Gene Roddenberry’s Secret Ingredient

A little-known behind-the-scenes conflict may be responsible for the unparalleled success of the Star Trek TV empire.

(Note: this is an edited version of an article that first appearedĀ in Reality Change magazine in 1999. At that time, four Star Trek shows had aired: the original, Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager. Star Treks Enterprise, Discovery and Picard were created after this article was published.)

“To boldly go where no one has gone before….” These well-known words from the opening of Star Trek, the Next Generation are bound to elicit a smile. After all, making your way through this crazy world feels a lot like being on an urgent mission in the farthest reaches of the galaxy, expanding the boundaries of known space, facing new life and civilizations – with only a few sturdy (if slightly odd) companions aboard your starship!

There’s no getting around it: The first two Star Trek shows, Star Trek and Star Trek: the Next Generation (now and forever in syndicated reruns) hold an undeniable appeal for millions of people around the world. In fact, the Star Trek “franchise” has become one of the most successful entertainment enterprises (no pun intended) of the 20th century.

It’s easy to attribute this success to the shows’ premise: that our descendants will be brave explorers, pushing the boundaries of human understanding in a happy future in which all of our worst social problems have been solved. And it certainly hasn’t hurt that the storylines were frequently on a par with the best that science fiction has to offer.

But there’s more going on here than meets the eye. To uncover the real secret behind Star Trek’s incredible success, we need to look more closely at the shows – and the people behind them.

“Beam me up, Scotty!”

Both of the first Star Trek shows were based on the same premise: 300 years in the future, man has triumphed over most of the problems that bedevil us today. A cast of characters, always including at least one alien, travel around the galaxy in a starship capable of moving at several times the speed of light. Each week, in their search for new life and civilizations, they encounter some problem needing a resolution.

In the first Star Trek program, which aired in the late sixties, the macho and slightly brazen Captain Kirk knocked the alien women off their feet and did whatever was necessary to save the day – whether it meant fist fights or brilliant philosophical solutions to some planet’s moral dilemma. The second show, Star Trek, the Next Generation, aired almost 20 years later. It had a similar premise, but was set 50 years further into the future. The Next Generation featured a different cast, led by a more cerebral (but equally brave and ingenious) Captain Jean Luc Picard. The less brash and violent tone of the second show seemed to reflect a more mature creator – and a more mature audience.

There was something very special about the cast of characters featured in these two programs – something that set them apart from the rest of the characters on TV. At the time, I could never quite pin down what it was. But I knew this much: Whenever I watched either of the Star Trek shows, I felt like I was visiting a dear old friend. I could let down my guard. I didn’t have to worry that the characters were going to do something that would shock or disappoint me. At the same time, the weekly episodes were exciting, imaginative and witty, and they never insulted my intelligence.

Apparently a lot of other people felt the same way.