Gene Roddenberry: The Last Conversation Roddenberry, Gene - Essay

Yvonne Fern


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gene Roddenberry 1921–1991

(Born Eugene Roddenberry) American screenwriter and producer.

Roddenberry is best known as the creator/producer of the television series Star Trek. Although the show failed to produce high ratings, many critics felt that it did succeed in achieving a level of sophistication and thoughtfulness not commonly found on television. The series was awarded an Emmy, an international Hugo Award for outstanding science fiction writing, and the Image award from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In spite of this acclaim, NBC cancelled Star Trek after its third season. A relatively small but strong and vocal group immediately emerged to protest the network's move. This group's continued growth and energetic efforts to keep the show alive comprise one of the most interesting phenomena of recent popular culture.

Against the unfamiliar background of twenty-third century outer space, Star Trek explored such themes as equality, racism, sexism, and politics. Roddenberry feared that television in the 1960s might not be ready for such subjects and thus envisioned his series as a kind of "Trojan horse." He hoped that under the guise of relatively simple outer space adventure stories he might address meaningful, timely philosophical and moral questions. Many of Roddenberry's concerns are expressed through The Enterprise's Prime Directive, which is meant to steer the starship away from the war-torn past to a future of discovery, toleration, and brotherhood.

Although many critics lauded Star Trek, others termed it a melodramatic and cliche-ridden morality play. However, few deny that Roddenberry did at least conceive of a potentially dynamic and meaningful series.

Roddenberry's production of Star Trek—The Motion Picture received mixed reviews. Skeptics addressing this movie express the belief that, as with the series, Roddenberry is less an innovator and social conscience than a shrewd marketeer. Regardless, the extreme popularity of the series may indicate that parts of the television audience, especially young people, were touched by the message which Star Trek attempted to relay.

Robert Lewis Shayon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Star Trek is a space version of Wagon Train. There's the crew, there's the encountered. The problems arise now from the in-group, now from the out. The future is not without its counterpart of violence in the past and present. This ranges from good old-fashioned impaling on primitive spears to ridiculous duels in which characters throw electrical charges at one another through their fingertips. The series carries the usual bag of space-fiction hard and software—lasers, telepathy, time warps, etc. Countering the comic-strip values is the image of an integrated crew representing diverse races—albeit, the captain is an American, and the known space system seems to be under the benevolent hegemony of a Pax Americana.

No attempt is ever made to hypothecate any realistic prediction about political, economic, or social conditions: the encounters are all in a contextual vacuum. Still, the program does focus attention on the relations that humans may soon have with intelligent life on other planets….

If Star Trek could escape the gravitational pull of thin sensationalism, it could contribute to rational public thought about these fascinating matters, with bonuses, perhaps, in more intelligent behavior among humans. To keep open the possibility of such a contribution, the show should be kept on the air.

Robert Lewis Shayon, "The Interplanetary Spock," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1967 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. L, No. 24, June 17, 1967, p. 46.

David Gerrold

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Star Trek neatly fulfils all of the requirements for a good TV series: a broad-based format allowing a wide variety of stories, an interesting hero, an unusual set of situations and confrontations, and the requirement of decisive and positive action from a protagonist whose job and training is to do just that.

Plus, Star Trek has … one added virtue …—it is a genre unto itself. And that makes it unique. (pp. 17-18)

From a dramatic point of view, Spock is a beautiful character—he is the perfect character to be the ship's Science Officer. His superior brain powers give him the ability to accurately handle the large amounts of information that are his responsibility. But the fact that he is the only Vulcan on an all-human ship sets up a host of internal pressures and conflicts. All around him are individuals flaunting their emotions—a disgusting display of fears, prejudices, loyalties and friendships. While the human part of him wants to react to this and yearns to express itself too, the Vulcan half must keep a continual tight control. (pp. 21-2)

In many respects, Dr. McCoy is diametrically the opposite of Spock. Just as Spock is responsible for the ship's "mind," McCoy is responsible for its "body."

McCoy cares about the people he treats—he cares about them as individuals and he treats them as such. He is very much an emotional being—not simply that he expresses his emotions, but that he recognizes that there are fundamental biological, physical and mental reasons for the existence of emotions. (p. 22)

Perhaps each of these characters recognizes the dilemma that the other is in, and more than anything else, this could be the reason for the unspoken affinity between them—the mutual shock of recognition in a topsy-turvy mirror.

They are united also by a deep-seated regard for the Captain. (p. 23)

In another respect, McCoy and Spock are symbolic opposites. (p. 24)

Spock represents Rationality, McCoy represents Compassion. Thus, the two of them are more than just characters aboard the Enterprise; they symbolize Captain Kirk's internal dilemmas. The two of them serve to verbalize the arguments that the Captain must consider. Because we cannot get into the Captain's head to hear what he is thinking, Spock and McCoy are doubly important to the series' ability to tell its stories well—it is primarily through them that Kirk's internal conflicts can be dramatized.

The symbolism can be extended into the other crew members of the Enterprise:

Lieutenant Uhura represents the ship's ability to communicate. Mr. Scott represents the ability to take action once a decision has been made. Mr. Sulu, as helmsman, is the tool of that action. Ensign Chekov, as a Kirk-in-training, represents the next generation of command that must be raised to understand its responsibilities.

Actually, it is not the characters themselves that represent these elements, it is their jobs as crew members. Think of the starship as a living being itself, a single entity of which her human complement is merely the equivalent of individual cells within a body. These are the pieces of the Enterprise's soma. (pp. 24-5)

[The flaws that mar Star Trek] are all part of a pattern—but not a pattern of commission, rather one of omission. And the omission is a serious one. At no point was the Enterprise given a background culture.

Oh, we know that Kirk is an Irishman, Spock is a Vulcan, Scotty is a Scot, Sulu's an Oriental, Uhura is African, and McCoy is from the deep South. But these aren't cultural attributes, they're matters of inheritance and have nothing at all to do with the environment that produced this ship and this crew.

In general, the viewers were given so few clues about the social background of the starship that the result was occasionally grotesque. The walls of the recreation rooms were barren even of the simplest decoration. There were no paintings, no screens, nothing to look at, not even patterns of tile or enamel, just a simple stark gray. The basic bulk-heads of the ship seemed as grim as a prison, as utilitarian as a hospital.

If these were real people, vitally alive, as intelligent and able as postulated in the Star Trek Guide, they would make the impact of their individuality obvious on their "home away from home." They would make the ship their own. (pp. 42-3)

The men and women who crew the starship are no more independent of their cultures than is the starship independent of her technology. They're going to take their culture with them to the stars—and even if they were stripped of every physical aspect of their home cities, they would still reflect their social conditioning in their attitudes.

Yet, the Enterprise that we saw on NBC television was a strangely stripped Enterprise. Too often, she seemed to be independent of the rest of the galaxy, only occasionally taking orders from Starfleet. She seemed also to be sociologically independent. Indeed, there seemed to be nothing at all which could really be pinpointed as distinctive to the Starfleet culture. (p. 45)

The crew of the Enterprise is in no way meant to be representative of future humanity—not at all. They are representative of the American Sphere of Influence today. Their attitudes, their manner of speaking, their ways of reacting, even their ways of making love, are all contemporary.

We have met the Enterprise—and they are us.

The crew of the Enterprise is twentieth century America in space. (p. 47)

Star Trek is not pure science fiction. It is not predictive science fiction, and it is not accurate science fiction.

It was never meant to be….

What Star Trek is, is a set of fables—morality plays, entertainments, and diversions about contemporary man, but set against a science fiction background. The background is subordinate to the fable. (p. 48)

[The] difference between Star Trek and science fiction is that true science fiction requires that the background be logical, consistent, and the overall shaper of the story. The world in which the character moves determines the kind of actions he can make, and hence the plot of the tale. In true science fiction, the background is never subordinate to the plot….

Star Trek's backgrounds were always subordinate to the story—and because of that, it never quite achieved the convincing reality of true science fiction. Its use of a science fiction background gave it the appearance of science fiction; but in reality, Star Trek was a science fiction-based format for the telling of entertainments for and about the attitudes of contemporary America. And that's called science fantasy. (p. 49)

This writer submits that Star Trek was—and still is—the finest format ever designed for American series television.

There are few shows that can match it for potential.

But, potential must be realized. An unfulfilled potential is a very special kind of failure. (p. 50)

The background of the show was too broad. A whole new culture had to be presented. The only way to do it was cumulatively, from show to show. It took at least four or five weeks of steady viewing to gain a degree of familiarity with Gene Roddenberry's universe, but there were always new discoveries to be made and you had to watch regularly to keep up with them. At the end of the first year, only the broad outlines had been sketched, the details still had to be filled in.

Both as television, and as science fiction, Star Trek had its weaknesses, but despite whatever drawbacks it had, it still succeeded in fulfilling the functions of both of those mediums. As television, it entertained, and as science fiction, it stretched the mind. Star Trek widened a lot of horizons—right out to the edge of the galaxy. And maybe even a little bit beyond. (p. 177)

Instead of merely a world, Star Trek made its fans aware of a whole galaxy, a universe, made them...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Star Trek gives us a glimpse of [the] future hurtling toward us at dizzying speed, and shows us the kind of men who will build that world, successfully cope with its challenges, and remain free of any nerve-shattering traumas from future shock. Weekly, they confront the inconceivable … and come safely to terms with it.

The cure for future shock is not less technology, but more. Science fiction shows us how it is possible to use that technology to confront a universe which is not basically inimical to human life, and to carve out a comfortable place to live there. (p. 92)

Star Trek's message is multifold. One part of that message embodied in Spock is conveyed...

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Wm. Blake Tyrrell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Star Trek is consistent but often childish science fiction, engaging but often belabored drama. (p. 711)

Star Trek never had high ratings; it did have in science fiction an intriguing format. By inventing a believable world, Star Trek provided the viewer with material for his own imagination. He could elaborate upon the sets and equipment, bandy arcane knowledge, even write his own scripts. That the format had the potential to involve the viewer beyond one hour each week is the initial basis for the phenomenon. Star Trek's format created a world alive, turning viewers into fans.

Gene Roddenberry, creator of the series, referred to it, if only in jest, as...

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Karin Blair

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Star Trek, Roddenberry made a universe where known must be brought into contact with the unknown, where drama is played out on the borderline between self-definition and self-annihilation. The great enterprise at stake is dramatizing our own encounters with the unknown and hence with the alien within ourselves, as well as the alien beyond. It is an evolutionary process like life.

Also, as in life, this process of encountering the unknown involves us with both the familiarity of the past and the foreignness of the future…. Spock the hybrid Vulcan-human can function as resident alien precisely because he is half human and can therefore dramatize the point of contact between the...

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Betsy Caprio

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Star Trek appeals to us so much because Captain Kirk's story and Mr. Spock's story and the Enterprise's story is our story too….

The tales and people in the original seventy-nine Star Trek episodes "tell our story" because they address themselves to the common questions and hungers and experiences of life that all people of all times and places (including each of us) have ever lived through. (p. 20)

[Star Trek is] filled with eternal overtones, a series that links its viewers to people of both the future and the past, people who—like us—are concerned with eternal questions. (p. 21)

Star Trek gives us, better than any other...

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Karin Blair

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The problem of the alien is essential to every civilization, which inescapably defines itself in terms of what it is not. In American history the alien par excellence was the Indian. As Tyrrel points out in "Star Trek as Myth" there were two categories of Indians: "The noble warrior forever outside the white man's world" and the "sly, perfidious, fallen" Indian bound to the white man's world by that very fall. Translated into the world of Star Trek we have the Romulans who are "aggressive militaristic aliens … nonetheless … hard to hate" and the sly deceitful Klingons. From this initial point of similarity, however, Star Trek scripts do not continue with the usual anticipated attempts...

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Roger Angell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Star Trek—The Motion Picture" isn't as funny and inventive and energetic as "Star Wars." It isn't as beautiful and imaginative and obsessive as "2001," or as scary and lowdown as "Alien" (it isn't scary at all, in fact), and it isn't as touching as "Silent Running." But outer-space is a biggish territory, and there is plenty of room in it, I think, for a medium-range, medium-boring vehicle like this one, and although time aboard the Starship Enterprise at warpdrive speed often seems to pass more slowly than it should, Einstein did warn us about that. I enjoyed the trip.

Right at the outset, the Enterprise survives the most serious crisis of its mission, which is the tricky passage from a...

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Kenneth Turan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Star Trek-The Motion Picture the] Enterprise once more flies off into the Unknown, adding a few new crew members, including a bald woman name Ilia whose entrance line—"My oath of celibacy is on record, Captain"—is surely some kind of cinematic landmark. After much backing and filling, that "alien object" [threatening the earth] is discovered to be a kind of living machine that is desperately unhappy because its life is barren of emotion. Its problem is solved when it mates with a member of the Enterprise crew (no, I am not making this up) and civilization as we know it survives to live another day.

Silly and pointless as this sounds, it really is no worse than any of the...

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Steve Simels

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If you've seen Star Trek—The Motion Picture …, then you already know that whatever else it may be (or may have aspired to be), what it is basically is just the most expensive episode of the TV series ever shown. How you feel about that depends, of course, on how much the original show meant to you, rather than on any specifically cinematic standards. Is it better than other movies derived from hit TV shows? Sure—but don't forget that the competition is headed by McHale's Navy Joins the Air Force….

Is it good science fiction? Yes and no. In terms of written SF it's certainly as mundane as can be, but in terms of film I'd have to say, grudgingly, that it's better than most....

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Linda Ward Callaghan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture does not have the depth of [Arthur C.] Clarke's 2001: a Space Odyssey … or Robert Heinlein's s-f but it has a ready audience and captures much of the film's mood. The premise is that an alien energy force is speeding toward Earth circa 2200 leaving destruction in its wake. If readers can accept the romantic contrivance that only the Starship Enterprise is capable enough and near enough to intercept the alien cloud, the balance of the events follow in an ordered fashion. Although the writing is not distinguished and much of the technical jargon seems forced in both dialogue and narration, Roddenberry has defined his characters and integrates...

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