Review: The Impossible Has Happened: The Life and Work of Gene Roddenberry, Creator of Star Trek

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When I was writing my first volume of Vaka Rangi, I was faced with a dilemma on how to frame the book. I have little to no personal or nostalgic connection to the original Star Trek or its animated sequel so my episode-to-episode reactions were by definition going to be mostly as I saw it. But I still wanted to come up with something unique to say about this most important period of Star Trek history, so I initially decided to structure the book around telling as “real” a story about the franchise's formative years as I could, with a careful eye towards historical mythbusting in general, in particular how it pertained to the shows creator, the ever-mythologized Gene Roddenberry. I soon realised, however, that this was a task far too massive for me to undertake given the scope of the project I had cast, and quickly found myself intimidated and overwhelmed by the sheer scale of conflicting stories and seemingly deliberate disinformation surrounding Roddenberry and Star Trek. While I still hoped to convey a general idea for what Star Trek actually was and was envisioned as being (and I do feel, and hope, I managed some degree of success), the behind-the-scenes stuff became far too complicated a topic for me to tackle with any aspirations of genuine comprehension.

Thankfully, the task was not too overwhelming and intimidating for Lance Parkin, whose new book The Impossible Has Happened: The Life and Work of Gene Roddenberry, Creator of Star Trek, is an unauthorized biography of the man in question that sets about clearing the air and getting at the heart of what sort of a man Gene Roddenberry really was, and how he both shaped and was himself in turn shaped by what Star Trek came to represent. Readers of this blog will no doubt know Parkin for his work with Doctor Who, but for those who might not know he's also an accomplished writer and chronicler in other genre fiction circles. He's previously written a similar biography of Alan Moore, as well as series guides for both Alias, His Dark Materials and the *entire* Star Trek franchise up through the third season of Enterprise. He's also contributed to Star Trek Magazine and written a number of interesting critical analyses of the series independently, so he's well poised to take on the task of retelling the life story of the man who perpetually seems to be at the centre of it all.

The problem, as Parkin himself outlines it in his Introduction, is that there have traditionally only been two ways of looking at Gene Roddenberry. Either he was a prophetic visionary messiah who dreamed a wonderful dream of a utopian future who fought and died for the ideals it stood for, or he was a lying, cheating, manipulative scumbag and self-promoter who saw that a passionate group of fans had taken a throwaway idea of his and turned it into something special and then set about revising history and making everything about himself so that he could cash in on it. The answer, as a lot of things in life are, is somewhere in the middle. This is something I've always suspected, and, throughout the length of The Impossible Has Happened, Lance Parkin meticulously and convincingly outlines the reasons why. Roddenberry was first and foremost a self-promoter with a *lot* of severe personal problems, but he did seem genuinely interested in making the world a better place and was in a lot of respects progressive for his time (sometimes, as was frequently the case in his sex life, probably more progressive than he himself even knew how to properly process). The kicker is though, he learned most of these things from Star Trek itself after meeting its fans and seeing the lens they viewed it through, instead of imbuing Star Trek with them from the start.

And it is, as Parkin states, extremely easy for a modern viewer to see this just by watching the Original Series itself. There's vanishingly little utopian idealism of any sort in that show: It is self-evidently a series about a patrol boat in the space navy going around checking up on colonies and dealing with border disputes. The only time Star Trek begins to display a whiff of utopian thinking is in the third season and latter half of the second, suspiciously around the time the fanbase was beginning to get vocal (a fanbase that, naturally, Roddenberry had an enormous hand in cultivating and organising). In fact, Parkin shows how this wrongfooted Nicholas Meyer and Harve Bennett during the production of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, because they understood the source material a little *too* well: They had a good handle on the text, but didn't understand the fan culture around it, something that Roddenberry, who had been to the conventions that sprung up over the course of the 1970s and listened to people's stories about why they first fell in love with the show, actually did.

I initially thought I would learn a lot about Gene Roddenberry and his life from reading this book that would lead me to rethink some prior assumptions I had about him and re-evaluate some of my positions on Star Trek in lieu of that lens. In truth, I actually read very little I didn't already know-That's not to say Lance Parkin's work is in any way poorly researched or anything less than a necessary recasting of the narratives that surround both, rather, it appears that through doing our respective projects Parkin and I have reached a lot of the same conclusions about who Gene Roddenberry probably was as a person. Parkin just has a lot more authority and primary source evidence to back his claims up than I do. One thing I did glean from The Impossible Has Happened is a newfound appreciation for the role Roddenberry's only non-Star Trek sale, The Lieutenant, played in his career. The Lieutenant is a show about life in the United States Marines (and in fact made in conjunction with them) and shares far more similarities with Star Trek than fans have traditionally been keen to accept: Both shows feature militaristic settings and a smattering of Roddenberry's favourite go-to themes, a number of actors showed up in both shows (most notably Majel Barrett, Leonard Nimoy, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols and Gary Lockwood) and both shows can make a claim to be on some level about “social issues”.

It's The Lieutenant that elucidates two points of Parkin's that particularly struck me. Firstly, Parkin contrasts Star Trek unfavoruably, though fairly, with it on the level of doing stories about what I like to call the “Issues”. Parkin points out a story about racial prejudice is going to by definition work better on a show ostensibly set in the real world looking at the real ethic groups involved as opposed to on a genre fiction show where the ethnic groups are, say, imaginary Romulans and Vulcans. I broadly agree with Parkin on this, and I think this touches on the inherent limitation of using genre fiction as metaphor or allegory for material sociological phenomena. Eventually, at some level genre fiction is going to break down and will have to face the irrefutable argument that it's oversimplifying and misrepresenting the nuances of a specific issue by dolling it up with world-building. One the other hand though, I wonder if this can't be on some level a strength of it, seeing as how it's debatably worse to have a work of social realism about oppressed groups written by someone who doesn't have material, lived experience as part of said oppressed group. You'd almost prefer the oversimplification of genre fiction in that case, wouldn't you?

The comparison also reveals another truth about Gene Roddenberry, and one that he was likely on some sense aware of. He only ever had a handful of ideas and his pop philosophy never went much beyond the shallow end of the pool, so he spent the majority of his career trying to figure out why his formula only seemed to work once. Near the end of the book Parkin quotes a series of notes Roddenberry took for a potential show concept called Battleground Earth, that eventually materialized after his death as Earth: Final Conflict. Parkin amusingly dubs this handwritten list of potential themes “Generic Roddenberry” (grammatical errors Roddenberry's):

“How can we overcome prejudices? What is Death? Should we orchestrate war? Is patriotism a disease? What is the difference between sexuality and love? When does duty end and morality begin? Should there be government? Who's ethics pre-dominate in a relationship mine or yours? What does it mean to be human? Do machines live? What use is religion? Is love the exclusive property of heterosexuals? Just because we can do something, should we? What is the difference between dreams and reality? What is consciences? Is there a case for drug dependency? What is the difference between male and female power? Are ethics the same as morals? What does it mean to be human?”
Parkin doesn't spin the admittedly limited scope of Roddenberry's thematic exploration into a criticism of him any more than I would want to (though I think we'd both acknowledge it), but rather points out how it illuminates his own positionality and that these are things Roddenberry keeps coming back to in all of his work. As a writer myself, this got me thinking about my own work and the themes I try to examine with it, because I'm honestly not sure I can say I have much more of a reach than Gene Roddenberry did. I'd like to hope my thinking isn't perhaps as simplistic, but I'll bet anyone who read Vaka Rangi could probably instantly recognise something of mine if it went out under a different name. Maybe as writers we only ever do get a handful of things that stick with us that we keep coming back to. Or maybe it is just me and I'm just not as talented as I think I should be.
 
The biggest takeaway I got from Parkin's book, and of Gene Roddenberry's life, is that this is a man who was probably aware on some level that he wasn't always exactly a good man, but he was one who was capable of self-improvement. He could see that culture was changing under him and indeed that it needed to, but he wasn't always great at recognising the actual progressive streaks to bet on. The example that sticks with me is that Roddenberry actually seemed to think the exploitation flick adaptation of Pretty Maids All In A Row (a book about a serial killer high school gym teacher who sleeps with, and then kills, his female students) that he worked on in the 1970s was of a piece with the sexual revolution and seemed at times genuinely unaware of how concerning this was. But at the same time he did recgonise, and more importantly cultivated, Star Trek's overwhelmingly female fanbase and listened to what they had to say about the utopianim they saw in his show. And he did take that and write it into Star Trek: The Next Generation, however clunkily, and insisted the show's writing stable take it seriously.
 
Roddenberry's biggest failing was always that he was never quite able to articulate a coherent vision for the form Star Trek's utopianism should take (and the tortured, tragic production history of Star Trek: The Next Generation speaks to that), but it does become all the clearer to me after reading this book that he truly did, in the end, have his heart in the right place even so. If anything, it shows how Gene Roddenberry learned from his own creation and was in a sense saved by it: He was slightly more progressive than others for a man of his time: He was probably what we would today call polyamorous (with perhaps the slightest hint of pansexuality too), and was on some level aware of this, but neither he nor any of his contemporaries would ever have had the language or the intellectual framework to conceive of such a thing. But Roddenberry still had all the faults of his generation too, and in this situation the liminality did him no favours. But I also think he would have been the first guy to tell you he didn't have all the answers either, that Star Trek was something bigger than any one creative figure and that the rest of the work should be left up to us.
 
I have the most minor of nitpicks with some of Lance Parkin's conclusions...I would be a tad kinder to Star Trek: The Motion Picture and far harsher on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan than he is in this book, for instance (though I did learn a lot more about the production histories of these films, and *boy* was the Star Trek Phase II/The Motion Picture production a shitshow, let me tell you). I'm also inclined to go easier on Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 1, though I wholeheartedly agree all of the year's problems can be laid at the feet of Leonard Maizlish and a failure to communicate between Roddenberry and the rest of the staff (though let me get back to you after I finish rewatching it with my sister. Which may be awhile because at the moment I can barely stomach the fucking thing).
 
But these can all be chalked up simply to our slightly different takes on the source material. Ultimately, with The Impossible Has Happened: The Life and Work of Gene Roddenberry, Creator of Star Trek, Lance Parkin has crafted the clearest, most concise, best documented and most authoritative account of Gene Roddenberry's life, his legacy and Star Trek's first 25 years I have ever read. Anyone with the remotest interest in the man, the franchise or both, owes it to themselves to pick this book up. Especially if they'd consider themselves a newcomer or neophyte to Star Trek: Parkin's prose is very light and the book is quite an easy read given its scope. For my part I think it would make a terrific companion piece to Vaka Rangi, but I'm more then happy to give it my ringing endorsement either way.
 
Many thanks to Lance Parkin for kindly providing me with a review copy
 
You can preorder The Impossible Has Happened: The Life and Work of Gene Roddenberry, Creator of Star Trek on Amazon here

Comments

Jed Blue 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Ooh, interesting. Amazon says it won't actually be out until beginning of August, but on the strength of this recommendation I'll definitely pick it up then!

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Steve 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Yeah, I had no idea this book was happening, but I'm there for Lance Parking.

The production history of TMP is fascinating stuff; I highly recommend the oral history of it that came out two years ago, Return to Tomorrow.

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