By James Nelson
In case you avoided the media blitz on Thursday, William Shatner has released a new documentary about The Great Bird of the Galaxy; the man, the myth, the legend, Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek. The documentary focuses entirely on the creation of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the tumultuous first three seasons as the show struggled to find its own footing on TV and among Trek fans. In the midst of this documentary, much is revealed of the pivotal role Gene Roddenberry played in nearly snuffing out his creation in its infancy. The documentary is solid, and I recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen it, but the sordid details did not surprise me in the slightest (as many of them are discussed by cast and crew on the special feature of the season one and two blu-rays of TNG). This, however, was a pattern in Roddenberry’s dealings with Trek whenever he was not in firm control he usually resorted to sabotaging his own creation. Here are the various ways Roddenberry tried to kill Star Trek.
Season Three of The Original Series
Season three of the original series suffered from numerous problems. The network had tried to cancel it, and was only barely saved by the producers and fans, the departing of the regular series writers like Gene Coon and Dorothy (D.C.) Fontana, and finally Roddenberry largely abandoned Star Trek to pursuit other projects. As a result, NBC was forced to install a replacement for Roddenberry, Fred Freiberger, and the quality declined. Personally, season three is one of my favorite seasons, but that might be me liking it just because it’s Star Trek and does not have any real bearing on my critical eye (But “Day of the Dove” is still one of the best episodes of Trek!). Roddenberry continuously antagonized NBC by leveraging fans against the network, thereby making execs hate the show by proxy. This, combined by continued low ratings, killed TOS. You can read more about this in volume three of These are the Voyages.
Roddenberry was personally responsible for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which was based largely on his premise for Star Trek: Phase II and a script he co-wrote. His vision guided the movie and it resulted in disappointing gross, lukewarm critical reception, and a bloated budget. As a result, Roddenberry was locked out of Wrath of Khan. Roddenberry hated Wrath of Khan because he felt it made Starfleet too militaristic. He was also shut out creatively, but that didn’t stop him from leaking the script, including the ending. He then proceeded to do the same for the third and sixth film. Then during the sixth film he repeatedly clashed with Nicholas Meyer over the military overtones, the bigotry in the central characters, and the revelation that Saavik was to be a traitor to Starfleet. Eventually, that fact would be changed, but not before Nicholas Meyer, the director of Wrath of Khan and Undiscovered Country said, “I created Saavik. She was not Gene’s. If he doesn’t like what I plan on doing with her, maybe he should give back the money he’s made off my films. Maybe then I’ll care what he has to say.”
The Next Generation
According to Shatner’s new documentary, Roddenberry never intended to do another Star Trek series when TNG was being conceived in 1986. He was actually planning on retirement after being relegated to a symbolic position in the movies (he was made executive consultant and everyone had learned how to ignore him). Paramount, the rights holders at the time, wanted to do another series, but believed they couldn’t do one unless it had the blessing of Roddenberry. He was paid a handsome sum for it and assumed the role of showrunner. Previous Trek writers, like Dorothy Fontana, were brought back to write for the new show, along with new comers who’d never written for, or seen Star Trek (sound familiar?).
The main crux of the problem with the first and second season lay almost entirely on Gene Roddenberry, specifically his vision of the future. Since TOS, Roddenberry had advanced further in his views on humanism, so much so that there was to be no conflict between characters or even others species within the federation. It was a utopia and no one knew how to write for perfect people. In addition, Roddenberry’s lawyer (who sounds like a class act) repeated meddled with scripts, gave contradictory orders from Roddenberry, hired and fired new writers and promoted the new ones over Star Trek veterans. It was said in the documentary that he carried around “the wrath of Gene,” essentially since he had been alienated and banished from the movies he was going to hold onto this series in order to preserve his vision. In the first season thirty writers either were fired or quit, and there were only 26 episodes. Then, right before the second season, Roddenberry left, handed the reigns over to one of the new writers, and the show was left with effectively no show runner that season (as the writer, Hurley, title was Head Writer that season). It wasn’t until Michael Piller came onboard to replace Hurley, and Roddenberry’s death, that TNG became the show we remember.
Roddenberry’s vision was absolutely indispensable in the creation of Star Trek, and he also created some of the franchises most enduring characters and races (Q for instance), but the best elements of Star Trek came from others, like Gene Coon, Dorothy Fontana, Paul Schneider, Ronald D. Moore, Ira Steven Behr, Michael Piller and yes, even Maurice Hurley and Brannon Braga. Star Trek succeeded in spite of Roddenberry, not because of him.