How did 'Star Trek' change science fiction, the TV business, and more?

The original 'Trek' series debuted on television 50 years ago. The program has since had a huge impact on sci-fi and on how those who produce TV shows and movies view fans.

CBS
'Star Trek' stars Leonard Nimoy (l.) and William Shatner (r.).

The first episode of the 1960s TV show “Star Trek,” which spawned multiple spin-off series and movies and influenced the genre of science fiction as well as TV in general, debuted on Sept. 9, 1966, 50 years ago today. 

The original “Trek” program starred the legendary pairing of William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk and Leonard Nimoy as Spock. Nichelle Nichols, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, and Walter Koenig co-starred. 

The show famously only aired three seasons before being taken off the air in 1969. But more fans found “Trek” when it aired in syndication and multiple movies starring the original cast followed, as did new “Trek” series, including the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” series starring Patrick Stewart.

The current film series, which includes this summer’s movie “Star Trek Beyond,” stars actors including Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and Zoe Saldana as younger versions of the original series’ characters. A new “Trek” TV series is on the way from CBS and scheduled to debut in 2017. 

Since its debut, “Trek” has influenced science fiction and the world around us as well as the TV business. 

Telegraph writer Tim Stanley notes that “Trek” used science fiction as a way to discuss questions of right and wrong, which was unusual in the genre at the time but proved important. “Television sci-fi in the past had either been camp nonsense or narrowly obsessed with hard science,” Mr. Stanley wrote. “‘Star Trek’ preferred to explore moral questions in a futuristic setting.” 

NPR writer Eric Deggans notes that that was different for TV programs of any genre as well, not just a science fiction TV show. “At a time when scripted TV rarely dealt directly with the turbulence of the times, Star Trek set its social messages against a space opera backdrop,” Mr. Deggans writes. “Trek” famously featured an early interracial kiss on TV between Mr. Shatner and Ms. Nichols as well as episodes addressing racism, the cold war, the ethics of combat, and overpopulation, among many other themes.

The casting on the show also promoted a message of inclusion, with African-American actress Nichols, Japanese-American actor Takei, and actor Koenig portraying Russian Pavel Chekov.

And “Trek” proved the power of fans. It's an aspect of the promotion of TV and film that's only grown more and more significant as events at which fans gather like Comic-Con have become major events on studios’ promotion schedules. Stanley writes that “before Kirk went into space, shows were loved but disposable. In the 1970s, networks discovered the value of repeats and of fan loyalty – people who would religiously watch every episode and collect memorabilia as if it were Faberge eggs.”

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