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Star Trek: The Cage screenshot
Fifty years ago this week, filming began of the original pilot for the series Star Trek. (credit: CBS/Paramount Pictures)

Boldly inspiring no more

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Fifty years ago this Thursday, on a series of rather decrepit soundstages in Culver City, California, Star Trek started filming its first pilot. It was rejected by NBC network execs who were nevertheless sufficiently intrigued to order a second pilot, spawning a show that lasted three seasons, went into countless repeats, and eventually led to more shows totaling over 700 episodes and a whole bunch of movies. But beyond entertaining millions, Star Trek in its various incarnations has had a profound impact on the American space program, primarily by inspiring countless people to pursue science and engineering careers, become astronauts, and even develop devices that they first encountered as props on a TV screen. But now that Star Trek’s influence is fading, what will influence and inspire future generations to work in the field of space?

The pilot was high quality, almost at the level of a motion picture. When cultural critics today sneer at the show’s sets or aliens they are looking back through a lens of more than 40 years of TV production and technology.

Star Trek was, of course, the brainchild of Gene Roddenberry, a former bomber pilot and police officer who had written other television shows and produced the short-lived series The Lieutenant. He pitched his science fiction idea to executives at Desilu Studios, owned by Lucille Ball, who at the time wanted to expand beyond producing only sitcoms. Star Trek was a bold leap for the studio, and despite the fact that Ball misunderstood the show at first—she thought it was about travelling movie stars—she stuck with it through cost overruns and naysayers. On November 27, 1964, the Friday after Thanksgiving, the studio started shooting the first pilot, known as “The Cage.” The pilot was expensive. It required a lot of sets that had to be custom built and costumes that had to be custom made because there wasn’t a Hollywood warehouse filled with Starfleet uniforms and alien masks. Ultimately it ran significantly over budget and schedule. According to Larry Nemecek, writing in Star Trek magazine, it took eleven days to shoot instead of the planned six.

“The Cage” featured Captain Christopher Pike, played by Jeffrey Hunter, commanding the starship Enterprise. Pike was brooding, angry, and tired, and at the beginning of the episode he is ready to give up his job after a disastrous mission that killed and wounded several of his crew. While investigating a distress signal from a vessel lost many years earlier, Pike is taken captive by a race of aliens that can project images into the minds of their captives which they do as a form of entertainment—perhaps an early example of Roddenberry engaging in social commentary about the medium that was paying his salary. Pike manages to defeat the aliens by demonstrating that humans would rather die than be caged, and by the end of the show he has undergone a transformation, deciding that he wants to be out exploring the stars.

When Desilu producers showed the pilot to NBC executives in spring 1965 they got an unexpected reaction. The pilot was high quality, almost at the level of a motion picture. When cultural critics today sneer at the show’s sets or aliens they are looking back through a lens of more than 40 years of TV production and technology. At the time, Star Trek’s production and costume design, set construction and special effects were quite impressive, even more so when you consider that the average episode budget was not particularly high. The pilot had run way over budget—according to Nemecek, instead of the $451,503 budgeted, it cost $615,751, the equivalent of $4.73 million in 2014 dollars and a substantial investment at the time. But the NBC suits were looking for new shows and they thought Star Trek had potential. They told the studio to do something unprecedented for the time and shoot another pilot.

Roddenberry went back to the drawing board, but he didn’t have to start over completely. Actor Jeffrey Hunter could not shoot the second pilot—his wife didn’t want him doing television—and so he was replaced by William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk. Shatner was more energetic and more positive, and Roddenberry wrote him as a confident, almost cocky leader who wanted to be boldly going where no man had gone before.

Star Trek’s influence on the American space program and more generally science and technology has been chronicled in many places. Several astronauts have said they were inspired by the show, and some even appeared on its later incarnations.

There were many other changes as well. Roddenberry had gotten pushback on two of the main characters, the Enterprise’s first officer, known only as Number One, and the Vulcan science officer, Mr. Spock. (Spock was originally supposed to be a Martian, but the producers realized that reddish makeup would make him look dark gray on black and white TV screens, so they changed the character to Vulcan and gave actor Leonard Nimoy’s skin a different hue.) Roddenberry got rid of Number One, and ended up marrying the actress who played her. He kept Spock, but it took him and Leonard Nimoy many episodes before they found the right tone for the character, whose race had been violent in the past but suppressed their emotions and pursued logic. That gave Spock an unusual appeal, particularly to female fans.

Roddenberry made a number of other changes. He added a multi-ethnic cast including an Asian, a Scotsman, and an African American woman, and eventually a Russian. This was a forward-leaning move for the producer, but it was also in tune with NBC, which was encouraging greater ethnic diversity in its television shows. He also wanted the Enterprise crew to be fifty percent female, but the network was nervous that the audience would wonder about them fooling around, so he made it thirty percent female, a quarter century before the US Navy integrated its warships.

Roddenberry also brightened up the show’s look. The ship’s corridors and bridge were a naval gray in the pilot, but Roddenberry had them repainted to reds and blues and other brighter colors. This too matched with another NBC initiative to appeal to people purchasing newly-available color television sets. The Peacock Network was the prettiest to look at.

Star Trek had pretty good ratings, and more recently people writing about the show determined that even in its last season it was still relatively well watched and the network simply lacked the ability to track the audience demographics. But it was not until the 1970s, when the show ended up in endless reruns on syndicated television, that it took off, gathering an even larger audience and inspiring many people.

Writers have generally credited the show’s appeal to its relatively positive view of the future: at a time when nuclear war was a very real possibility, Trek showed that humans would be around hundreds of years in the future and thriving. Michael Okuda, who worked on all of the Star Trek shows starting with The Next Generation as well as most of the movies, explained via email that the era in which the show aired was important to its overall impact. “In the 1960s, we feared the end was near: Nuclear annihilation. Falling dominoes and unending war in Vietnam. Racial tensions. Inflation. Overpopulation. Environmental disaster. Drugs. Distrust of The Man. (Any of those sound familiar?) One of the reasons Star Trek struck a nerve was because it was a beacon of hope.”

Star Trek’s influence on the American space program and more generally science and technology has been chronicled in many places. Several astronauts have said they were inspired by the show, and some even appeared on its later incarnations. Numerous inventors and scientists have pointed to the show as the origin or encouragement for their work. One of the more amusing, and clever chronicles of this phenomenon was the 2005 documentary How William Shatner Changed the World, which included a number of interviews with people who developed everything from ion engines for spacecraft propulsion to the cell phone to medical devices.

But as Michael Okuda notes, the way we view space exploration is different today. “Back in the 1960s, space exploration seemed like a real promise. A space fantasy like Star Trek seemed somehow plausible, at least in spirit, if not in detail. Today, real human exploration of space seems distant and improbable.”

So what, or who, will influence the next generation of space enthusiasts?

There is not, and maybe never will again be, a single powerful entertainment or event that that will positively inspire the young in large numbers.

Probably the most obvious future real-world influence is likely to be Elon Musk. Musk is a unique combination of visionary, businessman, and spokesman who has become an icon himself, showing up in movies like Iron Man 2 and episodes of South Park. His most visible endeavors, SpaceX and Tesla, have garnered publicity far beyond their actual market impact. He has not quite reached Bill Gates or Steve Jobs stature yet, but he is quickly becoming one of the most recognizable names in high technology business. Undoubtedly there are countless young engineers and inventors who look at Musk and want to be like him and do things like he is doing. Admittedly, Musk also has a darker side and has been warning about the dangers of computer artificial intelligence, which he thinks is going to kill us all. If that’s true, then even escaping to Mars is unlikely to save humanity.

Other real-world influences will probably be the Mars rovers, particularly Curiosity with its wild “sky crane,” and spacecraft like Rosetta and its bouncy lander Philae. Robotics are popular even among kids in grade school and it is not much of a leap to imagine a child with a Lego robotics kit seeing a rover on Mars and imagining building something like it when they’re older.

Popular entertainment influences are much harder to guess. Certainly pop culture can have unexpected influences—many students now study forensic science because of the CSI franchise and similar police procedurals. The influence is not always positive: people in the criminal justice system refer to the “CSI effect” on juries that expect definitive forensic evidence in criminal cases because they see it all the time on television. Real world cases are rarely settled with a confession in the final act. Many young girls have taken up archery because of the Hunger Games franchise, but it seems doubtful that they’ll grow up to be professional archers.

Last year’s big movie, Gravity, was a decidedly anti-space film whose primary message was that humans don’t belong in space (see: “Life in space is impossible,” The Space Review, May 19, 2014). Interstellar is director Christopher Nolan’s attempt to show spaceflight as humanity’s salvation, but it has garnered very mixed reviews. One movie that could have a positive impact is next year’s The Martian, based on the popular book that depicts a can-do astronaut who solves problems and never ever quits. That kind of hard-edge reality-based engineering drama could impact future generations to go into engineering fields (although, notably, the astronaut in the book is a biologist).

It is also not simply the overall cultural environment that has changed, but science fiction entertainment as well. “Most sci-fi films these days are decidedly anti-space and are pessimistic about the potential for science and technology to enable a better tomorrow,” Okuda notes. “Compare the celebration of science, technology, and wonder that is 2001 to the dire future of Interstellar. Or the utopian vision of Star Trek with the dystopian (although fascinating) world of Battlestar Galactica. Even Star Wars, which celebrates the imagination, is set in a decaying universe in which scientific inquiry and exploration play no role in the plot, nor are they values embraced by the heroes.” No young person daydreams about someday designing weapons to battle killer robots who have enslaved humanity in a dystopian future. Science fiction writer Neal Stephenson noticed it in his own work and even started a Project Hieroglyph to start creating more positive visions of science and technology.

Then again, perhaps, our current and future cultural influences are suffering the same fractionalization as our entertainment. There is not, and maybe never will again be, a single powerful entertainment or event that that will positively inspire the young in large numbers.

“We need better dreams,” Okuda says.

So this Thanksgiving, you can tip your wineglass and give thanks to the inspiration that started exactly fifty years before. Maybe if we’re lucky the next Gene Roddenberry starts filming on Friday. But don’t bet on it.