STAR TREK - An Appreciation Of Gene Roddenberry

In this weeks Star Trek column Tom Pheby looks at the man behind the franchise, the late great Gene Roddenberry.

The brilliance and vision of Gene Roddenberry as one of the best writers of a science fiction can sometimes be ignored or overlooked, whether this is down to snobbishness or ignorance is difficult to say. Born August 19th 1921, this Texan had a busy and varied existence before becoming a creative scribe. He had an astonishing and surprising CV that is not widely known outside of Trek fandom.

Firstly, you may or may not be aware that he was a combat pilot for the US Air-force. Roddenberry was quite the hero, flying over 80 missions in combat. Before the end of his career he was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal for acts of bravery, before being discharged to embark on a new career path. He didn't look far as initially he worked as a commercial pilot, and then followed in his father's footsteps and spent a number of years as a policeman in the LAPD. It was at this time that he began to write for television, initially to supplement his income and support his family.

Roddenberry spent several years writing under the pseudonym of Robert Wesley, submitting scripts for shows including Highway Patrol and Have Gun Will Travel. His eventual decision to go into writing full time was filled with regret as he loved his job on the Police force. But in 1956 he resigned, unable to continue supporting his family on a policeman's wage. He knew it was a gamble but hoped to 'make it big', little did he know how his life would turn around. He recognises this as the toughest decision of his life, but ultimately it provided him with the opportunity to make a lucrative career which gave him the kind of recognition that very few get to achieve. It was a brave decision and the mark of the man, of his single mindlessness and determination, and it would be repaid ten fold .

Eventually he began to develop ideas for his own programs, after several failed attempts he hit upon his first success. In 1963 he created and produced the US Marine Corps Cold War drama The Lieutenant, which incidentally featured Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) in the pilot episode. It lasted just one season. Roddenberry went back to the drawing board and began to develop a new show that would become known as Star Trek.

The overall feel of Star Trek was influenced by early sci-fi gems such as Buck Rogers, but it also had a hefty dollop of the classic Western story about it. Roddenberry wove together his favourite genres and stories and gently simmered them in a pot to produce something refreshingly new. After a series of knock-backs and Network rejections, Star Trek went into production in 1966.

The show was, of course, helped by a fabulous cast, capable of taking Roddenberry's initial character breakdowns and developing them into their own unique creations. Kirk was written as the wild, anti-establishment figure. He flew by the seat of his pants, ignoring established convention and protocol, reacting to circumstance and gut feeling, William Shatner delivered this with subdued aplomb. When it came to creating the character of Spock, Roddenberry based the Vulcan on a 'real person', an LAPD chief by the name of William Parker who apparently gave away little in the way of emotion and was capable of delivering almost impassive conversations or speeches on a daily basis. During casting nothing similar could be referenced or had been seen before, so the actors portrayal could so easily have descended into farce or become a badly executed joke. But it is to Leonard Nimoy's eternal credit that he developed one of the most iconic characters that has ever existed in Science Fiction. Spock wasn't to everyone's liking though, in some early publicity shots his ears were rounded off, producers felt the character may appear 'too Devil like' (sensitive times in the 60's).

Roddenberry tried to breakdown the barriers of nationality during the cold war era by devising Chekov and Sulu, a sensitive subject indeed, but it was a different non-white character that sat uneasily with a number of Network executives. Roddenberry certainly broke with convention by creating Uhura, at a time when racial tensions were still running high the inclusion of an empowered black woman could've been enough to keep the show off the air! Just to illustrate the point of how sensitive things were back then, Whoopi Goldberg is said to have shouted to her Mother "Momma, there's a black lady on the TV and she ain't no maid!" This was radical at the time and could have backfired dramatically.

To perfect the look of the show Roddenberry worked with several other visionaries, including set designer Matt Jefferies. His design for the Enterprise was unique, avoiding traditional rocket shapes or those of flying saucers. Jeffries later admitted that It was actually based on the coil element of a cooker, so by virtue could be called an appliance of science!

Star Trek premiered on September 8th 1966. Based on his previous experiences, Roddenberry, being the unassuming character that he was, was totally convinced that his new creation would not last beyond its pilot episode, let alone the opening season, you could say he was very unaware of its potential at this time. But as we all know the show did continue and Roddenberry finally caught a break. His career started to go into overdrive making him legendary in Sci-Fi circles. Sure the 'Original Series' was cancelled in 1969 but his vision and creative powers were not about to be consigned to the TV graveyard by any stretch of the imagination.

Star Trek was a radical and groundbreaking show that just needed to seep into the viewers psyche, sometimes it takes a while for an audience to realise what they have, or what they are missing. Viewers around the world would eventually get to grips with this futuristic drama, they embraced it and demand more. At the heart of the show was the element of trust and friendship, probably going back to Roddenberry's days in the Air-force and Police. Star Trek is a story of virtue and honour, and this is one of the reasons that its even richer in its conception and makes us suck it up at an unconscious level.

Gene Roddenberry gave the world the idealistic concept of races and species forming a federation, all trying to live happily in the pursuit of advancement, embracing differences and fostering the notion of peace throughout the vast expanse of space. Quite ironic and naive when you consider we still live on a planet that is never free from war in one region or another, but it is a view that perhaps we should all subscribe to.

Star Trek has, of course, been a huge commercial success that spawned spin off's by the cartload and inspired many other offerings down the years. It's impact is immeasurable and it's success spans almost 50 years, six different series, over 700 episodes and a host of feature films that have delighted millions.

Is it the most influential Science Fiction adventure of all time? Well there's plenty to support that particular claim for various reasons. Roddenberry's ideas inspired a generation of writers to give us more detailed characters that we could embrace and care about, and to be more creative in what was becoming a tired and flagging genre.

Few on the planet can claim to have never heard of these fictional innovations, and who hasn't used a Star Trek based reference in their daily lives? I've said on numerous occasions, when under pressure, "Beam me up!", and many times when I've found something stuck fast to an object "it's a Klingon!" (not quite what Roddenberry would want it to mean, I know).

In my opinion Gene Roddenberry should be held in the same esteem as Arthur C Clarke or Isaac Asimov because of his sizeable and lasting contribution. Through the creative mind of Roddenberry, Star Trek gave us teleportation, shuttles (before they were invented), communicators (which some mobile phone company's emulated with the 'Flip'), phasers and warp drive. In many cases it is as if life has imitated art - at one point even NASA paid its own tribute by naming a shuttle 'Enterprise'.

Without any shadow of a doubt, Roddenberry has the distinction of creating the most enduring American space adventure franchise in living memory, aside from Star Wars. But I suspect that deep down even George Lucas feels that Trek was an inspiration. The two giants are inseparable in many ways, in 1977 Star Trek was being enjoyed worldwide by more people than had watched it originally. It's only logical to assume that this huge audience craved more space adventures and they certainly found that in the impressive Star Wars: A New Hope. In turn Episode IV's success then triggered an interest in Star Trek's return, it was proof that a big screen science fiction flick could deliver and without that knowledge Paramount might not have stumped up the budget for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The connections continue to this day as J.J. Abrams works feverishly bringing back Star Wars after his success with Star Trek. I love both franchises but I would always call myself a Trekkie first and foremost.

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