RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And today, one of the most enduring franchises in TV and movie history celebrates its 50th birthday. "Star Trek" debuted on NBC in 1966. It was cancelled after three seasons, and then blossomed into a pop culture phenomenon. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says "Star Trek" survived through a mix of luck, creativity and boundless devotion on the part of its fans.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Space, the final frontier.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Those opening notes were a welcome, familiar sound to any fan of science fiction television in the late 1960s and '70s. They signaled the start of a series that was unlike any other adventure on television, a show with social commentary disguised as space action called "Star Trek." But there was one member of the cast who never expected it to last very long - George Takei, who fans know as Hikaru Sulu, the pilot of the starship. Takei first revealed his pessimism to James Doohan, who played ship's engineer Scotty.
GEORGE TAKEI: When we were shooting the pilot, Jimmy Doohan said to me, well, George, what do you think about this? And I said, I smell quality, and that means we're in trouble (laughter).
DEGGANS: Takei worried that "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry had developed a show that was too good to speak to a mass TV audience.
TAKEI: The Starship Enterprise was a metaphor for Starship Earth, the diversity of this planet - people of different backgrounds, different cultures, different races all coming together. He coined the phrase infinite diversity in infinite combinations.
DEGGANS: At a time when scripted TV rarely dealt directly with the turbulence of the times, "Star Trek" set its social messages against a space opera backdrop. Swashbuckling Captain Kirk led the Starship Enterprise. By his side was cerebral first officer Mr. Spock and emotional Southerner, Dr. McCoy. But there were subtle messages. As the end of state-sanctioned segregation rattled America, Roddenberry featured TV's first interracial kiss. Aliens forced Captain Kirk to smooch his African-American communications officer, Lieutenant Uhura.
NICHELLE NICHOLS: (As Lieutenant Uhura) I'm so frightened, Captain. I'm so very frightened.
WILLIAM SHATNER: (As Captain Kirk) That's the way they want you to feel - makes them think that they're alive.
DEGGANS: After that episode aired, Takei, who was gay but was not public about it back then, asked Roddenberry if he would consider addressing gay issues on "Star Trek."
TAKEI: He said to me that the episode in which we had a black-white kiss - that show was literally blacked out in the American South. If that happens again, I'll be off the air. He said, I'm afraid that issue will do that.
DEGGANS: Takei wasn't far off in his original prediction. NBC cancelled "Star Trek" after two seasons. They brought it back, thanks to a letter-writing campaign from fans, but cancelled it for good after its third season. But the show had made enough episodes to play in syndicated reruns, and the fan base grew.
RICHARD ARNOLD: It's one of the few places you can go to get those positive visions of the future.
DEGGANS: That's Richard Arnold, a fan who met Roddenberry at one of the first "Star Trek" conventions in the '70s. He wound up working for him, serving as his assistant and Trek archivist until Roddenberry died in 1991. Arnold says in the '70s, Paramount Studios, which then owned "Star Trek," couldn't decide whether to make a new show, a low-budget movie, a TV movie or something else. Then, in May, 1977, this came along.
ARNOLD: Gene used to say this - if it hadn't been for "Star Wars," they never would have gone big-budget on the first movie. There wouldn't have been a series of movies. It was hard to get it across to the network executives and the studio executives that "Star Trek" had any value other than a kids' show.
DEGGANS: "Star Trek" took on new life on screen. A feature film series starred the show's original cast from television, then a new series launched on syndicated TV. There were spinoffs of that show and even more movies, including three recent reboot films with younger actors playing the characters from the original series. Over the years, "Star Trek" became a pop culture institution because fans demanded it. Their support allowed Roddenberry's vision to triumph over the objections of clueless TV or film executives.
George Takei fought a similar conflict over the fate of Sulu, the character he once played. Actor John Cho, who plays Sulu in the new films, told Takei they would show Sulu with a male partner in the latest movie, "Star Trek Beyond." The decision was intended as a tribute to Takei's current fame as an advocate on gay issues, but Takei suggested they create a new gay character instead.
TAKEI: Gene Roddenberry created Sulu as a heterosexual, and that, too, reflected the times that we were in in the '60s. It's not about me...
DEGGANS: It's about Roddenberry's legacy, he says. When he finally saw the film, Takei said Sulu and his partner were shown in the briefest of moments.
TAKEI: That's it? They didn't even kiss? And John told me that they did shoot that kissing scene.
DEGGANS: But it does not appear in the finished film. Cho said in an interview with vulture.com that the kissing scene was cut from the movie. Paramount did not return repeated requests for comment. Those discussions, however they're resolved, are the true legacy of "Star Trek," which set a groundbreaking example five decades ago that modern producers are still trying to match. I'm Eric Deggans.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK")
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK")
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS SONG, "STAR WARS MAIN TITLE")