On September 8, 1966, NBC began broadcasting Star Trek, and Mister Boomer was watching. He watched all three seasons — just 79 episodes — with his family on their black & white TV. Then, when the show began syndication, he continued to watch the original episodes as well as the later incarnations of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and all of the movies. Mister Boomer’s aunt, being born in 1918, was even a bigger fan than Mister B. She never missed an episode, and declared her favorite character was Mister Spock. The show had a vast reach across generations, because of its hope and optimism for a peaceful future based on mutual respect.
The show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, worked with Desilu Productions to pitch a pilot for the show to NBC. Desilu was Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball’s company, but Lucille Ball had bought out Desi’s share to become sole owner when they were divorced in 1960. It was billed as “Wagon Train to the stars,” comparing the premise to the popular western TV series about pioneering the Old West. The first pilot was rejected by the network, but they saw enough potential in it that they asked for a second pilot to be produced. It was the second pilot that introduced the actors and characters we came to cherish on Star Trek.
It’s not surprising that boomers loved the show; after all, we grew up with the Space Program. At the same time we watched the metaphorical sci-fi alien movies of the 1950s on TV and it set our imaginations churning into what we might find out among the stars. NASA was in the process of forming its ability to take us where no one had gone before, and then Star Trek showed the possibility of that progress into the 23rd century. Meanwhile, we were watching every launch and mission, from Project Mercury with Alan Shepherd’s first foray into space to ultimately Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon.
In 1960, President Kennedy had laid down the challenge of sending a man to the moon and back within the decade. By 1966, however, when Star Trek first appeared, NASA was in the middle of the Gemini program, which tested crucial docking procedures between spacecraft and saw the first space walk EVAs (extravehicular activity). Star Trek was leaps and bounds beyond our earthly capabilities.
As a youngster, the technology of the show was the ultimate dream. Mister B recalls that in school, he and his friends were immediately struck by the ethereal theme song and whooshing Enterprise spacecraft that left the name of the show in futuristic lettering on the TV screen. Mister B and his friends would try to draw their own names in the style of the Star Trek lettering on their paper bag book covers. Then there were the flip-open communicator devices; they seemed very far out at the time, but sort of the logical move from Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist radio. The hand-held phasers were a real mindblower. A flip of a switch could change the gun phaser blast from a stun ray to a death ray. Now that was a weapon young boys wanted to see. The mac-daddy of tech was the Transporter. To think people could be molecularly deconstructed and whisked through space, only to be reconstructed at a different location was great sci-fi in anyone’s estimation.
And as soon as Mister Spock performed his first split-hand salute while stating, “Live long and prosper,” all the boys tried furiously to duplicate the sign. Very few could do it at effortlessly as Spock in their initial attempts. One by one they succeeded, and Mister B was among the first group who could display the hand signal across a classroom when a teacher wasn’t watching. It was as if the “Trek” boys had a new club of their own.
Like Twilight Zone before it, boomers who Mister B knew quickly latched on to favorite characters and episodes. However, Mister B would be hard pressed to pick a favorite character or episode. Before Star Trek appeared, his sci-fi reading was defined by Jules Verne, so the show was a real mind expander and gateway to his next generation of sci-fi reading, which continues to this day.
Rather than a favorite character, Mister B enjoyed certain phrases repeated by certain characters. There was Mister Spock’s “Live long and prosper,” of course. There was also, “I’ve given it all she’s got, Captain,” from Engineer Scotty; and “I’m a doctor, not a magician,” uttered in various iterations by Doctor McCoy. Mister B also liked when Captain Kirk, at the end of several episodes, was asked by navigator Sulu for travel coordinates, would point to the space view screen and say, “Out there, Mr. Sulu,” like Babe Ruth pointing to the spot he would hit his next home run.
There is hardly a person in our culture who hasn’t been in some way touched by what we began watching on Star Trek fifty years ago. As you watch those original episodes during the 50th Anniversary celebration that is now underway, take note of the influences the program has had. Star Trek had people of all races working together, and portrayed women in key positions at a time when it was unheard of in corporate America. While most will readily admit we have a ways to go in accepting each other, we do have a black president and a woman candidate from a major political party running for president. We’ve seen women at the head of major tech companies as well. Then, of course, Motorola based early designs of the cell phone on the Star Trek communicator. The StarTAC phone debuted in 1996. Mister B still carries a similar model of a flip phone today. He thinks of Captain Kirk every time he opens it. When Yeoman Rand approaches Captain Kirk with electronic data tablets, is it hard to imagine our future e-readers and tablets?
Mister Boomer has always been a Trekker at heart, though he never — not once — used the phrase, “set your phasers on stunning” to impress a young lady. How about you, boomers? Were you watching 50 years ago, and what influence has the program had on you through the years?