Thursday, October 24, 2013

Gene Roddenberry-The Day The Great Bird Flew Away

                    On this day in 1991,an extraordinary day occurred-not only in my life but to those who admired,and perhaps felt that their lives were saved in some way by, Star Trek. The shows creator Gene Roddenberry passed away at the age of 70 from what was described as cardiopulmonary arrest. What I personally remember most was that the Star Trek-The Next Generation two part story 'Unification' contained a special dedicatory preface to him before the episode began. It was a sad day for sure. It felt as if I had lost a family member. The just and progressive universe Roddenberry projected in Star Trek was extremely inspiration to anyone who marched to the beat of their own drummer,and were fascinated by the possibilities about how humanity would interact with others in the cosmos. It was so positive for the imagination and creativity.

                       What can be said about Gene Roddenberry today? One of the most important factors in Roddenberry's life was the fact that he was born in what William Strauss's documentary novel Generations describes as the GI generation-having been born later in that particular era in 1921. These were the generation who,in youth through early middle age,lived through the Great Depression and fought the second world war. Historically they were known as great intellects and industrialists-able to create great physical feats in a then unheard of shortness of time. Yet at the same time,many of that generation seemed to lack what many might call a soul. They tended to view the human race,and the world, with a clinical cynicism and were usually more competitive than cooperative with other people. The most important thing about Gene Roddenberry is that,in this context,he was a complete generational aberration.

                       Gene himself ranked above the ninetieth percentile administrated for his college entrance exam,however he chose to follow what he called the "solidly blue collar" political science curriculum. During World War 2 he was in the US Air Force and was awarded some of its highest honors. As a trouble shooter for Pan Am in the late 1940's and later work with the LAPD in the 1950's,Gene was exposed to a very well rounded side of life. He was able to experience first hand the ironies of post war America: the contradictions of hope for a better country combined with the fearful paranoia of McCarthyism.  In the late 50's he of course became interested in television writing. And his initial ideas of course mostly had to do with then contemporary police drama. But gradually this grew into new ideas for Roddenberry's creativity and his personal growth as well.

                    Beginning production on the first Star Trek pilot in 1963,he of course managed to convince NBC to commission as second pilot-starring William Shatner as (strangely enough at the time) a James R. Kirk. A few tweaks to this idea and television history was made. Gene Roddenberry's legacy with Star Trek was its encouragement of progressive social ideas to a nation that was facing sometimes frightening social change. He vehemently advocated and praised the idea of the Starship Enterprise as a "spaceship Earth"-representing many different races celebrating a familial sense of teamwork-exploring the cosmos while making pointed social commentary along the way. During an era when most of society was motivated by the fear of a premature death to humanity by weapons of mass destruction such as nuclear weapons,Star Trek-at its very least,showcased that humanity had a happy future to look forward to.

                    The story of Gene Roddenberry's vision projected in Star Trek has come very near to having a very sad ending,however. Almost exactly at the time of his passing,American pop culture made an almost total about face rejection of just about everything that Star Trek had stood for. A complete sense of anger and cynicism overtook people as science fiction-including some elements of later Star Trek spin-off's,became more and more focused on violence and lack of hope. The most cynical aspect of this began to come into the public's view of Roddenberry following his death. The "Great Bird" suddenly became known as being a mildly lecherous person,with drug habits of epic proportions who primarily entered into the world of television writing due to the lack of quality income from his LAPD career. And therefore,long story short,Star Trek as he'd conceived it seemed to die a long and slow death as well.

                    It might seem that little has changed. The societal cynicism and often very anti humanistic viewpoints touted from the early 1990's onward are still strongly in place. And as of today no new Star Trek series currently runs on television. At the same time,reruns of the many branches that came out of Gene's original idea-from The Next Generation,DS9 and Voyager are always on the air somewhere in the world. And who knows-perhaps someone who has lost hope in life gathered the same inspiration from Gene's vision of the future of humanity as the earliest generation of Star Trek admirers. To me what Gene Roddenberry created with Star Trek is all about generations: the ethics of the generation before him,the one after him who challenged authority and were out to change the world and most importantly,the cynically hopeless later generation who actually needed what Star Trek had to offer more than even they realized. No matter his public perceptions,flaws and foibles Gene Roddenberry will always represent to me the best qualities of futurist humanism.




  1. He was truly a visionary. Unfortunately, many people in Hollywood, even at the beginning of it all, found his view of the future to be too positive to believe in. But what they frequently missed was that Gene wasn't really painting the future, but what a possible future might look like if we put away our hatred of one another. If we devoted as much resource to improving our lives as we do in ending them, there really is nothing we couldn't accomplish. He tried to convey to his audiences that even though people do bad things, we are capable of doing great goods. It's still an impossible dream for many to believe in these days, but the message still holds as much water now as it did then.

  2. Jeff your comment is as close to perfection,in terms of it's describing of Gene Roddenberry's creative elan,as any human being could ask.