Aug 192018

Today is the birthday (1921) of Eugene “Gene” Wesley Roddenberry who is best remembered for creating the original Star Trek television series. I want to focus on that aspect of Roddenberry’s life because it is an absolutely classic exemplar of how you have to be persistent to achieve your goals. Roddenberry not only had to beat down numerous doors to get Star Trek aired in the first place, he also had to keep pushing to get it lodged in the popular consciousness. After all, it originally aired for only 3 seasons, and would have been forgotten if Roddenberry had not persisted in promoting it. I’ll start with a few personal details: a few – you can look up the rest.

Roddenberry was born in El Paso, Texas, and grew up in Los Angeles, where his father was a police officer. Roddenberry flew 89 combat missions in the Army Air Forces during World War II, and worked as a commercial pilot after the war. Later, he followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Los Angeles Police Department, where he also began to write scripts for television. As a freelance writer, Roddenberry wrote scripts for Highway Patrol, Have Gun–Will Travel, and other series, before creating and producing his own television series The Lieutenant. In 1964, Roddenberry created Star Trek, which premiered in 1966 and ran for three seasons before being canceled. He then worked on other projects, including a string of failed television pilots. It was the syndication of Star Trek that led to its growing and enduring popularity, which then led to a movie franchise.

I remember watching Star Trek in England in the late 1960s (in b/w) but was never a huge fan. I got a little more interested in the late 1970s when I (briefly) owned a television in the US (from 1970 to 1978 I did not own one) and re-runs were frequent enough to hold my attention for a while. Even at the time, the sets and costumes seemed cheap and hokey, but I was used to Dr Who episodes that were no better in that regard. Having the camera shake and the actors throw themselves about when the Enterprise was hit by a photon bomb just made us all laugh. But the scripts were (mostly) engaging and worth the price of admission, even though the main characters were ridiculously one dimensional. There was always an ensign “Smith” (or whatever) in a landing party whom you knew was going to be the first to be killed, Scotty was always going to be worried about his engines, and Spock was always going to be absurdly “logical” while Kirk would (illogically) get entangled in some love interest. But the plots themselves could be engaging.  It is way too common these days for SciFi movies and TV series to rely on stunning effects to make up for weak story lines. With limited effects, the first series of Star trek had to have good writing.

When Roddenberry pitched Star Trek to MGM, it was warmly received, but no offer was made. He then went to Desilu Productions, but rather than being offered a one-script deal, he was hired as a producer and allowed to work on his own projects. His first was a half-hour pilot called Police Story (not to be confused with the anthology series created by Joseph Wambaugh), which was not picked up by the networks. Having not sold a pilot in five years, Desilu was having financial difficulties; its only success was I Love Lucy. Roddenberry took the Star Trek idea to Oscar Katz, head of programming, and as a team they started work on a plan to sell the series to the networks. They took it to CBS, which ultimately passed on it. They later learned that CBS had been eager to find out about Star Trek because it had a science fiction series in development—Lost in Space. Roddenberry and Katz next took the idea to Mort Werner at NBC, this time downplaying the science fiction elements and highlighting the links to Gunsmoke and Wagon Train. The network funded three story ideas, and selected “The Menagerie”, which was later known as “The Cage”, to be made into a pilot. (The other two later became episodes of the series.) While most of the money for the pilot came from NBC, the remaining costs were covered by Desilu. Roddenberry hired Dorothy Fontana, better known as D. C. Fontana, as his assistant. They had worked together previously on The Lieutenant, and she had eight script credits to her name.

Roddenberry and Majel Barrett had begun an affair by the early days of Star Trek, and he specifically wrote the part of the character Number One in the pilot with her in mind; no other actresses were considered for the role. Barrett suggested Nimoy for the part of Spock. He had worked with both Roddenberry and Barrett on The Lieutenant, and once Roddenberry remembered the thin features of the actor, he did not consider anyone else for the part. After choosing the remaining cast filming began on November 27th, 1964, and was completed on December 11th. After post-production, the episode was shown to NBC executives and it was rumored that Star Trek would be broadcast at 8:00 pm on Friday nights. The episode failed to impress test audiences, and after the executives became hesitant, Katz offered to make a second pilot. On March 26th, 1965, NBC ordered a new episode.

Roddenberry developed several possible scripts, including “Mudd’s Women”, “The Omega Glory”, and with the help of Samuel A. Peeples, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”. NBC selected the last one, leading to later rumors that Peeples created Star Trek, something he has always denied. Roddenberry was determined to make the crew racially diverse, which impressed actor George Takei when he came for his audition. The episode went into production on July 15th, 1965, and was completed at around half the cost of “The Cage”, since the sets were already built. Roddenberry worked on several projects for the rest of the year. In December, he decided to write lyrics to the Star Trek theme. This angered the theme’s composer, Alexander Courage, as it meant that royalties would be split between them. In February 1966, NBC informed Desilu that they were buying Star Trek and that it would be included in the fall 1966 television schedule.

On May 24th, the first episode of the Star Trek series went into production. Desilu was contracted to deliver 13 episodes. Five days before the first broadcast, Roddenberry appeared at the 24th World Science Fiction Convention and previewed “Where No Man Has Gone Before”. After the episode was shown, he received a standing ovation. The first episode to air on NBC was “The Man Trap”, on September 8th, 1966, at 8:00 pm. Roddenberry was immediately concerned about the series’ low ratings and wrote to Harlan Ellison to ask if he could use his name in letters to the network to save the show. Roddenberry also corresponded with Isaac Asimov about how to address the issue of Spock’s growing popularity and the possibility that his character would overshadow Kirk. Asimov suggested having Kirk and Spock work together as a team “to get people to think of Kirk when they think of Spock.” The series was renewed by NBC, first for a full season’s order, and then for a second season. An article in the Chicago Tribune quoted studio executives as stating that the letter-writing campaign had been wasted because they had already been planning to renew Star Trek.

Roddenberry often rewrote submitted scripts, although he did not always take credit for these. Roddenberry and Ellison fell out over “The City on the Edge of Forever” after Roddenberry rewrote Ellison’s script to make it both financially feasible to film and usable for the series context. Even his close friend Don Ingalls had his script for “A Private Little War” altered drastically, and as a result, Ingalls declared that he would only be credited under the pseudonym “Jud Crucis” (a play on “Jesus Christ”), claiming he had been crucified by the process. Roddenberry’s work rewriting “The Menagerie”, based on footage originally shot for “The Cage”, resulted in a Writers’ Guild arbitration board hearing. The Guild ruled in his favor over John D. F. Black, the complainant. The script won a Hugo Award, but the awards board neglected to inform Roddenberry, who found out through correspondence with Asimov.

As the second season was drawing to a close, Roddenberry once again faced the threat of cancellation. He enlisted the help of Asimov, and even encouraged a student-led protest march on NBC. On January 8th, 1968, 1,000 students from 20 different schools across the country marched on the studio. Roddenberry began to communicate with Star Trek fan Bjo Trimble, who led a fan writing campaign to save the series. Trimble later noted that this campaign of writing to fans who had written to Desilu about the show, urging them to write NBC, had created an organized Star Trek fandom. The network received around 6,000 letters a week from fans petitioning it to renew the series. This fan base became an important phenomenon in its own right over the years, producing fanzines, and creating back stories that eventually got woven into the movie franchise. On March 1st, 1968, NBC announced on air, at the end of “The Omega Glory”, that Star Trek would return for a third season.

The network had initially planned to place Star Trek in the 7:30 pm Monday-night time slot freed up by The Man from U.N.C.L.E. completing its run. Instead, an enraged George Schlatter forced the network to insert Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In into the slot, and Roddenberry’s series was moved to 10:00 pm on Fridays. Realizing the show could not survive in that time slot and burned out from arguments with the network, Roddenberry resigned from the day-to-day running of Star Trek, although he continued to be credited as executive producer. Roddenberry cooperated with Stephen Edward Poe, writing as Stephen Whitfield, on the 1968 book The Making of Star Trek for Ballantine Books, splitting the royalties evenly. Roddenberry explained to Whitfield: “I had to get some money somewhere. I’m sure not going to get it from the profits of Star Trek.” Herbert Solow and Robert H. Justman observed that Whitfield never regretted his 50-50 deal with Roddenberry, since it gave him “the opportunity to become the first chronicler of television’s successful unsuccessful series.” Whitfield had previously been the national advertising and promotion director for model makers Aluminum Model Toys, better known as “AMT”, which then held the Star Trek license, and moved to run Lincoln Enterprises, Roddenberry’s company set up to sell the series’ merchandise.

Having stepped aside from the majority of his Star Trek duties, Roddenberry sought instead to create a film based on Asimov’s I, Robot and also began work on a Tarzan script for National General Pictures. After initially requesting a budget of $2 million and being refused, Roddenberry made cuts to reduce costs to $1.2 million. When he learned they were being offered only $700,000 to shoot the film, which by now was being called a TV movie, he canceled the deal. Meanwhile, NBC announced Star Trek‘s cancellation in February 1969. A similar but much smaller letter-writing campaign followed news of the cancellation. Because of the manner in which the series was sold to NBC, it left the production company $4.7 million in debt. The last episode of Star Trek aired 47 days before Neil Armstrong stepped on to the moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission, and Roddenberry declared that he would never write for television again.

There was an animated Star Trek series produced in 1973 with some involvement by Rodenberry (his name was more important than his production skills). However, the groundswell of vociferous fan support (6,000 attended the second New York Star Trek convention in 1973 and 15,000 attended in 1974, eclipsing the 4,500 attendees at the 32nd World Science Fiction Convention in 1974) led Paramount to hire Roddenberry to create and produce a feature film based on the franchise in May 1975. At the time, several ideas were partly developed including Star Trek: The God Thing and Star Trek: Planet of the Titans. Following the commercial reception of Star Wars, in June 1977, Paramount instead approved a new series set in the franchise titled Star Trek: Phase II, with Roddenberry and with most of the original cast, except Nimoy, set to reprise their respective roles. It was to be the anchor show of a proposed Paramount-owned fourth network, but plans for the network were scrapped and the project was reworked into a feature film. The result, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, troubled the studio because of budgetary concerns, but was a box-office hit. Adjusted for inflation, it was the third-highest grossing Star Trek movie, with the 2009 film coming in first and the 2013 film second.

Gene Rodenberry died on October 24th, 1991 from the complications of multiple problems including diabetes, 2 strokes, and encephalopathy induced by persistent recreational drug use, amphetamines (used for long nights script writing), and alcohol. He was cremated, and various amounts of his ashes were flown into space on several missions, although details are murky at best, and there are more rumors floating around than his actual ashes. Rodenberry lived to see Star Trek: Next Generation inaugurated, and there were many more movies in the franchise after he died, including a set of prequels, and, no doubt, more to come. I can’t say that I am taken with anything that was produced beyond the first series. I did see the first movie for old-times’ sake, but never bothered after that, and was not at all interested in Next Generation. The prequels show up on television now and again on Cambodian cable television, but a few minutes is enough for me to go about other things. I’ve probably watched nearly all of the first series at least once, and several stick in memory. A Trekkie I am not.

Star Trek fans have cookbooks just as Douglas Adams and Dr Who fans do. You can find plenty of recipes here: The only first series themed recipe is this one for plomeek soup, a traditional morning meal on Spock’s home planet, Vulcan. The Vulcans were mostly, but not exclusively, vegetarian. I have edited the original recipe, but the idea is the same.

Plomeek Soup


1 onion, peeled and diced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
5 carrots, peeled and diced
2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
3 medium beetroots, peeled and diced
3 sticks celery, chopped
1 liter vegetable stock
salt and pepper
vegetable oil


Sauté the onion in vegetable oil in a large stock pot until soft. Then add the rest of the vegetables and cook for a few minutes. Add 750ml of the stock, reserving the rest. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until all the vegetables are soft, (about 45 minutes to 1 hour).

Using an immersion blender, blend the soup until smooth. You can also use a stand blender or food processor, blinding the soup in batches. Add salt and pepper to taste, and check the soup’s thickness – if it is too thick, add the remaining vegetable stock as needed.

Reheat the blended soup and serve hot.

Jan 022018

No, I am not talking about Spock’s home planet, I am talking about a planet that was hypothesized to lie in an orbit between Mercury and the Sun which had been dubbed Vulcan by astronomers of the time.  On this date in 1860, Urbain Le Verrier, chief proponent of the existence of Vulcan, announced the discovery of Vulcan, based on observations by amateur astronomer, Edmond Modeste Lescarbault, to a meeting of the Académie des Sciences in Paris.  Subsequently, a number of reputable investigators became involved in the search for Vulcan, but no such planet was ever found. Rather, the peculiarities in Mercury’s orbit that led to Le Verrier’s hypothesized planet, have now been accounted for by Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Here we have a clear case of seeing something that’s not there because you are convinced it ought to be – the opposite phenomenon of failing to see something within your field of vision because you are convinced it does not exist (a well known and well documented phenomenon).

In 1840, François Arago, the director of the Paris Observatory, suggested to Le Verrier, a French mathematician, that he work on the topic of the planet Mercury’s orbital motion around the Sun. The goal of this study was to construct a model based on Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of motion and gravitation. By 1843, Le Verrier published his provisional theory on the subject, which would be tested during a transit of Mercury across the face of the Sun in 1843. As it turned out, predictions from Le Verrier’s theory failed to match the observations. Le Verrier renewed his work and, in 1859, published a more thorough study of Mercury’s motion. This was based on a series of meridian observations of the planet as well as 14 transits. The rigor of this study meant that any differences from observation would be caused by some unknown factor. Indeed, there still remained some discrepancy. During Mercury’s orbit, its perihelion advances by a small amount each orbit, technically called perihelion precession. The phenomenon is predicted by classical mechanics, but the observed value differed from the predicted value by the small amount of 43 arcseconds per century.

Le Verrier postulated that the excess precession could be explained by the presence of a small planet inside the orbit of Mercury, and he proposed the name “Vulcan” for this object. In Roman legend, Vulcan was the god of both beneficial and hindering fire, including the fire of volcanoes, making it an apt name for a planet so close to the Sun. Le Verrier’s recent success in discovering the planet Neptune using the same techniques lent strong credence to his claim, and astronomers around the world attempted to observe a new planet there, but nothing was ever found.

Lescarbault’s observatory

On 22 December 1859, Le Verrier received a letter from French physician and amateur astronomer Edmond Modeste Lescarbault, who claimed to have seen a transit of the hypothetical planet earlier in the year. Le Verrier took the train to the village of Orgères-en-Beauce, 70 kilometers (43 mi) southwest of Paris, where Lescarbault had built himself a small observatory. Le Verrier arrived unannounced and proceeded to interrogate Lescarbault. Lescarbault described in detail how, on 26 March 1859, he noticed a small black dot on the face of the Sun, which he was studying with his modest 3.75 inch (95 mm) refracting telescope. Thinking it to be a sunspot, Lescarbault was not at first surprised, but after some time had passed he realized that it was moving. Having observed the transit of Mercury in 1845, he guessed that what he was observing was another transit, but of a previously undiscovered body. He took some hasty measurements of its position and direction of motion, and using an old clock and a pendulum with which he took his patients’ pulses, he estimated the duration of the transit at 1 hour, 17 minutes and 9 seconds (much too fast to be a sunspot).

Le Verrier was satisfied that Lescarbault had seen the transit of a previously unknown planet. Thus on January 2nd, 1860 he announced the discovery of Vulcan to a meeting of the Académie des Sciences in Paris. Lescarbault, for his part, was awarded the Légion d’honneur and invited to appear before numerous learned societies. Not everyone accepted the legitimacy of Lescarbault’s “discovery,” however. An eminent French astronomer, Emmanuel Liais, who was working for the Brazilian government in Rio de Janeiro in 1859, claimed to have been studying the surface of the Sun with a telescope twice as powerful as Lescarbault’s at the very moment that Lescarbault said he observed his mysterious transit. Liais, therefore, was “in a condition to deny, in the most positive manner, the passage of a planet over the sun at the time indicated.”

Based on Lescarbault’s “transit”, Le Verrier computed Vulcan’s orbit: it supposedly revolved about the Sun in a nearly circular orbit at a distance of 21 million kilometers (0.14 AU; 13,000,000 mi) The period of revolution was 19 days and 17 hours, and the orbit was inclined to the ecliptic by 12 degrees and 10 minutes (an incredible degree of precision). As seen from the Earth, Vulcan’s greatest elongation from the Sun was 8 degrees. Numerous reports—all of them unreliable—began to reach Le Verrier from other amateurs who claimed to have seen unexplained transits. Some of these reports referred to observations made many years earlier, and many could not be properly dated. Nevertheless, Le Verrier continued to tinker with Vulcan’s orbital parameters as each new reported sighting reached him. He frequently announced dates of future Vulcan transits, and when these failed to materialize, he tinkered with the parameters some more.

Among the earlier alleged observers of Vulcan, the following are the most noteworthy:

Capel Lofft reported ‘an opaque body traversing the suns disc’ on 6 January 1818.

Baron Franz von Gruithuisen, on 26 June 1819, reported seeing “two small spots…on the Sun, round, black and unequal in size”

J.W. Pastorff, on 23 October 1822, 24 and 25 July 1823, six times in 1834, on 18 October 1836, 1 November 1836 and on 16 February 1837, also claimed to have seen two spots; the larger was 3 arcseconds across, and the smaller 1.25 arcseconds.

Shortly after 8 o’clock on the morning of 29 January 1860, F. A. R. Russell and three other people saw an alleged transit of an intra-Mercurial planet from London. A US observer, Richard Covington, many years later claimed to have seen a well-defined black spot progress across the Sun’s disk around 1860, when he was stationed in Washington Territory. No “observations” of Vulcan were made in 1861. Then, on the morning of 22 March 1862, between 8 and 9 o’clock GMT another amateur astronomer, a Mr Lummis of Manchester, England, saw a transit. His colleague, whom he alerted, also saw the event. Based on these two men’s reports, two French astronomers, Benjamin Valz and Rodolphe Radau, independently calculated the object’s supposed orbital period, with Valz deriving a figure of 17 days and 13 hours and Radau a figure of 19 days and 22 hours. On 8 May 1865 another French astronomer, Aristide Coumbary, observed an unexpected transit from Istanbul.

Between 1866 and 1878 no reliable observations of the hypothetical planet were made. Then, during the total solar eclipse of 29 July 1878, two experienced astronomers, Professor James Craig Watson, the director of the Ann Arbor Observatory in Michigan, and Lewis Swift, an amateur from Rochester, New York, both claimed to have seen a Vulcan-type planet close to the Sun. Watson, observing from Separation, Wyoming, placed the planet about 2.5 degrees southwest of the Sun and estimated its magnitude at 4.5. Swift, who was observing the eclipse from a location near Denver, Colorado, saw what he took to be an intra-mercurial planet about 3 degrees southwest of the Sun. He estimated its brightness to be the same as that of Theta Cancri, a fifth-magnitude star which was also visible during totality, about 6 or 7 minutes from the “planet.” Theta Cancri and the planet were very nearly in line with the center of the Sun.

Watson and Swift had reputations as excellent observers. Watson had already discovered more than 20 asteroids, while Swift had several comets named after him. Both described the color of their hypothetical intra-mercurial planet as “red”. Watson reported that it had a definite disk—unlike stars, which appear in telescopes as mere points of light—and that its phase indicated that it was approaching superior conjunction.

These are merely the more “reliable observations” of alleged intra-Mercurial planets. For half a century or more, many other observers tried to find the hypothetical Vulcan. Many false alarms were triggered by round sunspots that closely resembled planets in transit. During solar eclipses, stars close to the Sun were mistaken for planets. At one point, to reconcile different observations, at least two intra-mercurial planets were postulated.

In 1877 Le Verrier died, convinced to the end of having discovered another planet. With the loss of its principal proponent, however, the search for Vulcan abated. After many years of searching, astronomers were seriously doubting the planet’s existence. By 1915, Einstein’s theory of relativity, an entirely different approach to understanding gravity from classical, Newtonian mechanics, solved the problem. His equations predicted the observed amount of advance of Mercury’s perihelion precisely, without any recourse to the existence of a hypothetical Vulcan. The new theory modified the predicted orbits of all planets, but the magnitude of the differences from Newtonian theory diminishes rapidly as one gets farther from the Sun. Also, Mercury’s fairly eccentric orbit makes it much easier to detect the perihelion shift than is the case for the nearly circular orbits of Venus and Earth. Case closed. Vulcan does not exist. Someone needs to tell Mr Spock.

It’s a little odd to come up with a recipe to celebrate something that does not exist, but there is a little glimmer. Today is Cream Puff Day in the US. Cream puffs look a little like odd planets, and I used to love them as a boy when women at my church used to make them for “bring a basket” tea parties. Cream filled choux pastry? What’s not to love. In France, cream puffs are called profiteroles and differ only from their Australian/US cousins in being drizzled with chocolate (and sometimes filled with pastry cream rather than whipped cream – like a planet-shaped éclair).  Since Le Verrier was French, profiteroles it is. Actually, I’ve mostly covered choux paste filled with crème pâtissière   here,  The recipe there was more complex, though. Consider this a simplified re-run.



Choux pastry

250ml (8 fl oz) water
125g (4¼ oz) butter
125g (4¼ oz) plain flour
¼ tsp salt
4 eggs


450ml (16 fl oz) double cream
1 tablespoon caster sugar
½ tsp vanilla extract


75g (3 oz) plain chocolate


Preheat oven to 230˚C/450F

In a saucepan over medium heat, bring the water to a boil. Add the butter and stir the mixture as it melts, then return it to the boil. Add the flour and salt all at once and stir vigorously until the mixture forms a ball. Remove from the heat and add the eggs, one at a time, stirring vigorously after each egg is added until you have a smooth dough. Spoon the dough (now choux pastry) in heaped tablespoons, 7cm (2 ¾ in) apart, on a baking tray.

Bake 15 minutes in the preheated oven, then reduce the heat to 160˚C/320˚F and bake for 25 more minutes. DO NOT OPEN THE OVEN DOOR (the profiteroles may collapse if the temperature drops suddenly).

Remove the profiteroles from the oven, split them and remove the soft dough from the center. Turn off the oven, f and return the profiteroles to dry in the cooling oven, for 20 minutes more. Then completely cool them on a wire rack.

Whip the cream with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form. Stir in the vanilla and sugar. Fill the profiteroles with whipped cream.  [At this point you have cream puffs.]

Melt the chocolate in a microwave or in a double boiler. Drizzle the melted chocolate over the tops of the profiteroles. Serve immediately. They do not keep long; the choux pastry softens quickly. They also do not keep long when placed in front of me.

Yield: 12 profiteroles