In April 1994, I was celebrating my 18th birthday and about to graduate from high school when a book came out that I just had to buy. It was by New York Times reporter Joel Engel called “Gene Roddenberry: The Myth and the Man Behind Star Trek.”
Obviously not really thinking about the title when I bought it, the Engel book was jaw-dropping to me. Because through my entire life, beginning with the premiere of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” when I was 11 years old, I was a member of the Church of Roddenberry. I saw him as someone beyond human, as someone who created something so profound, that it not only changed lives, it changed the world.
And this was before we even had cell phones and other great technological advances that would make Dr. McCoy’s tricorder look quaint.
It wouldn’t be until after I finished the book that I would read the review in Entertainment Weekly, where Benjamin Svetkey would call the book very non-authoritative (he barely interviews anyone who was associated with Roddenberry), and added that he “draws the Great Bird as the sort of boresville blowhard you’d least want to find yourself sitting next to on a long bus trip, or reading about in a medium-sized book.”
The biography and its claims were just alien to me. And it was shocking, not that Roddenberry would even do half of these things, but the one major revelation — Gene Roddenberry was a human being. That’s right, Gene is not a god of any sort, or even a prophet — he was a Hollywood writer and producer, who worked in a cutthroat industry where you typically had to step on people in order to work your way up.
Success in Hollywood is elusive, so once you find it, you do anything you can to best capitalize on it. That doesn’t justify some of the things Gene did (there were a few things he did that makes me sad when I think about it). However, it also doesn’t justify people piling up on Roddenberry at every turn they get, especially some 25 years after he passed away.
Now that I’ve had a few days to think about William Shatner’s latest documentary on TNG, “Chaos on the Bridge,” I still feel that Roddenberry, for the most part, was treated fairly. But there also was a lot of vitriol that I just don’t understand — especially from people we wouldn’t even know if it weren’t for what Roddenberry pulled together in the first place.
I think there are some fair complaints you can make against Roddenberry as a man. And there even are some fair complaints to Roddenberry as a showrunner, although you have to respect Brannon Braga for basically saying, “Hey, conflict is great for stories, but Gene was trying to get us to look for something new, something different, and not be lazy.” I’m bored with lazy television writing, and have worked on my own screenplays where i try not to rely on lazy tropes, and it’s certainly a challenge.
Being a humanist is not bad, however. Gene Roddenberry believed not in fairy tales, but in the human spirit. Despite his background in science-fiction, he would get angry if you suggested aliens came and helped us build the great pyramids — “No, we built that!” he would shout at the crowds. For Gene, we could accomplish anything we set our mind to as a human species, we just had to set our mind to it first.
And that’s key to everything behind Gene’s vision. We are flawed humans, but we don’t have to be. We can’t just lean back on the fact that no one is perfect, and use that as a crutch to justify the stupid things we do in life. For Gene, there is so much more people can do if they would just focus their attention to doing it.
Gene saw a lot of that first-hand, from us developing jet technology around World War II, to actually launching man into space just a couple decades later. And by the time the original “Star Trek” was done, we were about to land a person on the moon.
Believe it or not, the Prime Directive is something that truly reflects what Gene Roddenberry had hoped for with humanity. Sure, it’s applied in Star Trek as humans not interfering with the cultures of others. But it’s meant to be directed at us — that humans didn’t need alien interference to accomplish what we, as humans, accomplished. Whether it’s building pyramids, creating peace around the planet, going to space, and hopefully someday realizing our true potential.
Yes, this is a site that has Roddenberry as a co-owner, so I couldn’t blame anyone for claiming my opinion may be pulled in that direction. However, you would have it backward. My opinion isn’t based on a professional relationship with Roddenberry’s legacy. My professional relationship with Roddenberry’s legacy is based on my opinion here. Despite what Joel Engel said, whether fair and accurate or not, I still believe that Gene Roddenberry was not just a man, but a man with a vision, who touched millions of lives, and spearheaded something that has not only entertained, but enlightened.
Some people can choose to dump on a man who has not been with us for half of Star Trek’s life. But I am not going to do that. We all have flaws, we all have things that maybe we shouldn’t do, or wouldn’t do in another life. But we are not defined by just those flaws — we are defined by the whole person. And one you understand that, you’ve taken a big first step into truly understanding the Roddenberry philosophy.