Once upon a time, Pineapple Fry, there was no Internet. No, come back. I know most of your grandfather’s stories start this way, but stick with me and we may get somewhere.
In those dear, bygone days, the major electronic entertainment devices in our home were the radio, which we used for weather reports, news, and a string of endlessly replayed popular songs and the television, which the whole world retired to watch during something called Prime Time. There were three major networks, and a number of small local stations which got by on a diet of cheap syndicated shows and old, old movies.
The major networks, during Prime Time, aired expensive, first run television series into which they poured a lot of publicity. We waited with abated breath the annual announcement of the new season, cheering if our favorite shows were renewed for another year. The episodes of these shows generally aired twice a year: one first run episode and once later in the season as a “rerun”. No, there were no marathon viewings or channels which played one program’s episode for twelve hours straight. The phrase “binge watching” did not exist because unless you had a film projector and a friend who could get you films of television programs, you simply couldn’t do this.
Into this world came a series called Star Trek, and yes, plomeek fondue, I am aware you know all about this. Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, just seventy-nine episodes from 1966 to 1969, and then canceled by people who did not have the power of prophecy. That much is common history, and will be repeated a great deal this year because Gene “Great Bird of the Galaxy” Roddenberry, who was the brain behind the original series, turns 100 years old this year. But that wasn’t what I wanted to bring to your attention.
Lovers of the show were now thrown back on local stations which could air syndicated episodes in reruns. These were recut to allow for more commercials. And what did the fans who lived in areas without mid-afternoon reruns of their show? Remember, there was no Internet.
Yes, they had to rely on the written word. There were newsletters and fanzines (like a fan website, only on paper) and there were books. Gene Roddenberry saw how valuable merchandising was, and one of the early spin-offs of the series was a series of books in which the original episodes were novelized—or short story-ized, actually. There were twelve volumes of these, continuing even after the series was cancelled, until all the original episodes were summed up.
These books were the only recourse of some fans in areas without syndicated reruns. The short stories tried to stick to the original episode, keeping much of the dialogue but resorting to description for the action sequences. They were aids to memory, helping the fan think back to that moment when Captain Kirk spotted the Green Girl, or Dr. McCoy jubilantly realized he got the last line in a story. Almost all of these prose versions of television gold were written by science fiction author James Blish, who, along the way, also wrote what is considered the first official Star Trek novel, Spock Must Die!
A science student who went on to write science fiction, Blish was author, science fiction reviewer, and motivator of science fiction as a genre. He died while finishing up the Star Trek novelizations, and the last few were written by another author. He had moved to England during this period, and his papers, as well as a complete collection of his works—Star Trek and otherwise—are at Oxford. His Star Trek adaptations we re-released when science fiction television was recognized as a good financial bet, but it was not the same as the early 1970s, when the books were the only dose of genuine Star Trek many fans could get.
And James Blish ALSO turns 100 years old this year. It’s a WEE bit frightening to see stalwarts of pop culture turning 100, but it does happen. I suppose the day will come when I am over thirty myself. In any case, if you gather with other Trekkers and raise a glass of Saurian brandy to Gene Roddenberry, I hope you will retain the presence of mind to call out “And here’s one for James Blish!”