Inside “Star Trek”

With the 50th anniversary of Star Trek‘s debut on television last week, there was much written about the franchise’s influence on popular culture and on actual science and development. The program debuted in September 1966 with William Shatner’s now well-known voiceover introduction:

The program was famously cancelled by NBC after three seasons due to poor ratings, lampooned in a later Saturday Night Live parody in which John Belushi says, “Except for one television network, we have found intelligence everywhere in the galaxy.”

Star Trek has been well-represented in record stores since the Enterprise began its mission fifty years ago. After actor Leonard Nimoy passed away last year we posted some music and videos from his career as a singer, along with “Spock’s Theme” from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn.

William Shatner’s debut album, The Transformed Man, is a camp classic, widely panned and often singled out as one of the worst albums of all time. His dramatic reading of “Mr. Tambourine Man” is, in particular, singled out. Shatner himself acknowledged as much in a Newsweek interview:

…yes, in the beginning it bothered me that people singled it out and poked fun at it. They didn’t know what I was doing. The album The Transformed Man is much more extensive than that song. But since people only heard that song, I went along with the joke.

In his defense, Shatner’s prose poem delivery was more well-received on his next studio album, Has Been, released in 2004. That record was even adapted into a ballet, the subject of a documentary (William Shatner’s Gonzo Ballet) which is one of the strangest Star Trek spin-offs. And his reading of “Mr. Tambourine Man” is not as bad as Sebastian Cabot’s, in our opinion.

Actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura in the original series, actually toured as a singer with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and the Lionel Hampton Orchestra. She released an album of jazz standards with arrangements by the late Gerald Wilson, during the original run of Star Trek on television. Here she is singing “Feelin’ Good” from The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd, a musical in which she had previously appeared.

She considered leaving Star Trek to return to Broadway, and was convinced to remain on the science fiction program under the most remarkable circumstances. At an NAACP fundraiser she was asked to meet a fan…

I thought it was a Trekkie, and so I said, ‘Sure.’ I looked across the room, and there was Dr. Martin Luther King walking towards me with this big grin on his face. He reached out to me and said, ‘Yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan.’ He said that Star Trek was the only show that he, and his wife Coretta, would allow their three little children to stay up and watch.

Dr. King told Nichols she couldn’t leave the program because she, one of the first black women to have a significant role in a television program, “was part of history.” When Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was told of this encounter, he cried.

A 1977 album captures more of Roddenberry than had previously been heard outside of Star Trek conventions. Inside Star Trek finds the series creator interviewing one of his heroes, author Isaac Asimov, and also addressing an audience of fans.

Roddenberry’s account of negotiating with NBC to produce television programs is hilarious, but also insightful. His encounters with small-minded and short-sighted executives sound like something out of Dilbert. The album also concludes with remarks titled “The Star Trek Philosophy” which serve as a sort of cautionary tale for media.

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