Death and humanism, Part 1: Star Trek

Cast of "The Undiscovered Country"
Star Trek original crew

I’m a member of the older half of “Generation X” — born 1965 to 1985 — so I’m a product of 1970s and 1980s popular culture. Trek Nation and The Muppets reminded me fondly of my childhood and demonstrated why the humanism of Gene Roddenberry and Jim Henson are much missed today.

The Science Channel has been showing documentaries including Ridley Scott’s Prophets of Science Fiction and Trek Nation (shades of the SciFi Channel’s Sciography) The former examines the lives and influence of various creators, while the latter is a more personal account of Rod Roddenberry’s attempts to learn more about his late father. Both show the great ideas and character flaws of their subjects.

Like Rod Roddenberry, I was only vaguely aware of the original Star Trek television series until I caught reruns in college. While I would have liked to have seen more discussion of Gene Roddenberry’s impact on space opera and genre entertainment in general, I understand his son’s desire to know his father better, despite their personality differences.

Gene Roddenberry had been a pilot in World War II and for Pan Am before becoming a police officer and eventually a TV writer and producer. His idealism helped propel Star Trek to cult popularity and inspired several real-world astronauts, despite network confusion and early cancellation. However, Roddenberry was also an emotionally absent father and a philanderer, and there was much of his swashbuckling attitude in Capt. James T. Kirk.

I knew much about the elder Roddenberry’s life and works, but Trek Nation provides interesting glimpses behind the scenes and beyond the usual interviews with actors and fans. For example, I didn’t know that acclaimed writer D.C. Fontana and Roddenberry parted on less-than-friendly terms. I still admire Gene Roddenberry’s desire to show a multiethnic future relatively free of strife and to provide parables about the Vietnam War, even if his personal life was far from a model one.

Rick Berman, Michael Piller, and Ron Moore were understandably impatient with Gene Roddenberry’s relentless optimism, since good drama does require interpersonal conflict. However, I think that they and others took the franchise in a different and ultimately less successful direction. Most of the Star Trek movies have focused on villains rather than exploration or diplomacy, and the TV spin-offs after The Next Generation — Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise — increasingly watered down Roddenberry’s vision.

As space operas, Star Trek (and Star Wars, whose creator George Lucas gamely gives an interview to Rod Roddenberry in Trek Nation) juggle the desire for mythic archetypes with a rational, scientific universe as well as galaxy-scale, militaristic action with the power of close friendships. Author David Brin and other fans have taken sides, preferring one over the other, but I’ve enjoyed installments of both Star Trek and Star Wars for many years.

Interestingly, J.J. Abrams — whose recent cinematic reboot created an alternate continuity around the original 1960s characters with new actors — seems to understand the core of Trek better than many others at Paramount. I may not have liked Abrams’ overreliance on lens flares or his setting aside of the Next Generation‘s timeline, but he tells Rod Roddenberry in Trek Nation that even as a non-Trekkie, he understands why Kirk, Spock, McCoy and crew should reflect the aspirations of the audience and the hope for progress in uncertain times. Live long and prosper!

I definitely recommend Trek Nation to any Trekker or Trekkie, as well as to fans of speculative fiction and genre TV in general. Next up, I’ll look at the latest effort to restore another beloved franchise to the public consciousness — the Muppets!

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One thought on “Death and humanism, Part 1: Star Trek

  1. I’m a big fan of the Abrams reboot — I felt he really nailed the original spirit of ST — I do worry that the new series will continue the “new evil baddie to defeat” ideas many of the films use. I completely missed Trek Nation — I’m hoping Netflix picks it up.

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