Today is the birthday of the father of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry who was born in El Paso, Texas, in 1921. He was affectionately referred to as the “Great Bird of the Galaxy,” and he led a life as colourful and exciting as any high-adventure fiction.
He flew B-17 bombers during World War II and he was decorated with the Distinguished flying Cross and the Air Medal.
It was while he was in the South Pacific during the war that Roddenberry began to write. He sold stories to flying magazines, and later poetry to different publications, including The New York Times.
He flew commercially for Pan-Am after the war, and he later served as an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department.
He really wanted to be a writer, though, and he got some freelance jobs consulting and writing scripts for several TV shows, including Dragnet, Have Gun — Will Travel, and Dr. Kildare. In 1956, he resigned from the LAPD and began writing full time.
The first show he created and produced was NBC’s The Lieutenant, which aired from 1963 to 1964. Set at Camp Pendleton, it examined social issues through the lens of a military environment.
He’d always loved science fiction, though, so in 1964 he developed the idea of a new series about space exploration — “a Wagon Train to the stars,” as he described it — and shopped it around to several studios, most of which were uninterested.
Desilu Productions, the company run by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, finally expressed an interest, and NBC agreed to run it. The first of the two pilots was pronounced “too cerebral” by the network and rejected.
Once on the air, however, Star Trek developed a loyal following as viewers grew to love the Starship Enterprise and its crew. The first episode was aired on September 8, 1966.
The show only ran for three seasons, but it was a huge success in syndication, and has since spawned an animated series, four spin-off live-action TV series, and 11 feature films.
Star Trek was so wildly popular that it was the first television series to have an episode preserved in the Smithsonian, where an 11-foot model of the U.S.S. Enterprise is also exhibited on the same floor as the Wright brother’s original airplane and Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis.”
In addition to the Smithsonian honors, NASA’s first space shuttle was named Enterprise, in response to hundreds of thousands of letters from fans demanding that the shuttle be named after the beloved starship.
What made the show special is the fact that it was the first science-fiction series to depict a generally peaceful and progressive future…This stemmed from Roddenberry’s fundamental optimism about the human race.
“It speaks to some basic human needs,” he said in 1991, “that there is a tomorrow — it’s not all going to be over in a big flash and a bomb, that the human race is improving, that we have things to be proud of as humans.”
The show went outside television to win science fiction’s coveted Hugo award and on September 4, 1986, Gene Roddenberry’s fans presented him with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the first writer/producer to be so honored.
His novelization of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (Pocket Books, 1979) sold close to a million copies and was ranked number one on the national bestseller lists for many weeks.
Roddenberry died in 1991 and his ashes were carried on a 1992 mission of the space shuttle Columbia. The following year, NASA awarded him their Distinguished Public Service Medal for “distinguished service to the Nation and the human race in presenting the exploration of space as an exciting frontier and a hope for the future.”