IMDB Fifty years ago - on Sept. 8, 1966 - TV viewers were transfixed by the appearance on screen of a green-hued, pointy-eared alien called Spock. But beneath the makeup, actor Leonard Nimoy fretted that this would be the end of his promising career. “How can I play a character without emotion?” he asked his boss, Gene Roddenberry. “I’m going to be on one note throughout the entire series.” Nimoy thought he looked silly wearing the prosthetics that turned him into a Vulcan, at one point issuing an ultimatum: “It’s me or the ears.” Nimoy’s misgivings were just one of many problems the writers, producers and cast faced during “Star Trek”’s troubled journey to the screen. Culled from their recollections, this is the story of how “Star Trek”’s mission to explore strange new worlds was almost over before it began.
Seeds of inspiration
The ingredients of “Star Trek” had been slow-cooking in creator Gene Roddenberry’s brain for years. At first he wanted to write a show about a 19th-century blimp that journeyed from place to place, making contact with distant peoples.
Deciding instead to set the show in the future, Roddenberry drew upon his youthful immersion in science fiction magazines like Astounding Stories. Also important was his experience as a World War II bomber pilot, which caused him to ruminate on human nature: Would we ever outgrow our obsession with violence? And from C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels, Roddenberry borrowed the idea of a courageous captain burdened by the duties of command.
‘Star Trek’ creator Gene Roddenberry in the early 1960s. Mutual of New York (MONY)/Wikimedia Commons
With tiny Desilu Studios interested in making the show, Roddenberry pitched “Star Trek” to the networks. CBS passed after Roddenberry botched the pitch. But NBC bit and ordered a pilot episode, which was eventually titled “The Cage.”
NBC responds to the pilot
Watching “The Cage” now is a disorientating experience. In the captain’s chair is a sullen man called Pike, played by star Jeff Hunter. There is no sign of future series regulars McCoy, Scotty, Sulu, Uhura, Checkov. Spock is there, but not quite the inscrutable Spock we would come to know. He shouts and, more than once, breaks into a wide grin.
The role of chilly logician and second in command is instead taken by “Number One,” a character played by actress Majel Barrett.
“Number One” wouldn’t make it past this trial run. In tests, some men and a surprisingly large number of women objected to her stridency, which was out of touch with the gender norms of the time. NBC doubted that Barrett could carry such a prominent role (and even thought Roddenberry had cast her because she was his mistress).