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9 September 2016

Ill-starred enterprise? The untold story of Star Trek’s clumsy rise to popularity in Britain

Star Trek is turning 50 this month, but it took a journey through jumbled running orders, black and white series, “banned episodes” and a myth of progressiveness to appeal to UK viewers.

By James Cooray Smith

Star Trek didn’t air in Britain until 12 July 1969, several months after it was cancelled in the US. While discussions of Star Trek’s history naturally gravitate towards the US, there’s a separate UK experience of watching the series that is surprisingly overlooked, given our position as the second or third most significant market for the programme. (Germany, where Raumschiff Enterprise was a hit, and still commands a following, has a strong claim).

BBC One showed Star Trek in four seasons (it was made as three) and in a seemingly random order – one which meant that Season One episodes made and aired in the USA in 1966 were turning up for the first time on BBC One as late as Christmas 1970.

It was also, like all BBC One programming of the time, screened in monochrome, and around a quarter of the series went out before BBC One became a colour channel. The first episode nominally in colour in the UK was “Arena”, at Christmas 1969, but very few viewers would have seen its alien Gorn in his gaudy green glory; most households had black and white television licences until the second half of the following decade.

Unlike in the US, where Star Trek was a prime-time – and even late-night – programme, in the UK it was early evening fare, implicitly for family audiences, or even children alone. It was, in fact, filling in for Doctor Who, which was taking an unusually long break between June 1969 and January 1970, and took Doctor Who’s Saturday 5:15pm slot, between Grandstand and the news.

By then, Star Trek had been running for weeks in Joe 90 Comic (an anthology title for younger children, which carried several strips based on different television series) and had been advertised by free gifts in cereal packets.

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This assumption that Star Trek was a children’s programme would later cause problems. Episodes were cut for content, and audience complaints about the violent gangs of children in the episode “Miri”, broadcast in 1970, meant the BBC decided never to repeat it when rerunning the rest of the series.

More strikingly, three episodes, all among Star Trek’s most lurid, simply weren’t shown at all. They were “The Empath”, “Plato’s Stepchildren” and “Whom Gods Destroy”, in which the crew were imprisoned by, respectively, torture-promoting aliens, telekinetic dictators, and lunatics who have taken over their asylum.

“Plato’s Stepchildren” is also the episode that features a mind-controlled Kirk and Uhura being forced to kiss. This is heralded as the first “interracial kiss” on US television (but almost certainly isn’t) and has been cited as the reason for its being left out of the BBC screenings.

No BBC paperwork suggests it ever came up, and it’s unlikely given the popularity with audiences of the romance between black surgeon Louise Mahler (Joan Hooley) and white Doctor Giles Farmer (John White) in ATV’s Emergency Ward 10 five years earlier  (and they didn’t have to be mind-controlled to do it, either).

It was later explained that the three unscreened episodes “all dealt most unpleasantly with the already unpleasant subjects of madness, torture, sadism and disease”, rendering them unsuitable for the timeslot allotted to the series. That’s according to a reply sent to UK Star Trek fans who, in 1976, wrote asking why these episodes had never been on in the UK, and suggesting they be included in a then-ongoing repeat run.

Those fans didn’t have all that long to wait before they could finally see these “missing episodes”, as they were released on VHS in the earliest days of the UK home rental market – and even before the Video Recordings Act 1984 made certification of material released on VHS compulsory.

The gloriously lurid covers of the releases sought to imply that there was something obscene about the “banned” episodes that were never screened on British television. All of them are now available on DVD. Rated PG.

There is, technically, a fourth episode missed out by the BBC; Star Trek’s original, Shatner-less pilot episode “The Cage”. But it wasn’t available to foreign broadcasters in the Sixties, or even shown in the USA until 1987. It was, however, used to launch a 1992 BBC Two run of the entire series, including “Miri” and the three “banned” episodes.

And that’s how and when UK viewers were finally able to see every episode of Star Trek, uncut, and in the order in which they were made. By this point, the sixth and final film featuring all of the TV series’ original cast – made to celebrate the programme’s silver anniversary – was in cinemas. It was more or less the halfway point between Star Trek’s US beginning and today.

That puts spending a whole day dodging Game of Thrones spoilers into perspective, doesn’t it?

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