History-making music group for UMM - morris mn

History-making music group for UMM - morris mn
The UMM men's chorus opened the Minnesota Day program at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair (Century 21 Exposition).

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

"Star Trek," the original series, endured baby steps

We remember so fondly.
I had a roommate in college who imitated the opening to Star Trek but with a lisp: "Space. . .the final frontier." What a hoot. At that time, Star Trek hadn't been seen as a current series for six years. Star Trek as a current series? There was a time when the William Shatner version had a fresh new episode every week. It seemed no big deal. Had it been a big deal, its ratings would have been higher.
Today the William Shatner version is firmly in the archives. It is retro Americana. We recognize it as iconic. Re-runs will go on forever. And yet it existed as a current product for only a short time. And to even exist that long, it needed some deference or special favors.
Had ratings alone been the determining factor, its lifespan would have been shorter. It got saved for the short term by "demographics." Star Trek's relatively small audience was what's called a "desirable demographic." "Gunsmoke" had good ratings but the audience was less desirable for advertisers. And let's not even mention "Lawrence Welk."
Trotting out Lawrence Welk makes us remember the generation gap. Young people of today might not believe it, when told about that generation gap. It couldn't be that bad. It really was. Bland, predictable and safe entertainment had a big advantage in the 1960s. Entertainment of a more creative or edgy nature had an uphill climb. Like the Monkees.
Believe it or not, a science fiction idea with a racially diverse cast was not consistent with what America wanted. "Star Trek" had subliminal messages about society, conflict and social progress. All quite tame today. Programs with subtle messages and sub-plots are quite in the mainstream today. Could you imagine "Bonanza" with sub-plots? Much of the TV entertainment up through the middle 1960s seems rather like caveman paintings today.
Saddle up and let's go
Westerns on TV? Oh, how they ruled at one time. The stories were simple and ponderous. They were moral tales. They were a framework for understanding right vs. wrong, this at a time when the U.S. was prosecuting and escalating the Viet Nam war. Oh, the irony. It is amazing we ate up so much of the western genre then.
We might wonder why the western ever reached such a prominent perch. I have one theory: the setting of the American West in the late 19th Century was a way of escaping the memories and residue of the Civil War. It was like creating a whole new country.
As entertainment, the TV western grew stale. Why did it take so long? I'm sure creative people were champing at the bit to try to make creative inroads. They must have been monumentally frustrated. TV in the 1960s was a one-size-fits-all proposition. Add to that the generation gap in which the older folks were put off greatly by anything smacking of social commentary.
Demographic analysis began persuading the TV industry that it needn't be ruled or intimidated by the older folks. The older crowd was Richard Nixon's "silent majority" who mostly sat silent as the horrible revelations about the Viet Nam war began coming out. This was the John Wayne crowd. "America, love it or leave it."
Many young Americans did in fact flee America but they got amnesty to come back in the years following. I wrote an article on a Cyrus MN school administrator who fled to Australia. I remember Chris Ledoux recalling his aversion to the military draft. Chris was a country music musician who seemed to have a permanent cowboy hat. The late LeDoux was the type of man, immersed in country music, who you wouldn't expect to speak skeptically about American military aims. The time came when he could speak openly and not be frowned upon within his field. When the country music crowd is good with criticizing an American war effort, you can be sure it was folly.
The war was a backdrop to all the TV entertainment we consumed in those 1960s. Creative people desperately tried crafting stuff that was original and thought-provoking. Today in this age of niche television, it's no big deal for original fare to push through. The '60s were Neanderthal times by comparison. The Big 3 networks ruled.
The visionary: Gene Roddenberry
Gene Roddenberry was one of those determined souls trying to make the future "now." He was ahead of his time. Roddenberry's first produced sci-fi story was "The Secret Weapon of 117," which aired way back in 1956 on the "Chevron Theater." It was a fleeting accomplishment. It was dues-paying. In '63 Roddenberry got to produce his first TV series but it was conventional fare, called "The Lieutenant." That was an MGM project.
The "Star Trek" concept had been in Roddenberry's mind since 1960. MGM was willing to listen. As "The Lieutenant" wound down, Roddenberry prepared a Star Trek draft and shared it. The studio listened but did not act. Indeed, Roddenberry had to labor to get the concept finally accepted, a concept that today is iconic.
Here's the lesson: the vicissitudes of the entertainment marketplace and entertainment profession can be huge and inscrutable. The most popular songs aren't necessarily the best songs written - the most popular songs are good but they are done by the right people at the right time.
It was like pulling teeth for Roddenberry to get "Star Trek" established at all. Once established, it was under pressure from disappointing ratings. The scheduling was an issue. On what day and in what hour would it run? That was an important aspect back then. Today if you miss any show in its first run, you can probably catch it not long thereafter. One can watch TV 24/7. When I was a kid, the "broadcast day" would end and we'd hear the National Anthem. We'd see stock military footage and the flapping American flag. Early in the morning we'd see the "test pattern" complete with its Indian headdress on the screen.
"Star Trek" was like the "Wagon Train" TV series only in space. The concept was familiar to me, as I had consumed the "Space Family Robinson" comic books when I was a kid. A crew in space encountered "new life and new civilizations." I was fascinated. "Space Family Robinson" gets confused with "Lost in Space." The Robinson story isn't nearly as well-known or remembered today. I was transfixed. The space station story actually told us how the space travelers got their sustenance - it was from "hydroponic gardens." Thanks for enhancing the plausibility.
Realistically, of course, such space travels would be cut down by new bacteria on those discovered planets. (Suspend reality.)
Roddenberry plodded forward and got a three-year deal with the Desilu company in 1964. "Star Trek" got pitched to CBS. No-go. CBS wasn't exactly yawning about sci-fi but it went in another direction with "Lost in Space." It was a painfully campy show. It was sci-fi in name only. America wasn't ready, apparently, for Roddenberry's cerebral approach.
Finally, daylight for the concept
There was a breakthrough in May of '64: An NBC vice president agreed to give Roddenberry the chance to write three story outlines. NBC would choose one for a pilot. It chose "The Cage."
Roddenberry assembled a creative team. It was a daunting task: to create an elaborate vision of the future. "Star Trek" got its feet on the ground. Desilu produced the series in 1966 and '67. I actually remember when I watched the very first episode. I would have been in sixth grade at East Elementary in Morris MN. I remember on the day after that historic first episode, discussing it on the playground with classmate Dean Anderson. We had actually watched history: the first little baby step by an entertainment "brand" that would become huge.
At the time the series proceeded haltingly. Iconic, it was not. Call it an experiment. The old folks were by and large not receptive to this at all. To be blunt, I think the very diverse cast (racially and with women in solid and meaningful roles) was unnerving. This wasn't "The High Chaparral" where the woman simply gave support to her heroic husband (Leif Erickson).
"Uhura" was a black woman with an important role on the spacecraft. There was a Russian: "Chekov." An obvious Russian as a friend or ally? This was the cold war days. I remember watching a pro wrestling exhibition where a guy presented as a Russian tried shaking hands with an opponent, to "make good." It was a ruse, of course. "You can't trust the Russians!". Of course, the common Russian citizen was never any different from us.
"Star Trek" was ratings-challenged throughout its 1960s run. It aired on NBC from September 8, 1966, to June 3, 1969. So, it would have been September 9 of 1966 when I had that chat with Dean Anderson on the playground.
A famous "Saturday Night Live" skit shows the scene where an NBC executive announces the canceling of Star Trek. Elliott Gould was the executive, remember? His "1968 Chrysler" showed up in the observation window. At the end the Shatner character says "Live long and prosper - promise." That was a takeoff on the commercials Shatner did for Promise Margarine.
A re-birth after cancellation
Star Trek was canceled after three seasons and 79 episodes. Can you imagine: the Star Trek TV series canceled! Canceled for lack of an adequate following?
Could anyone have predicted the growth of this incredible Star Trek brand in the years after cancellation? And yet in 1969 the series couldn't even survive.
Star Trek burgeoned in our popular culture. Syndication gave it a huge re-birth in the 1970s. Eventually we got new TV series inspired by it - five in all. Oh my, there were 12 films, numerous books, games and toys. Roddenberry had planted the seeds for a timeless phenomenon.
Roddenberry apparently was not influenced by "Space Family Robinson," at least not according to background I've read. He was influenced by the film "Forbidden Planet" from 1956. Also, by a TV series about which I have no knowledge: "Rocky Jones, Space Ranger," from 1954. We learn that series had many of the same elements as Star Trek.
Roddenberry even drew from the "Horatio Hornblower" novels by C.S. Forester. The Hornblower stories were at sea. Didn't Jimmy Carter once refer to Hubert Humphrey as "Hubert Horatio Hornblower?" Hornblower was a daring sea captain.
We should note that Roddenberry's background included extensive experience with westerns. 
Roddenberry compared his sci-fi idea to the show "Wagon Train." In both, each episode is a self-contained adventure story, set within the overarching structure of a continuing journey. Hats off to the "Wagon Train" paradigm, although I frankly found that series to be rather boring.
For the record, Roddenberry's original hero/captain was named "Captain Robert April" and he was at the helm of the "S.S. Yorktown." Named for the WWII vessel at the Battle of Midway? "April" morphed into "Captain Christopher Pike," played by Jeffrey Hunter.
TV execs just couldn't get the "cerebral" aspect of the show off their minds. It was a nagging worry in a nation that still accepted Lawrence Welk. We had a leadership class who demanded we accept the assumptions behind the Viet Nam war. Again: "America, love it or leave it." What if Star Trek gave credence to a pacifist philosophy?
NBC wasn't closing the door on Roddenberry and his pioneering ideas. NBC decided to underwrite a second pilot episode - unusual in those days. The name of the second pilot was "Where No Man Has Gone Before." The second pilot made all the difference. NBC moved forward. "Star Trek" became reality in that fall of 1966. William Shatner had come on board for the second pilot. How iconic he would become.
James Doohan and George Takei emerged for the second pilot. Leonard Nimoy had been on board since the first pilot. DeForest Kelly came on board as the ship's doctor when the first season got going. Shatner, Nimoy and Kelly were quite the threesome, attaining that perfect chemistry. What is it about three men? Remember Leslie Nielsen, George Kennedy and O.J. Simpson in the "Naked Gun" movies?
The African-American actress Nichelle Nichols had a truly pioneering role.
Star Trek nearly got nixed by Desilu Productions in February of 1966. Can you believe it? Demographics were invoked to keep it going. I remember Mitch Miller bemoaning demographics. His show was of the Lawrence Welk ilk. "Gunsmoke" was canceled despite overall ratings still being good. Demographics were invoked.
Third season: show declines in some ways
"Star Trek" suffered in its third season. Its budget was cut. Thus we got fewer outdoor location shots. Nichols recalled Star Trek's cancellation as a "self-fulfilling prophecy." The last day of filming for Star Trek was January 9 in 1969. I was 14 years old. It was the year when we reached the moon. It was the year when the New York Mets won the World Series, seven years after their miserable start.
Star Trek's third season may have been disappointing, but the show attained enough total episodes to set the stage for its syndication life. Star Trek became totally huge through syndication. Typically it aired in late afternoon or early evening. The Associated Press called Star Trek "the show that won't die" in 1972.
Star Trek never really seemed new to me, as I had consumed plenty of sci-fi previously, most notably "Space Family Robinson." It's amazing that such imaginative storytelling was considered idiosyncratic or "at the margins" at one time. An African-American woman in an important working role on a spaceship? Shame on us for ever thinking such a thing might be edgy. Context: the color line wasn't eliminated in baseball until the late 1940s.
There is no substitute for the original series of "Star Trek." All the other stuff since, just rides its coattails. Oh, and there's never been any substitute for the 1969 New York Mets.
We will be viewing William Shatner forever and not in margarine commercials. "Live long and prosper," indeed. Call up Leonard Nimoy's song "Bilbo" on YouTube. You will be transported to the 1960s. I know, it's impossible to forget about the war.
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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