On October 24, 1991, the world lost one of its great visionaries, and a man who left an indelible mark. When Gene Roddenberry — or the “Great Bird of the Galaxy,” as fans sometimes referred to him — passed, he left behind not only a highly successful television/movie franchise and humanist utopian legacy through his fans, but a seventeen-year-old son who knew neither his father, nor that legacy. It was not until he attended his father’s funeral, and heard the story of a quadriplegic man who credited Star Trek with convincing him of his worth as a disabled man, that Eugene “Rod” Wesley Roddenberry got an inkling of what his father and his work meant to a world of fans.
The Saturn-nominated Trek Nation, released in 2011 and currently showing on the Science Channel, documents Rod’s 10-year attempt to learn about the man who inspired generations.
Trek Nation uses many of the standards of documentaries about Trek: Interviews with cast and crew of the five series, behind-the-scenes footage, and commentary from experts on the Star Trek phenomenon. Where it is different is in the approach. Rather than a third-party take on the matter which subtly claims an objectivity about its topic, Trek Nation is highly subjective and revealing not only of the father, but his son.
To make the documentary, Rod began to go to Star Trek conventions, and credits fans with teaching him “everything I’ve learned about Star Trek.” These fans share with him the differences that the Star Trek franchise has made in their lives, the lessons learned from Trek, and how they carry on Gene’s vision in everything from cosplay to their own moral codes. “These people would break down in tears. They would praise him as a father figure. There was an emotional connection that these people had with him.”
But Trek Nation does not approach fans as pathological and steers clear of the patronizing attitude of other media portrayals of Trekkers/kies. Unlike films which inevitably portray fans as freaks, by “trotting out to the conventions and finding the five geekiest people” to represent a large and very diverse audience, Trek Nation depicts fans respectfully. “Your first impression is that they’re the disenfranchised, and they’re not. I think they’re visionaries, like Gene,” actor Victor Brandt tells us.
And that vision is of a world where bigotry and fear of difference has been driven out of the human experience, an ethic that fans live every day. “Star Trek fans…a lot of them grew up watching Star Trek, where they’ve seen every kind of alien, every permutation of living being. And so Star Trek fans tend to be very tolerant of every permutation of human being.” Nor is it just fans who walked away from Trek with that message: “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations is what makes the world beautiful. I thank Gene for that legacy,” Nichelle Nichols shares with Rod.
Rod’s journey recounts much of Gene’s own from pilot to cop to television writer to the creator of Star Trek, telling stories about how he convinced network brass to give Star Trek a shot, the tough times after the show’s cancellation, and his appreciation for the fans’ love of the short-lived original series. It also places the original series within its proper context: Gene used science fiction to tell stories that challenged the status quo of the 1960’s. Star Trek was anti-interventionist in the middle of the Vietnam War, depicted blacks as unquestioned members of society two years after the Watts riots and years before blaxploitation cinema, and posited not just détente at the height of the Cold War, but suggested a future in which the concept of “American” and “Soviet” is no longer thinkable.
But the history — much of which has been documented before — is less interesting than its emotional story: that of Rod’s pain and doubt about his own place in his father’s life. As he described to us at this year’s Wondercon, in making the film, he spent time dealing with some very painful questions.
“’Did my father love the fans more? Was that more his family?’ I talk about how he got to create this family of Star Trek, with the casts, the crew, and the fans, then he had his real family at home. One [family] he got to mold in his own image, and one he didn't. And then I've heard stories. There's a fantastic story that I won’t let too much out of the bag on, because it's a great one for the DVD [extras], but he presented an award to Wil Wheaton, on stage, and he stopped filming to do this. Well, it wasn't an award, something personal of his, that I think a lot of people in the audience, including me — it feels really selfish to say this — but I said, ‘Wow, why didn't he do that for me?’ And I talked to Wil about this, and it's a really interesting dynamic between the two of us, where he was sort of his, arguably, his created son, or his created image of himself, and I was his real son. And we had a conversation with Wil that was about me figuring out, who did my father love? did he love one more than the other? And in the end, kind of realizing that I just ended up having millions of brothers and sisters.”
This realization is part of what allows Rod to come to grips with his place in his father’s life. But the implication is that it is also the importance of his father’s work, the way in which it has impacted generations of fans, that allows Rod to let go of his bitterness and see his father as both the visionary and very flawed man that he was.
From the interviews with the likes of George Lucas, Stan Lee, and Seth McFarlane to those who worked with Gene on a day-to-day basis, what comes through is how much Roddenberry’s hope for the present informed his creation of Trek future. “I think, over the years, Gene had been told so many times that he was a visionary, that on some level he started to believe that, and he took on this mantle of ‘I’m responsible for projecting to you, the audience, this vision of the future.'”
When asked if Gene’s sense of responsibility for driving this progressive humanist vision put pressure on him, Rod told Comics Bulletin:
“You know it's really weird, the way I've come into it; I spent my teenage life reb
elling against my father, but finally when I start paying attention to it and listening to either his philosophies, from what I’ve read, or his interviews, or seeing it in Star Trek, so to speak, I realized — and this feels wrong to say it, that they were in line with mine; not that I knew everything my father was thinking, I'm just saying, I agree with everything, "That sounds good, I'll go with that." So now, I've internalized it, I carry this on, not because it's a burden but because it's my own vision. I've taken my father's vision and incorporated it into mine, and I'm taking that forward. And I really do feel like they're parallel to each other; I do believe in a future where we work together for the greater good. I love IDIC — Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations — the idea that we no longer fear difference and change. We don't tolerate each other anymore in that future; we accept each other, despite, and including, our differences. We’ve found that that is what makes life worth living; if we were all the same and thought all the same way, that would be a boring-ass life. That's what I love, and while I can't say I live that day to day, I try, and I fall off the horse quite a bit, but I try.”
It is that morality, the ethics of Trek, which resounds most through the film. And it is that view, not just of the future but of who we are now that is Roddenberry’s greatest gift to his fans, and one hopes, to his son.
“What Star Trek proves is that the much maligned common man and common woman are ready for the 23rd century now, and they are light years ahead of their petty governments and their visionless leaders.” – Gene Roddenberry, Trek Nation
Trek Nation will be featured, along with Roddenberry Entertainment’s new 360-degree film White Room 023B, at Sci-Fi London’s 11th Annual Festival of Science Fiction and Fantastic Film, May 1-7. To catch Trek Nation on the other side of the pond, check listings for Science Channel. Trek Nation will also be released, with substantial bonus materials, on DVD.