To sell the original Star Trek to TV networks, Gene Roddenberry had to present it in terms TV executives understood. He compared it to the classic Western Wagon Train, which is still running on cable.
Risk-averse TV network executives won’t buy a completely new idea, like Star Trek, but might buy something comparable to a previous TV success.
The only previous recent TV show in outer space was Lost In Space, a farce starring a talking robot and a little boy. Captain Video and Flash Gordon, from TV’s early days, were a joke when they were new, knock-offs from movie serials.
The execs would laugh Roddenberry out of the office the minute they thought of Star Trek as an outer space show.
TV Anthologies Were Unacceptable
He’d get chased, not laughed, out of the office, if he mentioned there would be a different story, different location, and different characters in every episode. There had not been a successful “anthology” series since The Twilight Zone went off the air years before.
Anthologies had been a staple of prime-time TV in the 1950′s, but were like starting from scratch on a completely new play every week. They became too expensive and inconsistent.
Twilight Zone.was a throw-back, an effort by Rod Serling, a top writer for live TV anthologies, to keep the “Golden Age of Television” alive single-handedly.
According to his memoir The Making of Star Trek, Roddenberry’s model for Star Trek was Wagon Train, which was already considered a TV classic.
Wagon Train told a different story every week centered on a different set of characters who were traveling west on a wagon train.
But it satisfied the need for familiar, likable characters and a familiar location, which had become required elements for a successful series.
The wagon master (played by Hollywood character actor Ward Bond, John Wayne’s favorite supporting actor), the handsome scout (Robert Horton), and the comical cook were in every episode, and the wagon train’s campfire was the familiar location.
Every week, the wagon train and its crew showed up in a different part of the west, and told a story about a character or family traveling with them. Each episode was named “The [lead character's] Story,” and the lead character was played by a top-flight star, like Barbara Stanwick or Ernest Borgnine.
Star Trek Was Wagon Train in Space
The bridge and officers of the Starship Enterprise were the familiar characters and location in Star Trek episodes.
Roddenberry’s science consultants told him there were millions of planets in the galaxy that could support humanoid life, theoretically. Warp speed gave the Enterprise the ability to show up light years away from where it had been in the previous episode, and creative costumes and make-up would be sufficient to create different humanoid life forms.
“The Menagerie” Episode
Off-beat as it was, Star Trek got a go-ahead for a pilot episode. Roddenberry wrote a script called The Menagerie, with Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike.
Star Trek.fans remember the early two-part episode where Spock, the only character from the first pilot held over in the series, is on trial for hijacking the Enterprise and taking it to a planet Star Fleet has placed off limits — no visits, no contact.
He also kidnaps Captain Pike, his former captain on The Enterprise, who is now totally paralyzed and unable to speak, but still aware of his surroundings and able to listen, understand, and think.
Spock tells the story of Captain Pike’s ordeal on the planet with a superior race that can read minds and create illusions. By returning Pike to the planet where that race can turn his thoughts into reality, Spock and the superior race allow Pike to live a full life, to walk, talk, and be happy with the earth woman he’d loved on his first visit to the planet. She had been mangled in a space accident, but the beings made her look and act like the ideal woman they read in Pike’s mind.
Roddenberry’s pilot was just the story of Captain Pike on that planet of illusion. NBC rejected it, but in an unprecedented move, they asked for a second pilot, less cerebral, with more action.
Roddenberry turned “The Menagerie” into a two-part story with the Captain Pike portion told in flashback, and Spock’s trial in the present. If you’re not a Star Trek fan the story would take too long to summarize. If you are a Star Trekfan, you don’t need a summary.
Copyright Ken Braiterman. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication