Before creating Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry spent the latter half of the ’50s working as a writer-for-hire on a number of TV action-adventure series, then spent the early ’60s trying to get a network to buy one of his own shows. He finally scored in 1963 when NBC picked up The Lieutenant, a different kind of military drama. Set at the Camp Pendleton U.S. Marine base, The Lieutenant stars Gary Lockwood as a young, idealistic training instructor learning how to be a leader while whipping platoons into shape. Rather than real combat, nearly all the battle scenes in The Lieutenant take place during simulated war games, so instead of two-fisted action, Roddenberry and his writers spin plots out of what Marines fret over in peacetime. There are episodes about discipline troubles, flagging morale, romantic jealousy, disputes between the troops, and accidental deaths. All these stories are really about the same thing: what it takes for someone as green as Lockwood to convince men about his same age (and even older) that he knows what he’s doing.
The 29 episodes on the two The Lieutenant: The Complete Series sets (sold separately) feature some impressive guest stars, like Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, and Rip Torn, along with early appearances by future Star Trek crew-members Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, and Leonard Nimoy. In that company, Lockwood is frequently overmatched, looking stiff and tentative as he makes his way through complicated moral dilemmas, mostly having to do with the peculiarly dehumanizing culture of Marine life. It doesn’t help that Lockwood is being watched in nearly every episode by Robert Vaughn, who plays his superior officer/mentor and usually pops up in the first and last act to assess how Lockwood is doing. It creates the sense that the audience isn’t watching the real hero of the story, but a loosely controlled puppet.
But the situations Lockwood faces are fascinating, especially given the era when this show was on the air: immediately following President Kennedy’s assassination, and just before the escalation of the war in Vietnam. (In the series finale, “To Kill A Man,” Lockwood actually deploys to Vietnam on a mission.) Roddenberry tried to deal with specific issues like racism—sometimes ham-fistedly—along with the more generalized question of whether a man can subordinate himself to a cause without losing himself. Along the way, Roddenberry battled with the network about the more issue-driven content of The Lieutenant, such that—like Rod Serling before him—he decided he’d be better off handling hot-button issues in the more abstracted medium of science fiction. And perhaps Roddenberry learned something else from his Lieutenant experience: that he needed a lead with more assurance and charisma. Exit Lockwood’s character, William Tiberius Rice; enter James Tiberius Kirk.
Key features: The final episode of the series was expanded to feature-length and distributed overseas; that movie version is included here.