Star Trek debuted on September 8th, 1966, making this week the 47th anniversary of the series. We'll be bringing you some Star Trek-related content all week long to celebrate.
Every fan of the original Star Trek knows that the show was made by Desilu - the big production logo is a familiar part of the end credits of the show, displayed over the head of the alien (puppet) Balok. What few fans know is that Lucille Ball herself, half of the Desilu titular team, pulled the trigger on making the show happen - even though she at first thought it was about a USO tour.
Desilu is a mash up of the names of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, the husband and wife comedy team. They formed the production company when they were trying to sell their radio show, My Favorite Husband, to TV. It eventually became I Love Lucy, one of the all-time greatest shows in the history of the medium, and the source of the money that would later allow Desilu to make Star Trek.
Arnaz was an instinctual businessman without much actual training, but he was brilliant. He wanted to shoot I Love Lucy on film using multiple cameras, a huge change from how TV was produced at the time. Shows would be broadcast live from New York, and other time zones would show kinescopes of the broadcast - they would literally film a TV set that was playing the episode and rebroadcast that diminished image. Desi wanted his show to be shown high quality in every market, but this was expensive. CBS network executive thought the expense was wasteful, but Arnaz convinced them to allow Desilu to cover the costs - with the condition that the production company would own the film, and thus the ability to rerun the show. The idea of doing reruns was unheard of at the time, but Arnaz had seen the future. The deal was incredibly profitable.
If Desi was making the business choices, Lucy was making the artistic ones. She would personally take pitches for shows that Desilu might produce and then sell to networks. The desire to show I Love Lucy in high quality across the country was reflected in Ball's tastes in production - she wanted to make unique shows that had high production value. With the two working in tandem Desilu kept getting bigger and more profitable, and in 1954 the company bought a studio lot in Hollywood. In 1958 they produced their first movie.
But the good times didn't last; Desi and Lucy divorced but stayed together as business partners until 1962, when Lucy bought out her ex-husband. She had become the most powerful woman in Hollywood, and split her time between running the company and starring on The Lucy Show. That same year Desilu's big show, The Untouchables, was canceled. Two new series had failed. The studio had only The Lucy Show on the air, and the only other income came from renting out stages on their lot. Lucy commanded her team to get new shows, and to make them unique.
In 1964 she was brought two concepts by two men. Bruce Geller had an idea called Mission: Impossible, a spy show influenced by Topkapi. It was an expensive concept, but one that Lucy understood. The other man was Gene Roddenberry, who had a show called Star Trek. When the initial contract was signed, Lucy thought the program would be about Hollywood celebrities going abroad to play USO shows - she had no idea the concept was more UFO that USO.
By the time the pilot script, The Cage, came in, Lucy's top men advised her against it. The show was expensive - so expensive they would lose thousands per episode if they managed to sell it to a studio. And that's if they managed to sell it; Roddenberry's script was full of weird jargon and missing the sort of light-hearted escapism that had passed for science fiction on TV before. This was a show that took the scifi seriously, and that expected the audience to do the same. Talking to Marc Cushman for his exhaustive Star Trek history book, These Are The Voyages, Desilu executive Ed Holly said, 'I told Lucy, 'If we do these [Star Trek and Mission: Impossible] and are unfortunate enough to sell them as series, we're going to have to sell the company and go bankrupt.'
Despite not really being into science fiction, Lucy understood that Star Trek, if it worked, could be big. There had never been anything like it on TV, and if it hit, it would bring in money from merchandising and reruns. It was a gamble, but Desilu had been built on gambles. She made the call. In November of 1964 production began on the first Star Trek pilot. On September 8th, 1966 the first episode of the show, The Man Trap, aired on NBC. And 47 years later the franchise continues, for better or worse.
Lucy's gamble paid off in the long run, but it was not soon enough for Desilu. Ed Holly was right, and in 1967 - before Star Trek was even canceled - Desilu was sold to Paramount.