Becomes a Cult Classic

After Star Trekpremiered on network television, it sank nearly to the bottom of the ratings, but syndication transformed it into a force in popular culture.

Summary of Event

First broadcast on September 8, 1966, Star Trek aired for three seasons and seventy-nine episodes on the National Broadcasting Company National Broadcasting Company (NBC) before its cancellation by the network. Series creator and producer Gene Roddenberry peopled the program with the most international characters and most interracial ensemble ever seen on television. The cast included a Japanese American chief helmsman, Mr. Sulu (George Takei); Takei, George an African communications officer, Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), Nichols, Nichelle who ranked fourth in command of the Starship Enterprise and whose name meant “freedom” in Swahili; a Scottish chief of engineering, Lieutenant Commander Montgomery “Scotty” Scott (James Doohan); Doohan, James a Russian navigator, Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig), Koenig, Walter who joined the series its second season after Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, lambasted the show for ignoring the Soviets; a half-human, half-alien science officer, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy); and a testy southern American physician and surgeon, Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Kelley, DeForest who also served at times as psychoanalyst to Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and whose operating instruments in the original series were made of saltshakers. Roddenberry, Gene
Shatner, William
Nimoy, Leonard
Barrett, Majel

The Star Trek concept was rejected in 1964 by the Columbia Broadcasting System Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), and the show itself was not an immediate commercial success. Shortly after its premiere, the show sank to fifty-second place in the ratings, and it continued to hold a low position in the ratings for three seasons.

Set in the twenty-third century, the series, which cost an estimated $180,000 per episode, eventually did achieve success with a formula rare on series television. At the heart of each episode was neither crime nor doctors, neither love nor money. Instead of a crime of the week, Star Trek episodes were built around an idea. The idea of the week frequently was woven into a moral tale that pointed toward open-mindedness, the wonders of cultural diversity, and the blessings of peace.

From left: William Shatner, DeForest Kelley, and Leonard Nimoy on the set of the television series Star Trek.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The original series ran during the Vietnam War’s bitterest days, and in one episode called “The Day of the Dove,” an alien entity that fed on hatred and aggressive instincts provoked hostilities between the crew of the Enterprise and their alien enemies, the Klingons. In order to avoid mutual destruction, the Enterprise crew and the Klingons cooperated, ended their fighting, and actually laughed the creature out of existence. “A Taste of Armageddon” portrayed two planets that conducted their warfare with each other via computer simulation: No blood was spilled in actual battle, no buildings were devastated by missiles or bombs. After a successful military strike had been made, the victims selected by the computers would be notified to turn themselves in to make the casualty figures real. After Kirk and Spock destroyed their computers, the two contending worlds began to talk peace.

“Is There in Truth No Beauty?” sensitively and subtly explored how differences between life-forms could be resolved for the benefit of all concerned. “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” featured a genocidal rivalry between a space race pigmented white on the right side and black on the left and another race in which those colors were reversed. Even the last episode of the original series, “Turnabout Intruder,” which aired for the first time on June 3, 1969, investigated philosophical questions of mind transfer and of personal identity. Space, time, prejudice, parent-youth conflict, racism, sexism, pacifism, and political despotism—all these and other ideas were explored in a future that was akin to an idealized present.

The series foresaw no malicious or grotesque transformation of human society. Instead, no matter what the manifestation of evil or extraterrestrial power encountered each week, the series portrayed a future in which democracy, private enterprise, decency, and humanity clearly prevailed. People liked this message of hope and reassurance about the future. The planet-hopping, time-warping crew of the Enterprise gave hope to viewers in the turbulent 1960’s that the human species would not only manage to survive but would also create a better tomorrow.

The visionary plots and themes of Gene Roddenberry showed a future in which people of various races and planets worked together harmoniously, and the show’s multiethnic stars provided role models, specifically for black women and for minorities in general. Ironically, Nichelle Nichols planned to quit Star Trek after its first season because she perceived her role as underdeveloped. After a chance meeting with the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., she changed her mind. Nichols later recalled, “He told me, ’You must stay. You have opened a door that can never be closed again. Do it not only for black children, black adults and for all women—but for the nonethnic people who are seeing us as we’re supposed to be.’” Not long afterward, she and William Shatner shared the first interracial kiss on series television.

Star Trek engendered a loyal and dedicated following. When the series was to be canceled in 1968, fans of the program wrote a million letters to NBC urging that it remain on the air, which it did for an additional season.


Above all else, what enabled the series to survive and to prosper was the power of syndication. Star Trek originally had been marketed exclusively to NBC’s affiliate stations in the United States. Under that arrangement, the program could be shown only on days and at times specified by the network. With syndication, the seventy-nine original episodes were sold to various independent local stations throughout the nation, which opened up additional markets and time slots. Independent television stations caught on quickly, aided in part by the real-life space program, which had made substantial progress since the series’ cancellation. Men had walked on the moon, and ideas once appealing only to a few science-fiction fans had come to interest millions of people around the world. Subsequent to syndication, the television series could be seen on 145 independent television stations in the United States and also in thirty-nine additional countries. The show was particularly popular in Japan.

Ever since the original series went into syndication, it had generated a fanatical cult following in “Trekkers.” (In recent decades, the term “Trekkies” has become mostly acceptable to fans.) Fans formed clubs all over the United States. Club Starbase Houston alone numbered more than one thousand adult members who had their own flag, anthem, and jackets. At its height, more than four hundred Star Trek conventions were held throughout the world each year.

These fans wanted information, a need that was partly satisfied by the creation of several slick, commercially produced Star Trek fan magazines as well as by countless low-budget fanzines containing long articles about various aspects of the Star Trek universe, reviews of Star Trek films and books, and news about forthcoming Star Trek projects and about the doings of the show’s stars. The fanzines report on activities of other fan groups and provide fans a forum in which to discuss their hobby and exchange information.

Trekkers also hungered for memorabilia. Fans could purchase a wide variety of such items at Star Trek conventions, at conventional retail stores, and through fan magazines: scale models of the Enterprise, plastic Vulcan ears, board games, greeting cards, model kits, bedspreads, shower curtains, comic books, records, commemorative coins, Vulcan harps, pinball machines, T-shirts, and wristwatches.

Star Trek eventually permeated the cultural fabric beyond the level of a fanatic fringe. It spawned a theme-park attraction and a short-lived Saturday-morning cartoon show; the program was the basis for a variety of video games, from arcade games to those designed specifically for home computers. The word “Trekkie” entered the Oxford English Dictionary. The Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum hung the original scale model of the Enterprise from its ceiling, not far from the Wright brothers’ first plane and Charles A. Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis.

In 1976, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration National Aeronautics and Space Administration;space shuttle program (NASA) named the nation’s first space shuttle Enterprise after having received approximately 400,000 letters from Star Trek fans. As the shuttle was rolled out for its first public viewing at Edwards Air Force Base, a band played the theme from Star Trek. In 1978, NASA hired Nichelle Nichols to recruit women and minority astronauts for the space-shuttle program. Courses on Star Trek that could be taken for academic credit appeared at major American universities. The catch phrase “Beam Me Up, Scotty” became part of the American vernacular (even though no Star Trek character ever spoke exactly those words). Among those influenced by the original series and inspired by Nichelle Nichols’s character was a starstruck African American girl in New York City who would grow up and change her name to Whoopi Goldberg. Goldberg, Whoopi

Hundreds of books have been written about Star Trek. At one point, Simon & Schuster published an official Star Trek novel every other month. The series also spawned a highly successful series of motion pictures, including Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). These films, along with their release on videocassette and digital video disc (DVD), grossed around a billion dollars by the end of the twentieth century, a figure that was aided in part by the rapid growth in the numbers of homes with videocassette recorders (VCRs) and then later DVD players. In little more than a decade after the show ended, more than 70 percent of all television households in the United States had acquired VCRs, a growth rate more rapid than that of radios, color televisions, microwave ovens, or even toasters; the Star Trek films proved among the most popular in the booming video-rental industry.

A second television series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, premiered in 1986. This series was set one hundred years after the original and had a completely different set of characters. Costing an estimated $1.5 million per episode, the second series caught on quickly to become the highest-rated first-run series in television syndication. Several other Star Trek television series followed The Next Generation, including Deep Space Nine (1993-1999), Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001), and Star Trek: Enterprise (2001-2005). What once had been popular with a few dedicated fans had been transformed by the power of syndication into a worldwide phenomenon, a monumental event in popular culture.

Further Reading

  • Asherman, Allan. Star Trek Compendium. Rev. ed. New York: Pocket Books, 1993. An oversized paperback book with many black-and-white photos. Provides a good synopsis of each of the original seventy-nine episodes. Short chapters on syndication, conventions, the cartoon series, and the first five films.
  • Cohen, Daniel. Strange and Amazing Facts About Star Trek. New York: Pocket Books, 1986. An entertaining, readable, informative book with several black-and-white photos. History of the first series; biographical sketches of the Enterprise crew and of the actors who portray them. Interesting chapters on aliens and alternate universes, villains, and the fans of the original series.
  • Cooper, Nancy, and Charles Leerhsen. “Star Trek’s Nine Lives.” Newsweek, December 22, 1986, 66-71. Readable, entertaining exploration of the appeal, extent, and staying power of the Star Trek concept. Color photos accompany the article.
  • Gerrold, David, and Robert J. Sawyer, eds. Boarding the Enterprise: Transporters, Tribbles, and the Vulcan Death Grip in Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek.” Dallas: BenBella Books, 2006. Authors share behind-the-scenes stories and discuss features of the series and the impact of the series on subsequent science-fiction television programs.
  • Okuda, Michael, Denise Okuda, and Debbie Mirek. The Star Trek Encyclopedia. Rev. ed. New York: Pocket Books, 1999. Expanded edition includes an update of the Deep Space Nine and Voyager series. Appendixes include illustrations, cast and crew listings, time line, and bibliography. Extensive cross-references.
  • Van Hise, James. The Trek Crew Book. Las Vegas, Nev.: Pioneer Books, 1989. An oversized paperback book providing in-depth biographical profiles of the original crew of the Enterprise and of the actors who portrayed them. Completing the book are interviews with the cast members themselves, including William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols, and George Takei.

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