Ship’s Log, Supplemental: Gene Roddenberry
On October 24, 1991 Gene Roddenberry passed away.
It may seem strange to grant him an entire chapter in this book. Roddenberry has, after all been an undeniable presence since the very beginning of Star Trek, and no small amount of digital ink has been spilled on my part, or on the part of others, trying to piece together precisely who he was and what his contributions to Star Trek really were. I’m not going to do this every time a major creative figure exits our story permanently, but given the stature Roddenberry had, and to some extent still has, and the synchronicity of his death happening almost exactly parallel with Star Trek’s 25th Anniversary, there’s no way this was going to be seen as anything other than a massive event even among a 24-month year marked by massive events. There’s only one other primary creative figure in all Star Trek who casts a remotely comparable shadow over the series’ heart and soul to the one Gene Roddenberry does: He’ll get his due when his own time comes (in fact he’s in many ways *more* deserving of tribute than Roddenberry, a true unsung hero), but right now this is something that needs to be properly addressed for good.
From the beginning of Vaka Rangi, I have been exceedingly and harshly critical of Gene Roddenberry. I did not, I want to make eminently clear, start this project with a chip on my shoulder and an ax to grind. This was supposed to be a voyage of peace and understanding. And I went out of my way to be as even-handed about him as I possibly could in my inaugural essay on “The Cage”: That episode is, without question, Star Trek as Gene Roddenberry saw it. It’s the purest, most distilled version of his original vision for what the series should be, and even though he had a ton of help cleaning it up and making it presentable from Bob Justman and Herb Solow, that remains plainly on display in the finished product. But the other thing about “The Cage” is that, unfortunately, it is fucking terrible. So that’s also where things start to go wrong for both Gene Roddenberry and Vaka Rangi.
The period of the original Star Trek Gene Roddenberry was the showrunner for, from “The Corbomite Maneuver” through “Dagger of the Mind”, does not inspire confidence (with the extremely notable exception of “Balance of Terror”). Nor does the fact Roddenberry thought, for whatever reason, that “Mudd’s Women” and “The Omega Glory” would have been suitable pilots for Star Trek. Once I started to actually dig into the behind-the-scenes history of Star Trek and actually cast a critical lens upon it, I discovered two things. One, I wish I had never thought to do that because the whole thing is way over my head and way too dangerous for me to me to even conceive of messing around with. And two, in the accounts from people who were closest to him, Gene Roddenberry comes across as a positively unlikeable person. Far from the singularly gifted visionary accepted history continues to paint him as to this day, those who worked with Roddenberry on the Original Series seemed to think he was an attention-hungry, domineering, misogynistic, thoroughly talentless hack and a pathological liar. And, well, the quality and content of the scripts that bear his name do little to refute that assertion.
It was at this point I realised my project was going to need to be way more contrarian and negative then I had ever feared. With the first volume I did set out to try and dispel some myths about Star Trek and get at the heart of what it really was…But as the true terrible reality of what that was going to entail began to sink in, it left me with mental scars I still bear to this day. I think Vaka Rangi lost something at that point, and you can probably track the exact moment in my writing when the full extent of what I’m in for and what I’m going to have to do hits me. Because there was no way I was going to let stuff like this go unchallenged.
The litany of Gene Roddenberry’s faults should be fairly well documented by now. I myself have, at times, taken what could be construed as a kind of perverse cathartic glee in pointing them out. We all know how most of what was good about the Original Star Trek came from D.C. Fontana, Paul Schneider, Gene Coon, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and John Meredyth Lucas. Roddenberry’s behaviour in the context of things like “Assignment: Earth”, both the abortive TV show and the Star Trek episode it became, are obvious and inexcusable. Add to this the fact that he was, even very late in life, an alcoholic and a womanizer who compulsively cheated on Majel Barrett and was perpetually stoned (no, really) and tried to lure people to his inner circle on the basis of his status, Star Trek’s success and nude Beverly Hills pool parties…And one slowly begins to behold a picture of a man who doesn’t exactly seem to deserve the status in pop culture history he still enjoys.
But as I’ve tried to make clear over the years, this is not a contrarian blog. I don’t want to be down on absolutely every aspect of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry included. I’m firmly convinced there is true goodness in what Star Trek became, and I still remember those principles of Vaka Rangi I set out fresh-faced with years ago. I’m still looking for ways to bring them back somehow. And so I’d like to remind us all that when we think of Gene Roddenberry, though his vices must be addressed (maybe even brought to centre stage), we must also remember the side of him, also undeniable, that did really seem to understand what Star Trek had come to mean. Here was a man who once said “there is no more profound way in which people could express what Star Trek has meant to them than by creating their own very personal Star Trek things”.
In spite of what fans today think, Star Trek grew far beyond Gene Roddenberry. And I think this is something Gene Roddenberry himself was acutely aware of, especially as he neared the end of his life. While his initial pitch and writer’s guide for Star Trek: The Next Generation is as much an endurance test in excruciating unreadability as anything else he penned, from the beginning he was steadfast in his belief that the utopianism he saw in the show was something worth fighting for. He wrote the better future fans of the Original Series saw in it and came to love into Star Trek: The Next Generation diegetically, and that might be the most important part of his legacy. Yes, this caused undo strain on the various creative teams deep in the trenches of the show’s material reality (though this current one seemed to have a far more amiable relationship with him by the end), but for the first time in Star Trek’s history failure was on them, not Gene Roddenberry. Because this time Gene Roddenberry was right. Utopia is worth fighting for.
A case could be made, and has, that the reason Roddenberry was so unwavering (some would say fanatical) on this issue was that because, as he came to grips with his own looming mortality, he wanted to see a world free of strife and conflict he knew he was never going to see in this life. Also, he was very probably literally losing his mind, growing actually senile and delirious all throughout his three year association with Star Trek: The Next Generation leading to his stroke and eventual death, which would sadly explain a great deal. But I’d like to think it might also have been because he had genuinely had his worldview changed, if ever so slightly, from his experiences with Star Trek fandom. He knew what Star Trek meant to people and could come to stand for, even if it wasn’t the Star Trek he actually created. Gene Roddenberry learned from his own creation its most fundamental lesson and became a better person because of it. Maybe not an entirely good person, but a better one than he had been.
Maybe Gene Roddenberry’s most important message can be divined from his final acts. Though he gave his blessing to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, telling Rick Berman and Michael Piller he wanted to hear more about it, he must have known that conversation was never going to happen and that he would never live to see the show. But he must have also known that the new show could not have been in better hands. As was Star Trek on the whole, because Star Trek now belongs to everybody. And as he himself had stated just a few years earlier in 1988 (as quoted by Paula Block and Terry J. Erdmann in Star Trek: The Next Generation 365)
“I would hope that there are bright young people growing up over time who will bring to [Star Trek] levels and areas that were beyond me. And I won’t feel jealous of that at all…It’ll go on without any of us, and get better and better and better. That really is the human condition-to improve.”
July 1, 2015 @ 12:44 am
Very thoughtful, and entirely appropriate piece. Doesn't gloss over Roddenberry's unfortunate tendencies, but doesn't overlook or ignore his positive contributions either.
July 1, 2015 @ 12:15 pm
I think … this is weird to word … I think Roddenberry was at least somewhat self-aware. Not necessarily self-critical, or reflective mind you, but aware that he was a product of his time and that the sorts of stories he liked to set in his flawed attempts at utopianism (that we critically pan every time) at the very least wouldn't be the same stories people continued to tell years down the line.
I don't think he'd have been as slavish to his own faults as a creator as some of the O.G. fans who became writers might've ended up becoming. For instance, moving backward with a reboot doesn't strike me as a particularly Roddenberry move.
"Levels and areas that were beyond me …" is a hell of a thing to say, but it's as pithy as anything I can come up with.
Roddenberry was a bit of a cultural dinosaur even in the long 80s when he was trying to exert a bit of control on TNG. But even dinosaurs die hard, because if culture was beginning to shift in the outset of the 90s (totally was), it was still not until like way later, like nowish, when those of us who were children absorbing those cultural lessons grew up and could apply them before anything really started to get done about it.
I can at least imagine he had the foresight to realize that Star Trek, and TNG in particular, would be a foundation stone in that path, and even if he, old boy's club, lecherous, stereotypical dude that he was laying some of those stones at the beginning of the path could yield some crazy results down the road.
July 6, 2015 @ 11:00 pm
One of the things I have found fascinating about this blog Josh has been learning more about the truths behind the fictional Roddenberry that fans have lauded – it's been a revelation.
In the end I don't think any less of him, as you say it seems in the end he may have learned from his own creation, and that in itself is an example of living inspiration.