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Old December 1st, 2012, 03:30 AM
Brainbin Brainbin is offline
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Appendix A, Part VII: The Search for More Money


– Captain James T. Kirk, in the September, 1976, tenth anniversary issue [1] (entitled “Time Warp!”) of the Gold Key Star Trek comic

Keeping “The Show That Wouldn’t Die” alive was a far more exhaustive undertaking than the popular nickname for Star Trek might suggest. It remained a smash hit in syndication, even though every episode had been aired at least a dozen times by 1977; the die-hard Trekkies, of course, had seen them even more often, with the most popular shows proving ubiquitous at fan conventions. Syndication revenue was the crown jewel of the Star Trek financial windfall keeping Desilu Productions solvent during what might have otherwise been a difficult transition from the “House that Paladin Built” era into their period of higher-concept sitcoms… but it was far from their only source of income to be derived from that property. It was likely that no television program in the history of the medium had been as heavily merchandised as Star Trek by the late 1970s. [2]

The oldest form of merchandising was the comic book tie-in, produced by Gold Key Comics. The first issue had been published in July, 1967, though the quality of the earliest comics was highly suspect. The writers did their best to be faithful to the concurrently-running
Star Trek program, but the flaws were immediately evident – Gold Key was a much smaller company than the two titans of the industry, Marvel and DC, and obviously could not afford the same quality writers and artists. Nonetheless, as the oldest “official” source of stories set within the universe of the series, it immediately rode the wave that saw Star Trek emerge as one of the defining and all-encompassing hits of the late 1960s. Print after print, issue after issue, began selling out at newsstands across the country. Gold Key found themselves awash with cash, but at the same time, the rights to their star property were being threatened. Carmine Infantino at DC Comics (who had recently scored a major coup in luring the legendary Jack Kirby over to his company), and the inimitable Stan “The Man” Lee at Marvel Comics, both did their best to make overtures about buying out Gold Key itself, or at least their licence to produce Star Trek comics. [3] The higher-ups at the studio were conflicted – Lucille Ball was more familiar with the works of DC, unsurprisingly, given the popularity of the Superman series in the 1950s (whose star, George Reeves, had actually appeared on a famous episode of I Love Lucy), and the 1960s Batman series starring Adam West as the Caped Crusader. But the writers on the still-running Star Trek were resistant – they were trying to move away from the legacy of the flippant and woefully insincere Batman show, and (to their minds) putting the comics into the hands of DC would doom their cause. On the other hand, studio executives found Stan Lee and the overall corporate attitude at Marvel to be excessively juvenile and rather slavishly – almost embarrassingly aping the youth culture. [4] It seemed to suit everyone at Desilu and involved with Star Trek just fine that Gold Key hold onto the licence – it would be the primary interest of the fledgling company, as opposed to just another licenced property as far as either Marvel or DC would be concerned. Therefore, Gold Key would be willing to jump through whatever hoops Desilu would lay out in front of them to keep their cash cow, and so they did.

Co-Producer David Gerrold was summarily chosen as the primary liaison between the producers of the show and the writing
“staff”, such as it was, of the comic. His youth and established science-fiction fandom made him the only creative person involved with the show who was willing to give them the time of day; his producing duties kept him from more than a peripheral involvement during the show’s original run, so he was limited mostly to approving or rejecting story ideas. Inter-office memos between himself and his superiors, D.C. Fontana and Gene Coon, rarely included more than a passing mention of the adaptation he was tasked to oversee. But starting in 1971, he was able to devote far more time and energy to the job, and eventually came to relish the opportunity to do so. He was given the official position of Story Editor, and commenced an overhaul of the comics. An idea to carry on where the series finale had left off, following two separate crews on their two ships (and possibly result in two lines of Star Trek comic books) was immediately rejected by none other than Gene Roddenberry himself, in one of his few active creative decisions made during this period. He felt that continuing the story should not be spearheaded by as “low” a form of storytelling as mere comic books, and Desilu declined to countermand his directive. [5] The five-year mission would continue in perpetuity in the comics; Gerrold found the silver lining in the situation when he was able to adapt many of his story ideas that had been rejected for the series proper into issues of the comic. He also insisted on tighter issue-to-issue continuity, ending the tradition of stand-alone stories; stronger social and political allegory would also be introduced, carrying on an important legacy. Fittingly, the “Gerrold era” began with a two-part story in the autumn of 1971, which sold very well (despite, or perhaps because of, its parent series being out of first-run), and earned rave reviews. The revamp of the Star Trek comics coincided with a greater movement in the industry which would, retrospectively, be regarded as the transition from the Silver Age to the Bronze Age of Comic Books. The “old” Star Trek comics were emblematic of the Silver Age aesthetic – goofy, lighthearted, and fantastic to the point of being completely ridiculous. Likewise, the “new” comics were in keeping with the more “noble” ideals of the Bronze Age.

Standing in marked contrast to the exploitation of established success with comics was the decision to take a chance in a whole new medium. In the wake of the smash success of the first video arcade game,
Computer Space, its developer Nolan Bushnell, under the auspices of his newly formed Syzygy, Inc., approached Desilu in hopes of taking Star Trek – riding the wave of its incredibly successful series finale, and the very beginnings of its equally fruitful tenure in syndication – into the arcades. Many of the key figures involved in the show’s production were supportive of the notion; Herbert F. Solow and Robert H. Justman, both of whom were still a part of the Desilu hierarchy at the time, quite liked the idea of allowing the Trekkies to take a more active role in the universe of Star Trek. Roddenberry, who remained with the studio as a producer, wanted to move on to other projects, such as the failed Re-Genesis and, later, the more successful The Questor Tapes, and (apart from the incident with the comic books, which by this point he already saw as a thing of the past) paid little mind to spin-off projects from his prior creation. But at the end of the day, the only person whose word was absolute law with regard to the matter was the chief executrix of the studio, which controlled all copyrights and trademarks associated with Star Trek. And Lucille Ball was not wholly mercenary; she was well aware of the reputation that she had to maintain for herself and for Desilu. And though she obviously had little understanding of video games as a medium, she did have ample experience with new media as a whole; being a pioneer herself, in her meetings with Nolan Bushnell she could easily recognize that same spirit and drive in him. (As was typical of her, she would later compare the enterprising Bushnell to her ex-husband, Desi Arnaz, deferring any claims on her own part of working to build a media empire from nothing.) This first meeting, taking place in late 1972 shortly after Pong had exploded, was the auspicious start to an extremely profitable business relationship for both Ball and Bushnell (“sounds like a miracle tonic”, Ball was said to have quipped when she read their two names together in Variety).

Star Trek
for the arcade was released in 1973, becoming the third consecutive smash hit for Syzygy. The dying embers of Moonshot Lunacy did not make a dent on overall sales, helping to prove that the Trekkies had exceptional tenacity. [6] The game was a tactical shooter, from the perspective of the bridge of the Enterprise; the monitor on the arcade cabinet was intended to represent the main viewscreen. Two main enemy ships would engage the Enterprise: Klingon ships, which had weaker firepower but more hit points; and Romulan ships, which had stronger guns and could “blink” in and out of view (representing their cloaking technology), but were also something of a glass cannon, which could be destroyed with as little as one hit. Because Star Trek, the video game, proved very nearly as influential as the television series did; the two distinct types of enemies could be dispatched with two distinct weapons types: the phasers (which could be fired for prolonged periods by holding down the “phaser button” on the control console) or the torpedoes (which could only be fired one at a time), which was a revolutionary innovation. Though it was obviously much easier to score multiple hits against enemies using the phaser, it was much weaker than the torpedo, which, if aimed dead-centre at the Romulan bird of prey, would destroy it in a single hit. For aim was also an important consideration: fewer hit points were deducted for a glancing blow as opposed to a direct hit. Though other potential strategic variations could have included affecting maneuverability and ship’s sub-systems, this was beyond processor capacity when the game was first released; later versions did include some of these features. [7] But as for that first game, even the Enterprise did not recognize the difference between (recoverable) shield damage and hull damage, which did at least guarantee an eventual ending, however depressing the implications might have been – story details were extremely thin by necessity, but the obvious takeaway was that the Enterprise was the only ship defending some key strategic objective against waves and waves of allied Klingon-Romulan attackers, only to inevitably fall like the 300 or the Alamo. [8]

This was the primary reason that there was some reservation among Trekkies with regards to the game. Most of them did appreciate it for what it was – a chance to fight the Klingons
and the Romulans head-on – but in addition to the story implications (the definition of canon and plot continuity being an important issues in 1970s fandom), many bemoaned the lack of that which made Star Trek what it was – the iconic sets, the dazzling art design, the engaging storytelling, and above all else, the characterization. However enjoyable a diversion this arcade game might have been, it wasn’t really Star Trek. [9] Nolan Bushnell at Syzygy honestly couldn’t have cared less, for his game had succeeded in every other respect: it was a technological milestone, it sold like hotcakes, and it provided his company with one more exemplar of what was developing into a truly impressive portfolio. Lucille Ball, obviously, had to pay more heed to these dissenting voices, which were magnified by her lieutenants, Solow and Justman. Star Trek was a brand of quality, one that transcended the technological and conceptual limitations of its original medium, and the same would have to be true for adaptations into other new media. [10] This issue was raised by Ball in her subsequent discussions with Bushnell, who explained that – in contrast to television, which, as I Love Lucy demonstrated, was able to achieve its creative peak early in its history – video games were a medium that needed years, even decades, to fully mature. And long-term planning necessitated long-term funding. The Desilu coffers, needless to say, were practically full-to-bursting, something that could surely benefit the voracious appetite for cash inflows in the research and development department at Syzygy. Thus began a series of negotiations that would, by the time of the initial public offering of Syzygy shares, culminate in Lucille Ball becoming the single largest shareholder of the corporation, through Desilu. Though many of her fellows wanted to elect her to the Board of Directors (with the understanding that she would become Chair), she declined, citing the operation of Desilu as a full-time job, beyond which even a token presence on another company’s Board would be too great a commitment. (Ball was well-known for spending most of her free time touring the United States with her popular lecture circuits, and in reality likely did not want to cut back on those. [11]) In any event, Desilu’s controlling influence in Syzygy was tantamount to a permanent licencing agreement (which was, nevertheless, formally negotiated for the benefit of their legal team); the classic Star Trek game was “ported”, in the parlance of the industry, to the VCS as a launch title, and sold very well indeed…

The problem that many Trekkies had with the Syzygy games and their failure to replicate what they say as the
true, and far more ineffable, appeal of Star Trek was only logical considering their nature as the product of those dehumanizing, unfeeling computers which had manufactured them. A human touch was obviously needed in order to capture the humanist ideals with which the show was so closely intertwined. Never mind that, in fact, human programmers had written the code for those video games; this era was a period of ambivalence and alienation with regards to the mounting automation that was spreading beyond industry and into every aspect of work and play. This had been reflected even within Star Trek itself, in such episodes as “The Ultimate Computer”. [12] It was this movement – within wider society and among the Trekkies – which perhaps helped give rise to one of the more complex and intricate social pastimes of the 1970s, and one which needed little more than a pen, a piece of paper, and some dice: the role-playing game.

The origins of role-playing games, in their modern, codified form, were just as complex as actually playing them. One of the pioneers of the genre was E. Gary Gygax, who had devised rules of play for use with miniature figurines. Given that this was, essentially, identical to little kids playing with their dolls or action figures, the role-playing element grew organically from this, and the rules of conduct formed the basis of a more holistic storytelling structure. Needless to say, there was no shortage of
Star Trek action figures on the market in the mid-1970s; these were among the oldest and most reliably selling pieces of merchandise connected to the property. In many ways, it was almost inevitable that the role-playing game structure would quickly spread into Trekkie fandom; the presence of analogous “miniatures” were a key factor, but so too was the tradition of fan fiction and lore, which anchored the “storytelling” element. RPGs (as they were called) were not a market formally exploited by Desilu for quite some time, as they were considered highly niche. Even many Trekkies considered the genre a bridge too far, at least at first. Nonetheless, fan-created systems emerged and, by mid-decade, were being played at numerous conventions, even across the Pond. The problem, however, was one of intricacies; even the “simplest” games would need two systems, one for ship-bound combat and one for landing party combat. In addition, the question of how the characters, at their stations, would interact with the functioning, maintenance, and repair of the Enterprise proved an exceptionally sticky situation. A few particularly clever fans did their best to devise a workable concept, but considering the negligible size of this subset within another subset of the fandom, uniformity was necessary in order for any kind of RPG to achieve critical mass. Desilu was no help, happy to look the other way so long as money didn’t change hands, at which point their copyright lawyers would force them to get involved, and the only legal solution was not one which would please anybody. However, the continuing proliferation of role-playing games beyond Star Trek – the system created by Gygax, which had eventually been given the memorably alliterative name of Dungeons & Dragons, had been split into two lines: the basic line and the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, whose rules were even more comprehensive than the original. This key business decision, taking place in 1977, proved that the genre had “legs”, and further that there was a market for these products that could withstand some dilution. It was at about this time that marketers at Desilu decided that they could no longer simply ignore the situation, and would finally be well placed to exploit it…


[1] As in, the tenth anniversary of the original airdate of Star Trek: September 8, 1966 (though the world premiere was on CTV, in Canada, two days before).

[2] IOTL, merchandising for Star Trek was astonishingly piecemeal and haphazard prior to the release of The Motion Picture, surprising considering how heavily Paramount would rely on the inflow of syndication revenues to keep their other operations afloat. Then again, the history of neglect and mistreatment of the franchise by that studio is well-known and needs no further elaboration in this footnote. Suffice it to say that this unlikely merchandising juggernaut sets a truly intriguing precedent

[3] Tying into the point of how weakly Star Trek was merchandised in the 1970s IOTL, Gold Key held onto the comic licence until 1979 IOTL, maintaining the same barely-adequate level of quality throughout their tenure, with a mere 61 issues released in that twelve-year span; Marvel took the helm after that.

[4] A concise – if somewhat unjust – representation of how the comics industry was viewed by the mainstream media at the end of the notorious Silver Age.

[5] This TTL decision is analogous to the one made IOTL by Roddenberry to cease recognizing the animated series once he was given the chance to continue producing live-action material for Star Trek. And as with Desilu, Paramount respected his decision and made no attempt to overturn it – until the time came to release it on DVD, at which point (in order to promote it) they decided to poll the fanbase on the matter, and they voted strongly in favour of restoring its canonicity.

[6] Along with the release of Moonraker in the following year, this cements science-fiction as truly the province of the mainstream, for better and for worse.

[7] In contrast to (a little later on) IOTL, there is only the one Star Trek game throughout most of the 1970s, though it sees continual updated re-releases for a number of reasons, the most of important of which is that there are clear programming objectives with regards to potential new features, as already noted.

[8] Virtually all arcade games in this era had no real ending; getting the high score was the only real “goal” worth achieving.

[9] Yes, even ITTL, the concept of what is and is not Star Trek is a highly debatable issue.

[10] You may be wondering why everyone at Desilu seems to be making such a big deal of the foray into video games in comparison to their surprisingly blasé attitude about the comic book adaptation. Well, as with most new technology, the video game industry (especially with an enterprising figure like Bushnell as its chief representative) is spending its formative years trying to be everything to everyone, and the studio feels that they have a lot to prove, getting in on the ground floor, and trying to diversify beyond television (note also that this is the era in which Desilu Post-Production is also trying to establish itself as a major creative force in Hollywood).

[11] IOTL, this was That Wacky Redhead’s primary vocation once her final consecutive sitcom, Here’s Lucy, ended its run in 1974.

[12] As counter-intuitive as Luddite and technophobe Trekkies might seem, there was an obvious subtext on the show, both IOTL and ITTL.


February 7, 1977

For once, it was a relatively quiet afternoon at Desilu Productions. Lucille Ball, the President and CEO, was enjoying a surprisingly relaxed “working lunch” with her new VP Production, Brandon Tartikoff; the pair were enjoying sandwiches from the delicatessen down the block, brought in by Ball’s husband, EVP and CFO Gary Morton (who, upon delivering the food, then wisely retreated to allow the grown-ups to carry on with their business).

Ball was leafing through the trade papers as she ate. “
Roots, Roots, Roots,” she remarked. “It’s still the only thing they’re talking about.”

Tartikoff, who had been eating rather silently before, suddenly perked up, sensing an opportunity. “Well, it
is a turning point for network programming.”

“Yeah, I haven’t heard that one before,” Ball said dismissively, but Tartikoff held firm.

“No, Lucy, listen – I think we’re looking at a real opportunity here, something we can take advantage of, and revisit some of our existing properties.”

Ball, unsurprisingly, saw right through him.
“You mean like Star Trek.

“Well, yeah, like Star Trek. Surely I don’t have to convince you of all people about there still being an audience for it!

“I can’t argue with that!” she admitted, and laughed. “But you weren’t here back when things were winding down there’s lots of bad blood there, and no love lost. I’m not sure enough time has passed for all those old wounds to heal yet.

“I think it has. A lot has changed in the last six years. I think, if we were to try, you’d be pleasantly surprised at who might sign on.

“Brandon, I like your enthusiasm. And hey, why not? It took another feature-length series finale to beat The Fugitive, so it just might take another miniseries to beat Roots.

To her surprise, Tartikoff immediately rose from his seat, abandoning his half-eaten lunch. “Great!” he exclaimed. “I’ll get back to my office and start sending out feelers for this idea. You won’t regret this!” With that, he gathered his effects and dashed out of the room, looking altogether far too giddy for a senior studio executive.

“Yeah, we’ll just have to see how far this goes,” she said to herself. “Heh, imagine that – a Star Trek miniseries


And thus concludes the 1976-77 cycle! Thanks for reading
The Turtledove Award-Winning That Wacky Redhead: Big Dreams Have Big Consequences!

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