It’s no wonder that Gene Rodenberry, creator of “Star Trek,” turned to science fiction when he wanted to delve into dicey subjects on television such as race relations and the value of war. It’s easier to unearth tough subjects when creatures from another planet or another time deliver the truisms. Humans have always gazed up at the stars or stared deep into the black, rolling ocean with equal parts fascination and fear. The unexplored frontiers at the edges of our existence beckon and repel in equal measure. In the early to mid-1960s, a number of innovative television writers, producers and actors began playing with these ideas on the small screen — sometimes preying on our universal fears, and sometimes dreaming up a very different future. Whatever their initial aim, these television innovators left behind a legacy of science fiction television that entertained us and challenged our preconceived notions.
“Lost in Space”
A kitschy, comic science fiction show based loosely on the classic novel, The Swiss Family Robinson, “Lost in Space” debuted in 1965 and was created by Irwin Allen, the most successful science fiction producer of the decade. While the show centered on the misadventures of the Robinson family in outer space, a scene-stealing, villainous anti-hero emerged in the form of Dr. Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris). Harris and the robot developed an unexpected comedic relationship in which the robot, voiced by Bob May, plays the “straight man,” allowing Harris to deliver some of his most memorable zingers.
Gene Roddenberry had the kernel of an idea for “Star Trek” as early as 1961, and he planned for each episode of the series to deliver a cathartic two-punch in the form of entertaining adventure and moral message. But Roddenberry met resistance from NBC. The network insisted that the “Star Trek” pilot presented fascinating ideas but lacked excitement. Roddenberry reworked the script and brought actor William Shatner to the key role of Captain James T. Kirk. NBC executives were satisfied with the changes, and the series “Star Trek,” hit small screens in 1966. Unlike anything that had come before it, “Star Trek” addressed issues of race, gender, war, nuclear proliferation and drug abuse in a context that was palatable to the public. And the on-screen chemistry between Captain Kirk and logical Mr. Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy, was unmistakable. The series became a cult classic, spawning an impressive franchise of movies, animated series, merchandise and fan groups.
“The Twilight Zone”
Created by Rod Serling, “The Twilight Zone” appeared on the small screen from 1959 to 1964, and the anthology series relied on reams of taut writing from sci-fi literary greats such as Ray Bradbury, Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson.
“The beauty of the science fiction genre is that so much of it had been untouched,” said Serling. “It had been reproduced in printed form over and over again, but it had never been done on camera, so we had almost a goldmine of unused material we could operate from.”
Unlike other science fiction television shows that planted their scripts firmly in the future, this series’ stories were usually set in more familiar surroundings. And instead of relying on a regular cast of characters, “The Twilight Zone” was an anthology with different actors for all 152 episodes. The result was a thought-provoking, unpredictable collection known for its excellent writing.