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 appeared 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.
The high-quality science fiction in the shows also undoubtedly contributed to their popularity. Star Trek storylines often borrowed ideas from the cutting edge of current scientific thought. Episodes incorporated such things as alternate probable “nows” resulting from changed outcomes of past events, the possibility that consciousness creates reality (not the other way around), and the relative nature of time. (In one memorable episode of The Next Generation, Captain Picard experiences 40 years of time passing while only 30 minutes go by for everyone else). In that same spirit, the technology appearing in both shows was always based on the most accurate ideas available about where science and technology were headed.
All these things helped make Star Trek a “cutting-edge” program that appealed to thinking viewers, as well as those who were only looking for a little mindless diversion. But as appealing as these characteristics are, they’re not sufficient to explain the unparalleled popularity of the Star Trek phenomenon.
More of the same?
The giveaway that something else is going on lies in the third and fourth Star Trek shows that appeared in the nineties: Deep Space Nine and Voyager. Both of these programs were supposedly based on the same premise. They were set in the same time period as The Next Generation, and characters on these shows interacted with characters and storylines from the first two series. Like most viewers, when I tuned in to watch I was expecting more of that special entertainment that only Star Trek could deliver.
But I quickly discovered that the feeling I got from the first two shows was missing. Specifically, that feeling of comfort — of being in the presence of a good friend — was gone. And once again, I wasn’t the only Star Trek fan who noticed the change. Something about the two new shows was different. But what?
The man at the helm
The answer lies in the vision of the shows’ creators. As most people know, the first two shows, Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation, were both created by Gene Roddenberry. Gene Roddenberry, who had been everything from a policeman to an Air Force pilot before he became a writer, had an idealistic vision of the future.
Roddenberry also had an idealistic vision of his audience. When creating the first show he constantly fought with the networks about what was acceptable to include in the show. When he created a female character to be the second in command of the starship in the original pilot for the first show, the networks vetoed the character. (In all fairness, this happened in 1967, and even the women in test audiences felt the character wasn’t believable!) When Gene wanted to have an alien on board who had pointy ears, the network said no — he looked too much like a devil! (Gene Roddenberry chose to stand firm on this point, and he not only prevailed, he lived long and prospered.)
But oddly enough, there was one premise the show was based on that the networks didn’t have a problem with, but the writers did. That was a firm rule that Gene Roddenberry set up and fought hard to maintain during his tenure over the first two Star Treks: There is no petty infighting or antisocial behavior from any member of the crew. Basically, Roddenberry set the show in a future in which people had risen above all the kinds of behavior we would call “dysfunctional.” Essentially, everyone in the cast always behaved as I would have if I were at my best.
In hindsight it’s clear to me that this was the reason I felt that the characters were close friends, not just acquaintances. I could see them as heroes, feel close to them — even identify with them — without fear that they’d suddenly do something mean-spirited or hurtful.
Trouble behind the scenes
Basing a show around a premise like this might not seem like such an outrageous thing to do. But in terms of putting shows together every day it caused a great deal of trouble. The writers complained bitterly about this requirement. Why? Because almost all stories written for any medium these days are based around some conflict between the principal characters, and there’s almost always some “dysfunctional” behavior involved. In fact, this is such a common formula for a story that many writers were at a loss about how to come up with a good story that didn’t resort to this kind of plot device.
Because of this, Gene Roddenberry spent a great deal of his time rewriting other people’s scripts, especially during the first year of both shows. This did not sit well with the writers. In fact, most of the writers to this very day still complain that this was not only unnecessary, but infantile-because it was so unrealistic.
Perhaps the best example of this involves the most popular episode from the first series: The City on the Edge of Forever. This episode was written by Harlan Ellison, now a well-known and successful science fiction writer. In the version that appeared on TV, a series of events is triggered when Doctor McCoy is accidentally injected with medicine intended for someone else. The psychotropic nature of the drug causes him to “flip out” for a while, leaving the ship and traveling through a time portal into the past, where he takes actions that alter history. (Naturally, Kirk and Spock must undo the damage done by the temporarily deranged McCoy.)
In Harlan Ellison’s original script, the problem was caused by a crew member who got another crew member to do something crooked, tempting him with the futuristic equivalent of LSD. Of course, Roddenberry wasn’t about to leave that in, so he altered the script to fit the Star Trek premise that people didn’t behave that way any more.
How does Harlan Ellison feel about this? In his own words: “That was the first time I ever heard that miserable excuse for hackneyed formula writing…. Never mind that human beings are irrational and unpredictable and an amalgam of good and bad and smart and dumb. You mean to tell me…that all 430 of these spacefaring men and women are saints, without flaw or natural human instincts or crankiness or rotten spots in their nature?”1
This kind of reaction to Roddenberry’s premise has been expressed by many, many people who have worked on the shows. Maurice Hurley, a writer-producer on The Next Generation professed disbelief in what he called Roddenberry’s “wacky doodle” vision of the future. “You suspend you own feelings and your
own beliefs and you get with his vision-or you get rewritten.”2
Flying in the face of convention
It’s not hard to understand that creating a story based on an unfamiliar premise could be difficult. But that difficulty isn’t what irritates these folks. Roddenberry’s premise that current social ills won’t exist 300 years from now conflicts with their own beliefs about human nature. Like many people, they see no reason to think that our problems will be resolved.
Their attitude may not be so hard to understand, given the world we live in. Our culture has two primary belief systems that most people become entangled in, to one degree or another: the perspective espoused by science, and the belief system put forward by religion. Both of these systems see the cause of our problems lying within us. On the one hand, science says we evolved from primitive beings and have a strong “natural” urge to violence and self-protection (i.e., survival) at other people’s expense. On the other hand, many religions teach us that we are born sinners – beings created by a judgmental (and violent) God.
Is it any wonder that people steeped in these kinds of traditions are going to have trouble with Roddenberry’s premise? These belief systems say that human beings are inherently flawed. If you accept either of them, there’s no way you’ll buy the idea that our social problems will ever be solved.
But Gene Roddenberry, perhaps at an instinctive level, believed that our social problems are the result of our culture and our upbringing – things that can be changed. Although I’ve never read any interview in which he was asked point blank, I have a feeling that he understood quite well what many people are now coming to believe: Our problems aren’t the result of some internal “flaw,” but the result of learned beliefs about ourselves and others. Whether those beliefs are the result of currently accepted cultural stereotypes, ignorance, abuse, or even some of the more pessimistic ideas espoused by science or religion, they have a profound effect on the image we have of ourselves. More important, they shape our interpretation of events and our choices about how we react to them.
The bottom line? If our problems are the result of external causes, not internal flaws, then they can be solved. People’s behavior really can be changed.
It’s still considered “hip” to be cynical. But the evidence is mounting that this very un-cynical idea is true — that we really do have the potential to solve our social problems and create a society in which people are not “dysfunctional.” More important, I think everyone knows this is true at some level, no matter what they may believe intellectually.
It is this idea-that we are not flawed-that I believe accounts for Star Trek’s popularity. A happy future is one thing. A future that demonstrates that it was our beliefs that were flawed, not ourselves, is quite another matter. This was Gene Roddenberry’s secret ingredient. The shows were not just entertaining us — they were verifying something about our potential that the world often tells us is not true. And this, I believe, is what quietly made Star Trek the overwhelmingly popular world phenomenon that it’s become.
The exceptions that prove the rule
Gene Roddenberry’s gradual retreat from the Next Generation, and his death in October 1991 during the fifth season of the show, left others in charge. And many of those in charge also felt that Roddenberry’s belief in the “perfectibility of human nature” was unrealistic. Rick Berman, the man who took over after Gene’s death and was in charge of the third and fourth Star Trek shows, Deep Space Nine and Voyager, said this: “…Let’s just say that I do not believe that human beings in 300 years are going to be free of want, disease, ignorance and interpersonal struggle. I don’t believe that for a minute.”3 Berman keeps a bust of Gene Roddenberry on his desk — wearing a blindfold.
The change in overseers didn’t have a drastic effect on The Next Generation. Change was limited by the established nature of the show and its characters. But subtle changes did creep in. Perhaps the most visible change occurred at the very end of the series, when the writers created a band of violent rebels, the Maquis, some of whom were members of Star Fleet who disagreed with Star Fleet policy – and were willing to resort to violence to make their point. This was a concept that Roddenberry had vetoed early in the series (as an explanation for a seeming conspiracy in Star Fleet). But the new producers felt it was a perfectly viable idea, and it ultimately became an important part of the fourth show, Voyager.
The dropping of Roddenberry’s premise is much more evident in the two newer shows. Characters engage in far more petty infighting and skullduggery. The characters’ philosophy — sometimes clearly stated — is that people are inherently flawed. In fact, the two new shows seem very much like any other TV shows set in today’s social climate, despite the lofty tones of many story concepts. In the first episode of Voyager, for example, one of the main human characters was pulled from a prison colony on Earth for duty onboard the ship. And once onboard the ship, he was treated with disdain and anger by other crew members. There’s no way Gene Roddenberry would ever have tolerated that. This is simply not the vision of the future that has spoken so powerfully to millions of Star Trek fans over the years.
Setting a course for the future
Much of the pleasure we derive from watching movies and TV shows comes from identifying with the characters in the story. Ordinary stories tell us about people like ourselves, who have flaws and do things they regret, even when they know better. Identifying with such characters may be fun. But identifying with characters who remind us of ourselves at our best — people who are like us, but represent the real potential we all know we have inside us — that’s not only fun, it’s uplifting. It’s magic.
Because the creators of the newer Star Trek shows steered them away from Gene Roddenberry’s premise, I doubt that either show will achieve the level of popularity the first two shows reached. They’re fun to watch sometimes, but the magic is gone.
I firmly believe that every person knows, deep inside, that he or she is innocent at heart. Gene Roddenberry spoke to that innate understanding. He gave us a concrete vision of ourselves that supports that knowledge and reminds us of our potential. And he got millions – perhaps billions – of people across the planet to visualize a future in which that potential is realized.
Thank goodness for syndicated reruns!
© October 1999 by Christopher Kent. All rights reserved.
- Harlan Ellison, Look Back in Anger, Star Trek: Four Generations (A TV Guide Special Publication), Spring 1995, page 65
- Eduard Gross, Starlog, No. 152, March 1990, pg. 29
- Interviewed in Star Trek: Four Generations (A TV Guide Special Publication), Spring 1995, page 12