A Flashback To Our Favorite Sci-Fi Series Of The ’60s.
By Robert Edelstein, ReMIND Magazine
In 1966, the U.S. was mired in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, and fears that world leaders might one day push the nuclear panic button seemed justified. We were sinking deeper into a conflict in Vietnam that would soon sow dissent among generations, and racial tensions led to violence and injustice in hot spots throughout the country. Our world felt … out of this world.
On television there was plenty of what we might call entertainment, from Gunsmoke to Gilligan’s Island to Gomer Pyle. There was even a campy new Caped Crusader who could CRACK! down on crime in Gotham City.
But in times so uncertain, what we needed — and what we got — was a weekly television escape into a time and place vastly different from our own, yet one that reflected back upon us, showing us our better selves. It was a sci-fi world full of aliens both familiar and frightening, with a stardate that set it far into the future — a future, it insisted, we would all somehow live to see, and even thrive in.
What we got was Star Trek, and through Star Trek, we got hope.
In Another Dimension
We also got — courtesy of creator Gene Roddenberry — the premier gift of sci-fi TV of the 1960s, an era now acknowledged as the golden age of the genre. Granted, The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone preceded it by a few years and broke great new ground. The former, with its fear-stoking opening credits, made monsters the central players of our living nightmares; the latter gave us Rod Serling’s anthology of brilliantly rendered stories that took on alienation, supernatural terrors and life’s everyday challenges with a kind of bitterly hard irony.
But they could never touch Star Trek‘s amazing worldview, which we came to embrace even more as Apollo rockets began setting off toward the moon. Life among the stars aboard the USS Enterprise wasn’t to be just any future; it was our future, where humans worked to be better. It was where a Russian officer sat on the bridge and a black woman, with the African Swahili name of Uhura, opened all channels of communication between the Earth’s signature starship and the rest of the galaxy. That was sci-fi with a message ready-made for the space age.
But even then, was network television ready for a devilishly handsome humanoid with pointed ears? Nobody was quite so sure if Mr. Spock (played with an ever-arched eyebrow by Leonard Nimoy) would fly with fans, until the logical half-Vulcan at war with his human emotions became a sex symbol everywhere from Omaha to Omicron Ceti III (look it up, people). The same fate catapulted onetime Iowa farm boy Captain James T. Kirk to the fan firmament (or, rather, fresh-faced William Shatner), as he fell in love every week with a different otherworldly hottie, each wearing the most revealing costumes television might allow.
And some 50-plus years later, we love Star Trek even more for all that it spawned. It gave us several series and many movies (including a satisfying film reboot). In the years before Star Wars, it offered up a great intergalactic glossary, tossing around terms like warp drive and Vulcan nerve pinch and mind meld and dilithium crystals and tricorders and phasers that we made our own. It taught us that if you wore a red shirt on the Enterprise, you’d better watch your back. The catchphrases, from “He’s dead, Jim” to “I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer,” became the stuff of culture. And The Original Series, as it’s now known, made the TV world safe for syndication, which was where it was fully embraced.
More Than Trekkies
Soon, sci-fi TV was in the throes of a brilliant revolution as networks charted this new course with the tenacity of NASA. The template for a series had been set: We’re heading somewhere else, in some kind of craft, but what happens to us when we get there? Trek‘s top contender among the outer reaches was Lost in Space, a futuristic Swiss Family Robinson adventure that brought a greater sense of humor to the proceedings. Laughs came courtesy of Jonathan Harris’ Dr. Smith, who started the series as the mission’s saboteur and became more haughty, cowardly and insufferably snobby from one week to the next; and the Robot, whose declaration of “Danger, Will Robinson!” survived as a phrase for the ages. The robot with a heart became the model for Brent Spiner’s Commander Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation; and Will Robinson — played by Billy Mumy, star of perhaps the scariest-ever Twilight Zone episode — was the first character to let us see the world beyond our own from a child’s eyes.
On the lighter side, in 1962 Hanna-Barbera Productions had us “Meet George Jetson,” where a catchy theme song, along with a lovable space family living in an oh-so-luxury smart home, got us thinking just what the future could hold. In 1963 we also were introduced to My Favorite Martian, where Ray Walston starred as Uncle Martin (he was the Martian, a.k.a. Exigius 12 1/2), who took up residence with Los Angeles Sun reporter Tim O’Hara (Bill Bixby). The sci-fi sitcom followed their quirky time travel adventures for three seasons, the last season moving from black and white to color.
Space Of a Different Kind
Also in the sci-fi mix was The Time Tunnel, which premiered around the same time as Trek and intrigued young minds with the brilliant concept of being able to walk through some giant techno-cone and enter another time to, perhaps, effect change in the past.
It was an intriguing concept that, by then, had secured the reputation of perhaps the greatest creator of popular 1960s sci-fi television: Irwin Allen. A producer who’d one day be heralded as the Master of Disaster for producing the likes of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, Allen, in 1961, had Hollywood film success with the futuristic nuclear sub adventure Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Since all the sets had already been built, it became easy — and profitable — for him to turn the movie into a series, and the weekly on-land and at-sea exploits of the Seaview stoked the dramatic fires about everything from nuclear doomsday to threats from foreign governments.
After Lost in Space and The Time Tunnel had also sprung from Allen’s mind, the TV world was ready for the last of his sci-fi quartet from the decade: Land of the Giants. Like his other works, the idea was instantly engaging: An Earth spaceship crash-lands on a similar-type planet … only the inhabitants are 12 times the size of the Earthers. What do they do?!
We were hooked every week, as fans who found an outlet of hope among the stars in the night sky. That quest for a brighter future remains the great legacy of 1960s sci-fi TV. Or, as Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Enterprise from Star Trek: The Next Generation once optimistically declared, “Let’s see what’s out there.”
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