Star Trek is one of the most successful entertainment franchises today. But do you know that the original Star Trek series that birthed Gene Roddenberry’s ever-expanding fictional universe ran for only three seasons? Yes, Star Trek: The Original Series was cancelled by NBC after its third season. And if you’re wondering how the show ended up on the chopping block, below were all the known factors that led to its ultimate demise.
Middling viewership ratings
Ever since its debut on September 8th, 1966, Star Trek: The Original Series had never been a ratings standout. Unlike other shows at the time, which were mostly focused on entertainment, series creator Gene Roddenberry chose to highlight sociopolitical issues in Star Trek. As a result of which, the television series attracted a younger, more educated audience. Unfortunately for NBC, the show frequently ranked third during its time slot, which was already alarming at the time, because there were only three major broadcast networks (NBC, ABC, and CBS) during the 1960s.
Despite the show’s middling first-season rating, NBC opted to renew Star Trek: The Original Series for a second season.
Time slot change
Although Star Trek: The Original Series was renewed for a second season, the network put the show to a more challenging day. From airing every Thursday at 8:30 p.m. during its freshman run, the show was transferred to Friday nights for season 2. Since young audiences were usually out of the house on Friday nights, the TV series struggled to retain its average viewers.
Partly because of this, NBC considered cancelling Star Trek after its sophomore run, but after a massive fan letter-writing campaign, which directed more than 100,000 letters to NBC executives, the network decided to pick up the series for a season 3.
In response to the successful fan campaign, NBC even announced the show’s season 3 renewal on the air with a brief voiceover statement at the end of the March 1st, 1968 episode, The Omega Glory.
Things seemed to go smoothly after the season 3 renewal. Roddenberry even managed to secure a 7:30 p.m. Monday night slot for the show’s new season, which was a huge upgrade from season 2’s 8:30 p.m. Friday night slot. But nothing’s permanent in Hollywood.
Comedy sketch series Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In became an unexpected hit for NBC on Monday nights at 8:00 p.m., and the producer of that program refused to start the show a half hour later, even threatening to take it to another network. Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In was getting better advertising rates per minute than Star Trek, so NBC ended up not giving the 7:30 p.m. Monday night slot to the latter.
“Gene, baby…” — those were the first two words Roddenberry heard when he got a call from NBC exec Mort Werner one morning informing him that Star Trek season 3 will air on Friday nights at 10 p.m., a.k.a. the “death slot.”
“Are you mad?,” Roddenberry frustratingly told Werner over the phone, according to David Gerrold’s seminal book The World of Star Trek. Right then and there, Roddenberry reportedly knew that NBC was getting rid of the show.
As if the dismal time slot was not already a big problem, the production budget for Star Trek: The Original Series was also cut by $10,000 per episode for season 3, leaving little room for location shooting, even as NBC itself demanded not to constrain the story inside the ship and let Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and his crew beam down to more planets. Obviously, the budget cut contributed to the poorer quality of the show’s third season compared to the first two seasons.
There was also a shortage of talented creatives during the third and final season of Star Trek: The Original Series. Producer Gene L. Coon, who was considered by many as the person most responsible for the show’s success after Roddenberry, had excited the series late in the second season. His replacement, John Meredyth Lucas, also left the series, along with legendary story editor and writer D.C. Fontana.
Even Roddenbery himself decided to step back from day-to-day producing and writing of the show right after he felt blindsided by the sudden time slot change prior to the season 3 premiere.
“It got to the point where I couldn’t bear another moment,” Roddenbery said about his battles with NBC in Marc Cushman’s book These Are the Voyages: Season Three. “People like that wear you down to that degree. Not that they ever took the fight out of me, but the constant battles did erode away my ability to be diplomatic. After the double cross that happened at the outset of the third season, there was no hiding my feelings anymore.”
Although Roddenberry still served as an executive producer in the show’s third season, his previous showrunner role was given to Fred Freiberger, a veteran TV writer-producer whose credits include The Wild, Wild West, Ben Casey, and many more.
Freibeiger was experienced at writing and producing TV shows on time and on budget, but he had a fundamentally different mindset toward Star Trek than previous creatives on the show like Coon and Fontana.
“Fred Freiberger had no idea what he was doing,” shared Star Trek actor James Doohan (Montgomery “Scotty” Scott) in These Are the Voyages: Season Three. “He was just a line producer, suddenly handed creative control over a show that was like nothing else on television.”
When was Star Trek: The Original Series cancelled?
Because of the time slot change, the budget cut, and the diaspora of talented creatives behind the scenes, the ratings of Star Trek: The Original Series continued to drop during its third season. When the show was noticeably absent from the network’s new programming schedule for the 1969-1970 season, NBC announced its ultimate decision to cancel Star Trek after season 3. on February 18th, 1969.
Of course, NBC’s cancellation of Star Trek: The Original Series was not the end of the franchise. Later in 1969, the show entered syndication, where many viewers saw it for the first time. Surprisingly, the series performed better in its syndicated time slots, resulting in its fan base swelling by 1972. The show’s success in syndication also gave way to Star Trek: The Animated Series.
A revival series titled Star Trek: Phase II was planned for the mid-1970s, but the success of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope in 1977 saw that project eventually evolve into Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the first of what would be six feature films to feature the cast of Star Trek: The Original Series.
After Star Trek: The Next Generation took the franchise to new levels of popularity during the ‘80s and ‘90s, Star Trek became a permanent fixture of pop culture, with multiple spinoff series and movies being released almost every year.
Was the original Star Trek a failure?
Although Star Trek: The Original Series was not a commercial success during its original run on NBC from 1966 to 1969, the science fiction show has since become one of the most popular and influential television series of all time. Its progressive social commentary, optimistic vision of the future, and its diverse cast of characters have resulted in several successful spinoff series and movies that continue to entertain and inspire its devoted fan base all over the world.
Where to watch Star Trek: The Original Series
All three seasons of Star Trek: The Original Series are streaming on Paramount+.