Early episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series required dumpster diving

From trash to Trek.

Everett Collection

Star Trek is such a massive pop culture phenomenon these days. New Trek shows get millions of dollars poured into creating glossy, futuristic sets, hiring A-list actors, and elaborate, beautifully designed alien makeup. It's hard to remember sometimes that when Star Trek first started, it was stretching the limits of its original budget. Not only that, but some studio heads were unsure that this wacky show about aliens and humans coexisting and traversing space would even last a season.

One of the toughest obstacles in those early days, budget-wise, was the sets. Gene Roddenberry, after all, wanted to really create a universe that felt as vast and different as life itself. That isn't exactly an easy order. 

In William Shatner's book Star Trek Memories, he describes the blood, sweat, and tears that went into making that vision a reality. "Once Jefferies [Star Trek art director] had finished describing the basic 'look' he was after, it was up to our set decorators to go out and dig up the appropriate trappings," Shatner wrote. "This is a tough job on any series, but when you take into consideration the fact that Star Trek created whole new sets every week, that our budget was minuscule, and that each of these sets had to believably reflect the premise that we were a hundred million light-years away from the nearest furniture store, it became a giant headache."

These set decorators, Shatner explains, would "spend the better part of each day digging through musty thrift shops, plastic mills, army surplus warehouses, local junkyards and the entire Desilu lot in search of the unusual appointments that our set demanded."

When those didn't turn up the perfect item for a deserted planet or bizarre alien dwelling, "it was not at all uncommon to find [the] crew rummaging through the Desilu trash bins, looking for anything that might prove useful."

These useful items, Shatner explains, included odd plywood shapes discarded by other sets, discarded fabric scraps, sheet metal remnants, and the large tubes that fabric came wrapped around, all of which were frequently repurposed for Star Trek sets.

"I can remember standing around the studio lot when all of a sudden you'd hear this loud, gleeful yelp rising up out of a Desilu dumpster. If you were to look inside the thing, you'd find [set decorators] Biddiscombe, March and a couple of assistants smiling and congratulating each other as if they'd struck gold instead of garbage."

Shatner recalls set decorator Marvin March yelling "Alright! Paint those whatchamacallits purple! We'll hang 'em on the wall and make them look like... something. Doesn't matter what they are, so long as they look weird."

Star Trek: Recycling before it was cool.

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26 Comments

rb5391 8 months ago
greatest show ever conceived and executed to perfection...
WonderGeorge 8 months ago
The fact that the crew at "Star Trek" did, indeed, go to these lengths to find and make suitable props just shows that one person's trash is another person's treasure.
LalaLucy 9 months ago
( One raised eyebrow a la Spock) Fascinating.
Avie 9 months ago
"'Once Jefferies [Star Trek art director] had finished describing the basic 'look' he was after, it was up to our set decorators to go out and dig up the appropriate trappings,' Shatner wrote."

That's art director MATT Jefferies.
osimj 9 months ago
Necessity was the mother of invention.
So they did what they could to make up different new stuff 😊
JJ614 9 months ago
To me, the absolute worst was the futuristic, state-of-the-art sickbay, with shelves lined up with 10 cent spray bottles out of someone's car trunk. Which....had no purpose whatsoever but to take up space.
MichaelPowers 9 months ago
Someone once said that having excessive amounts of $$$ can be the enemy of art. Some of those props recycled by Star Trek for their show came from objects tossed out after being used by their sister show Mission: Impossible which was also filmed on the iconic Desilu Studios lot.
Fishbassist 9 months ago
You know, there is sense of recency bias when it comes to TOS, the idea that it was on a shoestring budget based on the aesthetics compared to today. But, for its time, it was one of the most expensive tv shows ever made and a pioneer in VFX, particularly in model making and blue screen compositing. It just wasn’t toys hanging on wires in front of a projection. In a nutshell, we wouldn’t have had the amazing outer space shots of Star Wars if the effects artists of Trek didn’t do it first. And I say this as a diehard Star Wars fan.
Echaney54 Fishbassist 8 months ago
I was with you until that last sentence, I literally just said to my son, while he was flipping through the television for something to watch and landing on a Star Wars movie, I don't wanna watch that crap.
megabuttons 9 months ago
A friend's father owned a company that made ball bearings, among other related small hardware. One day he got a letter from Hollywood requesting some samples of assorted parts. Decades later, he was in the Smithsonian where they had a Star Trek exhibit. He saw the phaser prototype and said, "that's my parts!" They cobbled the parts he sent (with some others) into the first phaser.
PhilK 9 months ago
Dumpster diving is also where they found some of the actors.
Jup2com 9 months ago
Talk about coming full circle. Probably The Greatest Hollywood (Post Production) "Dumpster Diver" of them all, the Late, Great Greg Jein (R.I.P.). Infamous for saving many historic tv props from the studio dumpsters back in the 70s and 80's. What remains of his mammoth collections is going up for auction next month at Heritage. https://entertainment.ha.com/c/auction-home.zx?saleNo=7278




Sure was tough being a studio prop back in those days! lol
Runeshaper 9 months ago
That is funny and interesting! Thanks for sharing, MeTV!
Snickers 9 months ago
Hard to believe a series that rakes in millions of dollars now had to dumpster dive to find useful items for the show back then.
LoveMETV22 9 months ago
Pacificsun LoveMETV22 9 months ago
This is a GOOD one!!

So far it earns the MeTV Avatar's Best Use of Photoshop!
Pacificsun LoveMETV22 9 months ago
Oh sorry, extra points for the .gif insert!!
LoveMETV22 Pacificsun 9 months ago
Aww shucks! All for fun, well I have fun when a picture looks like a caption would go with it.
Andybandit 9 months ago
It must have been fun dumpster diving.
CaptainDunsel 9 months ago
Where do you get wall art and bric-a-brac for a house on a far-off asteroid, when there's no Pier-One around? A Desilu Dumpster, of course!
LoveMETV22 CaptainDunsel 9 months ago
I guess they don't have luxuries such as Pier One on asteroids....Maybe that's common?

Pacificsun CaptainDunsel 9 months ago
Good point, though if you don't have a lot to do on your days off in space. I imagine you turn into an artist like Marla.

What fascinated me more, and obviously the set decorators too. Was the curious object brought to the viewers attention in Mirror, Mirror. (I mean more than Marlena's most elegant use of it). Can anyone guess what it was, or name how many times it appeared in different episodes?

MeTV should build a quiz around the props, alone!
Moverfan LoveMETV22 9 months ago
You'd probably be more likely to find Bed, Bath & WAY Beyond.
.
Pacificsun 9 months ago
Great story!! Anecdotes were included in several of the original "Making of ST Books." Becoming like Bibles to original fans of the day. Helping to make almost any wannabe legit. Now it seems author Bill Shatner expanded the stories using even more details! Hard to remember now, how fascinating everything looked then. Because the Production was always wise and careful to keep the focus on storytelling. After a while you don't even think about the props, but certainly keeps TOS the most charming and fun to re-watch. My favorite has always been the red Bubblewrap used for Kirk's spacesuit in the Tholian Web. They must've been really overbudget 𝒕𝒉𝒂𝒕 week!!!
LoveMETV22 9 months ago
That was a fun story. They did a good job, even if they were limited on the prop budget.
Pacificsun LoveMETV22 9 months ago
Most know that one of the gadgets Bones used to diagnose a patient was a salt shaker.

How they animated so many of them, deserves an additional article!!
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