Saturday Cinema

'Star Trek' and the spirit of the '60s

Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura and William Shatner as Capt. Kirk in 'Star Trek'CBS

September 08, 2016

Sept. 8, 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the broadcast of the first episode of Star Trek. We're celebrating the birthday of this beloved science fiction franchise with stories and music all week long. Here, Lynne Warfel shares her love of that original series.

None of us pre-adolescent geeks expected it in fifth grade. We had no way of knowing that when NBC was touting its "New 1966 Fall Lineup" it would change our lives for the next half century and beyond.

It all started on Thursday night, Sept. 8, 1966. I faked getting my homework done so I could sit in front of my folks' new Zenith COLOR console TV/hi-fi combo. Then, it happened: this eerie music, this weird spoken prologue about the five-year journey of the Starship Enterprise, and I was hooked always and forever.

To say I was an avid fan would be an understatement. Back then, marketing wasn't what it is today, and the best we could hope for in fan goods were bubble gum trading cards, scale models, and maybe a Star Trek lunch box. No action figures, no DVDs. Comic-Con was decades in the future. As a matter of fact, my best friend Jackie Barney and I were the only Trekkies we knew of in our small, Eastern Pennsylvania town. She was a talented musician early on, and her folks had a large, stereo tape recorder we used every week to record the AUDIO of the show. Then we'd hunker down at her house or mine, listen to the whole show like it was a radio program, and take notes on Star Dates and other factoids. Primitive tech days, to be sure.

Pictures of Shatner and Nimoy (especially Shatner) adorned my room, relegating the Beatles to inside closet doors and distant corners. I tried to recreate a Starfleet uniform with a gold velour shirt with gold rank stripes I glued on the cuffs. I tucked my black pants into my tall winter boots for the bloused Trek appearance, and I was James Tiberius Kirk. One of NBC's promos was to offer a trio of free TV series posters to viewers, so I sent for the 66-67 fall season package. Full size, full color publicity posters for Get Smart, some other boring show, probably a Western, and...Star Trek. The latter hung on my bedroom door years after the show was gone.

I was so crazy about Star Trek, I bought every teen fan magazine that had pictures of anyone in the cast. I knew Shatner went to McGill University, knew the names of his daughters and his then-wife, Gloria. I learned Nimoy copped the Vulcan hand gesture from Jewish liturgy, and was from Boston. When we went on family vacation in the summer of 1967, a copy of the TV Guide with a Trek cast photo on the cover travelled throughout the vacation, propped up on the back deck of the car so I could see it while we drove. I was totally devastated I was going to miss "This Side of Paradise," where Spock falls in love with Jill Ireland. Life was so unfair. Upstate New York with my folks did not make up for missing a single episode of Star Trek, even if the motels had swimming pools.

The creators of Star Trek knew it was appealing to us, that coveted younger audience. The show was brave and sometimes outright controversial in its approach to current events: pacifism, the hippie movement, anti-Vietnam-War sentiment, and the civil rights demonstrations of the day. It often took on racism and prejudice. Remember the Frank Gorshin episode where he played dual characters that seemed identical, but they hated and killed each other because their faces were black and white on mirror-opposite sides? Then there was that first interracial kiss ever on TV, between Kirk and Uhura in "Plato's Stepchildren." A show most definitely ahead of its time.

NBC didn't know what to do with it. Given very mixed reviews, it nonetheless was renewed into a second season, then nearly cancelled, saved only by a huge write in campaign from fans. By the time season three neared its end in June of 1969, however, NBC pulled the plug. The Beatles broke up soon after. It was a truly traumatic time for us new teenagers. The Monkees didn't make up for it.

So that, we thought, was that. We grew up. We went away to college. Watergate began. The Vietnam War ended. We got jobs. We married and had kids. We watched faithfully with those kids, the meager 79 episodes NBC left us with in syndication, and then, in 1979, the news came. Star Trek on the big screen. Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

I was there, three thousand miles from where I became a fan, on opening night at a big old movie palace in L.A. I cheered with the audience at the opening credits. I wept and cheered with fellow fans when we saw the Enterprise again for the first time in a decade.

Never mind the film was considered long and boring. Never mind that it was a total rip-off of one of the TV show plots with a rogue Earth satellite threatening to kill its human creators, "The Changeling." We Trekkies, we loyal band of brothers and sisters, bonded through time by a TV show that was a cultural landmark, were ecstatic. We were together again. We were home.

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