“A kind of Wagon Train in space. . . .”
The Man Who Launched the Enterprise
Majel Barrett and Gene Roddenberry.
I was pretty satisfied with Tricon, the Worldcon in Cleveland in 1966. When it was over, I had had a chance to hang with many old friends, I had had a few talks with writers I wanted to juice up for the magazines I was editing, Galaxy and If, and I had picked up another Hugo Award — this one a “Best Magazine” award for If. I was aware that there was a lot of stuff going on that I had missed — like the showing of the pilot episode of something called Star Trek — but I had received an information package about it from its producer, somebody named Gene Roddenberry, and he had described it as “a kind of Wagon Train in space.” That didn’t awaken in my soul any desire to see it.
True, Roddenberry himself sounded sort of interesting: A B-17 pilot with 89 missions in the South Pacific in World War II, later a sergeant in the Los Angeles Police Department, who began writing TV scripts in his spare time. But by then I had had a fair number of dealings with TV people on my own, and they hadn’t impressed me with the breed. I wasn’t enough interested to offer to buy him a drink.
Then, in 1969, I won another Hugo for If and Star Trek won a Hugo of its own, and I got an idea. The most conspicuous thing about television was that their numbers were at least an order of magnitude larger than ours at the magazines. So why shouldn’t I try to get in on some of those large numbers, perhaps by obtaining the rights to publish an occasional story based on a Star Trek episode in one of my magazines? Would any of those numbers rub off on us?
I didn’t know that they would. On the other hand, I didn’t know that they wouldn’t. So I wrote Gene a letter, outlining what I had in mind and suggesting that he and I get together to talk it over. He responded at once with, “Sure, let’s.” And a week or two later, when I had been planning to be in L.A. for the purpose of urging some writers on anyway, I drove my rented convertible up to the gate at the Desilu lot, where Star Trek was filmed, and told the armed guard that I was here to see Mr. Roddenberry.
* * *
Gene turned out to be friendly, smart and obliging. He thought my plan could do nothing but good for both parties, and he thought it should be put into practice right away.
The only thing wrong with that plan, he told me, was that he didn’t have the authority to okay it. That belonged to the higher-ups in the company’s Byzantine Hollywood corporate structure. Star Trek didn’t own itself. It was owned by Paramount Pictures, which would have to approve the plan. Unfortunately, though, even Paramount’s approval didn’t mean I could start commissioning stories, because they, too, were owned, this time by the sprawling Gulf & Western, sometimes called Engulf & Destroy.
“So how long until we get a decision from Gulf and Western?” I asked, as politely as possible.
“Oh, you never know that,” Gene said. “Sometimes not too long. But anyway, as long as you’re here, I’ve got a photographer standing by. Mind if he takes a few pictures?”
I didn’t, and for a prop Gene picked his Hugo from the Worldcon off the shelf and we passed it back and forth for a dozen or so photographs — me awarding it to him for some, and then Gene awarding it to me (but with the lettering on the base carefully concealed) on the rest. And then I went on with the rest of my West Coast obligations.
Gene had invited me to try writing a script for the series. I did try, but without much luck. Perhaps the problem was that I didn’t really like the idea of another barrier between me and the audience — that is, a director and a bunch of actors — or perhaps I just wasn’t into network television, having already had my share of disillusioning experiences with it. Anyway, for some reason I just was no good at it. Still, that — and the hope that Engulf and Destroy might ultimately come up with the okay for us to do some of the stories — meant that I was in the habit of visiting Gene every time I hit L.A., which was always a pleasure. . . .
Well, almost always. There was the time when he invited me up to his home for lunch, high over Hollywood, where he lived with his wife, better known as Majel Barrett when she had appeared as Nurse Chapel in the series. It was a handsome house, with a grand view of the city spread out below. The furnishing was handsome, too, including the deep-pile, snow-white carpeting in the room we were in. Majel asked me whether I preferred white wine or red. I took the red. Then I almost immediately knocked the glass over, spilling the whole glass of that deep red wine onto the still deep-pile, but no longer snow-white, carpeting.
Majel was a sweet-tempered woman. The proof of that is that she didn’t snatch up one of the cheese knives and cut my throat on the spot.
I used to see Majel every once in a while at dinners of the local space society, where she was an honored guest. She spoke to me without rancor, which is proof, again, that she had totally forgiven me. (It is impossible that she simply forgot what I did to her beautiful white carpet.)
* * *
Star Trek had a good first year and a somewhat less good second year. For the third year it got canceled.
This sort of event is by no means unusual in the bloodthirsty world of network TV, but Gene wasn’t prepared to take it lying down. So he and some confederates concocted a plan to keep the show on the air for a while.
One of the confederates turned out to be me. To find out more about it, however, you’ll have to wait for the conclusion of this essay. That will be coming up in this blog before long, but not until I get around to writing it.
To be continued. . . .
Raising Star Trek from the Dead