Resistance is futile: Star Trek at 50

Bob Pisani with his mother Elizabeth in 1967.
Bob Pisani | CNBC

September 8, 1966. It was a good time to be a 10-year-old boy. It was an especially good time if you were into science fiction. True, my two favorite shows of all time, "The Twilight Zone" and "The Outer Limits," had been cancelled, the former two years before, the latter just a year before. But "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea," with Richard Basehart piloting a super-submarine of the distant future (the 1970s!) and "Lost in Space," a somewhat silly Robinson Crusoe story about a family marooned in a hostile universe, were still going strong.

There was plenty of sci-fi at the movies as well: "Fantastic Voyage" had just opened at the Hatboro Theater a couple miles away. This was one of the great ones, with everything a 10-year-old boy could want:

  1. A great story, about a scientist who had figured out how to shrink atoms, who then survives an assassination attempt and whose colleagues must build a ship to go inside his body to destroy a blood clot.
  2. Great special effects.
  3. A book by the great Isaac Asimov, and
  4. Raquel Welch!

And that first week of September, another new series, "The Time Tunnel," was beginning on CBS. That had a promising premise as well: several men are trapped in time and are switched from one period to another. Lots of potential for mayhem: wars, volcanoes, man-made destruction.

Sound silly? Some of it was, but it was all undeniably fun, often scary, and usually engaging, and space opera — even if it was just westerns transferred to space — was the most fun of all.

Like many enterprises that became famous, the origins of "Star Trek" is covered with a lot of mythology. Gene Rodenberry, a science fiction fan, had worked as a scriptwriter for various television westerns. In 1964, he worked up a short draft about the crew of a spaceship that went exploring the galaxy.

He met with Oscar Katz and Herb Solow, then executives with Desilu Productions, the TV production company controlled, at the time, by Lucille Ball. They were not exactly science fiction fans. Years later, Solow told the BBC that when he originally approached Lucille Ball to tell her about the "Star Trek" idea, she thought it would be a series about a group touring a war zone to entertain the troops.

Despite doubts from her board of executives, Ball approved the project. NBC picked up the series, but even then did not air the two original pilots that had been presented to it until after the show was already on the air.

The first episode of "Star Trek" that aired that night, "The Man Trap," about a shape-shifting monster, was not one of the best, but it had all the elements in place: Kirk, McCoy, Sulu and Spock. It came long before the "Vulcan nerve pinch" and the Vulcan salute, "live long and prosper," which would not appear until the second season.

It was not to last. The ratings were crummy because it had a lousy time slot of 8:30 p.m. on Friday night. It was picked up for a third season only after a now-famous write-in from the show's small but dedicated fanbase. NBC renewed it, but changed the time to 10 p.m., a killer for younger fans like myself.

Still, it lasted for three seasons and 79 episodes. That was long enough to reach the critical threshold, the promised land of all TV shows: syndication. The original series played for years in syndication, both in the United States and abroad, and it was in this form that it became famous.

It became famous even as the world was changing, and science fiction changed with it. Rod Serling, the now-legendary narrator of "The Twilight Zone," reappeared with "Night Gallery" in 1969, a series that attempted to replicate the feel of "The Twilight Zone" but only managed to feel sullen without the creativity and emotional impact of the original. What followed was even drearier post-apocalyptic fare, movies like "Silent Running" or "Soylent Green" that would dominate sci-fi through most of the decade. Your parents as food? Please.

Fun had hibernated, but it never went away, and with the coming of "Star Wars" in 1977, the space opera — once again a western in space — came back. And it never left.

And "Star Trek?" It just got bigger and bigger. The reruns — now known as "TOS" or "The Original Series" — kept playing all over the world. The first "Star Trek" convention was 1972. An animated series ran in the mid-1970s. The first movie, "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," was a hit in 1979 and12 more would come in the next 27 years. The first of four television spinoffs, "Star Trek: The Next Generation," ran between 1987 and 1994, with Patrick Stewart playing a James Kirk type 100 years after the original series. A fifth is coming on CBS All Access.

In the decades since, the economics of "Star Trek" have been, well, galactic. estimates that the "Star Trek" film franchise has grossed $2.2 billion alone. In 2005, Forbes estimated there were 70 million "Star Trek" books in print, with merchandising worth about $4 billion in lifetime gross. Not bad if you're Paramount.

Why is "Star Trek" so popular? First, the science is pretty good. There were plenty of misses — no one is yet being beamed up anywhere, at least not yet — but the flip cell phone, the communicator, is very real — although you still can't contact starships in orbit. McCoy's tricorder is very close to reality. In 2011, the XPrize Foundation launched the Tricorder X Prize, a $10 million prize to develop a mobile device that could non-invasively diagnose over a dozen medical conditions. Finalists have already been announced.

Then there was the cultural impact. A multiracial crew. A black woman, Uhura. A Russian, Chekov. A Japanese-American, Sulu. And, of course, Spock. What is supposedly the first interracial kiss on TV, between Kirk and Uhura, in a now-famous Season 3 episode.

But the real reason for its success is that like most great shows, it was not about its ostensible topic. AMC's "The Walking Dead" is not about zombies. It's about trust and family and, ultimately, that's what "Star Trek" was about. It wasn't about flying around in space, though the love of exploration was a central theme. It was about human interaction and the need for the crew to trust each other in very difficult circumstances.

They were all different. They often had conflicting motives. They usually argued. But they all passionately cared about each other.

They were a family.

And Kirk, at the head of the family, could always be counted on to digress at some critical point in the show to deliver a pseudo-Shakespearean monologue about the perils of being in command, or why aliens were people too, or some such nonsense.

And we loved it.

Of course, it all became a little much over time, and the parodies came very soon after the original show. William Shatner seemed to recognize the joke very early on. One of the great kitsch albums of all time, "The Transformed Man," was a 1968 Shatner album that consisted of readings from "Hamlet" and "King Henry the Fifth," but is most remembered for covers of "Mr. Tambourine Man" and especially "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds."

Listen to these songs if you haven't, and you will never hear them the same way again. It's that disturbing.

And that's part of the problem: people outside don't take you seriously when you say you're a science fiction fan. Trying to explain why science fiction was so special to someone who thinks it's all plastic monsters and boyish stupidity is hopeless. It's like trying to explain to someone why the "Three Stooges" were so funny. You had to be in that mindset, and if you weren't, it was useless explaining.

Science fiction did grow up, of course. If you need proof, head to the theaters this fall to see the stunning "Arrival," about the oldest of sci-fi tropes — first contact with aliens. It was a show-stopper at the just-completed Telluride Film Festival, which debuted the film with star Amy Adams in the house. You'll see aliens, but you won't laugh at them.

Me? I stopped apologizing about my sci-fi habit years ago. Every once in a while, flipping through a channel, I'll see something silly on, like "Attack of the 50 Foot Woman," "Them!" or, more seriously, "The Day the Earth Stood Still." And invariably, I'll stop whatever I'm doing, my wife will laugh at me, and I will stare at black and white images of plastic monsters, and for a few moments I am 10 years old again, with my crew cut, my red-striped t-shirt, my baggy dungarees, and my Converse sneakers, sitting cross-legged on the basement floor of our home in Warminster, Pennsylvania with our Zenith black-and-white TV and a TV dinner, preferably fish sticks.

And I, 50 years after that first episode, am happy again.

Live long and prosper.