To paraphrase one of the most memorable lines in television history: Captain’s Log — Stardate Sept. 8, 2016.
The date marks the 50th anniversary of the premiere of the original “Star Trek” television series on a Thursday night in 1966. The series, created by Gene Roddenberry, ran for three seasons, and followed the futuristic sci-fi exploits of the starship Enterprise and its seasoned crew. The show would immortalize the characters of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, Scotty, Lt. Uhura, Mr. Chekov and Mr. Sulu.
Part TV western, part intergalactic “Gulliver’s Travels,” park Greek mythology (with plenty of Hollywood camp and sci-fi special effects sprinkled in for good measure), the show starred William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Walter Koenig and James Doohan Though the original series was cancelled, syndication helped make it one of the most popular, revered and groundbreaking in TV history.
To celebrate the TV series milestone, CBS and Paramount Home Entertainment have today released “Star Trek 50th Anniversary TV and Movie Collection,” a commemorative Blu-ray box set featuring the entire original series, the subsequent TV series “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” “Star Trek: Voyager” and “Enterprise,” and “The Animated Series.” Also included are the five original “Star Trek” feature films: “Star Trek” (1979), “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982), “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock”(1984), “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home:” (1986), “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” (1989) and “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” (1991). Also included are more than 20 hours of bonus features, an exclusive documentary, and special collectible “surprises.”
One of the most popular episodes from the original series, remains season two’s “The Trouble with Tribbles,” which aired on Dec. 29, 1967. Tribbles, those cuddly, furry creatures (who would turn out to be well, not so nice) were the brainchild of then 19-year-old college student David Gerrold, who freelanced TV show story outlines to Hollywood studios. Gerrold would go on to author more than 50 books, and more than a dozen TV episodes for series including “Star Trek Animated” “The Twilight Zone,” “Logan’s Run” and “Babyon 5,” among others.
The idea of Tribbles (the core of one of the most darkly comedic storylines of the entire TV series),came from a most unlikely source, Gerrold said. “I was tired of scary aliens,” Gerrold said during a recent phone conversation. “So I thought what if we create aliens who were cute and we didn’t know how dangerous they were until it was too late? Like the rabbits in Australia! Some Englishman thought Australia needed bunnies. So they brought them to the continent [in the 18th century]. There were no natural predators of bunnies in Australia and to this day they have a bunny population problem. I thought well this is a funny premise, let’s see what we can do with this. [Producer/writer] Gene Coon and [writer/story editor] Dorothy Fontana coached me [during the production process], but I had brought in a near-perfect story structure for TV [so rewrites were minimal].”
Gerrold, who got his training at USC in “the best screenwriting class in the world,” said he was qualified to write for the show because he “knew his science fiction.”
“I had been reading science fiction since I was old enough to read. By the time I was 19, there wasn’t much left to read about it. Nowadays there are thousands of science fiction books published every year.”
In addition to “Tribbles,” Gerrold also penned the 1969 season three episode “The Cloud Minders” and two episodes for the animated “Star Trek” series. He was paid the $3,000 Screenwriters Guild minimum for the “Tribbles” script, his first script sale (“that was a lot of money in those days!”).
Gerrold, who has remained part of the “Star Trek” universe through the decades, talked about the famous furry creatures and the episode that made them legendary.
Q. Did you have to run your script past Gene Roddenberry?
A. No. He was actually on vacation because he was exhausted from season one [production]. He brought in Gene Coon, and things were running very smoothly from that point on. Coon did a spectacular job. He recognized there was a spirit of fun that these characters could have. The first season the scripts were heavy on the gravitas. Season two got to lighten things up a bit and the writers did some very whimsical stuff with the storylines. Roddenberry was not thrilled; in fact he was appalled that Coon was trying to turn the show into a comedy. But the fans loved it.
Q. While “Tribbles” was comical, everyone played it as a drama. Is that why you think it worked so well?
A. We played it totally straight. The original outline was very straightforward. No jokes. But the characters’ interactions were hysterical. I was so impressed with the performances of the actors.
Q. Did you ever talk to the actors on set while they were filming the episode?
A. I was a theater arts major so I knew not to interact with an actor while they are preparing. Some of the actors I was so in awe of, I was afraid to talk to them. I was so afraid to interrupt Leonard Nimoy. One day on the set I felt a hand on my shoulder and this voice asking who I was? And it was Leonard. He said, “The script sounds like fun; I’m looking forward to it.” He said it totally in character! He stayed in character all day long on the set.
Q. What was Willliam Shatner like on that set?
A. Shatner is such a generous actor; a total workaholic. He found nuances in the lines that I had not realized were possible. He took me aside one day and said “this is what I want you to know about Captain Kirk,” and he proceeded to explain Kirk to me. The producers also made sure I understood Kirk’s role in the episodes. Shatner loved the writers very much. He understood that a good script was paramount. He said, “always remember Kirk is the captain of the ship and the story has to revolve around his dilemma, his choices, his decisions. That has to be central to the story.”
Q. Were you concerned Shatner would not want to do that famous scene of him “buried” in Tribbles?
A. I was afraid he would say, “I can’t do this scene because it makes the captain look silly.” So I was prepared to rewrite it. But Shatner had always wanted to do comedy so he just threw himself into that scene. I was so delighted he was willing to do that.
Q. Who created the Tribbles and what were they made of?
A. A brilliant prop man named Wah Ming Chang created them [he also created the phasers, Romulan ships, tricorder, the “Balock” and more for the series]. He hired a lady to sew 500 or 600 of these artificial fur “balls” made of this cheap, awful-looking fur — some of it brown, some of it white, that they then stuffed with foam rubber. They were great!
Q. Who are your favorite “Star Trek” villains: Klingons or Romulans?
A. Klingons are more fun to write about than Romulans. You can give Klingons the best line of the dialogue. They’re just more fun.
Q. Why does this particular episode still resonate today?
A. It allows us to see the lighter side of [the characters], allows us to see them dealing with a small problem. But they’re still heroic. They’re still likable and you get to laugh with them. We got to see Uhura, Chekov and Scotty as people. We got to see Kirk’s comic side. And everybody loves small, fuzzy animals!
Q. Is it true a sequel was planned for season three?
A. Yes. Roddenberry said let’s do “More Tribbles, More Troubles.” But by season three he left the show because of a disagreement with NBC and we did it for the animated series instead. The Tribbles in the animated series were pink because the guy who chose the colors was colorblind and he chose pink because he couldn’t tell pink from brown. And by that point we just said the hell with it.
Q. Are there any “hidden gems” in the new high-def transfer of “Tribbles” on this box set version?
A. There’s one shot where Nimoy spilled coffee on his velour costume during lunch and if you look very closely you’ll see the coffee stain.
Q. Did you keep any Tribbles?
A. I kept one baby Tribble.