If there’s one person responsible for Star Trek‘s incredible longevity, it’s Gene Roddenberry.
A qualified pilot, former beat cop and – if the autobiographies are to be believed – a bit of a ladies’ man, he first pitched the original Star Trek to NBC as a sort of ‘Wagon Train to the Stars’ back in the early 60s. Wagon Train was then a popular western series based around a close knit band of characters whose journey from Missouri to California provided the basis for weekly adventure.
With no takers for this sci-fi frontier setting, Gene continued to rework the premise while helming a series of forgotten cop and horse shows until, in 1966, he got the green light to make a Star Trek pilot.
The Cage had many of the elements that fans would come to love: a starship called Enterprise with a multiracial, and in some cases, extraterrestrial crew on a mission of peace and exploration. At the centre of the story was a passionate captain with a grumpy, old school doctor as his confidant. At his right arm, an emotionally cold second in command. There was even a green Orion slave girl in that debut episode, but the main characters weren’t Kirk, McCoy and Spock – they were Captain Christopher Pike, Dr. Philip Boyce and the mysterious ‘Number One’, a female second officer played by Roddenberry’s then girlfriend – later Mrs Roddenberry – Majel Barrett.
Of course, this version of Star Trek was met with sniffy indifference by the powers at NBC. They wanted action, shoot-outs and scraps, not big-headed aliens with pulsing temples and a starship captain in the midst of a career crisis.
Roddenberry went back to his typewriter and wrote a second pilot, Where No Man Has Gone Before. He tweaked his lead character, making him less cerebral and more cocky. Against studio wishes he kept the alien science officer Mr. Spock, transplanting the cold and calculating nature of Number One into the Vulcan second-in-command. It was to be the first of many Star Trek reboots – and it worked. The studio commissioned the series and Star Trek began its 40 year mission.
It’s a testament to the character of Roddenberry that he knew which changes to make and which memos to bin. In the first two seasons, it’s said that Gene rewrote just about every episode that was aired, showing a dedication to character and consistency that helped mould the continuity and canon that later Trek fans would froth over.
But Star Trek was not always as loyal to Gene as he was to Trek. During the original show’s third season, NBC shifted it to a graveyard slot on Friday night. Viewing figures plummeted and – under pressure to make Trek more commercial – an exhausted Gene grew disillusioned and took a back seat. That third season features an episode where Kirk swaps bodies with a stereotypically hysterical woman and another where Spock talks McCoy through brain surgery. On his own brain. It was the lowest Trek would stoop until Nazi aliens made an appearance in fifth generation spin off series Enterprise 35 years later.
Still, Roddenberry’s influence on Star Trek goes way beyond the first two seasons of the original series, when he approved every script. Gene’s careful marshalling of fan campaigns, his creativity and Barnum-like gumption was instrumental in getting Star Trek: The Motion Picture into cinemas, a full decade after the original series’ axing. He worked for three years before that, trying to revive Trek for TV – and the script that made it to screen was, in part, based on Roddenberry’s treatment of unfilmed telly script In Thy Image, called The God Thing.
Though his involvement with subsequent movies was minimal, it was Roddenberry again who masterminded the television return of Star Trek in the 80s, taking a hands-on interest in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The first two seasons have his story telling style embedded in them as deeply as a Trill symbiont. Though often dismissed as the weakest perid in TNG‘s run, episodes like The Naked Now, The Child and The Measure Of A Man dispute that. They are classic Star Trek.
When Roddenberry passed away in 1991, he was still working on Star Trek – a series he crafted from the ground up from his beliefs and values. A series in which humanity had evolved beyond infighting and prejudice, money and malice, towards a utopian future where curiosity, fairness and the desire to understand our place in the world mattered more than anything. If we could pick a future for ourselves, we’d pick Gene’s.