Well, everyone knows the story of how Star Trek began, right? Gene Roddenberry (The Great Bird of the Galaxy) proposed a show to NBC studios in 1964 touting it as “A great wagon train to the stars!” This was the perfect way to pitch the show initially because frankly, we as Americans were in love with the western during that period. The Lone Ranger, Bonanza, Have Gun Will Travel… and those are just some of the TV accolades. Multiple spagetti westerns, John Wayne movies, and Lee Van Cleef films had enamored the American public to the glory, grit, and romance of the “Old West”. So naturally this should translate well to a space themed television show, correct? WRONG!
NBC hated the Star Trek pilot episode. They didn’t just hate it, they thought it was plodding, slow, boring… It would never capture the audiences imagination. “The Cage” was tossed aside, and by all rights that should have been the end of Star Trek; a dead legacy long before the gentle thrum of a warp core, the Firecliffs of Romulus, or the stately execution of Captain Picard’s “engage”.
But in steps an intrepid female, a woman of great insight, someone who knows a good idea when she sees one and won’t take no for an answer (no, not Lwaxana Troi): Lucille Ball! That’s right, I Love Lucy herself. You see, in 1963, after her divorce from Desi Arnaz, Lucy bought out her former husband and partner to become head of Desilu studios. Combined with her syndication rights for “I Love Lucy” and her control over a large and respected studio company, Lucille Ball effectively became the most powerful woman in television at that time!
So what, you say? Well set your phasers on stun, this story isn’t over yet. Lucy had alot of sway over NBC, and it’s even been said that her contracts were so ironclad and perfectly written that she could demand that any show Desilu pitched MUST be offered a second pilot if Ball herself agreed to it (This eventually became the 158th rule of Aquisition). Lucille had a good relationship with Gene Roddenberry, and she had a lot of faith in his project. The idea of exploring social and ethical issues in a futurisitc setting appealed to her just as it did to Roddenberry. So at Ball’s behest NBC decided to foot the bill on an unheard of agreement: a second pilot for a failed show.
“Where No Man Has Gone Before” debuted to test audiences at NBC in 1965. Lo and behold it was a hit! The episode aired as the third story of the new series following “Charlie X”, and the world was finally introduced to the original equal-opportunity, multi-ethnic, spacefaring, crew of the USS Enterprise.
But thats not where Lucille’s genius ended (and certainly not where it began). Ball had a great eye for shows she felt would run well in syndication. When “I Love Lucy” premiered in 1951 on CBS, the executives were perfectly happy to offer Ball and Arnaz lower salaries in return for their promise that the film rights were to be retained by the couple after filming and broadcasting. Couple that with Lucille’s insistence that all her material be recorded on long lasting film rather than short life kinetoscope, left her with a long lasting legacy that she translated onto her Star Trek productions. Just like “I Love Lucy”, “Star Trek” film endures safely stored on film, where many of it’s couterparts like “Honeymooners”, or early “Doctor Who” episodes have disappeared.
The end result is a sci-fi franchise that has spanned 50 years, has been preserved perfectly on film, and redistributed because of one woman who had a dream about “Boldly Going Where No Man Had Gone Before”
Thank You, Lucille Ball! The first Trekkie! “We have been – and always shall be – your friend.”
Star Trek: Into Darkness opens on May 17th, Go Boldly Everyone!