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How ''Star Trek'' almost died

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The acting was high-cholesterol hambone, the special effects were super-cheesy, and the guy with the pointy ears gave network executives the heebie-jeebies. But when NBC canceled Star Trek 24 years ago this week, it unleashed a backlash as fierce as any interstellar ion storm.

NBC actually tried to cancel Trek three times over its 78-episode run (from Sept. 8, 1966, to June 3, 1969), but each time the show’s outraged fans protested. The network had good reasons for wanting to dry-dock the Enterprise: Despite its clique of rabid followers, Trek never climbed above 50th in the Nielsens, lagging far behind such powerhouse programming as Mr. Terrific and The Tammy Grimes Show. There were also problems with NBC’s Dixie affiliates, which apparently chafed at the ship’s integrated crew; about 20 percent of the network’s Southern and Southwestern stations dropped Trek in favor of the less bold Grand Ole Opry.

Starting in January 1968, when NBC first leaked news that it was considering canceling the show, the network was deluged with more than a million letters from the likes of New York’s Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, Isaac Asimov, and the Andrews School for Girls in Willoughby, Ohio. Their pleas worked: In March NBC announced a reprieve for the crew of the Enterprise.

But by December NBC was hinting at cancellation again; this time the fans’ resistance (including a march by 500 Caltech Trekkies outside NBC’s Burbank studios) didn’t work. In February 1969 the network said it would deep-six the series after the final episode in June (”Turnabout Intruder,” in which Kirk’s body is hijacked by Dr. Janice Lester, an old flame who wants command of her own starship). Trek‘s ”five-year mission” had been cut short by two seasons.

Of course, Trekkers got their revenge big time. In the years since, Star Trek has exploded into an entertainment phenomenon of galactic proportions. Reruns of the original series are still broadcast hundreds of times a day and have been translated into 47 languages. Among its stellar offspring are six feature films, which have earned more than $470 million, and two sequel series, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, currently TV’s top-rated syndicated dramas. Not even Spock could have calculated the odds on a comeback like that.

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