When we last left our hero, television superstar Lucille Ball, she had just bought her ex-husband, Desi Arnaz, out of his share of their studio, Desilu. Desilu was a huge operation that produced shows like The Lucy Show and The Untouchables. It also owned three different sets of sound stages that were home to shows like The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show and My Three Sons. Assuming sole control of Desilu made Lucille Ball one of the most powerful women in Hollywood and the first to run a major TV studio. Oh yeah, at the same time, she was starring in and producing her own TV series as well as raising two children.
As a comedienne, Lucy knew that timing was everything, but her timing in taking over Desilu was off. Within a year, The Untouchables, a studio cash cow, had been cancelled. Several smaller shows followed suit and, sensing blood in the water, a large number of studio executives and writers headed for the door as well. Lucille Ball was the captain of a sinking ship.
Fun Fact #1: The official name for a group of executives is, actually, a suite. A herd of cows, a pack of dogs, a suite of executives. I'm not sure what a group of writers is called. I propose, a lunch. A lunch of writers. I also propose that a group of bros be called a scrote. "A full scrote of bros went into the sports bar."
Fun Fact #2: Lucy moved fast to replace her depleted executive ranks. One of her new hires was a guy named Herb Solow. Herb Solow, along with a talented gentleman named Robert Justman, wrote an excellent book called Inside Star Trek that was a major source of information for this piece, as well as Marc Cushman's joyously in-depth and comprehensive These Are The Voyages: TOS, a three volume study of Star Trek's original run.
Fun Fact #3: All four of these books were on the curriculum when I signed up for Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt's course, Score Chicks The Flynt Way!
Fun Fact #4: Fun Fact #3 is a fabrication.
Lucy told Herb Solow to get some shows on the air, so Herb started meeting with writers. A whole lunch of them. One such writer was a tall, soft-spoken, former LAPD motorcycle cop named Gene Roddenberry. Gene had an idea for a science fiction series described as, "Wagon Train to the stars."
Desilu signed Roddenberry to a deal, and Wagon Train To The Stars took on shape, and a title, Star Trek. Working with Solow, Roddenberry and company readied Star Trek for market. Characters were fleshed out, stories were developed, etc.
Star Trek was first pitched to ABC, but the alphabet net already had a science fiction show called The Outer Limits, so they said no. Star Trek was then pitched to CBS. A nibble! CBS loved Lucy. She was one of their big stars! CBS seemed interested, asking Roddenberry many, many questions about how he planned to solve the many practical, physical production problems presented by a show like Star Trek. Team Desilu left the meeting with high hopes.
It turns out CBS was interested... in a show from Irwin Allen called Lost In Space, but they had concerns over how to get the thing made. So they asked Gene Roddenberry what he would do. Without telling him the real reason why they were asking him what he would do. Then they turned down his pitch. And Lucy? Meh. Somebody call Wally's and send her some wine.
This left only one network, NBC. It's hard to believe, but there was a time in Earth's history when there were only three television networks. That's it. It was a different era. You could not fit a phone into your pocket unless you were a magician or a clown. Photographs were taken with a device called a camera. Music was played on discs called records. You rode to work on an animal called a dinosaur.
NBC had no science fiction shows on the schedule, nor did they have plans for one. They had Bonanza, a western, in which Lorne Greene had three sons who didn't look like him or each other, and that's as far out as things over there got. But Gene Roddenberry and Herb Solow put their nose to the grindstone, worked hard, and just before 1964 turned into 1965, Star Trek's script turned into Star Trek's pilot.
The story, entitled The Cage, featured Leonard Nimoy as the pointy-eared Mr. Spock and, commanding the USS Enterprise, Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike. Huh the wha???
That's right. NBC looked at the completed Star Trek pilot in early 1965 and, by all accounts, thought it was amazing. Then they turned it down. NBC's stated reason for passing on Star Trek was that the pilot was "too cerebral." It was thinky, moved too slowly, there wasn't enough action or fights. Then they probably called Wally's and sent over some wine. Show biz!
By all the rules of the TV business, Star Trek was dead. But Desilu was a studio of firsts. It was the first TV studio to be run by a woman, and after working the phones and the executives at NBC, it was also the first studio to oversee a second pilot for the same TV show. In the summer of 1965, cameras turned on Star Trek pilot number two.
The second pilot had a new story, entitled Where No Man Has Gone Before, a new director and many new faces. William Shatner was now on board as the ship's new captain, the swaggering James T. Kirk. The only major character from The Cage still in Star Trek's cast was Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock. Hey! Guess what character NBC expressly did not want back? Yep! The executives thought Spock looked "too satanic" and they would have a hard time selling the show in the Bible Belt. To his credit, Gene Roddenberry stood firm, and to its credit, Desilu backed him up.
Star Trek premiered on NBC in the fall of 1966 and ran for three now-legendary seasons, and while James T. Kirk called the shots on the bridge of the Enterprise, the real captain sat behind a desk at Desilu. Lucille Ball was still very much in command.
Next week: Jerry Lewis: Self-Replicating Organism!