Star Trek: How the Original Series Changed From Pitch to Execution

The Star Trek we first saw on September 8, 1966 was quite a different beast than the one first proposed by Gene Roddenberry.

When the first episode of a new series called Star Trek aired on NBC-TV on September 8, 1966 (it had run two days earlier, on September 6, in Canada), it changed the course of both television and sci-fi history forever.

But while the characters and settings of that show — Captain Kirk, First Officer Spock, the U.S.S. Enterprise, etc. — are as familiar to us now as any other pop culture icons, creator Gene Roddenberry’s initial concept featured a different array of names, places and potential storylines — some of which did eventually make it into the final show in vastly altered shapes…

Roddenberry had been developing the basic idea for Star Trek as far back as 1960, but it wasn’t until 1963 that he began to put some of the concepts into concrete form. Roddenberry was producing his first series at the time (The Lieutenant, for MGM) and told the studio about his idea for a new sci-fi series. Although MGM ultimately passed, Roddenberry did write a treatment that provided the springboard for him to further flesh out the idea of this space adventure.

Roddenberry kept pitching his series to other production companies, using a document now popularly called “Star Trek is…” as his template. Written on March 11, 1964, “Star Trek is…” spells out characters, the name of the vessel, the show’s basic themes, some production requirements, and even a short list of ideas for potential episodes. It is here where we can see the roots of Star Trek as we know it take hold.

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This brief written proposal was the basis of all that would follow over the five decades since. And it all started with Desilu Productions — and a forward-thinking exec named Herb Solow — giving Roddenberry a production deal to develop his show in April of 1964. How much of that first proposal changed and/or made it to the screen by the time premiere episode “The Man Trap” aired that first week of September 1966? Let’s take a look at some of the major elements…

Star Trek's USS Enterprise

The Ship: from the U.S.S. Yorktown to the U.S.S. Enterprise

The space-faring vessel in Roddenberry’s original pitch was called the U.S.S. Yorktown, a name that goes as far back as 1839 in the United States Navy. Roddenberry’s 23rd century version was described as a 190,000-ton “cruiser class” ship, capable of traveling .73 light years per hour and manned by a crew of 203.

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As the show progressed closer to production, some of those figures changed: the crew complement expanded to more than double the original number (around 430, give or take a couple), while the craft itself was enlarged to a Constitution or “heavy cruiser”/starship class, able to travel at multiple “warps” that took it well past the speed of light. And, of course, the name Yorktown was changed to Enterprise — although ships called the Yorktown were part of Trek shows for years after that (and, most recently, appeared as a starbase in Star Trek Beyond).

Star Trek Captain James T. Kirk

The Captain: from Robert M. April to James T. Kirk

Roddenberry’s first captain of the Yorktown was named Robert M. April, described by the producer as “lean and capable both mentally and physically” and a “colorfully complex personality … capable of action and decision which can verge on the heroic.” Yet Roddenberry’s commanding officer was also fighting “a continual battle with self-doubt and the loneliness of command.”

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It’s interesting to note that, while April didn’t make it to the original series, he is officially in the canon as the Enterprise’s first Captain, showing up in an episode from The Animated Series, “The Counter-Clock Incident.” So many of his characteristics, even his age (34), stayed in place as the central role morphed into Captain Christopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) and finally into James T. Kirk (William Shatner). Roddenberry had a very clear conception of what he wanted his starship captain to be, and that conception guided both the performances of Hunter and Shatner… the latter to iconic status.

Star Trek - Number One and Mr. Spock

The First Officer: from Number One and Mr. Spock to… Mr. Spock

Roddenberry wrote the part of Number One, the ship’s Executive Officer, for his then-mistress (and later wife) Majel Barrett. Number One was supposed to be calm, cool, mysterious and almost emotionless (traits that got passed along to the show’s eventual First Officer) with a knowledge of the ship’s workings that surpassed that of her captain’s.

The First Lieutenant, meanwhile, was a fellow named Spock with “a face so heavy-lidded and satanic you might almost expect him to have a forked tail.” This devilish-looking dude, “probably half Martian,” served as the Captain’s right-hand man and had a quiet temperament combined with considerable strength.

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Both Number One and Spock appeared in the show’s first pilot, “The Cage,” but when it came time to shoot the second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” Number One was gone and many of her elements were rolled into the Spock we know and love today.

Star Trek - Dr. Philip Boyce

The Ship’s Doctor: from Dr. Philip Boyce to Dr. Leonard McCoy

The ship’s Chief Medical Officer went through a few incarnations too, but largely kept his cynical, crusty, world-weary demeanor throughout his evolution. The first iteration of this character was Dr. Philip Boyce, sketched out in Roddenberry’s initial treatment and fleshed out by actor John Hoyt in the first pilot, “The Cage,” where he is seen as a confidant of Captain Pike.

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Boyce was gone in “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” with Dr. Mark Piper (Paul Fix) on board and seemingly not as close to Captain Kirk. We never got to know Piper well at all (the popular theory is that he was just a temp) because by the time Star Trek got into regular production, the doctor had become our beloved Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley) and his crucial role as Kirk’s conscience and therapist came into focus.

Star Trek - Jose Ortegas

The Navigator: from Jose Ortegas to Ensign Chekov

The “Star Trek is…” manifesto mentioned a navigator named Jose Ortegas, born in South America, and described as “tall, handsome, about 25 and brilliant, but still in [the] process of maturing.” Ortegas was also supposed to be somewhat of a ladies man, but the whole “hot-headed Latin lover” thing sounds cringe-worthy for even back then.

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A version of Ortegas did show up as Jose Tyler in “The Cage,” but the Enterprise was largely without a regular navigator until Pavel Chekov appeared on the scene in Season 2 — a Russian by birth, but young, smart, a bit hot-headed and also quick to seek out the ladies. So the spirit of Jose Ortegas lived on…

Star Trek ship in orbit

The Mission Statement

The famous “Wagon Train to the stars” concept that is often cited as Roddenberry’s basic template for Star Trek was stated right there in his original pitch, along with the “parallel worlds” theory that humanoid life similar to our own, even in terms of cultural development, could evolve on millions of planets throughout the galaxy.

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The mission parameters also stayed remarkably the same: a five-year stretch, with the primary duties being Earth security, scientific investigation, and assistance or aid to Earth colonies. Landings and contact would be confined to “planets approximating Earth-Mars conditions, life and social orders.”

Star Trek Transporter

Getting Around: from “Recon Vehicles” to the Transporter

From the start, Roddenberry emphasized that the Yorktown would mostly stay in orbit and rarely land on a planet itself, with missions accomplished through landing parties traveling in “a small recon rocket vehicle.” While the idea of the landing vehicle eventually translated into the shuttlecraft, it was the development of the transporter beam that was the real breakthrough for Trek, enabling characters to get quickly in and out of stories through the use of a simple optical effect. Somehow, the idea now of watching a shuttlecraft or “recon vehicle” go through its paces every week seems incredibly stodgy.

The Stories: from “The Next Cage” to “The Menagerie”

After developing the initial Trek concept, Roddenberry (as he said in many interviews) sat down and came up with a slew of story ideas off the top of his head and included them in his pitch. A number of those stories actually made it to the screen, at least loosely. They included:

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“The Next Cage”: Captain April is caged in an alien zoo and offered a mate. This evolved into the first pilot, “The Cage,” which itself was folded into the brilliantly written two-parter, “The Menagerie.”

“The Day Charlie Became God”: A young man is given incredible powers. This was the basis of “Charlie X.”

“President Capone”: The Yorktown travels to a parallel world where Al Capone is ruler. Elements of this made it into the season two episode “A Piece of the Action.”

“The Women”: “Hanky panky” ensues as the Yorktown transports a cargo of women to a mining colony. This evolved into “Mudd’s Women.”

“Mr. Socrates”: The Yorktown visits a planet where duplicates of famous humans are forced to fight in gladiatorial games. This concept hung around until the third season, when it morphed into “The Savage Curtain.”

“Kentucky, Kentucky”: Captain April helps the survivors of a “frontier”-type colony defend themselves against a race of savage invaders. Sounds like the seed idea for “Errand of Mercy” to us.

Other story ideas (with the eventual episode, if produced, in parentheses) were “The Coming” (“Bread and Circuses”), “The Perfect World” (“The Return of the Archons”), “100 A.B.” (“The Omega Glory”) and “The Mirror” (“Mirror, Mirror”).