Star Trek: Creating the Cultural Phenomenon

The 1960’s television show Star Trek spawned a long lived and beloved cultural phenomenon. Here at the American Heritage Center, we are fortunate to have photographs, scripts, and music scores from some of the original seventy-nine Star Trek episodes that were broadcast beginning in September 1966 on NBC.

Star Trek was set in the Milky Way galaxy more than 200 years into the future. Gene Roddenberry created the program and was aided by a talented and imaginative group of script writers, composers and actors. They were tasked with bringing to life an entire universe of characters and situations, all of which revolved around the U.S.S. Enterprise, a spaceship capable of intergalactic travel. Star Trek was notable for its diverse cast and for a story line that followed, as the opening credits promised, “the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Captain James Kirk, played by William Shatner, holds a phaser gun as he protects Dr. Elizabeth Dehner, played by Sally Kellerman. This scene is from the episode titled “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” September 22, 1966.
Box 108, Forest J. Ackerman papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

In addition to Gene Roddenberry, dozens of other writers contributed to Star Trek. Some of the scripts were the collaboration of two writers, but the majority were completed by a single author. Script writers changed from episode to episode, to the degree that it’s a wonder the program had any continuity at all.

List of Star Trek scripts and authors from the first two seasons, May 1968.
Box 21, Samuel A. Peeples papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

In an effort to ensure some consistency, Gene Roddenberry provided writers with detailed character analyses and instructions regarding the structure needed for each episode. He specified that scripts must be 65 pages in length in order to produce a program that lasted exactly 50 minutes. It is a testament to the craftsmanship and expertise of the scriptwriters of era that they could produce a coherent script while sticking to an exact page limit and using only a typewriter.

The American Heritage Center’s collections include the papers of four of the scriptwriters that contributed to Star Trek – Sam Peeples, Jerry Sohl, Gene L. Coon and Robert Bloch. Robert Bloch was the most famous. Bloch was a respected author of crime, horror and fantasy before he was asked to try his hand at writing Star Trek scripts. He was a prolific writer and rose to fame as the author of the 1959 book Psycho, which was then made into the renowned Alfred Hitchcock film. Bloch also wrote more than 400 short stories, a few of which proved to be inspiring material for Star Trek. Bloch wrote three episodes for Star Trek: “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” which aired in 1966 as part of season one as well as “Catspaw” and “Wolf in the Fold” which aired in 1967 as part of season two. Star Trek and horror aficionados consider all three episodes to be among the most memorable examples of televised science fiction crossing over into the horror genre.

Bloch’s papers provide interesting perspective on the development of a Star Trek teleplay – starting with a short basic premise through to the finished script. “Wolf in the Fold” in particular went through extensive revision. Studio executives had requested that Bloch write a Jack the Ripper story set in the future. (After Psycho, Bloch’s second most famous story was “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” written in 1943.) Bloch started with several paragraphs of story premise, then wrote a nine-page story outline.

Page of the story outline for Star Trek episode “Wolf in the Fold” written by Robert Bloch, April 21, 1967.
Box 5A, Robert Bloch papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

A draft version of the outline, full of mark-ups and edits, shows the evolution of the storyline. It is interesting that early drafts of the story feature third officer Sulu as the main character, while in the final version of the script it is Scotty, the chief engineer, who becomes the focal point of the episode.

Less than a month after the outline was submitted, and with studio approval of the storyline, Bloch finished a draft script. But after submitting his first draft to studio executives, Bloch received a sixteen-page memo from Gene Coon loaded with suggestions for changes.

Page of a memo from Gene Coon to Robert Bloch regarding Star Trek episode “Wolf in the Fold,” May 18, 1967.
Box 5A, Robert Bloch papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The edits were not all well received. Bloch’s frustration shows through in his handwritten notes in his papers, which state, “Another horrible example of teleplay development – ‘Wolf in the Fold’ – showing how 1967 network and studio executives arbitrarily call the tune – and, in this instance, then proceed to change their own directions when they see that what they suggest will not work. You might call this a lesson in how NOT to write a teleplay.” “Wolf in the Fold” turned out to be Bloch’s last contribution to Star Trek.

Gene Coon, who was Star Trek’s showrunner, also lent a considerable hand with script writing. Of all the Star Trek scriptwriters, he was the most prolific, having written or contributed to thirteen episodes. He is credited with fleshing out the personalities of the show’s main characters and for much of the humor in the first two seasons. His papers at the American Heritage Center include two Star Trek scripts written by Coon, “The Devil in the Dark” and “Metamorphosis.”

Page of the script for Star Trek episode “Metamorphosis”, May 3, 1967.
Box 24, Gene L. Coon papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Coon is also credited in “Metamorphosis” with introducing the character of Zefram Cochrane. Cochrane proved to be a crucial figure in the Star Trek “universe” as he was the fictional scientist who originally discovered the space warp or “warp drive” technology. Without “warp drive,” interstellar travel and the whole premise of Star Trek would be impossible.

Supplemental to the scripts, music played an important role in Star Trek, heightening suspense and viewers’ perceptions. And as with script writers, multitudes of composers were involved. The American Heritage Center’s collections include the papers of two of the many composers who contributed to the program during the 1960s. Composer Gerald Fried lent his considerable musical talents to Star Trek. Among his thousands of compositions are the scores for five of the early Star Trek episodes, including “Catspaw.” Another composer, Sol Kaplan, wrote the scores for two additional Star Trek episodes, “The Enemy Within” and “The Doomsday Machine.” Notably, both composers also served as conductors of the orchestras which recorded the incidental music associated with each episode. The musically inclined can see scores handwritten by both Fried and Kaplan at the American Heritage Center.

Part of the score for Star Trek episode “The Doomsday Machine” titled “Approach of the Enterprise” composed by Sol Kaplan.
Box 30, Sol Kaplan papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Beyond the talented script writers and composers, it was the Star Trek actors that brought the show to life. One of those actors, Nichelle Nichols, broke ground in Star Trek as the first African American women cast in a major, continuing role on primetime television. To paraphrase the Star Trek credits, she boldly went where no woman has gone before. Initially asked to read the part of Spock during an audition, she ultimately played Lieutenant Uhura, the communications officer on the Enterprise. Her character’s name, which is a variant of the Swahili word for freedom, was inspired by a book Nichols was reading at the time of her audition. While the character Lieutenant Uhura was a specialist in linguistics and cryptography, she was also a capable bridge officer who sometimes assumed control of the helm, navigation and science stations on the bridge of the Enterprise. Nichols was a talented singer, and scriptwriters capitalized on that, including scenes that called for Lieutenant Uhura to sing, often accompanied on the Vulcan lyre.

Star Trek Communications Officer Uhura played by Nichelle Nichols, November 10, 1966. This scene is from the episode titled “The Carbomite Maneuver.”
Box 108, Forest J. Ackerman papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Nichols appeared on Star Trek for three seasons, and in six of the movies that followed. Millions of people watched her fly through space while breaking barriers and stereotypes. She used her platform to illustrate what could be possible for Black people and for women. Later in her career, she helped recruit women and people of color into NASA’s space program. Nichols passed away on July 30, 2022, at the age of 89.

Despite the strong cast and imaginative story lines, ratings for Star Trek fluctuated. The studio cut the budget, production values were compromised, and the network decided to cancel the program in 1969 after the third season. But in the 1970s, it was syndicated and soon became a cult classic. The Star Trek phenomenon propagated follow-on television shows, 13 movies, a franchise of comic books, magazines, games and toys and legions of fans who were known as “Trekkies.”

Cover of the first issue Star Trek comic, 1967.
Box 22, Samuel A. Peeples papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Star Trek has been televised around the world, and Star Trek conventions still draw thousands both here at home and overseas. Today, Star Trek is widely considered to be one of the most influential and popular television series of all time. If this blog post has piqued your interest, we encourage a visit to the American Heritage Center to view our various collections related to Star Trek and indulge the curiosity of your inner “Trekkie.”

Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.


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