Nearly everyone is familiar with STAR TREK, the short-lived 1960’s television series that has attained a prominent place in American popular culture. Indeed, many enthusiasts of the STAR TREK phenomenon—which includes major motion pictures and spinoffs of the original series—have accorded an almost godlike status to its creator, Gene Roddenberry. This “Great Bird of the Galaxy,” as he was known to his fans, incessantly promoted himself not only as the series’ originator and guiding force, but also as a gifted visionary who predicted a glowing future for humanity, one free of greed, militarism, and poverty.
Joel Engel’s superb biography, GENE RODDENBERRY: THE MYTH AND THE MAN BEHIND STAR TREK, reveals a complicated picture of a troubled man. Roddenberry was a genuinely talented television writer who quickly rose in the industry during the 1950’s and 1960’s. His public persona, however, was little more than a carefully crafted facade. An unreformed alcoholic and an inveterate womanizer, Roddenberry managed to alienate nearly all of his friends and colleagues by the time of his death in 1991. Frequently claiming credit for others’ work, he refused to recognize the collaborative nature of television in general and STAR TREK in particular.
Nevertheless, this biography is more than a record of Roddenberry’s prevarications. Engel gives the reader a vivid picture of television during its so-called golden age. Specifically, Engel’s book is valuable for its inside look at the television industry and the tortuous road that a series often takes on its way to the screen. Although STAR TREK fans may cringe at the portrait of Roddenberry that emerges here, Engel’s text abounds with telling and sometimes uproarious anecdotes. In the words of Mr. Spock—one of Roddenberry’s most popular characters—Engel’s work is “fascinating.”