Pioneers of Television: Science Fiction, on PBS

Tonight, I saw the one hour episode of Pioneers of Television on Science Fiction. It was an interesting look at some of the early, popular science fiction television shows in the US: Lost in Space, Star Trek, and The Twilight Zone.

I liked how they portrayed the influences behind the way these shows. It wasn’t just the visions of Irwin Allen, Gene Roddenberry, and Rod Sterling that made these shows what they were. It was also the influence of TV executives, network and time slot competition, advertisers, and censors. Allen is presented as a shrewd creator and producer who according to Bill Mumy was great at making a pilot that would sell but then would allow his shows to go into an automatic pilot mode to keep costs down. Roddenberry is depicted as a visionary who bucked the executives and the system to get what Nichelle Nichols called his veiled morality plays on the air. Sterling is another visionary who saw science fiction as an un-mined resource for television. It also allowed him to get his material aired without intervention by the studios, at least initally, because the stories took place some place else than the here-and-now.

It has new interview material with Bill Mumy, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and Nichelle Nichols. There are also some older interviews that I had not seen before with Sterling at some point after The Twilight Zone but I would guess before Night Shadows. Of these, I thought Nichols’ recounting her story about getting so fed up with her character’s increasing marginalization that she wrote a letter of resignation. Before delivering it, she said that someone came to her stage door to say that a fan, a Trekkie, was waiting outside to see her. She then looked up and saw a man–Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He told her that he was a Trekkie and Uhura’s biggest supporter. He went on to tell her that it was significant that she stay on the show, because her being there let so many people see what was possible for people of color. My telling doesn’t do her words justice–you should watch the episode yourself.

More information about the series and this episode can be found online here:

Science Fiction | Pioneering Programs | Pioneers of Television | PBS.

Published by

Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.