Gene Roddenberry at 100: The ‘Star Trek’ Creator Imagined a Glorious Future — and Our Fraught Present

Gene Roddenberry at 100: The ‘Star Trek’ Creator Imagined a Glorious Future — and Our Fraught Present

August 19, 2021

The 23rd Century feels like it’s further away than ever.

If you’re a “Star Trek” fan, the future it presents has always been part of its appeal: that humanity will unite as one while celebrating our differences, put war and hatred and discrimination and poverty behind us, and dedicate our lives to bettering ourselves through discovery among the stars. This has never been just another sci-fi franchise. “Star Trek” came with its own philosophy, and its particular optimism right now may feel less suited for sci-fi than fantasy.

But Gene Roddenberry, the late “Star Trek” creator who was born 100 years ago on August 19, imagined our terrible present, too. Before he died in 1991 at age 70, he went about diagnosing the ills of contemporary life with a candor uncommon to Hollywood franchise builders usually averse to courting controversy.

“‘Star Trek’ proves the much-maligned common man and common woman are ready for the 23rd century now,” Roddenberry once said. “And they are light years ahead of their petty governments and visionless leaders.”

Cue the PR department’s freakout. But that iconoclasm is what Rod Roddenberry, Gene’s son, celebrates over the course of this year with his new initiative thinkTREK, which aims to inspire people to incorporate the philosophy of his father into their lives. Rod loves that particular quote so much he finishes it for me verbatim when I start delivering it over the phone. And every day on social media, he’s presenting a different celebrity — Ming-Na Wen, Rosario Dawson, Whoopi Goldberg — reciting one of his dad’s quotes.

Here’s one of them: “I believe in humanity. We are an incredible species. We’re still just a child creature, we’re still being nasty to each other. And all children go through those phases. We’re growing up, we’re moving into adolescence now. When we grow up — man, we’re going to be something!”

Sometimes, it seems like our species is made up entirely of Peter Pans: we never want to grow up. To Roddenberry, having belief in what humanity can be didn’t mean being naïve about what humanity often is, and imagining a better future means addressing the wrongs of the present.

Majel Barrett Roddenberry, who played Nurse Chapel on “The Original Series” and Lwaxana Troi on “The Next Generation,” with her husband

Courtesy Everett Collection

“Even coming from the optimistic Roddenberry family, sometimes, looking around, it’s hard to see the optimism,” Rod said. “People want the world to be a better place, but sadly, whether it’s government or large industry, people are not looking toward the future. They’re looking how to benefit right now.”

In fact, before the glorious future of Kirk, Picard, Starfleet, and the Federation, Rod’s father imagined an absolutely horrible 21st century, one even worse than our own, at least so far: It culminates with World War III in 2026, obliterating 600 million lives in a nuclear cataclysm. The global order devolves into a patchwork of warlords who mete out swift justice in kangaroo courts. One genocidal madman, a Col. Green — a character Gene created for “The Original Series” in 1969 — is hellbent on killing all those suffering from radiation poisoning following the fallout. On “The Next Generation,” Picard even says that Earth remained in chaos until the early 22nd century. The way things are going in our world, that seems about right.

The optimism that Gene Roddenberry then had for how humanity could become, well, more human — at least by the 23rd century — was no product of a sheltered life. Far from it. He flew 89 combat missions as the pilot of a B-17 bomber over Guadalcanal and the other Solomon Islands during World War II. As third officer of Pan Am Flight 121, journeying from Karachi to Istanbul, he had to take charge after the plane crashed in the Syrian desert, killing 15 of the 36 people onboard. With two broken ribs, he helped pull survivors from the wreckage. The last one died in his arms. Then, following in his father’s footsteps, he joined the LAPD — and got the idea that writing could be a full-time career. Selling stories from the beat to TV cop shows of the day, such as “Highway Patrol,” he got his foot in the door of Hollywood.

“I do think it shows that someone who traveled the world, met other cultures, fought in wars, had to deal with authority and chain of command, probably means he ran into a lot of ethical issues and situations where he probably didn’t agree with what he was forced to do,” Rod says. The moral dilemmas and issue-driven topics of “Star Trek” are a natural outgrowth of that life experience. “Then, he was able to look into the future and say, ‘Based on what I’ve seen in my life, I know what we can be and what we’re capable of, so let’s try to imagine a future where we are those people.’”

Rod Roddenberry at a recent “Star Trek” convention.

“Star Trek” has been many things throughout its 55 years, but it remains celebrated certainly for the anti-racism of its “Original Series” run from 1966 to 1969, which presented the first kiss on U.S. television between a white man (William Shatner) and Black woman (Nichelle Nichols). The very idea of Nichols’ Uhura being a senior bridge officer on the Enterprise was radical in 1966, and when the actress thought about leaving the show, Martin Luther King Jr. himself told her that her role was representation so valuable she should stay.

“I think the ideas my father presented in the ‘60s were significant then, and perhaps even more significant now,” Rod said.

It’s a sentiment shared by millions of “Star Trek” fans — and one that’s led to many debating for the past so many decades whether whatever “Star Trek” is being made at the moment lives up to Gene’s vision. We know he disliked the movies made, largely out of his control, after 1979’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” which was his baby. “He’d write a scathing letter to the producers [of the subsequent films] and explain all the reasons why they were wrong,” Rod said, but he’s surprised by the story in Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman’s “The Fifty-Year Mission” that his father supposedly hated the idea of Spock’s death so much in “The Wrath of Khan” that he leaked the film’s script. That’s one Rod hadn’t heard before, but “I can’t for certain say he didn’t,” he said. And, despite Patrick Stewart’s feeling otherwise, Rod feels that his father did warm to the English actor as Capt. Picard on “The Next Generation,” and that that series was the purest expression of his “Trek” vision. “I think Next Gen was his chance to get it right. I think that that was the bookend to my father’s life. I think that that was his ‘Star Trek,’ at that point in his life.”

Rod recognizes that the “Star Trek” films have to appeal to a wider audience and be more action-oriented. But he shares with his father a belief that “these movies may have, arguably, missed the opportunity to talk about social issues or dig deeper into them,” while noting that if they had tried to be more issue-oriented “would they have appealed to a broader audience?” He’s careful to say that he believes “Star Trek” should never become “Star Wars,” a space opera. It should hold up a mirror to our own world, as much as it explores the 23rd and 24th centuries and beyond. (Though Rod does like “Star Wars” as its own thing, as did Gene, who bought his son “Star Wars” birthday cakes.)

When Gene Roddenberry met George Lucas at the 10th anniversary “Star Wars” convention Memorial Day weekend 1987 in Los Angeles.

Dan Madsen

Some fans will say they think “Deep Space Nine,” now a beloved cult hit within the larger “Trek” fandom, is a series Roddenberry would have disliked, because it wasn’t entirely about exploration, featured a multi-season war, and presented characters as likely to clash as deliver each other inspiration. But Rod is charitable on the subject.

“I’m almost done with all of ‘Deep Space Nine,’” he says. “We are flawed human beings. Therefore, when Kira lashes out because she fought in the war and brings her emotions to a boil, people can identify with that. Character redeems itself and shows the right way and acknowledges the errors of her way, or whatever, and people connect with that and they’re able to, maybe, forgive themselves when they lashed out. I see the value. I definitely see the value.” But he understands when fans quibble too: “I was doing that a little bit with ‘Discovery,’ until Season 2 and Season 3 of that show really brought ‘Star Trek’ back home to where it needs to be.”

That candor is impressive, considering that Rod is himself an executive producer on “Discovery” and the other shows currently streaming on Paramount+: “Picard” and “Lower Decks” as well as the upcoming “Strange New Worlds” and “Prodigy.” He’s quick to state that he’s not a writer and that his role is largely to serve as a guiding light for the series, helping the creative teams to keep in mind his father’s original philosophy. He rallies to the defense of these shows from accusations found in certain corners of the fandom online that they’re “too political” or “too woke”: “If they’re saying Star Trek’s woke, that’s fine. It needs to be woke, because they need to put things in your face so there is a discussion.”

Those decrying the new series as too woke will probably bristle at some of Rod’s other views. “No one’s doing it for nefarious purposes,” so he’s excited by Elon Musk and Richard Branson opening up a new era of privatized space travel — and thinks his father would support it too — but he “hates” the name Space Force for the U.S. military’s latest branch and opposes “the idea of militarizing space.” He acknowledges that Starfleet’s delta logo is something the Air Force has used in the past and that his father probably borrowed it himself, but suspects that the incorporation of a very Starfleet-like delta in the Space Force insignia is a tip of the hat to “Star Trek.” He also wishes that instead of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planting the U.S. flag on the moon, “we had taken the opportunity to put a flag that was more universal, to honor all of humanity.”

That’s the kind of all-embracing spirit you’d expect from the son of someone who dropped bombs on Japanese forces during World War II, then married his wife (and “Star Trek” actress) Majel Barrett in a Shinto ceremony in Japan. What horrible things had he seen during that war? How many lives did he take because of his actions? How much death had he himself seen?

Gene Roddenberry’s life is proof that you can experience traumatizing events and still find the capacity for hope. That in fact optimism may be the result of the maturity that comes from living a life like that. You can actually be a Peter Pan who grows up but still steers second star to the right and straight on ’til morning.

Here’s hoping all of us can do the same. Maybe then a better world will await.

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