×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

‘Star Trek’ Anniversary: Gene Roddenberry’s Battle for Equality

Happy 49th anniversary to “Star Trek,” which debuted on NBC Sept. 8, 1966. It’s a remarkable success story due to its longevity, its fan loyalty, its philosophical-spiritual meditations — and its racial integration.

When Gene Roddenberry insisted on an integrated crew for Starship Enterprise, it wasn’t a TV first, but it was a rarity. In 1966, interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 states — one-third of the U.S. George Wallace’s inauguration speech in January 1963 included his rallying cry “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” Even though the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, acceptance was slow: In the 1968 presidential election, Wallace won nearly 10 million votes and carried five states.

Meanwhile, show business was aiming for more integration, but then — as now — the intentions were better than the results.

In March 30, 1966, six months before “Star Trek” debuted, Daily Variety carried a story about a TV integration study. A team at UCLA had monitored all seven L.A. TV stations (three network affiliates, four locals) for content. The survey counted 1,197 speaking parts in primetime TV during one week in December. Only 40, or 3.36%, of the roles were played by black actors. Even worse, primetime TV ads included 1,371 speaking roles, of which 0.65% were black. The ACLU, which called the press conference, added a note that not all these characters were positive: Blacks were often cast in dramatic roles “which fortify the stereotype of the angry Negro who is a threat to society.”

When Roddenberry was a freelance TV writer, he was asked to join the 1959 series “Riverboat.” However, the producers didn’t want black characters on the show; they argued with Roddenberry so much that he exited.

In retrospect, the casting of Nichelle Nichols as communications officer Lt. Uhura and George Takei as Lt. Sulu seems like a perfect fit. But the roles were radical at that time, since both were in positions of great authority. Even so, Nichols planned to leave after the first season, to return to her stage and singing work. But she met Martin Luther King Jr. at an NAACP event and he urged her to stay, because Uhura was a positive role model who was needed. On Nov. 22, 1968, Nichols and William Shatner’s characters shared a kiss. Network brass was nervous, but the public had a more positive response.

“Star Trek” was expensive and ambitious. On Sept. 27, 1966, just after the series had debuted, Desilu production chief Herbert Solow complained to Variety about the costs. Solow said “Trek” and the other new series from Desilu, “Mission: Impossible” on CBS, were among the most expensive shows on the air. Each network paid about $145,000 per episode, which meant Desilu was having to pay out of pocket to keep up the quality on both shows. Solow fretted about the costs, saying, “Our only hope is to rerun them globally and that the shows will go on for five years.”

The original “Star Trek” series only lasted three seasons, but nearly 50 years later, folks are still watching both series. So it turns out Desilu’s investment paid off.

More TV

  • Alfonso Cuaron71st Annual Writers Guild Awards,

    Alfonso Cuarón on Academy's 'Inevitable' Reversal on Televised Oscar Categories

    Alfonso Cuarón isn’t exactly surprised that the Academy reversed its decision and will now air all the Oscar categories during the live show on Sunday. Feb. 24. Calling the decision “inevitable,”Cuarón tells Variety that he thinks the Academy should take things even further. “Let’s stop calling them technical categories!” he told Variety on Sunday night [...]

  • Desus Nice The Kid Mero

    TV Shows to Watch the Week of Feb. 18, 2019: Academy Awards, 'Desus & Mero'

    Welcome back to Tune In: our weekly newsletter offering a guide to the best of the week’s TV. Each week, Variety’s TV team combs through the week’s schedule, selecting our picks of what to watch and when/how to watch them. This week, the Academy Awards air and Desus & Mero make their debut on Showtime. [...]

  • WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01

    BBC Takes Stake in New Company Set Up by ‘Luther,’ ‘Bodyguard’ Exec

    BBC Studios has taken a minority stake in Firebird Pictures, the new drama indie being set up by BBC execs Elizabeth Kilgarriff and Craig Holleworth. Kilgarriff’s credits include “Luther,” “Poldark,” “McMafia” and upcoming Richard Gere-starrer “MotherFatherSon.” She commissioned breakout drama hit “Bodyguard.” Holleworth will be the new company’s COO, having run business and operations for [...]

  • Punisher Jessica Jones

    Marvel's 'The Punisher,' 'Jessica Jones' Canceled at Netflix

    The last of Netflix’s Marvel shows are officially ending. “The Punisher” has been canceled after its second season, and the upcoming third season of “Jessica Jones” will be its last, Netflix confirmed on Monday. The announcement comes after Netflix gave the ax to its other Marvel series: “Daredevil,” “Iron First,” and “Luke Cage.” “Marvel’s ‘The Punisher’ will [...]

  • SND Boards Comedy Series 'Family Shake'

    SND Boards Comedy Series 'Family Shake' With 'Desperate Parents' Producer

    SND, the commercial arm of the French TV network M6, has acquired worldwide distribution rights to “Family Shake,” a comedy series written by Baya Kasmi and Michel Leclerc. SND is the latest vertically integrated French film group to start handling live-action series, following TF1 Studio, Studiocanal and Gaumont, among others. Produced by Gaëlle Cholet at [...]

  • 'Super Shiro' Anime Series Inspired by

    'Super Shiro' Anime Series Inspired by 'Crayon Shin-chan'

    The enduringly popular Japanese cartoon franchise “Crayon Shin-chan” has inspired a new animated TV series, “Super Shiro.” “Crayon Shin-chan” has been on air since 1992 and inspired 26 feature films. “Super Shiro” is a fast-paced chase series, for kids, based on original IP by Yoshito Usui and scripted by on Kimiko Ueno.  The series is [...]

  • Us Television Writers and Producers Maria

    ‘Mad Men’s’ Andre, Maria Jacquemetton Set for Series Mania’s UGC Writers Campus

    MADRID — André and Maria Jacquemetton, the Emmy and WGA Award-winning writer-producers of AMC’s “Mad Men” and consulting producers on Amazon Studios’ “The Romanoffs,” will serve as Guests of Honor at Series Mania’s UGC Writers Campus, a workshop whose participants include Denmark’s Christina Miller-Harris and Israel’s Noy Carmel. The Jacquemettons will deliver a masterclass and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content