Twenty-one years after Gene Roddenberry's death, his famous sci-fi franchise just keeps growing. We're celebrating his life with a look at his creation. (Everett Collection)
Gene Roddenberry, like the characters he created, went where no man has gone before.
He did it by creating Star Trek, perhaps the most influential sci-fi TV series of all time. The original show conceived by Roddenberry – just three seasons long and not extremely popular when it aired in the late 1960s – has expanded over the years, spawning five additional TV series (including the animated series of the mid-'70s) and 11 movies (with more on the way). But more than that, Star Trek has come to epitomize sci-fi culture. The show generated a rabid fan base long before geekdom and sci-fi conventions were cool. And the franchise helped bring tales of space exploration out of entertainment's fringes and into the mainstream.
The Space Shuttle Enterprise rolls out of the Palmdale manufacturing facilities with "Star Trek" television cast and crew members. From left: DeForest Kelley (Dr. "Bones" McCoy), George Takei (Mr. Sulu), James Doohan (Chief Engineer Montgomery "Scotty" Scott), Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura), Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock), series creator Gene Roddenberry, NASA Deputy Administrator George Low, and, Walter Koenig (Ensign Pavel Chekov). (Wikimedia Commons / NASA)
In 2012 there's nothing unusual about watching a TV show or movie about space travel and aliens. This summer, we flocked to Prometheus and Men in Black 3 in the theaters, and on TV we're watching new sitcom The Neighbors about aliens living in a suburban gated community. But in 1966, this was pretty unusual TV fare…
…And not just because it took place on a spaceship. The show's integrated and equal cast – including a black woman and a Japanese-American man, both in positions of power – was a new thing. So was the interracial kiss that Kirk and Uhura shared – the very first on U.S. TV.
But despite the groundbreaking nature of the show, it didn't catch fire in U.S. pop culture right away. Ratings were so low after two seasons that NBC moved it to Friday nights, the kiss of death for most shows. Indeed, one season in that bum slot was all Star Trek lasted. But Roddenberry didn't give up on his creation. In 1973 he came back with the short-lived but Emmy-winning Star Trek: The Animated Series.
Not long after the animated series ended, Roddenberry began work on the first of the Star Trek movies. He would go on to be involved with its five sequels, all featuring the original TV show's cast.
Even as the movies succeeded, Star Trek was off TV for more than a decade after the animated series ended. But just a few years before his death, Roddenberry presided over a new beginning for the franchise – Star Trek: The Next Generation. The first of four successful TV series, it brought the USS Enterprise to the attention of a new generation of fans.
Roddenberry's vision of "a Wagon Train to the stars" remains alive, decades after his death, as we eagerly await news of the 2013 sequel to 2009's reboot. We hope Roddenberry's creations will continue to live long and prosper.
Written by Linnea Crowther