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Tribute To Gene Roddenberry

By Christian Höhne Sparborth
Posted at October 24, 2001 - 11:31 AM GMT

On Thursday the 24th of October, 1991, the science-fiction world was shaken when Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry passed away. Today, ten years later, he is still fondly remembered by those who knew him, and continues to influence those who didn't.

Over the past ten years, five new television series were launched that were based on Gene Roddenberry's ideas, and thousands of people have worked with those ideas. To commemorate the 10th anniversary of his death, we asked several of these people what Gene Roddenberry meant to them.

"Gene was my childhood idol - my role model," wrote Eric A. Stillwell, former production assistant on The Next Generation and the co-writer of 'Yesterday's Enterprise.' "Most kids idolize rock stars, movie stars or sports stars, but I wanted to follow in the footsteps of a man who envisioned humanity's journey through a galaxy full of stars. At the time he was a modestly-successful middle-aged writer who had created a short-lived sci-fi show in the late 1960's. But Gene's personal philosophy and his humanity had a profound impact on my life and has played a vital role in shaping my beliefs on everything from politics to religion. Most significantly, Gene inspired my choice of careers and I will always cherish the opportunity I have had to play even a small role in the world of Star Trek. Thank you, Gene. Your vision continues to live on, and prosper!"

Another former TNG staff member who worked on the series when Roddenberry was still alive wrote that "Gene was our inspiration, and a wonderful man to work for. Sure, he had human failings, like all of us. But he knew that Star Trek was something special, and he was trying to do something very special with Star Trek. It's not like we were close friends, but I treasure the time that I was lucky enough to work for him. I still miss him."

Many of the staff members currently serving on series inspired by Gene Roddenberry's ideas never had the chance to work with him, but most of them agree with these sentiments. "I started working as science consultant for Star Trek: The Next Generation shortly after Gene passed away, so unfortunately, I never had the chance to meet him personally," Enterprise staff writer Andre Bormanis wrote. "I did however attend a lecture he gave in 1976 at Arizona State University. Growing up with the original series, it was terrific to hear him talk about how he developed the show, and the vision he was trying to create of a future filled with prosperity and adventure for the human race.

"In retrospect, I feel very fortunate that when I was a young and impressionable grade school kid my view of the future was largely shaped by Gene's unfailing optimism. So much of the science fiction kids grow up with today is dark and pessimistic, and I sometimes wonder if I would've steered clear of a career in science and creative writing if that's the kind of outlook I'd grown up with...

"It's a great privilege for me to work as a writer on the latest incarnation of Star Trek. Every day I try to help make it the kind of show Gene would have been proud to call a member of the Star Trek family."

Besides Enterprise, the two other shows currently on the air that bear the name of Gene Roddenberry are Earth: Final Conflict and Andromeda. For Andromeda staff writer Ethlie Ann Vare, the inspirations and even instructions she received from Gene Roddenberry made it feel as though she knew him.

"I never got the chance to work directly for Gene Roddenberry; he died before I started on Earth: Final Conflict and Andromeda," she wrote. "Still, I feel as though I knew him. Partly, that's because all the writers on Roddenberry shows get a stack of Xeroxed notes from Gene on how to write: what's important about character, what creates drama, what's the role of science in science fiction. (Gene was no techno geek, by the way. 'When Luke Duke jumps into the General Lee, we don't need a lecture on how the internal combustion engine works,' he said.)

"But mainly, I know Gene Roddenberry the same way you do: I grew up watching Star Trek.

"I don't have to tell you how magical the Original Series was in the context of its day. In a world two minutes from midnight on the Doomsday Clock, Star Trek promised a future of... promise. Technology was our friend, Man was inherently noble, and the horizon was infinite. This future was optimistic, in a time that was anything but. It was a powerful message, so powerful that Kirk, Spock et al. became permanent cultural icons."

"Most TV shows don't get to do that. I'd like to think that someday I'll create something that resonates the way TOS did but, quite frankly, I doubt it. Some things can only happen once, and Gene Roddenberry was an original."

Of course, as a television producer Roddenberry not only affected those who continued to work in the universes he created, but also those who simply watch his creations every week. Reviewer Michelle Erica Green is one of those viewers, and wrote that his creations played in an important role in her upbringing.

"It's difficult to come up with anything to say about Gene Roddenberry that doesn't sound trite or overblown, so I'll simply be honest and admit that Star Trek had as much influence on my values and philosophy as my religious upbringing. Though I was born midway through the original series' first season, I'm really a second-generation Trekker - I watched nightly reruns with my father over the course of several years of my childhood, and discovered organized fandom through the books of those who helped shape it. The Great Bird of the Galaxy was already a being of mythic proportions by the time I learned anything about the life and career of Gene Roddenberry. To me he was the man who put a woman on the bridge of the Enterprise, who insisted that beings from radically different backgrounds could live and work together, who never stopped believing that human beings would reach the stars - if not during his lifetime, then during mine.

"I don't want to downplay Gene's contributions as an entertainer. Many who worked with him have said he was the one who insisted on establishing strong characters as the basis for convincing science fiction. Kirk, Spock and McCoy are not only three of the most interesting people I "met" in my childhood, they're also role models to this day. Star Trek has always been not just about the strange new worlds, but the people boldly going to them, and the compromises and personal growth that entails. I hear the current producers promise that Enterprise will get back to the spirit of the original series, and I hope they will keep in mind that the spirit of exploration isn't about extraterrestrial conspiracies and scientific technobabble; it's about the joy of discovery and first contact, the pain of having assumptions challenged, the discovery of infinite diversity in infinite combinations rather than the impulse to humanize everything alien. For me, that was what Gene's shows were about.

"I remember crying the first time I saw 'City on the Edge of Forever' in elementary school, being very upset about the choice Captain Kirk had been forced to make between the needs of the many and the needs of the one - though Spock hadn't yet articulated that Vulcan phrase about the former outweighing the latter. That episode kept me thinking for weeks about social obligations and personal honor; only much later did I consider the fantastic elements, the hazards of time travel and the conundrums of history. I didn't think of myself as a science fiction fan in those days. And apparently Gene didn't either, not in the sense of wanting to make a show with spectacular explosions and makeup so stunning you forgot to pay attention to what the characters were saying. He always knew the shows were about people and ideas, a belief in our ability to evolve past current prejudices, a positive vision of the future.

"Though I'm presuming to call him Gene, I knew Roddenberry only through his work. For the most part I've avoided biographies of him and his associates that attempt to balance his personal legend against his flaws as a human being. They just aren't as interesting as his legacy. I am aware that Star Trek owes a great debt to Gene L. Coon, Robert Justman and dozens of other men and women responsible for its production and evolution since, from Rick Berman to Robert Hewitt Wolfe - particularly Majel Barrett Roddenberry, who has always downplayed her role even as she has worked devotedly since his death to bring Gene's ideas to the screen.

"No matter what any disgruntled actor may say about him, no matter what revisionist form of Star Trek winds up on our screens, I will always remember the man who said, 'The funny thing is that everything is science fiction at one time or another,' who believed the best of humanity and its possibilities. In this current season of grief and turmoil, Gene Roddenberry is greatly missed."

Reviewer Tim Lynch felt that Roddenberry's flaws actually enhanced his legacy. He agreed with Green that it was hard to say something about Gene that hadn't been said countless times already. "Do I give him credit for the idea of an optimistic future that's at the heart of the original Trek series? Absolutely - but so does everyone else. Do I give him credit for a lot of the solid writing on the original series? In a lot of ways, no - Gene Coon probably had as much to do with the series' quality as Roddenberry did - but again, that's not groundbreaking. Do I repeat the joke that he only had one plot idea - 'The Enterprise meets God, and God is a child?' Possibly, but it's not the stuff of tribute.

"I suppose one of the things that I find most interesting about Gene, in hindsight, is how he was able to draw on the optimism we all wanted to feel while being imperfect himself. Not long after his death, when Joel Engel's unauthorized biography came out, there was a pretty big hue-and-cry in some sections of fandom, to the tune of "no True Fan [TM] could believe this stuff."

"I disagree. The interesting part about Trek, to me, is not so much its optimistic, semi-Utopian future as it is the struggle humanity had to go through to get there. (That's one of the things I'm hoping we get from Enterprise.) For Trek's very creator to have feet of clay doesn't tarnish what he created; on the contrary, I think it strengthens the point. Heroes with feet of clay are heroes with footsteps you can actually envision yourself following; heroes on pedestals are good only for bronzing.

"Gene, along with his work, was far from perfect - as are we all."

Finally, former Star Trek illustrator Rick Sternbach had a more personal recollection of Roddenberry when we asked what Gene meant to him. "I suppose the recollection that has stayed with me the longest was Gene's genuine interest in the future of spaceflight," Sternbach wrote, "and on a more general level his concern for the future of humankind. I first met him in 1974 after a screening of "The Cage" at Yale University, barely two years after the last ever manned moon landing with Apollo 17. I had already been working as a science fiction and astronomical artist, and had a chance to talk with him for a couple of hours back in his hotel room about different aspects of science and technology, and the prospects for a Star Trek feature or another television series. Little did I know that four years later, I'd be putting in months of work on 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture.'

"During that time we arranged for Gene to tour some of the facilities at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which assisted with the Voyager spacecraft research and control panel displays. He was fascinated by the space vehicle mockups and computer graphics (amazingly crude by today's standards!), and asked interesting questions of the project scientists. Some eight years later, I and my art department colleagues got to know him a bit better during Star Trek: The Next Generation, as we sought to reinvent Starfleet and alien hardware and the U.S.S. Enterprise itself. His fascination with the updated technology was tempered with the practical, which to me has always been a solid guiding principle. At one early production meeting in 1987, we discussed many possible communicator designs, mostly handheld widgets with Starfleet emblems. Gene looked at them and said, 'Why not just make the emblem the communicator?' And we made it so. It was a great idea, and the techy rationale for *how* it worked could be dealt with later. That kind of interaction over the show's design was always appreciated."

Undoubtedly, Gene Roddenberry was important to far more people than those who gave their thoughts on him in the above article. For that reason, we'd like to ask you to send your own opinions on what Gene Roddenberry meant to you to feedback@treknation.com - this weekend, we'll publish ten of those mails in a special second article dedicated to the creator of Star Trek.

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Christian Höhne Sparborth is one of the three editors of the Trek Nation, as well as of Andromeda site SlipstreamWeb.

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