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by Kevin Coupe

Fifty years ago this evening, the very first episode of "Star Trek" aired on NBC. It was called "Man Trap," and actually was not the first episode filmed ... it was just the one that network executives felt would be most palatable for a mass audience not used to serious-minded science fiction.

In fact, it took two pilot episodes for "Star Trek" to even get on the air. The first one was called "The Cage," and starred Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike; it was rejected by NBC as not mainstream enough. The second pilot, which starred William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk and Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock (Nimoy/Spock had been in the first pilot, but the character was markedly different - he showed emotion), had more action, though apparently enough for network executives to put it on first.

It wasn't like "Star Trek" was an enormous popular success. In fact, it was ratings challenged for the three seasons it was on, and when finally cancelled by NBC, the general feeling was that "Star Trek" was over. But it caught fire when it went into syndicated reruns ... and the rest is history. There have been 13 feature films in the franchise, plus five additional TV series, with a sixth scheduled to debut early next year.

This lifespan is, I think, a measure of how compelling the basic message of "Star Trek" is. From the beginning, with various degrees of seriousness and success, "Star Trek" has been about the human spirit, the need to explore and learn, the acceptance and embracing of diversity, and how making connections is so much more important than severing them. "Star Trek" has never just been a television series or movie franchise - for those of us who love it in all its various iterations, it speaks to optimism and hopes and dreams and a belief that a better world - a better universe - are, in fact, possible. We just have to offer the best versions of ourselves.

And that doesn't even count the ways in which modern technological advances often are measured against the predictions made on "Star Trek" a half-century ago.

I went back last night and watched "Man Trap," and it is extraordinary to me how fully formed it is. There is all the wonderful Kirk-Spock-Dr. McCoy banter, there is even a bit of a flirtation between Spock and Lt. Uhura (presaging something that was explored to a greater degree in the movie reboot), there is actually a serious discussion about how sometimes the enemy is driven by legitimate needs that we don't understand, and there is even an environmental subtext.

"Star Trek" often has been an Eye-Opener, and it is worth noting its humble beginnings on September 8, 1966.

Live long and prosper.

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