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Roddenberry Among PBS' Pioneers of Television

Roddenberry Among PBS' Pioneers of Television

What would a PBS special about the “Pioneers of Television” be without a decent chunk of time devoted to Gene Roddenberry? Probably not quite so special. However, that’s not the case, as “The Pioneers of Television: Science Fiction,” the first of four one-hour installments (with the others devoted to westerns, crime dramas and local kids’ TV), will premiere on January 18 and quite prominently feature Trek creator Roddenberry. Among the familiar Trek names who participated in the special are William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols and Martin Landau, who turned down the role of Spock that helped transform Nimoy into a major star. recently spoke with writer-producer Mike Trinklein about "Pioneers of Television," and here’s what he had to say.

As you started work on the science fiction segment of "Pioneers of Television," what did you want to know? What did you want to learn about Star Trek that you thought would be informative for audiences?

Trinklein: We kind of had a two-fold purpose. On one hand we have to touch on the standard things that much of the Star Trek audience would already know, but that the general audience might not, like the interracial kiss and Nichelle Nichols’ Martin Luther King, Jr. story. What we were searching for was to set it all in history and see what was around Star Trek. We try to give you a sense of the times we were in, the shows that were influencing each other, and, of course, with this series it’s always about the pioneers. So it’s about Star Trek and The Twilight Zone and Lost in Space, and about the people behind these shows. We try to give you a little bit of a sketch, of a portrait of those people. Now, obviously, we can’t get into great detail in a one-hour show that’s got to cover several different people, but we at least give people a sense of who Gene Roddenberry and Rod Serling and Irwin Allen were and how they all fit into the picture.

What, in your research and conversations, were you most surprised to discover about Star Trek and Roddenberry?

Trinklein: One thing that I think was pretty cool was to see some of the people who worked with Roddenberry on Star Trek, who were the pioneers with him on it, in a way. You had Shatner and Nimoy, who were still early in their careers when they did the show. We have Shatner talking about (having been) on Howdy Doody and we see Nimoy in Zombies of the Stratosphere and see Shatner in Alexander. It’s kind of cool to include those clips. I think a lot of people have heard about these things, but maybe haven’t seen those clips. So, Bill and Leonard talk about those credits a little bit and then we see the clips. That’s fun. The thing that surprised me the most, but it’s not in the show because it was too long a story, but I found an old Gunsmoke episode that Nimoy had done, in which he played an Indian. He did this just a few weeks before Star Trek started. You look at it and you go, “That’s Spock.” He has the same attitude, the same emotional approach, the same kind of feel as the Spock character. And I asked Leonard, “Did this Indian character influence how you portrayed Spock?” He said, “I never thought about it, but it kind of did.” He played that Indian with the same kind of “still waters run deep” feeling that he brought to Spock.

Something else that interested me, aside from learning so much about the interracial kiss and what it meant, was how Shatner and Nichols tell the story about shooting the scene – and tell it so differently. They tell it totally differently. Their memories differ. I asked Leonard about it and he didn’t even want to weigh in on it because he had no memories of it. But it’s funny because Bill and Nichelle were there and their versions don’t have a lot in common.

One unique touch you’ve got in the special, not just in the portions devoted to Star Trek, but in all of them, is recreations of important moments. For example, you depict Roddenberry as a cop in uniform handing his Star Trek script to a group of executives at a dinner…

Trinklein: We recreated that situation with Roddenberry because it tells you a lot about Roddenberry in a very short period of time. You learn that he was struggling, that he was desperately trying to get his stuff read. We somehow think he was always successful, and early on he wasn’t, and he had to take some extraordinary measures. But we acknowledge, right in the voiceover, that we’re not sure how this story really played out. It’s how he told the story, and he’s a great storyteller. He actually told the story different ways at different times to different people, but every time it was a good story. So I don’t know how factual it is, but it shows you he was inventive and a great storyteller.

It was fascinating to see Martin Landau talk about not playing Spock. How surprised were you that he agreed to sit down and discuss it?

Trinklein: I was surprised that he was so open about it and his comments about being glad that Leonard Nimoy got the part because Leonard was better suited for it. Viewers can draw whatever conclusion they want from that. But he was more than happy to talk about it.

Obviously, you shot more footage about Star Trek than you could possibly use in the "Pioneers of Television" segment devoted to science fiction. Any chance we’ll get to see the unused footage?

Trinklein: Actually, a lot of clips we didn’t use are on the PBS web site, including a number of different Star Trek bits. You can start at and it’ll lead you to the PBS site and to the clips. That’s part of the answer. The other answer is, if this show gets good ratings, if people tune in, maybe PBS will want more and maybe we could do a more in-depth look at Star Trek. I’m a Star Trek fan. I grew up with the show. It’s such an iconic and important show, and I’d love to spend more time with it. We had to split the “Science Fiction” hour up in order to cover the other shows, too. I think we hit on some interesting Star Trek stories, but there are many more interesting ones to tell.