Primary Color Uniforms, Yellow Badges — Why Does Early Color TV Look So Goofy?

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Photo by Diego González on Unsplash

This article was triggered by a conversation on Tumblr about the fact that Spock wears science blue, not command gold.

The iconic images of Star Trek include the primary color uniforms (blue, yellow, red). And another image circulating on Tumblr shows Kirk in front of a graduated background that resembles the bi pride flag. With appropriate jokes.

So, why are the colors in 1960s television so…well…campy? It’s not actually because of early color technology.

There’s another reason.

That Infamous Addams Family Set

So, let’s go back a little further. Go take a visit to this article and then come back.

Photos of the Addams Family set went viral a few years back as it came out that the archetypal gothic house was in fact…pink and gold.

The reason was that bright colors created additional contrast and made the set look good in black and white. (Is this connected to bizarre rumors that Mr. Ed, the famous talking horse, was in fact a zebra?)

And this was common…we just like to point to Addams Family because, well. Ya know. The jokes write themselves.

But what does this have to do with Star Trek, which was filmed in color?

A lot more than younger folk think.

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Photo by Stefan Cosma on Unsplash

Watching Star Trek in my Bedroom

I’m a 1973 model. Star Trek was well into reruns by the time I saw it. And I loved it. I will honestly say it influenced me not just as a fan or a writer, but as a person.

I was addicted to Star Trek as a child. My parents…not so much (my dad is a long time Doctor Who fan and there were quite a few things we watched together, but Star Trek does not appear to be one of them).

Because of that I had to watch and rewatch it upstairs in my bedroom on the second television set.

We weren’t poor, but we weren’t rich either. So, we had the main living room television.

Then we had my television, which was the one that had been in the living room before it was upgraded.

I think you get where this is going.

My television was black and white. I eventually got a color one…when the living room telly developed a fault that required percussive maintenance every time it turned on. Guess who got the faulty TV…

I watched Star Trek in about 1980, 1981 on a black and white television. (In fact, in 2017, there were still 8,000 black and white sets in active use in the UK).

And that was in 1980.

In 1966, when Star Trek was filmed, color TV broadcasts were only 13 years old. Most broadcasts were still in black and white until 1965. 1966 was the year TV went color.

So, think about that for a moment and you’ll realize a simple fact:

In 1966, a lot of people still had black and white sets. Color sets were still expensive. Color sets were like having one of those 60" HDTV sets. They were for rich people.

When Star Trek was filmed, they knew that a lot of the audience would be watching in black and white. The set colors, the primary color uniforms, were all chosen to look good in both color and black and white. I’m linking this blog post for the picture. Not only does everyone stand out quite nicely, but you can almost tell what color they are.

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Photo by aj_aaaab on Unsplash

Ah, but Can you Prove It?

Not really. I haven’t asked anyone what was going through their minds, but it makes logical sense.

To provide more evidence, I’m going to go down a siding to another, somewhat less famous, 1960s TV show.

Specifically, let’s pay a visit to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (I have feels about the recent movie remake. Some good, some very much not good).

This show ran from 1964 to 1968, so it started a bit earlier than Star Trek. (If you haven’t seen it and the idea of campy spy-fi appeals, check it out).


Most broadcasts were still in black and white until 1965…and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was no exception.

The first season of the show was in black and white. The second and subsequent were in color.

Here’s a clip from the first season. Pay particular attention to the large triangles clipped to their jackets (These are security badges that appear to be attached to a real time tracking system, one of several things which demonstrate that the show should be considered science fiction!)

They look pretty good.

Now, let’s go visit the second season. (Actually, this is the opener).

Same badges.

Do they look good now? No! They look insanely goofy.

Because the show started in black and white, everything was chosen to look good in black and white…and then a lot appears not to have been replaced when the color cameras show up. You can see pink and gold sets in a few places too.

I rest my case.

Early color TV looks goofy because studios cared about the people still watching in black and white. Or in some cases because they didn’t want to make new props…

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Freelance writer, freelance editor, novelist and short story writer. Jack of many trades.

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