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October 19, 2010

Gene Roddenberry

By Ann Farmer

During the 1960s, while the Vietnam War divided Americans, racial tensions flared and a nuclear standoff with Russia ensued, the television writer and producer Gene Roddenberry was focused on a very different scenario, somewhere in the future, in a galaxy far, far away. There, he envisioned a racially and culturally diverse group of space adventurers peacefully united on a five-year patrol “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Thus became the opening lines and narrative underpinning to Roddenberry’s greatest achievement, the science fiction television series Star Trek, featuring the brave Captain Kirk (played by William Shatner), the logical and pointy-eared Mr. Spock (played by Leonard Nimoy) and the rest of the Starship Enterprise’s eclectic crew. The original series debuted in 1966 and lasted for only three seasons. But it inspired an animated series, four television sequels, eleven feature films and a worldwide cult phenomenon composed of legions of devoted fans known as Trekkers and Trekkies.

“He saw the rich potential of television for energizing, inspiring and activating people,” says George Takei, who played the helmsman Hikaru Sulu, noting how the show also influenced countless individuals to take up careers in areas like computer technology, engineering and aeronautics. “He was a big man in every way,” says Takei. “He was big physically, he was big in his vision and big in his talent.”

The series’ popularity was driven by special effects, such as transporter beams and phaser guns, and imaginative storytelling about encounters with aliens on other planets. But Roddenberry, who died in 1991, viewed it primarily as a vehicle for his morality plays. Tired of writing for TV westerns (which he described as writing about “nothing at all”), he instilled Star Trek with metaphoric commentary on the important issues of the day, from politics, religion (he was an avowed agnostic), war and race relations to sexuality, feminism and other societal concerns. The month that Richard Nixon assumed the office of president on a platform to resolve the Vietnam War, the show aired an episode titled "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield," in which Captain Kirk warned aliens that they “would end up dead if you don’t stop hating.”

Roddenberry believed in the potential of human beings to create a better world. And for many viewers, the series buttressed their faith that mankind was moving toward a more tolerant and integrated future. His optimistic and prescient view was contained in the show’s subliminal message: “If we hang on long enough, there will come a time when we will all get along,” says Walter Koenig, who played the Russian officer, Pavel Chekov, ten years before the first actual joint human space mission between the U.S. and its once mortal enemy, the Soviet Union, took place.

In a 1982 interview, Roddenberry explained, “I saw an opportunity to use the series, to use it as an opportunity to say things I believe, like to be different doesn’t necessarily mean to be ugly.”

He integrated his cast with actors of many different races and backgrounds. Unlike the two-dimensional Asian stereotypes usually seen on television, Takei, a Japanese-American actor, played a regular crewmember, one who spoke without an accent. Roddenberry pulled a triple coup by casting the black actress Nichelle Nichols in a position of authority as Lieutenant Uhuru, one of the few black female leads in a major television show.

Nichols also shared, with co-star William Shatner, what has been popularly cited as the first on-air interracial kiss between black and white actors. It caused a brouhaha during the shooting. “In the middle of the kiss I hear ‘Cut, cut, cut,’” says Nichols, describing the director’s concern that it would alienate broadcasters in the conservative Deep South. Then Roddenberry appeared on set alongside studio executives. “He said, ‘Yes, I approved it,’” recalls Nichols. “He was determined to go with the kiss because he was changing people’s minds. He was changing people’s attitudes.”

A tall man (6’ 3”) with a sly sense of humor, Eugene Wesley Roddenberry was born in El Paso, Texas, in 1921. He grew up in Los Angeles, the son of a police officer. In college, he studied law and aeronautical engineering but never completed his degree. At age twenty, having already obtained a pilot’s license, he enlisted with the U.S. Army Air Corps, flying decorated combat missions during World War II. He subsequently became a pilot for Pan American World Airways, earning a further commendation for his rescue efforts after a plane he was taking to Istanbul crashed in the Syrian desert.

Having already begun selling stories to flying magazines, it was perhaps during those long intercontinental flights that Roddenberry got his first creative stirrings regarding Star Trek. “He talked about the New York-to-Delhi flight,” says Ernie Over, a former personal assistant for Roddenberry. “With the plane on autopilot, he said all you had to do was look at the stars.”

To support his family and be closer to the burgeoning Hollywood television industry, he joined the Los Angeles Police Department in 1949 and was eventually promoted to sergeant. As part of the department’s press office, he wrote press releases and speeches for the chief of police and jumpstarted his television career by helping fellow officers craft their police beat experiences into story treatments for the television show Dragnet (the show’s production company had a special arrangement with the LAPD). If the story sold, Roddenberry would receive 50 percent of the proceeds, or $50. By studying how the treatments were transformed into episodes, he taught himself to write scripts. After multiple tries, he got his first break with a script he sold under the pseudonym Robert Wesley. It became an episode for the series Mr. District Attorney.

After resigning from the police force in late 1956, he turned into a scriptwriting machine, churning out episodes for The West Point Story, Dr. Christian, Boots and Saddles, The Jane Wyman Theater, Kaiser Aluminum Hour, Jefferson Drum, Bat Masterson and other TV shows. His 1957 script “Helen of Abijinian,” for Have Gun, Will Travel, won the Writers Guild Award for best-written script for a TV Western.

Roddenberry’s ambitions next led him to create and produce The Lieutenant, a series that starred Gary Lockwood and Robert Vaughn and centered on a young man in the U.S. Marine Corps. There, too, he didn’t shy away from controversy, fashioning an episode that frankly examined race relations.

But it was with Star Trek that Roddenberry found his voice. To convince NBC to take a chance on his idea, he kept his progressive story agenda to himself. “Well, first of all, I lied to them,” Roddenberry explained to an interviewer years ago. “I told them, ‘Look, it’s just going to be like Wagon Train in space, only they’ll ride rockets instead of horses.’”

When his first pilot was deemed “too cerebral” by the network, he was given the chance to try again. “I rewrote the script so that Bill Shatner got into a fight with someone or some people, and they were satisfied,” he said.

Produced at Desilu Studios, the first season was created on such a small budget that the celestial backdrops consisted of a black cloth with holes cut out and light shown through them. “We had to explain computers,” Roddenberry said. He also attempted to show women as equal to men by casting a woman as second-in-command, but studio executives refused.

“In the original series, he was fettered by the studio. They censored and made demands on him,” says Richard Arnold, a personal assistant to Roddenberry and an expert on Star Trek. He says Roddenberry poured his heart into the series. “For the first two years, he was on top of every script and casting decision,” says Arnold, even at the expense of friendships with writers who took umbrage when he rewrote their scripts. “It was his baby, and he wanted it right.”

Initially, the series wasn’t hugely popular. It was canceled after the second season. But a fan-based letter-writing campaign brought it back. When it was finally canceled after the third season, no one could have guessed that it would yield forty years of sequels and spin-offs. “Star Trek was a sleeper hit,” says Arnold. “No one knew how big it was until it was canceled.”

After the original series went into reruns, it spawned the first official Star Trek convention in 1972. Organizers expected 500 people and got 3,000, many dressed as Klingons, Tribbles and other alien characters from the show. NASA delivered a scaled-down model of the spaceship. And the popular science fiction writer and fan Isaac Asimov made an appearance.

Roddenberry, meanwhile, turned to other projects, including writing and producing the sexploitation film Pretty Maids All in a Row. He realigned with Paramount Pictures to produce the first Star Trek film in 1979, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. And he worked as an executive consultant on the next four films. He also served as an executive producer and helped to write the first television sequel, Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Roddenberry has been inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame and honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. An asteroid is named after him and a capsule of his ashes was “buried” in space. He once said that he was afraid, initially, of getting calls from NASA officials criticizing him for being scientifically inaccurate in his television renderings. Instead scientists and astronauts sought him out to share ideas. The first U.S. space shuttle orbiter Enterprise was named after the Star Trek spacecraft. And Star Trek was the first television series to have an episode preserved in the Smithsonian.

As for Roddenberry’s legacy, says Arnold, it “is that he made what he believed in. And when he was able to do it his way, he made the most successful science fiction series ever.” That’s because, he adds, “it spoke about the human condition in a positive way. That we would survive into the future peacefully and with dignity.”

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