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Much More Than A 5-Year Mission: 'Star Trek' Turns 50

George Takei predicted <em>Star Trek</em> would be too sophisticated to last — but he says he's happy to have been proved wrong.
The Kobal Collection
Paramount Television
George Takei predicted Star Trek would be too sophisticated to last — but he says he's happy to have been proved wrong.

For Star Trek's George Takei, it was one of the worst predictions he ever made, and one of the best strokes of luck in his life: Takei, known to fans worldwide as helmsman Hikaru Sulu, originally thought the show would last only one season.

"When we were shooting the pilot, Jimmy Doohan [who played engineer Montgomery "Scotty" Scott] said to me, 'Well, George, what do you think about this? What kind of run do you think we'll have?'" says Takei. "And I said, 'I smell quality. And that means we're in trouble.' "

Already a bit cynical about the way TV worked, Takei figured any series he liked wouldn't last long — including the one he was appearing in. He feared Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry had developed a show too sophisticated for mass audiences; a show that disguised social commentary with space action.

Fifty years later, relaxing in his comfortable Los Angeles home with a long career as an actor, author and activist, Takei is happy to admit his instincts were off the mark.

"The Starship Enterprise was a metaphor for Starship Earth," he adds, referencing an acronym Roddenberry cited often to describe his approach: IDIC, or Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. "It was the diversity of this planet — people of different backgrounds, different cultures, different races ... all coming together in concert and working as a team ... I think that's why, even a half century later, it's as popular as it is."

... people of different backgrounds, different cultures, different races ... all coming together in concert and working as a team ... I think that's why, even a half century later, it's as popular as it is.

On Sept. 8, one of the most enduring franchises in TV and movie history celebrates its 50th birthday. Star Trek debuted on NBC in 1966, developed by Roddenberry, a former Los Angeles cop who wanted to make a TV series that could sneak past the rampant escapism of most programs back then.

At a time when scripted TV rarely dealt directly with the turbulence of the times, Star Trek set its social messages against a space opera backdrop. Swashbuckling Captain Kirk ran the Enterprise, backed by cerebral first officer Mr. Spock and emotional Southern medical officer Dr. Leonard McCoy.

On the surface, the show's plots dealt with exotic alien worlds in a future where space travel was commonplace. But Roddenberry and his writers slipped in subtle messages.

One classic story pointed out the absurdity of racism by depicting a war among members of an alien race, where one faction was colored black on the left side of their face and body and white on the right. The other faction had the colors reversed.

And as the end of state-sanctioned segregation rattled the U.S., Roddenberry featured American TV's first interracial kiss: Aliens forced Captain Kirk to smooch his African-American communications officer Lt. Uhura, portrayed by Nichelle Nichols.

After that episode aired, Takei — who is gay but was not public about it back then — asked Roddenberry if he would consider addressing gay issues on Star Trek.

"He said to me that the episode in which we had a black/white kiss, that show was literally blacked out in the American South," Takei says. "And that meant the ratings plummeted to the very rock bottom. [Roddenberry said] 'If that happens again, I'll be off the air. I'm afraid that issue [gay rights] will do that.'"

In a way, Takei wasn't far off in his original prediction. Plagued by high production costs and middling ratings, Star Trek was canceled by NBC after two seasons.

A cadre of devoted fans organized a letter-writing campaign that pushed the network to bring the show back. Still, NBC canceled Trek for good after its third season. But by then, the show had made enough episodes to play in syndicated reruns, and its fan base grew.

"Gene's litmus test for what made a great Star Trek story was, 'Can you tell it today? Can you tell it 100 years ago? Can you tell it in the future?'" says Richard Arnold, a fan who became Roddenberry's assistant in the 1970s.

"Does it require science fiction hardware to make it work?" Arnold continued. "Because if it does, it's not a good Star Trek story. It has to be about people. It has to be about the human condition ... It's one of the few places you can go to get those positive visions of the future."

Gene's litmus test for what made a great 'Star Trek' story was, 'Can you tell it today? Can you tell it 100 years ago? Can you tell it in the future?'

Arnold met Roddenberry at one of the first Star Trek conventions in the '70s. He wound up serving as his assistant and Trek archivist until Roddenberry died in 1991.

Arnold says that in the '70s, Paramount Studios, which then owned Star Trek, couldn't decide how to take advantage of the show's enduring popularity. Ideas like a new TV series, a new TV movie or a low budget movie came and went.

Then, in May 1977, Star Wars hit theaters. Its success convinced Paramount executives they could create their own blockbuster science fiction franchise by releasing a big budget Star Trek film.

"Gene used to say this: If it hadn't been for Star Wars, they never would have gone big budget on the first movie," Arnold says. "It was hard to get it across to the network executives and the studio executives that Star Trek had any value other than [as] a kids' show."

After the first Star Trek film with the original cast debuted as a commercial hit, the franchise blossomed on screen.

There were movies with the original cast from the classic series. Then a new series launched on syndicated TV, Star Trek: The Next Generation. There were spin-offs from the Next Generation universe. And there were even more movies, including three recent "reboot" films with younger actors playing the characters from the classic series.

Over the years, Star Trek became a pop culture institution because fans demanded it. Their support often allowed Roddenberry's vision to triumph over the objections of clueless TV or film executives.

George Takei faced a conflict of his own over the fate of Sulu, the character he once played. Actor John Cho, who plays Sulu in the newest films, told Takei they would show Sulu with a male romantic partner in the latest movie, Star Trek: Beyond.

The decision was intended as a tribute to Takei's current fame as an advocate on gay issues. But Takei suggested they create a new gay character, instead.

"Gene Roddenberry created Sulu as a heterosexual," Takei says, noting that the Star Trek creator spent lots of time thinking about the character's personal details, including basing his name on the Sulu Sea instead of using a name connected to a specific nationality in Asia. "That, too, reflected the times we were in, in the '60s ... It's not about me and it's not about Sulu. This is the 50th anniversary of Gene's vision."

When Takei finally saw the film, he noted that Sulu and his partner were shown in the briefest of moments. "That's it?" he remembered thinking. "They didn't even kiss? And John told me that they did shoot that kissing scene." Cho said in an interview with Vulture.com that the scene was cut from the final film. Paramount didn't respond to requests for comment on Takei's statements.

Those discussions, however they are resolved, are the true legacy of Star Trek — which set a groundbreaking example five decades ago that modern TV and film producers are still trying to match.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.