With everything going on in the world, it’s very difficult to have a positive outlook on our upcoming days. Between racial unrest, climate change, and the fear of democracies falling, it’s hard to imagine a future where humanity unites under a utopian ideal. It was perhaps just as difficult (or even harder) to conceptualize this during the turbulent 1960s. But it’s exactly what writer/producer Gene Roddenberry envisioned when he created Star Trek in 1964. In Roddenberry’s worldview, there was only one race in the future: the human race. And by the 23rd century, we will have put all our differences aside to explore the final frontier.
Gene Roddenberry, born August 19, 1921, changed everything in nerd culture with Star Trek. One can argue there wasn’t even a nerd culture before the series. He produced much content before and after Trek, but make no mistake. The venerable franchise will always be his greatest contribution to pop culture. (No shade towards Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda or anything of his other original works.)
Seven live-action series. Three animated shows. A movie franchise thirteen films strong. Star Trek is 55 years in and shows no signs of slowing down.
“Wagon Train to the Stars”
Gene Roddenberry was a WWII veteran and a working TV writer in the early ’60s. During this era, there were only three networks. And Roddenberry had approximately four creative options: cop drama, western, soap opera, or sitcom. There really wasn’t much else. Roddenberry was endlessly frustrated by the limitations he faced while pitching anything remotely challenging to executives. So he got creative, using a sci-fi angle and allegories to get around network concerns over touchy subject matter. (This also worked to a significant effect on Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone).
With the help of none other than Lucille Ball and her company Desilu, he got financing and a pilot green light for his “Wagon Train to the Stars” series. It was wise of Roddenberry to use the Wagon Train reference. At the time, it was a mega-popular western TV series when Westerns were as ubiquitous as today’s superhero media. And, as always, the best way to get a green light from a studio exec is to describe your show as similar to something that’s already popular.
Cameras started rolling on Star Trek’s pilot, “The Cage,” in 1964. It wasn’t a very action-packed episode. The test audiences balked at a woman first officer, according to Roddenberry’s wife Majel Barrett. That pilot didn’t go to series. But executives either believed in the pilot or were afraid to make an enemy of Lucille Ball, so they made an unprecedented decision. They commissioned a second pilot. And this second pilot, now starring William Shatner as Captain Kirk, went to series in the fall of 1966 on NBC. The starship Enterprise was off to the races.
Progressive Storytelling Against All Odds
There is ample documentation about the many boundaries Roddenberry pushed in the three seasons Star Trek aired on NBC. He had a multi-ethnic cast, including a Black woman (Nichelle Nichols) and an Asian man (George Takei) in positions of authority. This was a major deal during an era where the vast majority of network TV characters were white. And despite opposition from nervous network executives, Roddenberry pushed these things through.
He fought to include Nichols as Lt. Uhura, despite the network trying to sabotage his decision. In later years, Nichols recounted how the network hid her fan mail from her. It was undoubtedly a tactic to force into quitting the series, something that famously almost happened. Her experience is terrible and telling of that time period; however, it also shows what Roddenberry had to fight against to have the smallest amount of representation in the series.
Star Trek is well-known for showing TV’s first interracial kiss in season three, a groundbreaking moment during a time of civil rights marches and race riots. Roddenberry got serious pushback from affiliates in the American south but the episode still aired. This pivotal moment was one of many ways that Roddenberry’s series pushed the envelope. Using allegorical storytelling, Trek talked about everything from the Vietnam war to sexism and race relations. Sometimes with the subtlety of an anvil falling on Wile E. Coyote’s head, sure. But still, the show broached those subjects and that is what mattered in the long run.
Roddenberry’s Legacy of Inclusivity
Yes, three white men lead the Star Trek cast. This may seem deficient through a modern lens. But 55 years ago, Roddenberry likely had no choice in that regard. He snuck diversity in where he could, primarily through secondary characters. But the legacy of that philosophy flourished in the decades that followed. The Next Generation had three Black actors as main characters, and Deep Space Nine had a Black man as the lead. It may not seem like it now, but it was a huge deal back then.
Female characters went from secondary characters to leads as well in all the series. Voyager had a woman as Captain, and incorporated Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Latin Americans into the cast. These days, with shows like Discovery, a diverse cast is a foregone conclusion. And despite resistance in decades past, Trek now includes LGBTQ characters at last. They are all just trying to follow the Roddenberry philosophy for Star Trek. And that’s representing a future that includes everyone.
“The Great Bird of the Galaxy”
Roddenberry wasn’t perfect. In the years following Star Trek’s success in syndication, the series became a cultural staple. The fandom gave him the nickname “The Great Bird of the Galaxy.” And, according to the opinions of many, he started to “believe his own hype,” so to speak. After Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Roddenberry’s role was lesser in the other subsequent movies. According to William Shatner’s book Movie Memories, he wasn’t happy about his diminished role. So he leaked things that he knew would make the fandom upset, like Spock’s death in The Wrath of Khan. A shady power move, indeed.
In his final years, Roddenberry’s writing instincts changed, leaning towards what others perceived Star Trek’s philosophy to be. Yes, the original Star Trek was a show about a future where humanity had gotten past its racial and sexual biases to unite for the common good. And that’s a great thing. But everyone still found reasons to have disagreements. Plenty of them. Because that’s where dramatic storytelling thrives. Roddenberry pushed the human perfection ideal more, and sacrificed what made for good storytelling.
When The Next Generation was being developed in 1987, the Roddenberry edict was that in the 24th century, humanity would have no conflict with each other at all. All of which made TNG dry from a dramatic standpoint, and also nearly impossible to write for. The show only really got great in year three, when Roddenberry (due to his physical ailments) took a lesser role in producing the show. The other producers and writers got around those parameters and, after he passed away in 1991, all but ignored them.
The Roddenberry Influence
Ultimately though, Roddenberry’s legacy has been far more positive than negative. Star Trek created the first inclusive science-fiction media franchise. Heck, it created the first science fiction multimedia franchise, period. Before Star Wars, it was Star Trek that exploded into book spin-offs, toys, and, animated shows. The first real fan conventions, at least those centered on one single property, centered on Star Trek. Many today cite Star Wars as ground zero for the explosion of geek culture. But really, it was Trek.
Gene Roddenberry was perhaps the first behind-the-scenes creator of a sci-fi franchise who learned to reach out to the fanbase personally. He went to conventions and engaged one-on-one with fans. He also released things like the Inside Star Trek. This was a vinyl record that contained his stories and anecdotes about the franchise. These days, the creator of a major franchise is as famous to the fanbase as its stars. And that wasn’t always the case before Roddenberry.
Today, most of the major genre fiction franchises, be they Star Wars, or Doctor Who, or Marvel and DC, have become far more inclusive. Despite the furor of certain fans, it’s expected that most movies and series set in a fantastical universe are diverse. But let us remember that Gene Roddenberry was doing it first on Star Trek. And against some vehement opposition from the people in charge. Whether it was world-building on a large scale, or showing a more diverse future, Gene Roddenberry walked so everyone else could run.