It was only meant to be a five year mission, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, but it boldly went where no TV series had been before and it has lived long and prospered.
This month marks 50 years since the screening of the first episode of Star Trek, the seminal sci-fi series which captured the imaginations of millions and went on to spawn countless sequels, prequels and spin-offs. Now known as "Star Trek: The Original Series" – to distinguish it from the many others which have followed – it introduced the world to such sci-fi icons as the USS Enterprise, the Transporter, warp speed, dilithium crystals, Klingons, the Tricorder and phasers set to stun.
Its cast of key characters are also instantly recognisable with Captain James T. Kirk leading a crew including Dr McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu, Chekov and, of course, half-Vulcan science officer Spock. Their 23rd century adventures exploring the farthest limits of the galaxy have captured the imaginations of millions of viewers, and it all began with one man – Gene Rodenberry.
Two years before the first episode aired in 1966, ambitious screenwriter and producer Rodenberry had drafted a proposal for a new sci-fi series that would ultimately become Star Trek. Pitching it to Desilu Productions (run by husband and wife team Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball) he compared it to the popular TV western series "Wagon Train", saying it would be a "Wagon Train to the stars".
TV network NBC was persuaded to fund a pilot, called "The Cage". Although it had many of the features later seen in Star Trek, the cast was almost entirely different with the exception of Leonard Nimoy as Mr Spock. Its star was Captain Christopher Pike, played by Jeffrey Hunter, a character who would re-emerge in later storylines. The TV executives were not convinced, but they liked the concept enough to take the unusual step of commissioning a second pilot, titled "Where No Man Has Gone Before".
Produced in 1965, this second pilot found more favour with the network and introduced most of the characters which fans would come to know and love. Hunter was unwilling to reprise his role as Captain Pike, having lost faith in the project, and a range of other popular actors of the day, including Lloyd Bridges and Jack Lord, were considered before William Shatner was cast in the new central role of Captain Kirk.
With the second pilot a success, work began on the first series of Star Trek, with the now instantly recognisable theme tune introducing the first episode, "The Man Trap", on September 8th, 1966. Critics praised the series for its originality and (for the time) groundbreaking special effects, but it wasn't all plain sailing for the Enterprise and her crew.
Initially strong ratings fell away by the end of the first series, although the show quickly developed a strong cult following. When the second series aired from 1967 to '68 ratings continued to decline steadily, but were still better than many of the rival networks' top shows. An army of fans also backed a letter-writing campaign in support of the show, partly instigated and funded by Rodenberry himself, though his involvement was not known at the time.
A third series was commissioned and aired from 1968 to '69, but a decision to move it to a late Friday night slot angered Rodenberry, who stood down as producer but remained on board in a less hands-on role as executive producer. NBC also slashed the show's budget, leading to suggestions from cast and crew that the network was trying to kill it off. The last day of filming for Star Trek was on January 9th, 1969, and after 79 episodes NBC pulled the plug, cancelling the show.
But the journey was just beginning. Enough Star Trek episodes had been made for the show to be syndicated –licenses sold to other broadcasters to air it on their networks. It meant Star Trek found new and larger audiences, not just in the USA but abroad too, including in the UK where transmission began in July 1969. As the show spread, its popularity grew and with it came a strong demand for more.
The rest, as they say, is history, with the Star Trek franchise expanding to an animated series, four spin-off series plus another currently in production, and no less than 13 feature films to date based on Star Trek's various incarnations. Fifty years on and Star Trek is a decades-old cult phenomenon which shows no signs of weakening. While its creator Gene Rodenberry died of heart failure in 1991, his legacy stands as testament to his vision for Star Trek and the faith he had in it.