Where No Man (or Elevator Cab) Has Gone Before

Figure 1: Matt Jefferies, original design for turbo-lift car interior; screenshot from Star Trek: The Original Series, 2015 DVD © Paramount Pictures Corp. and CBS Studios

This month’s History column investigates the “futuristic” elevator cabs in Star Trek: The Original Series.

On September 8, 1966, the U.S. TV-viewing public tuned in to NBC to watch a new science-fiction series: Star Trek. It is safe to assume that no one watching the inaugural broadcast could have imagined the cultural impact of this program and its progeny. It may also be safe to assume that when, 15 min. into the first episode, Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Commander Spock exited the bridge, the public (and members of the vertical-transportation industry) had their first glimpse of an elevator on a spaceship. While the elevator system found on the Starship Enterprise is worthy of a detailed examination (and will be the subject of a future article), viewers’ experience of this technology was primarily limited to the elevator cab. Thus, this initial foray into the world of Star Trek elevators will focus on the cab design.

Star Trek was the inspired creation of TV writer and producer Eugene Wesley “Gene” Roddenberry (1921-1991). He established the imaginative and intellectual parameters of the series and provided the vision for the Enterprise. Art director and set designer Walter M. “Matt” Jefferies (1921-2003) was charged with translating Roddenberry’s vision into TV “reality.” Both men served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II: Roddenberry was a B-17 pilot in the Pacific, and Jefferies was a B-17 copilot in North Africa and Europe. During the pre- and postwar eras, the creative duo also witnessed the transition from operator-driven elevators to modern operator-less systems. The artistic impact of their shared experiences — flying one of the most sophisticated planes of its time and riding old and new elevators — is open to speculation. And yet, it is tempting to imagine the B-17’s aeronautical operational complexity conceptually blending with their awareness of contemporary elevator technologies and this synthesis informing the design of what eventually became known as a “turbo-lift.”

The examination of a technological device “invented” for use in a TV program raises a host of questions including, but not limited to, its intended use as a stage prop. In 1968, Roddenberry described the inspiration behind – and the dramatic need for – a unique elevator system:

“Obviously, efficient movement around such a large vessel requires mechanical assistance. This is provided by the ship’s turbo-elevators. These high-speed lifts run both horizontally and vertically. TV story needs first made the turbo-elevators necessary. An action-adventure television show must move at a fast, dramatic pace. And it became obvious in the first few episodes that this could be no mere ‘elevator’ — our characters had to get places horizontally just as fast. Once again, story needs resulted in a concept that was not only logical, but necessary in a vessel of this size.”[1]

In his directions to writers and directors, Roddenberry also provided a critical additional operational insight into his vision for the Enterprise turbo-lifts. In reference to the standing (permanent) sets, which included the elevator cab, he noted, “All through the ship are turbo-lifts, which can be programmed for lateral and/or vertical movement. One can reach most any section aboard by activating its control vocally.”[2] These cues informed Jefferies’ turbo-lift cab design.

In fact, Jefferies produced two designs. Two Star Trek pilot programs were produced in the Desilu Production studios in Culver City, California. (Studio executives had rejected the first pilot.) After the series was approved for production, it was moved to the Desilu studios in Hollywood. (Desilu Productions became Paramount Television in 1977). This move necessitated the dismantling of the sets used for the pilots and their reassembly in Hollywood. This process permitted the redesign of various set elements, including the turbo-lift cab. Jefferies’ initial cab design (seen in the pilot episodes) featured a circular plan, a motion-indicator panel, and an open mesh roof (evident in the shadow pattern in Figure 1). The motion-indicator panel, seen on the wall between Kirk and Spock, featured “shadow bars” that moved vertically or horizontally in the lighted panel, thus indicating the direction the car was moving. This feature appears to have been used to give the appearance of movement and emphasize the elevator’s operational speed.

By the time the sets where reassembled in Hollywood, Jefferies had redesigned the cab. A more-or-less heptagonal (seven-sided) or polygonal configuration replaced the circular plan. The indicator panel remained, although it was now positioned at the rear of the cab, opposite the door. The flat planar walls also incorporated a new feature: each panel included a controller with a projecting cylindrical “handle.” The design origins of this device are unknown. Although Roddenberry had established the “fact” that turbo-lift passengers could access “most any section aboard by activating its control vocally,” Jefferies apparently felt that the program’s characters needed to be more actively engaged in the elevator’s operation. Thus, when a passenger entered the cab, they first grasped the cylindrical handle, turned it clockwise (an action that switched on a white light in the control box), then gave a voice command directing the elevator to its destination (Figure 2). A passenger would return the handle to its original position upon exiting. It’s possible that Jefferies was (consciously or not) inspired by hand-controllers found in old operator-driven elevators. This might explain the why, in most cases, when more than one passenger entered a cab, at least one person grasped a handle throughout the cab’s journey from start to stop. However, this does not explain why, in other instances, all the passengers held onto handles while the cab was moving (Figure 3).

While hoping to find operational logic in a TV program may be the very definition of a “fool’s errand,” Roddenberry’s commitment to science fiction, rather than fantasy, makes the expectation of finding such logic seem, perhaps, slightly more reasonable.

Attempting to chronicle the elevator system’s initial operational characteristics by watching Star Trek episodes reveals another, somewhat illogical, aspect of TV productions. Most series employ two identification codes for each episode: a production code (indicating when the episode was filmed) and a broadcast code (indicating when the episode aired). Although there are many instances in which programs are broadcast in the order they are produced, there are as many exceptions to this rule. For example, the second pilot to be filmed (the one that convinced the studio to make the series) was not the first episode aired. The first episode broadcast was the sixth in terms of production, while the pilot was broadcast third. Thus, to trace the use pattern and development of the turbo-lift, episodes must be watched according to their production code.

The research for this article involved watching the first nine episodes of season one, noting all elevator appearances (by time stamp on the DVD) and carefully recording the physical and operational characteristics observed. (This somewhat obsessive-compulsive activity will be completed for the remaining 70 episodes at a future date, in conjunction with an article on the entire elevator system.) While this data revealed some operational inconsistencies, such as those noted above, the overall use was remarkably consistent. Additional features of the cab observed through this process included the door operation and the presence of a small communication panel. The latter was located above a red light (the function of which is unknown at this time) and a white button used to turn the system on and off (Figure 4). The doors were a classic example of TV production stagecraft: all sliding doors on the Enterprise set were operated by stagehands pushing and pulling the doors when they opened and closed. This may account for the fact that only once in the first nine episodes are two sets of doors — one for the car and one for the shaft — clearly visible (Figure 5). Most of the time, only one pair of doors is seen. It is, however, worth noting that because of the highly synchronized action of modern elevator doors, most passengers simply perceive that the elevator doors open and close, with no overt distinction between car and shaft doors.

In conclusion, it should be noted that I am, in fact, not a “Trekkie” — a fan obsessed with the original series of Star Trek. My true obsession — and passion — is evident to those who have read my articles over the years. I am delighted to be the elevator (and escalator and moving-walk) historian. In pursuit of these subjects, I have, in addition to reading a mountain of technical material, watched movies, read murder mysteries, listened to songs and played with toys. I can now add to this list of research activities watching episodes of a classic science-fiction TV series. I have the best job in the world.

[1] Stephen E. Whitfield & Gene Roddenberry. The Making of Star Trek (New York: Ballantine Books, 1968), p. 192-193.
[2] Star Trek Writers/Directors Guide, Third Revision (Paramount TV Production: April 17, 1967).

Dr. Lee Gray, professor of Architectural History and senior associate dean of the College of Arts + Architecture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has written more than 200 monthly articles on the history of vertical transportation (VT) for ELEVATOR WORLD since 2003. He is also the author of From Ascending Rooms to Express Elevators: A History of the Passenger Elevator in the 19th Century. He also serves as curator of theelevatormuseum.org, created by Elevator World, Inc.

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