One would think growing up with the person who created ‘Star Trek’ as your father would be one of the most exciting experiences to go through. After all, who wouldn’t want to be a part of the inner circle of the Trekkie world? Right at the beginning of the show, Eugene Roddenberry (Gene Roddenberry’s son) put it simply: There are 2 kinds of people: Those who get ‘Star Trek’ and what it’s about and those who don’t.
Unfortunately, Eugene was one that didn’t get it and it wasn’t until his father had passed away that he decided to find out why ‘Star Trek’ is so significant and the legacy his father left behind. It is with this thought in mind that he decided to make ‘Trek Nation’ which debuted on the Science Channel last night.
Eugene Roddenberry interviewed fans, directors and actors who worked on various ‘Star Trek’ projects to find out what ‘Star Trek’ meant to them, and through this journey was able to learn more about his father and the impact that he had made on so many lives. Eugene wasn’t born until 1977 so he really wasn’t conscious of the show. When looking back on old family films, he saw that he was placed on a model of the Enterprise and thought, “Really? Wow! I didn’t know that happened!” To him, Gene Roddenberry was just dad – not the great visionary that everyone else saw. During his teen years, Eugene admitted that he was a rebellious teen and really just went on and lived his life.
It wasn’t until his father died of a sudden heart attack in 1991 when Eugene was only 17, that he truly realized what his father meant to people. Thinking the funeral service was just going to be a family gathering, he was astonished to see how many people were present. A letter was read at the memorial from a fan that was quadriplegic. In it, the fan mentioned how he felt life was not worth living. Then, the show ‘Star Trek’ premiered and showed this fan that there could be a future where he would not be considered as an outcast. There was hope. This letter ended saying that the fan was now married and had children and he owed it all to Eugene’s father. Eugene realized his father, through the show, had profoundly touched a life and at that moment decided to find out more about him.
Through old family videos, stock footages and interviews, Eugene started on his quest. He decided to start with an interview with his mother, whom he felt would know his dad more than anyone else. Marej Barrett (best known as Nurse Chapel, Luxana Troi and was the voice of many of the Starfleet’s computers) described Roddenberry as a “very simple and very complex” man but not much more was given. She was his wife and conversations about what he felt about on certain subjects really didn’t occur in the household. The conversation still left Eugene with more questions.
During his research, he found an audio recording his father did in 1976 called ‘Inside Star Trek’ where he talks about how when he was a child he was “different”, spinely legged, weak and uncoordinated. By the time he grew into adolescence, he was “lucky” and it was a “miracle” that his body mended and he became stronger than average. Roddenberry said it was this experience that made him realize that “reality is incredibly larger, infinitely more exciting than the flesh and blood vehicle we travel in here.”
When the first pilot (‘The Cage’) for ‘Star Trek’ was made, Captain Christopher Pike was at the helm with a woman as his second in command. He also added in an alien, Spock. In this episode, Roddenberry was already making statements about humanity. The network thought the episode was too slow and too thoughtful for the viewing audience so a second episode was made. They wanted Roddenberry to make the show more like a Western and by this time William Shatner was available and was hired to play Captain Kirk. Once the show was sold as something akin to cowboys in space, the network executives were sold.
At the time ‘Star Trek’ was shown, most sci-fi shows were aimed at kids. Even when marketed as something adult, by the second or third episode, the series would revert to something for children. This was one of the reasons ‘Star Trek’ was so popular. It was truly an adult thinking show with a lot of subtexts which was why so many were able to latch onto it. During the 60’s, Roddenberry was already breaking stereotypical ideals and bringing in new concepts never before seen on television.
Stan Lee attributes the success of the show by Roddenberry’s ability to write about space from the point of view of the characters. He allowed the audience to get to know the characters then wrote stories around them. Science was the mechanism Roddenberry used to show the human condition. It showed what it meant to be an ethical person and how we all struggle with that morality.
Nicole Nichols was actually going to quit after the first season of the series as she wanted to return to her first love of musical theater. It wasn’t until she met a particular ‘Star Trek’ fan that she decided to stay. This fan told her that it was the only show that he and his wife would allow their small children to watch. When she told this fan she was leaving the show, he convinced her to stay telling her for the first time people are seeing on television what they should be seeing. “You don’t have a Black role,” he said, “You have an EQUAL role.” That fan was Martin Luther King.
After the cancellation of ‘Star Trek’, Roddenberry couldn’t get another job as the industry was saying that this show nearly broke the studio with its cost. It was a struggle for him and although he wrote other pilots they didn’t get picked up. Even though the show was in syndication, the first residual check would not be sent to Roddenberry until 1981.
In 2004, Eugene received word that George Lucas would do an interview with him. Lucas praised Roddenberry saying that what made ‘Star Trek’ compelling was the story. It was more intellectually oriented while he likened ‘Star Wars’ as more action oriented. As far as the rivalry, Lucas states he stays away from this controversy and considered it an “intellectual exercise that could have any outcome.” (Loved how that question was diplomatically answered)
In 1987 Roddenberry got an opportunity not very many people get in Hollywood – a second chance to recreate ‘Star Trek.’ ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ was born. Many of the creative staff from the original series were asked back to work on this show. Roddenberry addressed issues pertinent in the 80’s such as terrorism and superstitions that were still ruling some countries. At one point, he took Jonathan Frakes aside and explained what life would be like in the 24th century: “There would be no hunger…there would be no greed… and all the children would know how to read.” Because the show was set so far into the future, one thing that Roddenberry insisted was that the core crew would have no conflict among them. He would not allow writers to create a scene where Picard would pummel Riker (like Spock and Kirk) because in the 24th Century, this type of conflict would not exist. It was also said that the characters Picard, Riker and Wesley were actually three phases of Roddenberry’s life. Roddenberry died during the show’s run and while some executives wanted to return to the old days of the original ‘Star Trek’ storylines, Rick Berman (the show’s executive producer) held steadfast to Roddenberry’s vision to keep the show as it was. Eugene attributes ‘Star Trek:The Next Generation’ as being the main reason the original series is not just a faint idea and continues on.
Eugene also had an opportunity to interview J.J. Abrams while he was filming the reboot version of ‘Star Trek.’ He showed him a video of an interview of his dad that was done many years earlier talking about how he would like to go back to the years when Kirk first got on the Enterprise and how he would have met his crew. He also talked about how he hoped ‘Star Trek’ would come back years in the future and inspire young people and really make it something to the point where people would say ‘That’s better than Roddenberry’s!”
Through personal recollections and interviews with stars such as William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Wil Wheaton, Nicole Nichols, Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Stan Lee, J.J. Abrams and George Lucas (to name a few), Eugene Roddenberry not only showed us insight as to how the world of ‘Star Trek’ affected the masses but he also gave us a personal way to deeply understand how his father’s mind worked. ‘Star Trek’ was more than a show. It was a concept encased in an entertainment format that encompassed the values of humanity, mutual understanding and the potential of the human mind in gaining knowledge. It has inspired children and teens alike to become astrophysicists, scientists and astronauts in an attempt to bring the science to life. ‘Star Trek’ is an example of art creating life. It was a model of what Gene Roddenberry had hoped the human race would strive to become and while watching ‘Trek Nation,’ it was easy to understand why.
‘Trek Nation’ was a son’s homage to his father that could be shared and appreciated with the public through the shared love of the show he created. Even if you are not a Trekkie, this documenary sheds light to the world created by Gene Roddenberry and is one that should be watched. The Science Channel will be re-airing the show several times Friday (December 2), Saturday (December 30) and Monday (December 5).