Gene Roddenberry, best known as the creator of Star Trek, was born in El Paso, Texas in 1921 and he grew up in Los Angeles a fan of pulp magazines and stories like Tarzan and John Carter of Mars.
After graduating from Los Angeles City College where he studied police science and aeronautics, Roddenberry got a pilot’s license and enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps in 1941 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1942, eventually earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal and later flying as a pilot for Pan American World Airways in 1945, but he resigned in 1948 after accidentally crashing a plane in 1947 (he also crashed a plane during his time in the Air Corps so it was apparent that he should stay out of the air).
Roddenberry’s career writing for television began interestingly while he was working as a police officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. He started out in the traffic division but got transferred to the public information division and became the speech writer for the Chief of Police. This led to him becoming a technical advisor and later a writer on the television version of the long-running radio crime drama Mr. District Attorney. In 1956 following his success on television, Roddenberry would leave the force and focus on his writing career full-time.
The 1950s anthology drama The West Point Story was Roddenberry’s first head writing job and he additionally wrote the script for ten episodes of that series. He also wrote for the popular Western TV series Have Gun – Will Travel and got many single-episode gigs on shows that included Dr. Kildare, Naked City and The Virginian.
The first television series Gene Roddenberry created that got on the air was The Lieutenant (1963-64) which depicted the lives of the men in the U.S. Marine Corps set against the Cold War. It starred Gary Lockwood (2001: A Space Odyssey) and Robert Vaughn (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.)
The most interesting thing about the series, aside from the fact that it was filmed at an actual Marine base with cooperation from the Pentagon, is the episode that didn’t air, “To Set It Right” which starred Dennis Hopper as the antagonist to a Black Marine played by Don Marshall whose fiance was played by future Star Trek star Nichelle Nichols. The episode featured a plot with a racial conflict (before Hopper and Marshall’s characters come to achieve racial harmony by episode’s end) which was considered taboo in 1964. Even the Department of Defense would withdraw support for the series over this episode and NBC’s refusal to air it meant that MGM lost money producing it, although it did finally get to air later on TNT in the 1990s.
Gene Roddenberry had similar conflicts earlier in his TV career when he was asked to write for a show whose producers did not allow him to cast Black people, his arguments over the matter eventually costing him the job.
Following the single-season run of The Lieutenant, Roddenberry got started on a new show and this time it would be science fiction.
In the final year of The Lieutenant‘s run, Roddenberry wrote a treatment for a sci-fi TV series unlike any other called Star Trek, set aboard an interstellar spaceship called the S.S. Yorktown in the 23rd century and featuring an international and interracial crew exploring the Milky Way galaxy with Roddenberry siting such influences as the 1956 film Forbidden Planet and C.S. Forester’s Napoleonic Wars-era Horatio Hornblower novels. He presented the idea to Lucille Ball’s Desilu Productions and director of production Herbert F. Solow saw promise in the concept and developed it with Roddenberry and a little help from Lucille Ball herself. Although the show would go through many revisions before finally being seen on television.
Desilu had a first-look deal with CBS but that network rejected the show because it was thought to be too similar to another sci-fi series they had in development called Lost in Space. NBC showed interest but they didn’t buy the pilot because the executives thought it was too cerebral, but they still saw potential so NBC paid for a second pilot (not something that happens a lot) with an entirely new main cast save for Leonard Nimoy as Spock. NBC liked the second pilot and they picked it up for series in the fall 1966 television season.
Roddenberry treated the show the same way he would treat westerns like Wagon Train which told self-contained stories each episode while following a continuous voyage. In fact, Roddenberry called Star Trek “Wagon Train to the stars” in his first draft.
The series would star William Shatner as the passionate and strong-willed Captain Kirk commanding officer of the USS Enterprise, Leonard Nimoy as the half-human, half-Vulcan Spock who is Kirk’s second-in-command and who is more logical than emotional, DeForest Kelley as chief medical officer Dr. “Bones” McCoy, Nichelle Nichols as communications officer Lieutenant Uhura, George Takei as helmsman Lieutenant Sulu, James Doohan as chief engineer Scotty and beginning in the second season, Walter Koenig as navigator Ensign Chekov.
Star Trek’s three-season run on NBC from 1966 to 1969 was met with low ratings and mixed reviews from TV critics but also an enthusiastic fanbase among a nerdy subsection of the viewing public whose love for the serious themes explored within the context of a compelling and creative character-driven sci-fi drama was strong because the series was unlike anything else on television in the late sixties. While typical American viewers were watching wacky fare like Batman, Bewitched and The Beverly Hillbillies, Roddenberry’s sci-fi opera Star Trek was being enjoyed by an upper-income, highly educated male audience that included teachers, doctors, scientists, university professors and a vast intellectual crowd. Smart people loved the show and they sent a huge number of letters to the offices of NBC begging them to renew the show for more seasons. This actually helped the show last two more seasons as NBC appreciated the positive reputation among highbrow viewers, but when it was renewed for a third season, it was moved to an unpopular time slot and the budget was cut in half, so it was not only the lowest-rated season but it also suffered in quality, which led Roddenberry to quit midway through the season out of frustration.
It was almost as if NBC were sabotaging the show’s chances on purposes but if so, it failed miserably. When the show ran in syndication following its cancellation, it gained the popularity it deserved and its fanbase grew even bigger.
Roddenberry may have been done with Star Trek in the seventies but he would not have another success like it for the rest of his career and he returned to it multiple times.
He had written and produced an unsuccessful sexploitation comedy called Pretty Little Maids All in a Row starring Rock Hudson in 1971 and he created other sci-fi pilots which were not picked up for series but aired as TV movies like Genesis II (1973), Planet Earth (1974), The Questor Tapes (1974) and Spectre (1977), but the continued popularity of Star Trek led Roddenberry to make a deal with animation studio Filmation to create Star Trek: The Animated Series for which he was an executive consultant.
The animated series ran Saturday mornings on NBC from 1973 to 1974 and most of the original cast came back to voice their characters. The writing was so good that it essentially felt like a fourth season, and it would even win an Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Series.
Roddenberry would later produce Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), which got greenlit due to the success of Star Wars (1977) and featured the return of the show’s original cast. Plus Roddenberry would consult for the next five Star Trek films which were released from 1982 to 1991, and create another Star Trek series called Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94) which starred Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard and was also hugely popular. Roddenberry chose to air it in first-run syndication to avoid network intereference. A smart choice seeing as how Roddenberry had more luck in his career from syndication than any network.
Following his death in 1991 at the age of 70, Gene Roddenberry managed to have two more of his TV ideas from the 1970s greenlit: Earth: Final Conflict (1997-2002) and Andromeda (2000-05), but most people will remember him for Star Trek, a film and television series that has continued to grow over the years since Roddenberry’s passing. Whether it’s in Deep Space Nine, the reboot film series helmed by J.J. Abrams in 2009, the bingeworthy Star Trek: Discovery or the comical Star Trek: Lower Decks, this series has become a colossal pop culture phenomenon, and it’s all thanks to the perseverance and vision of Roddenberry.