50 Years Ago: The Final Episode of ‘Star Trek’ Airs
Summing up NBC’s bemusement at the success of Star Trek's original series, the final new episode that aired on June 3, 1969, was shrouded in disappointment.
“Turnabout Intruder” had been intended for broadcast on March 28 of that year, as the 24th and last part of the show’s third season. However, the death of former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had forced a change in schedule. As a result, the 79th episode was tagged on to the start of a series of reruns.
Ironically, it was more likely to have been seen by its target audience on its new date, being aired at 7.30PM on a Tuesday. Season 3 had been hampered by a move to 10PM on Fridays, a decision that helped speed the show to its grave. And that appears to have been how NBC wanted it – a famous letter campaign had saved Star Trek from cancellation after Season 2, with the network saying it received 116,000 letters while estimates suggest it may have been a million or more. Yet NBC had slashed the show’s production budget, screened it on fewer of its affiliates, and left creator Gene Roddenberry in a position where he seemed not to care anymore. That all paved the way for what many felt was a lackluster final season.
“While NBC paid lip service to expanding Star Trek's audience, it slashed our production budget until it was actually ten percent lower than it had been in our first season,” Nichelle Nicholls, who played Comms Officer Uhura, said in 1994. “This is why in the third season you saw fewer outdoor location shots, for example. Top writers, top guest stars, top anything you needed was harder to come by. Thus, Star Trek's demise became a self-fulfilling prophecy. And I can assure you, that is exactly as it was meant to be.”
In his 2015 book These Are the Voyages: TOS Season 3, Marc Cushman reported that NBC had in fact wanted to air the season at 7.30PM on Tuesdays, but that would have involved triggering a penalty clause in comedian Jerry Lewis’s contract since his show had the slot. Realizing the figures didn’t add up, and that Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In made more financial sense to take the Monday-night slot, the network chose comedy over science fiction; and once that decision was made, it was a case of minimizing the financial risk on Star Trek’s final voyages.
Nevertheless, the Season 3 opener “Spock’s Brain” (the first to feature blue title credits instead of yellow) had been top in the Friday time slot and several further episodes came second. The next major problem was the significant decline in story quality; even though new producer Fred Frieburger’s attempts to pursue deeper and more thought-provoking issues, he found himself stuck between NBC’s conservative values and a series of decisions taken by Roddenberry that appeared to be a result of his bad feeling about the loss of a prime broadcast slot.
“I thought the worst experience of my life was when I was shot down over Nazi Germany,” Freiberger said in 1991. “A Jewish boy from the Bronx parachuted in to the middle of 80 million Nazis. Then I joined Star Trek. I was only in a prison camp for two years, but my travail with Star Trek has lasted 25 years ... and counting.”
In reaction to the increasingly negative feeling, leading members of the cast found themselves in increasing disagreement -- not for the first time. While Leonard Nimoy frequently engaged in arguments with the writers over how his character Spock was being developed, William Shatner, playing Captain James T. Kirk, appeared to want to redirect large portions of the plots.
“Leonard was more interested in [protecting] the character of Spock; I think Bill was more interested in the series,” James Doohan, who played Chief Engineer Scott said later. Cushman wrote that Doohan was the only person who genuinely thought Star Trek would get a fourth season, and couldn’t believe that “such a smart, well-done show would be pulled off the air.”
“Turnabout Intruder” doesn’t always appear in the list of worst episodes, but it doesn't appear in many lists of the best either. Plotted by Roddenberry and written by Arthur Singer (the new script editor who was described as being “bemused” by the series), it tells the story of a reunion between Kirk and former lover Dr. Janice Lester (Sandra Smith), who appears to be suffering from radiation sickness after being rescued from an archaeological expedition to the planet Camus II. Using an ancient machine discovered there, Lester swaps bodies with Kirk and attempts to take over the USS Enterprise. While the swap becomes unstable, the crew become gradually more suspicious of their apparent captain’s behavior which Kirk, in the body of Lester, attempts to persuade his friends of his real identity and retake his command and his body.
Critics cite Shatner’s poor acting as he plays the role of a woman, overacting moments of doubt and insecurity. They also argue that Lester’s unhinged character appeared to suggest that women were incapable of commanding a starship and therefore carries a misogynistic message. Defenders, on the other hand, say that Lester’s behavior is down to what’s happened to her and is not simply a consequence of gender, and also say that the idea that men and women could exchange bodies is actually a strongly equalist concept. Regardless, the combination of weak writing, low budget and unhappy production team render “Turnabout Intruder” far less satisfying than it could have been, and it’s a watered-down way to end the original series run.
In 2018, Shatner looked back at the negative experience of the third season. “"We were being canceled every year. … They were canceling, and they weren't canceling,” he said. “The third year, we limped along Friday nights.”
Once it was over, he and most of his colleagues struggled to find work, and he wound up traveling the U.S. staging his own performances. “I had a truck," he recalled. "I put a cab on the back of the truck, took my dog and I drove across the country. I toured these 13 weeks, lived in the back of the thing. I did star in Star Trek, and I was living in the back of a truck!”
“There are a lot of people in the sciences who will tell you that it was Star Trek that got them interested in science,” Nimoy said in 2006. “I think that's one of the things that people sort of take for granted and don't take particular note of.” However, he admitted, “it was a struggle. I thought we were doing some good and interesting work, but it was a struggle. ... I don't like to point a finger, but I don't think the network really understood what they had.”
Of course, it wasn’t over. A total of 79 episodes was just about enough to make the series attractive for syndication; and within a year, as Star Trek was aired in various time slots and attracted new audiences, NBC finally understood what it had. After many of those vocal fans began organizing conventions, the network responded with the animated series, followed by the development of the live-action show Star Trek: Phase Two – which eventually became Star Trek: The Motion Picture and created its own problems for the future of the franchise.