When Gene Roddenberry Explained 'Star Trek' in 1966

Gene Roddenberry - H - 1970s

"Why the term 'phaser'? Simply because the more common 'laser,' as scientifically advanced as it is, may become household knowledge before our series gets very far along," the series creator wrote.

Just over two months after Star Trek first beamed up to audiences on NBC during the 8:30 p.m. hour on Sept. 8, 1966, creator Gene Roddenberry wrote a column explaining the scope of his ambitious space series — and why it aimed for much more "science" than "fiction." His original column in The Hollywood Reporter, "Science Fiction Thing of Past," is below: 

Imagine a space vessel, larger than any naval vessel known, crossing our galaxy at a velocity surpassing the speed of light. Fourteen decks, a crew of over 430 persons. A whole city afloat in space.

Science fiction? Absolutely not. Rather, real adventure in tomorrow's space. Based upon the best scientific knowledge and estimates of what our astronauts of the future may face when they move out of our own solar system and into the vastness of our galaxy. Other worlds like ours? Other peoples? What?

Our starship, designed with the help of space experts, is the United Space Ship Enterprise. The place — NBC-TV, Thursday nights. In full color, this new action-adventure format boasts flesh and blood stars like talented William Shatner playing Ship's Captain Kirk; love Grace Lee Whitney playing Yeoman Janice Rand; and Leonard Nimoy in an unusual new role as the half-alien Mister Spock. Plus talents such as DeForest Kelley, George Takei, Jimmy Doohand and Nichelle Nichols.

My job? Produce this new series. I teethed, learned my trade on police shows, westerns — all the old familiar forms. Let me share some of the pangs, tortures and the too seldom minor victories of putting together a totally new type of show.

Why a journey into space? Because science is now learning that the infinite reaches of our universe probably teem with as much life and adventure as Earth's own oceans and continents. Our galaxy along is so incredibly vast that the most conservative mathematical odds still add up to millions of planets almost identical to our own — capable of life, even intelligence and strange new civilizations. Alien beings that will range from the fiercely primitive to the incredibly exotic intelligence which will far surpass Mankind.

Star Trek aims to match the action-adventure of the best television westerns, the suspense-mystery of the finest detective tales. Authenticity and believability are maintained with the help of cooperative space scientists and technical advisors. As such, Star Trek may become the first fully believable space adventure. At the least, it is probably the most ambitious and difficult project of its type ever attempted.

Here are some reasons why.

For example, in our huge starship of the future, what will a bed look like? What kind of fabrics? What about a simple everyday thing like sheets? Obviously things are going to get different ... but how different?

But bedding is simple. Try this for size — estimating how a lovely young lady several centuries from now will fix her hair.

And wardrobe? Try a simple experiment — sit down with pencil and paper, sketch what you think we'll all wear a few hundred years hence. The design must be attractive (certainly we'll want to appear our best even then). What fabric? Stretch cloth, metallic, plastic, some combination? Will it be something you can clean and re-use, or something you throw away when soiled?

And how about carpets? Draperies? What kind of food? Dehydrated things? Will man give up roast turkey and cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving? Or pizzas and tacos?

And why is all of this important? Star Trek started with the premise that the American television audience is a lot more intelligent and perceptive than the so-called "experts" insist. We feel you can short-change that audience only at your own peril. Thus our people, our vessel, everything seen and heard, must seem honest, real, and as totally believable as if we were watching detectives, cowboys, interns, or any other "accepted" TV entertainment.

As an example of scientific problems, our weaponry is called a "phaser." It is capable of anything from gently tranquilizing a victim to the explosive disintegration of matter. Why the term "phaser?" Simply because the more common "laser," as scientifically advanced as it is, may become household knowledge before our series gets very far along.

Another example of Star Trek's attempt to anticipate scientific advances is our "inventing" a language-converter which automatically translates English into any alien tongue, and vice versa. Much to our surprise, following our "invention," a news item appeared announcing a current government project which is developing a similar device.

Still another example of our fighting to stay enough ahead of science is a hospital bed we used in the pilot film. This bed automatically and continually checks all body functions such as pulse, respiration, blood count, sedimentation rate, temperature and so on. Upon congratulating ourselves on our "genius" in "inventing" this, we discovered that Mayo Clinic is already planning this and is also working on further improvements. — Gene Roddenberry, originally published on Nov. 15, 1966.