What would have…Science Fiction looked like without Star Trek?

It’s huge – five live action TV shows, a cartoon,  numerous computer games, 11 films, comics, computer, board and roleplaying games as well as enough spin-off novels to resurface the roads of the world.  From 3 series that splutter from renewal to renewal and eventually spawned a massive fandom through syndication a mighty Empire (sorry Federation) was born leaving a lasting stamp on TV SF but also in other mediums.

But you know all this – but what if Star Trek had never been made? What if Gene Roddenberry had enjoyed success in another writing project (The Lieutenant for instance) or as a LAPD cop caught a bullet before he became Police Chief Parker’s script writer. What if Lucille Balls studio had not been available or the network executives had some tiffs which meant the series wasn’t green lit…what would SF look like then?

Before I start immense thaks to David Wynne who came up with this idea – he produces the excellent Particle Friction web comic you can enjoy here http://particlefiction.posterous.com/ and purchase in trade for your shiny hands from orangotang comics.

I’m often quite rude about Star Trek on dissecting worlds – this isn’t because I actively dislike it but I suppose as one of the bigges tboys on the Genre block it’s failings and weaknesses are more visable than a smaller more intimate work or something strangled at birth. There may have been issues with the world building in say ‘Firefly’ but with just a few epsiodes & one film you don’t see them and aren’t disposed to seek them out. I have been to a star trek convention. I’ve played a fair few Start Trek roleplaying games. I’ve even gone courting with Klingon (in Bristol.) Now that my Star Trek love is established let’s roll on.

So before getting stuck I’ll consider what effect did Star Trek have on Science Fiction on television and on Science Fiction and non-genre television anyway? Then I’ll move to consider how it’s absence would have changed things and  wonder what else might have filled that evolutionary niche and what effect that might have had on genre and medium.


Star Trek did a few things: 

Space Opera  it created a major association of science fiction with Space Opera and with militaristic, ship based space opera at that.  It also imbuded such space opera with a top-down feel where a few leading commanders do all the fun stuff. By space opera I mean (and here I turn to the modern day bible Wikipedia):

“a subgenre of speculative fiction or science fiction that emphasizes romantic, often melodramatic adventure, set mainly or entirely in outer space, generally involving conflict between opponents possessing advanced technologies and abilities. Unlike conventional opera, space operas do not usually feature people singing. Perhaps the most significant trait of space opera is that settings, characters, battles, powers, and themes tend to be very large-scale. “

I think that’s fair enough – Star Trek established that TV science fiction will frequently feature men (mainly) going out into space and doing things on a planet or multi-solar system scale. It was at least to TV execs what TV science fiction became and so a number of smaller, more intimate Earth based shows (UFO or Buck Rogers spring to mind ) got twisted into weak Star Trek clones by their second seasons (Space:1999 replacing UFO.)  The men were typically in uniform and taking orders. There’s nothing the matter with that I enjoy military fiction for instance but when you see miltary feeling shoe horned into shows were they don’t nescessary belong i.e Andromena which in conception would have worked better as a politcal show. Oh and if you insist that Star Fellt isn’t miltiary – it has a rank structure, its crew beam down armed and flies around in ships that can devastate planetary services  at the very least it is paramilitary and the same comments apply.

  In it’s defense the ship as home is a great way for characters to get to adventures and that might have also explained soem of the pull – and as ships are expensive things the next logical step is to make the characters be part of an organisation to explain their ownership.

Equally the Space Opera element meant again that smaller more intimate stories such as the Invaders or the Twlight Zone or personal stories such as you see in Firefly didn’t get told for a number of years such was the pull of the big bangs of Space Opera, a pull whose gravity came from the iconic status of Star Trek.

Social Commentry Star trek used analogy to deliver messages on such things as race relations, the Cold War, Vietnam etc; Even the mainly awful Plato’s Stepchildren had the first inter-racial kiss on US television. Star Trek was a pace setter for such things in the sixties.

 But guess what, so was a lot of media created in the sixites, the French New Wave, British Kitchen Sink dramas, Cathy Comes Home – sod it even the Beatles – change was in the air. Had Star Trek then boundaries would have ben pushed and explored elsewhere – maybe SF, maybe not.

 The Lieutenant a US military drama Roddenberry had been invovled in had moved in that direction prior to canellation. Ironside for instance had African American actor Don Mitchell playing the Detectives helper Mark Sanger who in the course of the show (1967-1975) became a cop and graduated from law school. Ironside had an eight year run and better viewing figures than Star Trek so let’s not get too much in a spin about how influential and ground breaking star trek was. Shows from Doctor Kildare to Coronation Street looked as social issues and changes in their socieities.  (For British readers I’m thinking of the Ken Barlow going to University stories from the 1960s, in these days of 50% University attendence it’s hard to realise how ground breakign that was to see a working class lad go to Uni and grow distant from his family.)

Ring a Ring of Writers  Star trek is often venerated for the quality of writers it got and putting the writing at the heart of the story.  That may be true. They’re are the occassional nasty story about Roddenberry re-writes and disputes over credits but this seems quite common (for legal reasons I won’t mention any livign examples but I cna think of two proninent ones.) However what didn’t happen was that this had much of an impact on the rest of sicence fiction – in fact as Roddenberry became the writer most closely associated with the Star Trek brand the point was soemwhat lost in the explosion of fandom. A lot fo later shows didn’t look out for great science fiction shows and a lot of subsequent SF programs often had fairly hack polts (original Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rodgers etc;) Somehow certainly in America the importance of writing was lost in TV SF till what the 1990s and Chris Carter ? (Before he tied himself in knots.) So here I think we can say it’s a cas eof the Emperor’s New Clothes and Star Trek not having the impact it was hoped.   Maybe any replacement could have had more of a legacy in focusing on writers?

There’s still meat on that horse keep flogging somewhere  Star trek has had an impact is in merchandising & franchising – tons and tons of the stuff as I eluded to in the introduction – soem good, some not so good, some dire (I am looking at you Voyager.) But heh isn’t that just capitalism ? And if fans and non-fans will buy the stuff who can blame the liscnese holders for chasing in? And if another genre or non-genre show had scaled that height of popularity wouldn’t it just do the same? (‘calling Mr Lucas to the witness box..’) Star trek had an impact certainly but that particualr cubby hole would be filled by any product which could command that demand.

Showrunner as God  & Fandom One place where Start trek has made an impact is in the perception of the genre. One is that genre telly is headed up by some all-knowing, all-seeing and awe-inspiring figure. I was tempted to say the Roddenberry myth but let’s say legend because there is some truth in it. Obviously this has become part of general culture in later years with the likes of David Chase (Sopranos), David Kelly (The Practice, Boston legal)  David Simon (The Wire) all coming to prominence as show runners. . I must change my name to David. There are also precedents like Rod Sterling and the Twlight Zone But it blossomed in Trek and seemed to grow in the science fiction and fantasy genres. I think its wedded to fandom – Fans take a lot more interest in their shows than the casual viewer and while other genres have their fans SF fans seem to be more enthusiastic than them. Hence, TV science fiction fans tend to know more about the backroom goings on of shows and in the case of Star Trek Roddenbery courted fan pressure to help him in his battles with the studios. It’s like some of the playing to the gallery you see in Football (soccer) clubs when a manager is having problems with the board/owners and looks to fans for support.  Again would this have happened in some other show or genre – I’m not convinced – I think Roddenberry’s decision to harness fan power helped create the monster that is fandom today. Therefore Gene Roddenberry is indirectly responsible for ‘Doctor in distress’ if he was with us I’m sure he’d want to apologise.

Oh course Trek fandom has also coloured how the public sees fans with the uniforms and learning Klingon. maybe fandom got a boost with the interest Roddenberry had in it but would have any other show been that different – if ‘Invaders’ fans had filled the niche surely people would have took the mickey out of them for their unbending little fingers? Doctor Who fans with their scarves and the like seem to have followed a parallel evolution. The lure of cosplay was always going to be there for genre fans and the mickey taking would follow it. 


Star Trek does leave a big hole in the history of SF. But what it’s success shows was that there was a market for a piece of genre television even if it didn’t reach it’s audience until syndicated.  So if  Roddenberry was run over by a bus what might have happened?

Well there were sundry shows around in the sixties. But for example purposes I’m going to consider 3 alternative genres –  Doppelganger paranoia  such as the Invaders,  gothic fantasy of Dark Shadows and the eccentric exploring of Doctor Who.

I’ve chosen these rather than say Superheros or Fantasy because they could practically be done on a sixties TV budget.

The Invaders http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Invaders

Invaders was a paranoid fantasy with aliens in human forms infiltrating society and the one man who knew the truth slowly building up knowledge of them and ultimately resistance. My memories of it are from 1980s re-runs and to be juvenile and SF starved mind it was pretty good. It ran from 1967-68 but in the absence of Star Trek may it have blossomed more. The dark paranoid fantasy genre hit the ground running with the X-files which eventually strangled itself with the entrails of its own continuity but perhaps in absence of Star Trek the genre could have found its feet earlier. sixties counter-culture and cold war paranoia would you think have fed into such story telling.

One of Roddenberry’s projects Assignment :Earth which was piloted in a Trek episode (called er Assignment:Earth) could also have fitted into this feel but from a benevolent alien interloper’s point of view (or human so high-powered and benign as to be effectively alien.) UFO had similar paranoia with spaceship battles and earth-bound espionage and could have grown huge in a more receptive environment. A paranoia led TV science fiction scene could have been a very rich one.  Alternatively we could have ended up with paranoid version of Metal Mickey.

Dark Shadows http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_Shadows

Darks Shadows was a period gothic soap opera which took a  turn for the fantastic with vampires, time travel, parallel universes. Living in the Uk i’ve never seen it and it’s reputation haunts the corridors of genre telly. However from descriptions it evoked ideas of buffy, the Twilight Chronicles and True Blood. Perhaps a more chaste and circumspect earlier coming of such fiction could have occurred and spawned a wider and more intense worldwide fan base without Star Trek’s grip on lover’s of the fantastic. Certainly the success of the Hammer films show an appetite for that kind of thing. Perhaps the stamp of the gothic would be all over television like a rash until some little known writer called Joss Wheldon broke it’s domination with a funny little show called Firefly set on a Federation spaceship in the 90s rebuilding a war-torn galaxy?

Doctor Who http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctor_Who

Little show – you’ve probably never heard of it. Eccentric bungling man of mystery zips through space and time with whatever mugs have attached themselves to him at the time. In our Universe Doctor Who is known for being very British. Partly because it’s compared with the US Star trek model. Of course the 2 shows have influenced each other a lot (the Space Opera background of Who at the end of the Pertwee era/early Tom Baker or the Cyberman/Borg connections) and an influence map of Dr Who’s effect on Star Trek and vise versa would be fascinating. However if there was a SF gap in US TV schedules maybe they would either buy in Doctor Who or more likely remade it in their own image. Once a US budget got to work would have British Who been able to keep going? Perhaps it would have wilted. perhaps an American version would have featured more muscular companions and approaches becoming a very different beast ? (I have images of the ailing John Wayne accepting the role..less alien genius and more two-fisted home spun wisdom.)

Alternatively Terry Nations Dalek project may have filled the void. Maybe Dalekmania would have been a global craze – whether this went hand in hand with Doctor Who or spawned a totally independent existence who knows but its all fun speculation.  Or could a UNIT show have taken off in America – showing the adventures of a Doctorless US UNIT contingent – maybe and gone in the paranoid directions discussed above?

Of course the real wonder is all the shows that weren’t made but could have been. I have hardly touched on the wealth of material Gerry Anderson had and was desperate to find human actors for. I haven’t even considered how big Brian Clements’ ‘The Avengers’ could have become or what extra work Nigeal Kneale could have done. Alternatively legendary television Donald Bellasario and Glen Larson both have interests in the fantastic and might have shaped genre telly in their own image.  Or television might have been more willing to borrow from film and such things as a Star Wars TV show been more of reality quicker. All the might-have-beens in a world without Star Trek.

But let us beam back to our world and the domination of the popular conception of Science Fiction and of television science fiction by the mighty beast that is Star Trek. At last back on track on the basis of the last film, back on the steady ground that made it great to begin with. I think I’ve perhaps discussed enough so over to Dear Readers what do you think – comment below, twitter @Clarkythecruel or email [email protected]

Clarkythecruel is the pen and twitter name of Kehaar one half of the opinion explosion that is Dissecting Worlds podcast available on the Geeksyndicate Network where he and Matt extract the still beating social science from SF, Fantasy and Horror fiction and tenderise it. All opinions are his own at least at the moment and he is probably speaking nonsense.

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