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Why 'Star Trek' Fans Should Thank Lucille Ball of 'I Love Lucy'

Entertainment | September 25, 2019

Left: William Shatner and DeForest Kelley on Star Trek. Right: A cleverly edited image depicting Lucille Ball in a Star Trek uniform (though it's actually Ball's head on Grace Lee Whitney's body). Sources: (IMDB; Pinterest)

Star Trek couldn't have happened without Lucille Ball of I Love Lucy. Though the two shows seem like opposites, they're connected by Desilu Productions, a studio founded by Ball, who believed in the voyages of the starship Enterprise even if the networks didn't.

The next time you’re thinking about how you want to cosplay for Comic Con, instead of going as Captain Kirk or some green-blooded Vulcan, why not dress up as the true savior of Star Trek -- Lucille Ball? That’s right, the five-year mission of the crew aboard the starship Enterprise and its subsequent films, spin-off television shows, games, and whatever else you can think of wouldn’t have existed without the success of I Love Lucy. Ball stood behind this offbeat, thinking person’s science fiction drama even after the production costs spiraled out of control and the initial pilot fell out of orbit at NBC. 

“Star Trek” got a chance because Desilu needed to produce more programming

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Following the end of I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball, and Desi Arnaz used the money they made from the show to purchase RKO Studios next to the Paramount Lot, making Desilu Productions one of the biggest independent production companies of the time. Ball had a knack for sniffing out hits and Desilu quickly put programs like The Andy Griffith Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show into production. 

While searching for more original programming Ball hired Herbert Solow, a producer who was good with ushering in new talent and bringing quirky shows to executives. With Solow’s help, Desiule acquired Mission: Impossible and Star Trek in 1964. 

CBS didn’t want to boldly go where no one had gone before 

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It’s hard to comprehend exactly how much executives disliked Star Trek prior to its release in 1966. Executives felt that the series was too weird and too philosophical to be successful, but Ball liked the concept and got along with Gene Roddenberry so she continued to back the show. Desilu had a longterm working relationship with CBS so that’s where the show was shopped initially, but after they thought it was too expensive Ball and Solow took the show to NBC and the distributor ordered a pilot. Oddly enough, the series has actually ended up back at CBS thanks to the fluctuating nature of distributors, but in ’66 it played on Thursday nights at 8:30 sharp. 

Lucille Ball didn’t get “Star Trek” initially, but that didn’t stop her from championing Roddenberry’s vision

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When Roddenberry first brought Star Trek to Ball she wasn’t exactly sure what the show was about. She didn’t see it as a western in space, but rather a show about traveling USO performers. Even though she didn’t understand the series at all she wanted a chance for the show to get on its feet - even if the cost of the pilot was astronomical. When the board of directors nixed the pilot she overruled them to make sure it was produced. After the first pilot bounced at CBS Ball financially backed the second pilot once again over the objections of her board. She used her considerable clout to get Roddenberry a chance to produce “Where No Man Has Gone Before” at NBC which won the show a 29 episode season.

Ball and Rodenberry were cut from the same cloth

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Why would Ball continue to push for Roddenberry’s sci-fi show when it’s not exactly up her alley? After all, her work has always been geared toward comedy and Star Trek is rarely funny, but that’s not the issue. Star Trek is a series about pushing boundaries and changing the way people think about the patriarchy. Men and women work together for the good of the universe, people of all colors see each other as equals, and aliens from all over are considered old hat; no one looks twice at them. Ball was innovative and it makes sense that she liked shows that took risks, especially when they aligned with her ideals.

Lucy felt that “Star Trek” would clean up in reruns

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I Love Lucy was the first show to be distributed to networks to be played in reruns, Lucy had the foresight to understand that she could continue making money with her work long after she was finished producing material and she wanted to help create programs that had a similar potential to make money long after new episodes ended. She felt that Star Trek shared the same rewatchablitiy as I Love Lucy, which is why she pushed and pushed for the series to go into production. According to Marc Cushman, author of These are the Voyages - TOS: Season One:

Lucy is asking herself, ‘What would Desi do?’ because she really loved and respected him. ‘Desi would get more shows on the air that we own, not just that we’re producing for other companies’ That was her reasoning to do Star Trek — and she felt that this show could, if it caught on, rerun for years like I Love Lucy.

In the end, she was right about Star Trek, not only has the show spun off into a myriad of properties, but the original series is still playing in reruns to this day. 

Lucy sold Desilu to keep the Enterprise flying

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Even though Desilu was making money, Star Trek was losing $15,000 an episode in its first season which isn’t great. Ball believed in the show and she stuck it out as long as she could, but she knew that if she kept producing Star Trek on her own she’d go broke. She didn’t want to but she sacrificed the studio that she and her ex-husband built from the ground up so that Star Trek could live. The sad truth is that if Ball had hung on to the studio until the end of season two she would have turned a bigger profit than the $17 million she made selling Desilu to Gulf + Western, which became Paramount, because of the syndication money. Marc Cushman explained:

She had no choice but to sell. She actually took off and went to Miami. She ran away because it was so heartbreaking to sign the contract. They had to track her down to get her to do it. There’s a picture of her cutting the ribbon after they’ve torn down the wall between Paramount and Desilu, and she’s standing next to the CEO of Gulf and Western, which owns both studios now, and she’s trying to fake this smile for the camera, and you know it’s just killing her.

It’s a sad ending to Ball’s work with the series, but without this goofy redhead Captain Kirk, Spock and the rest of the crew wouldn’t be able to live long and prosper. 

Tags: I Love Lucy | Lucille Ball | Star Trek

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.