Gene Roddenberry sure liked to tell stories, especially if they were stories that helped inspire the underdog.
So it’s probably no surprise that even some of the stories the Great Bird of the Galaxy himself shared about the early days of “Star Trek” might have a taste of fiction to it.
Not that there’s anything wrong with Roddenberry’s stories. Inspiration is something we all look for. But historian Mark Clark is more interested in truth, and the kind of truth he’s dug up for his new book “Star Trek FAQ” will turn your Trek world upside-down.
One of those myths is what motivated “Star Trek” to become ethnically diverse with talent like Nichelle Nichols and George Takei helping to dump the racial typecasting evident in 1960s television and movies. If you ask fans, many will tell you that it was Roddenberry himself who championed the Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations mentality that so defines the generation now.
But that’s not exactly what happened.
“The idea that Gene Roddenberry faced massive resistance from NBC into putting an African-American woman on the bridge of the Enterprise, or an Asian-Ameican man, when in fact, NBC was encouraging Roddenberry to hire minorities,” Clark recently told Alpha Waves Radio. “Especially at that time, NBC was the first network to become all-color. And in tandem to that, it was presenting itself as the ‘Network of Color,’ so to speak.”
Because of that, NBC was making a concerted effort to reach out to minority viewers, and already was championing shows on the air like the Bill Cosby-starring “I, Spy.”
In fact, Clark says the point can be proven simply by checking out what immediately preceded the voyages of Capt. Kirk and Dr. McCoy: the first pilot produced by Desilu Studios.
“Look at ‘The Cage,’ the original pilot for the series,” Clark said. “If you look at the crew on the bridge of that starship, it’s Majel Barrett and a bunch of white guys.”
That doesn’t mean Roddenberry didn’t play a role to make sure his diverse crew was devoid of stereotypes, or that he didn’t fight for more than what NBC originally had in mind. It’s just that sometimes, history gets a little foggy as time passes.
One of those foggy moments comes when fans sometimes think about what it’s like for the cast of the original “Star Trek” being a part of a franchise that is renowned many times around the world. It should be mansions on the hills, huge pool parties filled with scantily clad women and men, and the good life.
But while many of the original actors are living rather comfortably now, in the years immediately following the end of the original series, it wasn’t so good.
“For most of the rest of the cast members, it was very, very difficult,” Clark said. “I know that DeForest Kelley, who was an amazing actor who had this long career as a western villain before he started on ‘Star Trek,’ and had this incredibly sympathetic and endearing role as Dr. McCoy. You would think he would have been set up for life as this versatile actor who would have been able to do anything he felt like doing. When in fact, he worked almost not at all for about 10 years, spending most of that time on unemployment and doing dinner theater during that era.”
In fact, when that popular picture was taken in front of the Shuttle Enterprise in 1978 that got some attention earlier this month with the transport of the shuttle to its new home, many of the actors posing for the photo were finding more money in other pursuits outside of acting.
That includes the “Gang of Four,” the group that included Walter Koenig, James Doohan, Takei and Nichols.
“Some of that group made more money appearing at Star Trek conventions than they were making as actors,” Clark said. But they still worked where they could. Koenig was finding some prosperity in script writing, including “Land of the Lost” and “Family.” Doohan was using his amazing voice talent to work in animation projects. And Nichols actually found herself doing work for NASA.
“Star Trek FAQ” is available in bookstores now, and online at places like Amazon.
You can hear the full interview with Clark talking about other little-known “Star Trek” history on Alpha Waves Radio, the official podcast for Airlock Alpha and the Genre Nexus websites. Listen to a free streaming version of the show right now at AlphaWaves.Podbean.com, or subscribe to the show for free at Apple’s iTunes Store.
Also making an appearance on Alpha Waves is Joe Salcedo, the founder of the new online store The Novo Geek. Find out how to get thumb drives that really look like thumbs from the series “Dexter,” as well as notebooks with the corners clipped, inspired by “Battlestar Galactica.”
Alpha Waves will then return again on May 31 with its preview special of “Falling Skies,” which returns in June on TNT. The show will feature guests Drew Roy (Hal Mason) and Colin Cunningham (John Pope). Get subscribed to Alpha Waves Radio right now for free, and you’ll get episodes downloaded to your mobile device as soon as they’re released, and you’ll never miss an episode again.