock’s warning was heard throughout the ship. Kirk immediately addresses the crew on the intercom, in what essentially is the attitude governing the series:
Kirk tries to signal good will by going back the way they came, but his ship is held motionless. Eventually Spock is able to show what the alien looks like: a stern, forbidding and very alien appearance.
Kirk responds with annoyance but the words of Spock and McCoy have given him an idea. He tells the alien ship that for many years, “Earth ships” like the Enterprise have been coated with an element called corbomite, that will reflect back any attacking force and destroy the attacker.
The ruse, worthy of the wily Ulysses, forestalls the attack but out of the huge alien vessel emerges a smaller one, a pilot ship that will tow the Enterprise to a prison planet.
Then as they assess the damage to the Enterprise, Uhura intercepts a weak distress call from the small alien ship to the large one: engines and life support are failing. She believes the signal wasn’t strong enough to reach the mother ship.
This statement, as well as others in the episode, express a key difference between Captain Kirk and an ancient adventurer like Ulysses. According to Zweig, adventurers in early stories did not operate on principle or according to a mission--they were most often self-centered and amoral, more interested in glory, dominance. riches and thrills than a goal.
But Captain Kirk is also prudent and wily enough to anticipate this distress call from the alien ship might be a trap, so he leaves his first officer Spock behind in command of the Enterprise.
Shatner would expand Kirk’s Ulysses-like swagger, confident energy and unpredictability in other episodes. Throughout the series and films, Kirk stubbornly and even joyfully refuses to give in, always looking for a way to survive and succeed. He approaches every problem, every challenge as an adventure, even if it is only a challenge to his curiosity.
For Kirk, adventure is partly an attitude. He approaches the unknown as a potential adventure, embracing the challenges presented, using instinct and intelligence to shape the risks he takes. Yet what the unknown presents him—its challenges and dangers as well as opportunities—forces response.
In a sense Captain Kirk has no choice in confronting “whatever comes.” In fact he must seek it out—it’s his mission. But it is how he chooses to confront each unknown that creates the adventure.
This episode shows Kirk is grounded in basic principles of what will come to be known as Starfleet and the Federation. As we’ll see, they are also basic elements of the soul of Star Trek.
It also shows Kirk as a leader who coolly employs knowledge and logic but when these fail, is creative and ready to risk, especially when facing the ultimate danger of destruction. Adventure itself is also part of the soul of Star Trek.
For even though the adventure tale delights us with its wonders and heroic action, it is not less serious than other forms, partly because the adventure often involves a dance with death, and a test of principles, integrity and what each most values. It is heightened and yet it is grounded in that confrontation with the basic human moment of mortality, and the basic human need for meaning that transcends death.
Adventure is not always an isolated life and death confrontation. It can be a commitment to a series of challenges and explorations that require effort and skill.
Not only leaders but scientists and practitioners of any vocation apply themselves to what can be adventures, repaid with wonder as well as large or small contributions to a larger purpose. All those on the Enterprise, for example, have different talents and functions, and may each be on personal adventures. But they are all also part of the same adventures.
The attitude of adventure does not obsess on any perceived unfairness of circumstance. It identifies challenges to assess and address. It expects effort and perhaps sacrifice will be needed. It sees the commitments of a life—and life itself—as action.
"Be kind, be useful, be fearless," President Obama recently told a group of young White House interns. It's a reminder that we all can approach life as an adventure.