Roddenberry, Gene (1921-1991)

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Roddenberry, Gene (1921-1991)

Gene Roddenberry was the creator of a genuine twentieth-century cultural phenomenon: the Star Trek television series. It aired for three seasons between 1966 and 1969 before its cancellation, but went on to thrive in syndication. By the end of the 1990s, the various Star Trek manifestations included four live-action television series, one animated television series, nine feature films, and countless novels, short stories, technical manuals, magazines and fanzines, comic books, fan conventions, and Internet sites. There is even a Star Trek- inspired "language": Klingon. Though Roddenberry died in 1991, the utopian future he envisioned would continue to thrill millions of "Trekkies," as fans are known, via print, television, and cinema.

Growing up in El Paso, Texas, as an isolated and sickly boy who sought temporary refuge from his unhappy circumstances in fantasy, Roddenberry discovered science fiction. Though he grew out of his youthful shell to embark on a varied and adventurous early career, he never lost his appreciation of the genre. After flying for the Army and Pan Am, Roddenberry moved to Los Angeles to become a television writer in the 1950s. While working as a motorcycle policeman for the Los Angeles Police Department, he also wrote episodes for many respected TV series such as Dr. Kildare, Highway Patrol, and Naked City, and became head writer for Have Gun Will Travel. In 1962, he began writing one-hour pilots to sell as potential series, and was the producer of the short-lived show The Lieutenant. When it became clear that the series would not last longer than one season, Roddenberry turned to the science-fiction genre for his next project. Tired of the constraints and timidity of American commercial television, he believed that science fiction was a way to covertly address social issues that sponsors, and hence networks, would otherwise shy away from.

Pursuing this idea, Roddenberry wrote up a proposal for a series titled Star Trek, which, as every true fan knows, Roddenberry described as a kind of " Wagon Train to the stars." He imagined a future in which a united Earth would work together with other alien worlds to create a Federation, which would then dispatch giant starships throughout the galaxy "to boldly go where no man has gone before." The series would focus on the captain and crew of one starship (initially called "Yorktown" but later changed to "Enterprise") during its five-year mission of exploration. To create limitless story potential, Roddenberry staffed his starship with hundreds of crew members; to save money, he also emphasized that the series would use standing sets and visit only "Class M" (Earth-like) planets. He submitted his proposal to MGM on March 11, 1964, and when they failed to respond, he took it to other Hollywood studios. Eventually, it was Desilu, financially strapped and looking for a hit series, that signed Roddenberry to a three-year deal. His next step was to find a network for the show. CBS turned him down, but NBC agreed to give him $20,000 to write three stories, one of which would be chosen for development as a screenplay and pilot episode. Eventually, NBC chose "The Cage" (later changed to "The Menagerie") as the pilot for Star Trek.

Filming on the pilot began on December 12, 1964, and lasted for 12 days. The pilot introduced the characters of Captain Christopher Pike (played by Jeffrey Hunter), the Vulcan officer Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and the female executive officer Number One (Majel Barrett, also the future Mrs. Roddenberry). The pilot cost $686,000 to make because of post-production special effects and budget overruns, and was eventually rejected by NBC as "too cerebral" for the television audience. However, the network took the unprecedented step of requesting another, more action-oriented pilot from Roddenberry. The second pilot, titled "Where No Man Has Gone Before" and using a cast much different from the first but for Nimoy, was accepted. The series was scheduled to begin in the fall of 1966, and after personally supervising the show's crucial first half-season, Roddenberry became executive producer. For the next three television seasons, the series regulars included Captain James Kirk (William Shatner), First Officer Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy, retained from the first pilot), Chief Medical Officer Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott (James Doohan), Helmsman Hikaru Sulu (George Takei), Communications Officer Uhuru (Nichelle Nichols), and Nurse Christine Chapel (Majel Barrett). Ensign Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig) was added to the show in the second season. But ratings were low and NBC decided to cancel the next series. Halfway through that second season, Roddenberry capitalized on a tremendous outpouring of fan-mail support for the series' renewal in order to convince network executives to continue the show. However, when the network decided to place Star Trek in a late-night Friday time slot, which effectively meant killing the show's ratings once and for all, Roddenberry chose to distance himself from daily production, becoming executive producer again. At the end of the 1969 season, the series was canceled.

Although he began developing other television and movie projects, most of which failed, Roddenberry was very much aware of the extremely enthusiastic following that was growing up around Star Trek in syndication. Beginning in 1972, he began working the Star Trek convention circuit, asking the "Trekkers" to write and/or call Hollywood executives in support of reviving the series. Paramount Studios and Roddenberry worked together over a period of years to bring back Star Trek as, alternately, a made-for-TV movie, a series, and a low-budget theatrical movie, but none of the projects panned out. Finally, following the financial success of science fiction feature films such as Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (both 1977), Paramount green-lighted the project that reunited the principals from the television cast and became Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979. Roddenberry co-wrote the screenplay and served as the film's producer, the first and last time that he would have any direct control over the franchise's films. The finished product proved an expensive, effects-heavy disappointment, although it still earned over one hundred million dollars—enough to justify a sequel.

With the sequels, Roddenberry fought a bitter but futile battle over what he saw as ideas designed to damage the franchise. In particular, he objected to the death of Mr. Spock in the second film, the destruction of the "Enterprise" in the third, and the militaristic Federation of the sixth. Nonetheless, he continued as executive producer of the still lucrative films, and in 1987, he created a "spinoff" television series titled Star Trek: The Next Generation. The second series was set 75 years after the original and featured a fresh new crew, led by Patrick Stewart's cerebral Captain Jean-Luc Picard, and a larger and faster starship, the "Enterprise D." After a shaky start, the The Next Generation, with Roddenberry as executive producer, became a bona-fide hit during its third season and ran four more years until the cast graduated to their own feature films in 1994.

Roddenberry died of a heart attack shortly after attending a screening of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country in late 1991, but the success of the Next Generation films and the syndicated Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager series retained its popular appeal and remained a testament to his vision and determination.

—Phil Simpson

Further Reading:

Alexander, David. Star Trek Creator: The Authorized Biography of Gene Roddenberry. New York, Roc, 1994.

Engel, Joel. Gene Roddenberry: The Myth and the Man behind Star Trek. New York, Hyperion, 1994.

Fern, Yvonne. Inside the Mind of Gene Roddenberry: The Creator of Star Trek. London, Harper Collins, 1995.

Gross, Edward. Great Birds of the Galaxy: Gene Roddenberry and the Creators of Star Trek. New York, Image, 1992.

Roddenberry, Gene. Star Trek: The First 25 Years. New York, Pocket Books, 1992.

Shatner, William, with Chris Kreski. Star Trek Memories. New York, Harper Paperbacks, 1994.

——. Star Trek Movie Memories. New York, Harper Paperbacks, 1995.

Van Hise, James. The Man Who Created Star Trek: Gene Roddenberry. Las Vegas, Pioneer, 1992.

Whitfield, Stephen E., and Gene Roddenberry. The Making of Star Trek. New York, Ballantine, 1968.