When we think of a science fiction, most of us doubtless think of a Star Trek. Since the original series made its television debut almost a half-century ago, the speculative future it created has come to stand, in many minds, as the very model of the science-fictional enterprise (as it were). But the institution of Star Trek in all its forms — TV shows, movies, movies made out of TV shows, novels, video games, action figures, and so on — still has its detractors, and back at the very beginning it hardly looked like a sure success. Geek.com’s list of five things that nearly killed off Star Trek includes a failed pilot, a near-firing of Leonard Nimoy, and the words of no less a science-fiction titan than Isaac Asimov.
“Star Trek,” wrote its creator Gene Roddenberry in 1966, “almost did not get on the air because it refused to do juvenile science fiction, because it refused to put a ‘Lassie’ aboard the space ship, and because it insisted on hiring Dick Matheson, Harlan Ellison, A.E. Van Vogt, Phil Farmer, and so on.” This came as part of a response to Asimov, who, in a TV Guide article entitled “What Are a Few Galaxies Among Friends?,” criticized Star Trek for getting the science wrong. He cites, for example, a line about a gaseous cloud “one-half light year outside the Galaxy,” which he likens to “saying a house is one-half yard outside the Mississippi Basin.”
Measurement flubs aside, Star Trek, despite its cancellation after three seasons, had become so big by the early 1970s that its fans had begun to put on whole conventions dedicated to the show. You can see in the clip above one such event in 1973, which provides proof that even Asimov had turned fan. He speaks of his appreciation for the show three times during the video, now describing Star Trek as the “sanest” and “most meaningful” program of its kind, one that “tackled real social problems,” was “not devoted entirely to adventure,” and had “fully realized characters” (citing Mr. Spock as Exhibit A). He may still have objected to the infamous split infinitive “to boldly go” (once a nitpicker, always a nitpicker), but he still thought the show “really presented the brotherhood of intelligence.”
After Asimov wrote his initial critique in TV Guide, he and Gene Roddenberry exchanged letters, and the two formidable sci-fi minds became friends and even collaborators thereafter. A 1967 Time magazine profile described Asimov as “batting out books on a new electric typewriter, emerging only occasionally to watch Star Trek (his favorite TV show),” and he went on to become an advisor to the show. A Letters of Note post on Roddenberry and Asimov’s correspondence contains a 1967 exchange wherein they put their heads together to solve the problem of how to give Captain Kirk lines as good as the ones that naturally go to a more unusual character like Spock. Since Asimov also contributed original ideas to the show, after having gone on record as a fan, I wonder: does that mean, in some sense, that Isaac Asimov wrote Star Trek fan fiction?
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, and the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future? Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.
What could be better? Star Trek, that I grew up with, and Asimov, who I’ve read about 30 books from. I shared this with my daughter, and many friends.
Thanks for your posting. Is there anyplace I can find the rest of the article “What are a Few Galaxies Among Friends?”
I read it in TV Guide in 1966, would like to see the whole thing again.
I remember reading about this in a collection of Asimov’s works, but it’s always fun to revisit. It’s easy to criticize a TV show you know little about, but much more impressive to admit a mistake.
(For the record, it’s impossible to split an infinitive in Latin, so making it “wrong” in English is one of those bogus rules we’ve wisely let fall by the wayside.)
The aside about hiring sci-fi writers is amusing. The entire concept of “Star Trek” bears a strong resemblance to the A.E. Van Vogt serialized novella “Voyage of the Space Beagle”, enough to make a case for conceptual plagiarism.
This book was not only the epitome of sci-fi for me (along with the Foundation Trilogy), it was a model of my life. Van Vogt correctly identified the shortcomings of compartmentalization of science and predicted many recent discoveries in Biology. This inspired me to become a Nexialist and led to many of my discoveries and inventions.
“Star Trek” was more of a stage one work by Asimov’s classification. Adventure dominated as represented by James T. Kirk, who had the most lines but was as likely to punch the alien and get the girl than solve technical or social problems. He was a cross between a naval commander and a pirate, like Sir Francis Drake. When he did solve technical problem, it was mostly getting lucky looking for a way to cheat, as in his solution to Kobayashi-Maru. This only proved that in TV, a coin can predictably come up heads 80 times in a row.
The technology of OST was absurd – transporters, warp engines, food synthesizers, non-contact medical scanners; and yet, they were so essential to the plot lines one could also make a case for stage two classification. Certainly a lot of the wide appeal was the whiz-bang aspect, which was also a lot of the commercial success from sales of paraphernalia and convention revenues – which provided a second career for the actors.
I did not come around to “Star Trek” until Next Gen. Communications Officer Uhuru evolved into official Bridge Officer empath Counselor Troi and ersatz Shakespearian Shatner was upgraded to Royal Shakespeare Company veteran Stewart. The only loss was the Chief Science Officer, Leonard Nimoy’s riveting character Spock. I miss his Vulcan philosophy, mind-melding and signature lines “That is not logical, Captain” and the closure of “Your logic is irrefutable” – which does not necessarily mean agreement.
Links to the correspondence no longer work, and I can only reach the first page of the TV Guide article. Can anyone assist me in finding more?
Link should be working now…