Gene Roddenberry

The Myth and the Man Behind Star Trek

Joel Engel

 Virgin. 1995. Pbk. 275 pages. £5.99.

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Gene Roddenberry was the living embodiment of Star Trek and its values. His future world showed racial harmony, equality and peace spreading throughout the Universe. Yet, this optimistic view of humanity visiting new worlds and civilisation wasn’t an instant success when it was first aired in the autumn of 1966. 

Although it gained a dedicated following the Nielsen ratings didn’t register it as popular with American families. Through the efforts of the loyal fan-base it is common knowledge that Star Trek was saved from being axed on at least two occasions, and by completing three seasons it was able to go into syndication and carry the momentum for the later films and spin-off series. 

Here Engel reveals that Roddenberry helped these ‘fan-based’ protests and letter writing campaigns. Engel also shatters the potent myth that Roddenberry was the sole creator of Star Trek.

Having written scripts for a variety of TV series in the 1950s and 1960s, including 27 for the Western series, Have Gun, Will Travel, his big break into writing and producing came with The Lieutenant in 1963. When he went on to produce a ‘Wagon Train In Space’ he sought-out veteran science fiction writers who helped develop this concept into what we know as Classic Star Trek today. Indeed, Engel notes that when Roddenberry ditched most of them in favour of his own scripts, in the third and last season, the quality dropped considerably.

The following and demand for Star Trek manifested itself in the hugely successful conventions dedicated to the series that began in the 1970s. Roddenberry, along with other Star Trek regulars, made hundreds and then thousands of dollars from such appearances. Treated as the God of the Star Trek universe it was no wonder that Roddenberry believed his own hype.

He produced several TV pilots for news shows but none of them got the green light for a series, he was stuck with Star Trek and worst of all Star Trek was stuck with him.

When it came to making the Star Trek movies and The Next Generation TV series he was regarded as more of a nuisance than a creative beacon. He insisted on rewriting scripts whether they were good or bad and he became expert at using and taking credit for other people’s ideas. The problem was that the studios could not fire him for fear of a backlash from the fans, which would have meant financial disaster. So writers for Star Trek: The Next Generation had to endure low pay, bad conditions, even humiliation from The Great Bird (as he was nicknamed) if they wanted to stay onboard the USS Enterprise.

Roddenberry’s health suffered from alcohol and drug abuse in these latter years, and his behaviour towards his writers became more extreme and unpredictable. He expected respect and loyalty, yet he never displayed such traits himself. Engel shows that in contrast to his harmonious and fair society of the future, he created the complete opposite in his social and working environments.

In the infamous Ferengi memo, he sent his staff into laughter, as in his description of an alien species he neatly summed himself up as well:

The Ferengi are connivers and manipulators. They consider themselves too civilized to employ brute force, except when they can label it ‘cleverness.’ The act of winning is a most in their system of values.... The Ferengi, who are twenty-fourth-century robber barons, believe that it is nature’s way to reward the clever at the cost of the weak...
Engel’s revelations are harsh, especially since Roddenberry was regarded so highly by his fans, but this does offer a fascinating story about a man with plenty of foibles who at least looked to the stars for inspiration and nurtured something that touched our collective imagination. 

Nigel Watson 

Also see Boldly Going On and On by Nigel Watson.

See Mark Pilkington's review of Star Trek: First Contact.
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