'Star Trek' began filming 50 years ago

The crew of the Enterprise walked in front of cameras for the first time on 27 November 1964 -- but the legendary TV show nearly didn't make it to the screen.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
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"The guy with the ears" and the captain who isn't Kirk: Leonard Nimoy and Jeffrey Hunter in the long-lost "Star Trek" pilot episode "The Cage." CBS

Fifty years ago this Thanksgiving the crew of the starship Enterprise walked in front of cameras for the first time and began filming on a new sci-fi show that would make television history: "Star Trek". But the results of the day's filming weren't seen in their intended form for more than 20 years -- and the legendary show nearly didn't make it to the screen at all.

The brainchild of former bomber pilot and police officer turned television writer Gene Roddenberry, "Star Trek" was planned to be a utopian sci-fi show featuring a diverse crew exploring the galaxy. It began with the filming of a pilot episode on 27 November 1964 at the Desilu Productions studios (now known as Culver Studios) in Culver City, California. The shoot took a couple of weeks, with postproduction work running until 18 January 1965.

50 years of 'Star Trek' (pictures)

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"The Cage" looks a lot like the "Trek" we know, but with a few differences: the uniforms are slightly off, Roddenberry's wife Majel Barrett is the first officer and Spock smiles -- most illogical. And the man in the captain's chair isn't James T. Kirk (as played by William Shatner): instead, Jeffrey Hunter plays Capt. Christopher Pike.

Unfortunately, NBC deemed the pilot episode "too cerebral" with "not enough action" -- and demanded that Roddenberry "get rid of the guy with the ears". But in a then-unprecedented move, NBC commissioned a second pilot. Hunter declined to be involved, so Shatner took over the conn as Capt. Kirk when the series began transmission on 8 September 1966. The rest is history.

Cleverly, Roddenberry reworked footage of "The Cage" by using it as a flashback in the later two-part story "The Menagerie", thereby bringing Pike into official continuity. Editing the footage meant chopping up the negative, so "The Cage" in its intended form was apparently lost to history -- until a 35mm print containing the missing scenes was discovered in a film lab. Restored to its original form, "The Cage" was finally broadcast on television in 1988.

'Star Trek' spaceships through the years (pictures)

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Sadly, Jeffrey Hunter died just five years after filming "The Cage", when he was injured by a botched special effects explosion, and so he never saw the enduring legacy of the series in which he had played such a crucial early role. But what a legacy: the original series ran for just three years yet spawned an animated series; several sequel movies; the TV spin-offs "The Next Generation", "Deep Space Nine", Voyager" and "Enterprise"; and countless books, games and comics. As if that wasn't enough, Roddenberry's original characters -- including Christopher Pike -- are thrilling whole new generations on the big screen under the stewardship of JJ Abrams.

More importantly, Roddenberry's vision of a united human race standing together regardless of race, colour or creed has inspired countless fans, including many of today's scientists, engineers, astronauts and visionaries. Live long and prosper!