Innovation: to go where no show had gone before

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“Beam me up, Scotty.”

You hear that phrase a lot, but a knowledgeable Trekkie friend assures me that it was never actually said in any of the Star Trek shows or movies.

Wait a minute. It’s a pretty good bet that you recognized the phrase that I opened this blog post with. And it’s an equally good bet that you know what a Trekkie is. Nobody could have predicted that half a century ago.

The first episode of the Star Trek television show aired on September 8, 1966. The original series ran for three seasons, seventy-nine episodes. Since then, there have been five more Star Trek television series, one of which was animated. A sixth one is in the works.

There have also been thirteen films based on the Star Trek characters and basic concepts. There are books and comic books and toys and games, and just about anything else you can imagine bearing the Star Trek name. Avid followers of the show, Trekkies, hold regular conventions. Many don replica uniforms. There are two museum exhibits of Star Trek artifacts traveling the world.

Can you think of any other television show with that big an impact than Star Trek?

The standard origin story is that Gene Roddenberry came up with the idea for an interracial crew traveling the galaxy in the 23rd century. He sold it to the television networks and they approved the show. After the show, things took on a life of their own.

That’s a fine story, but the true story is more complex, more interesting, and teaches us a lot about how innovation happens in all areas of life.

Gene Roddenberry

Gene Roddenberry grew up in Los Angeles, where his father was a police officer. He served in the Air Corps in World War II, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. After the war, he worked for a while as a pilot before joining the Los Angeles Police Department himself.

He wanted to be a writer and he worked his way into the position of writing speeches for the Los Angeles Police Chief. He also became a technical advisor on several shows, including “Highway Patrol” which led to writing scripts for shows including “Dragnet” and “Naked City.” He was the head writer for “Have Gun, Will Travel.” In 1963 or 1964, he began pitching his idea for a television show, which he described as “wagon train to the stars.”

It doesn’t seem like he actually thought of what would become Star Trek as a version of wagon train, but television executives knew Wagon Train and they were the people Roddenberry wanted to convince.

The concept evolves

Several sources say that Roddenberry’s original idea for the show that became Star Trek was based on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. The idea was to tell interesting stories with a moral lesson attached. But Gulliver’s Travels was only part of the mix.

Another source was a 1961 movie called “Master of the World.” In it a character, played by Vincent Price, travels the world in an air ship. He wants to use advanced weapons to prove to the nations of the world that they can’t win a war so that they will give up war forever. The movie was based on a Jules Verne novel published in 1904.

By 1964, Roddenberry had put together the first script for a Star Trek pilot. The first pilot was called “The Cage,” and the captain in command was named “Christopher Pike.” Network officials did not approve the pilot for a regular series, but took the unusual step of commissioning a second pilot. This one was written by Samuel A. Peeples. The title was “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”

A gift to the world

In the beginning, the show drew high ratings, but not everyone was happy with it. Two months after the first episode, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov wrote an article about Star Trek for TV Guide Magazine. In the article, Asimov picked apart many of the scientific things in the first Star Trek episode.

Roddenberry wrote to Asimov, explaining why he had done certain things, what kind of scientific vetting the show was doing, and explaining some aspects of the television business that mandated certain decisions. That was the beginning of a correspondence between the two men.

Asimov became a Star Trek fan. He even appeared at some Trekkie conventions. He also helped Roddenberry solve several plot and character issues as the series went along. About the only thing he didn’t do was write a script for the show.

A number of other science fiction authors did, though. One thing that set Star Trek apart from other television series, and certainly from televised science fiction, was the quality of the writing. Science fiction authors Harlan Ellison, Robert Bloch, and Theodore Sturgeon contributed stories for the first season.

What Can We Learn from Star Trek?

Star Trek is a fascinating cultural phenomenon. There’s no formula that tells you how to produce such a thing, any more than there is a formula for creating a groundbreaking invention or a great art. But there are some lessons that we can learn about how innovation happens. Here are some of them.

Nothing is really new. Almost every innovation that you see has deep roots either technologically or conceptually or both. The basic ideas for Star Trek had deep roots in literature.

Innovation is a cooperative and collaborative process. Gene Roddenberry had the basic concept for the show, but it was shaped by input from many others. Television executives, other writers, directors, and critics all helped shape the original idea into compelling products.

Timing matters. It’s highly unlikely that Star Trek could have been brought to the screen even a few years earlier. When Roddenberry pitched the idea for the first time, the public was captivated by the “space race.” Young men and women were thinking about scientific and engineering careers. Science fiction stories were becoming more and more popular.

Selling matters. The only reason that the television executives were willing to invest money in the Star Trek pilots and then the Star Trek show was that they anticipated making more money. Roddenberry had proven that he could create popular television shows. And he pitched the idea using language and concepts the executives understood.

Sometimes, success takes time. The Star Trek show was popular in its day, but not a runaway, blowout success. A letter writing campaign helped keep it alive after the first and second seasons. Star Trek developed a loyal fan base who became the market for more Star Trek stories and products.

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