On Her Birthday, We Remember How Lucille Ball Gave Us Star Trek
August 6th, 2020 is an interesting day in Star Trek history. The new animated series, and first comedy from the franchise, Star Trek: Lower Decks debuted their premiere episode. However, it’s also the 10th birthday for Lucille Ball, a television legend and the “mother” of Star Trek. Lucille Ball is a true immortal. Her landmark television series, which changed the entire television industry, I Love Lucy is still a timeless comedy classic. Many of the bits and jokes from the show still garner laughter from modern audiences. (My kid’s particular favorite is the “Vita-meat-a-vegemin” bit, where Lucy gets progressively drunk filming a TV commercial.) Yet, Ball’s legacy as an entertainer is only half of her story. She was also the first woman to lead a television studio.
When I Love Lucy debuted, television was recorded live and broadcast to the east coast. Then shoddy kinescope recordings were played back for the west coast. I Love Lucy was one of the first television shows to be filmed in California, and she and husband Desi Arnaz were horrified at the quality of the show. So, they pre-recorded each episode on 35mm film, broadcasting that recording to everyone in the same quality. It also meant that they could sell the episodes again, inventing the “rerun.” In order to fund this innovation, the two stars cut their pay considerably. Years later, they were able to sell the syndication rights, the reruns, to CBS for a huge sum.
Desilu Studios, a combination of their first names, became a power-player in the TV business. Along with I Love Lucy, they also produced other huge hits like The Untouchables, Mannix, and Mission: Impossible. And this is why Lucille Ball is as responsible for Star Trek as Gene Roddenberry.
How Did Lucille Ball Save Star Trek?
Unlike Lucy and Ricky, Ball and Arnaz weren’t a happy couple. The pair divorced in 1960, and Ball took over Arnaz’s share of the duties in running the studio, including developing new shows. Four years later, Gene Roddenberry brought his “wagon train in space” pilot to Desilu studios. Initially, Ball thought the show was about a troupe of performers in the USO during World War II, according to author Marc Cushman. However, she eventually understood the concept and saw that it was special. When her home network, CBS (who, ironically, now own Star Trek) rejected the series, Desilu took it to NBC.
Before there was even a show to sell, her board of directors wanted the studio to pass. Either they didn’t understand the concept or just thought science fiction would never play for mainstream audiences. Yet, Ball supported the show, overruling the other executives to finance the pilot episode, “The Cage.” NBC watched the pilot, featuring Jeffrey Hunter’s Captain Pike and Majel Barrett’s (later, Roddenberry) Number One. They didn’t like it, but they also didn’t hate it. Instead, they ordered a second pilot. The naysayers at Desilu were furious and did not wanted to write off the show. Ball again overruled them, and the second pilot soared off into history.
So, it’s apropos on her birthday to remember how Lucille Ball and her belief in Star Trek created a universe full of stories and characters loved by every generation that followed. Star Trek is only growing as a franchise, and it’s an appropriate that their first comedy series debuts on the birthday of one of the funniest (and smartest) titans of TV.
What’s your favorite Lucille Ball memory? Share your favorite moments from her shows or films in the comments below!
Featured images in the public domain.
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.