To The Final Frontier… and BEYOND!

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Star_Trek_300As a kid, when you visit older cousins you rarely see, you step tentatively. Going through the front door of their house, you step tentatively. Pacing through their immaculate living room, you step tentatively. Finally, when the adults take their leave and you’re left alone with your cousin and he invites you into his play room, you step tentatively.

First of all, he’s older than you. That makes him smarter, which means he can trick you in almost every dimension. Second, he’s bigger than you. That makes him stronger, which means he can pretty much beat you up (or, more likely, get you to do anything he wants by threatening to beat you up. Finally, although he’s flesh and blood, you’ve only seen him once or twice before (that you can remember) and you just travelled almost eight hours – mostly through a foreign country – to reach this seemingly alien neighborhood.

Face it. I didn’t really know this cousin from Adam. He always struck me as a tough guy (which, given the fact I was only seven years old, wasn’t really that hard to do). He also seemed to have this “smirk” permanently etched on his face. Remember, I was a little kid. My fears, while tending to reflect more of a perhaps overly vivid imagination than any reality, still seemed very real in my naïve mind.

In short, I thought I was going to die, or at least have the worst possible weekend a young boy could have.

But then I saw it. Floating. High above the floor. Just beneath the ceiling light.

That light shone like a bright Sun in deep space. It cast long shadows trailing far behind the irregular planetary clumps in the otherwise smooth painted drywall above our heads. These only augmented the aura of the model of the USS Enterprise that hung motionless (no doubt for more than the 9 hours, 47 minutes we saw in “Balance of Terror and even well beyond the 18 hours “The Corbomite Maneuver).

My cousin noticed my interest and immediately asked, “Are you a Star Trek fan?”

More afraid to lie than to disappoint this bully of a teenager, I had to admit I never heard of it. Still in fear, I attempted to salvage the best of a bad situation by feebly offering, “but I do know a little bit about astronomy.”

Immediately that perceived smirk transformed into a friendly smile – the kind of smile cousins regularly share. He wanted to know everything I knew about space and astronomy. (But, I thought, wasn’t he older than me?) In exchange, he would share with me a special treat. In a split second, I discovered my cousin wasn’t the bully I feared, he was downright cool!

And with that, he climbed on a chair and unhooked the model. He let me hold it. Later that night he treated me to a moment that, for me at least, ranks right up there with watching Neil Armstrong take that first (not so tentative) step on the moon. At 8:30pm that Thursday evening, we turned on the television to NBC and watched a rerun of “Balance of Terror,” the fifteenth episode from the first season of Star Trek. In the milestones of my life, this date – August 3, 1967, the first time I ever saw Star Trek – stands among the highest. (For the sake of continued domestic tranquility, I will not say exactly what position it holds.)

I learned a lot during that short span of time. I learned first impressions aren’t always correct. I also learned we all have something to share. Most important, I learned of the hope, the optimism, and the confidence Star Trek inspires. In case you doubt the sincerity of these lessons, I suggest you watch (or re-watch) the episode “Balance of Terror.” Although I was unaware of its cinematic inspiration (the 1957 film The Enemy Below), I immediately concluded Star Trek, space, and the promise of beyond represented a bold mission statement, perfect for a space age boy like me.

But I rarely watch Star Trek in its original realm. As I wrote earlier (see “Conquering Kirk’s Rock,” Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel, April 7, 2016), I earned a more thorough indoctrination once the series went into syndication. Then, it was on at a more reasonable hour and against no viable competition. When I watched the series for the first time during the Summer of Love, it had just finished its first season. During that year, Star Trek aired from 8:30pm to 9:30pm on NBC. That year, I was watching either My Three Sons on CBS or Bewitched on ABC (which followed immediately after Batman and F Troop on ABC). The next season NBC decided to move it to Friday nights in the 8:30pm to 9:30pm slot. I hate to admit, folks, but at that age I was a big fan of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. (I still have the lunch box), which aired in the same time slot on CBS (the same network that showed The Wild Wild West – another favorite – right before the goofy Gomer).

So, you can see, old habits are hard to break, and TV time was family time. All those other shows evoke fond memories because I remember watching them with my parents, my brother, and even my grandparents. Although I know my brother liked Star Trek, I’m fairly confident the science-fiction show wasn’t on the top-ten list for the older generation. And by the time of its third season, when it competed against shows my family didn’t watch (Judd, for the Defense on NBC and The Dick Cavett Show on CBS), the ten o’clock time slot proved well past the bedtime of all good little boys.

Despite these obstacles, Star Trek has soared well beyond its original five-year mission, (itself cut short to three years by NBC). In a way, it’s become a Rorschach Test for society. No longer viewed (as in its first impression – remember that lesson?) as the outlandish “sci-fi” TV series from the campy 1960s, the original incarnation is considered as the literary manifestation it actually is (and was from the very beginning). Later iterations may have strayed from the simplistic traditional values of the original series, but the first version remains a classic. It has inspired many (though the fact they’ve all gone off in different directions masks the commonality of this inspiration). It has proved prophetic: from communicator-like flip phones to compact discs to tablet computers (this latter one came up in the Apple/Samsung trial).

The publication date of this issue marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first airing of Star Trek. On Thursday, September 8th, 1966, “The Man Trap” appeared at 8:30pm on NBC, the very first Star Trek episode (although it wasn’t the first episode to be filmed). Against the premiere of another new series (The Tammy Grimes Show) and several repeats of established shows, Star Trek easily won the ratings period. Once Bewitched and My Three Sons started showing original episodes, it fell to second – the lead weight of The Tammy Grimes Show prevented Star Trek for ranking third in the time slot.

An interesting trivia note here: The Tammy Grimes Show lasted only four weeks, but the cast included Dick Sargent, the second actor to portray Darrin Stephens on Bewitched, the show that followed The Tammy Grimes Show.

On another interesting trivia note, a second very successful television series had its debut the same night as NBC’s Star Trek. At 9:30pm, after showing Bewitched, ABC ran the inaugural “Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There” episode of That Girl, starring Marlo Thomas. Unlike Star Trek, That Girl did survive for an entire five year mission, lasting five seasons until 1971.

Let’s end on another trivia note, this one dealing with Star Trek. Let’s call it a reading comprehension test. Here’s the question: When was the first episode of Star Trek aired on Television? If you said September 8th, 1966, you’d be wrong. That’s when NBC first broadcast it. Two days earlier, CTV in Canada offered the true World Premiere of this seminal series. That’s appropriate for two reasons. First, William Shatner is Canadian; and, second, Canada was the foreign country my family drove through on the way to my cousin’s house.

And, again appropriate, that’s why this article first appeared on my personal web-site – – on September 6th, 2016 at 7:30pm, exactly 50 years to the hour after it first appeared on CTV.

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