The Great TV Writers: Gene Roddenberry

Eugene Wesley Roddenberry (August 19, 1921 – October 24, 1991) was an American television screenwriter, producer and creator of the original Star Trek television series, and its first spin-off The Next Generation. Suffice it to say, he was one of the most successful writers of his day.

I’m not a Trekkie myself, so the first time that I heard the name “Gene Roddenberry” was in Frasier, specifically the episode “Star Mitzvah”, whose title is a clue to the fact that it is something of a homage to Star Trek, the legendary sci-fi show that Roddenberry had created. 

In “Star Mitzvah”, Frasier is due to attend his son Freddie’s bar mitzvah and wants to pay tribute to him in Hebrew. However, because he himself is not Jewish (Freddie is Jewish through his mother, Frasier’s ex-wife Lilith), Frasier enlists the help of Noel, a devout Trekkie, to teach him the Hebrew he needs. Unfortunately, because Frasier does not hold up his end of the bargain – namely securing the autograph of an actor who had appeared in one of the numerous spin-offs from Star Trek – Noel decides to wreak a terrible revenge by teaching him Klingon instead of Hebrew. In typical Frasierian fashion, Noel learns all too late that Frasier has made amends by buying him a wig that Joan Collins had worn during a guest appearance in the original Star Trek series. He tries to warn Frasier before he gives his speech, leading to this marvellous exchange with Roz (Frasier’s producer, who Noel is in love with): 

“Noel: I’ve got to call him before he delivers his speech.

    Roz: You taught him dirty words in Hebrew, didn’t you?

   Noel: Uh, not quite.  They’re the same words, but they’re in Klingon.

Roz: From Star Trek?  That’s not even real.

Noel: It’s the fastest growing language on the planet!  This is what you people don’t understand. [becoming passionate] A man named Gene Roddenberry had a vision…

    Roz: CALL HIM!”

Star Mitzvah is one of the few truly great Frasier episodes in the show’s three-season-long decline between Niles and Daphne finally getting together (which robbed Frasier of much of its comic tension) and the triumphant last season that gave the show the send-off it deserved. And this exchange between Noel and Roz is the best example of how, throughout the entire 11 seasons of Frasier, the greatest sitcom ever frequently referred to and often even paid tribute to Star Trek, a TV series from the 1960s that did not run for nearly as long but none the less exerted an even greater cultural influence. Noel is right: Gene Roddenberry did indeed have a “vision” when he created Star Trek. In fact, for many Trekkies (and even the odd non-Trekkie such as myself), he is the man who put the “vision” – in the sense of having a grand idea or view – in television. 

As Noel and every other self-respecting Trekkie surely knows, Eugene Wesley Roddenberry (to give the great man his full name) was born in El Paso, Texas, in 1921, but his family soon moved to Los Angeles, where his father worked as a policeman. It is telling that Roddenberry’s own father was literally a figure of authority (exactly like Frasier’s father, who was another policeman), as this may have planted the seed early on in his mind about the literally singular importance of a commander or leader. Indeed, he himself evolved into such a commanding, authoritative presence when he became a pilot in the US Army Air Forces and flew nearly 90 combat missions during WWII. 

Roddenberry continued to fly after the war, working as a commercial pilot for Pan Am, until he suffered his third plane crash (following two during the war) when his plane came down in the Syrian desert during a long-haul flight. Although he personally was not responsible and indeed actually dragged some passengers to safety from the wreckage, several people were killed and the experience seems to have ended his flying career. Instead, having become the rarest of pilots – one who survives a hat-trick of crashes – he appears to have decided that from then on he would soar imaginatively rather than physically, by pursuing his long-held ambition to become a writer. 

First, however, he had to continue making a living and so he literally followed in his father’s footsteps and became a police officer in Los Angeles. Fortunately, although he began in the traffic division, helping to oversee LA’s network of super-highways, Roddenberry was soon transferred to “The Newspaper Unit”. Although this sounds like the title of a James Ellroy novel (a spin-off from LA Confidential, perhaps), it was in fact the public information – or publicity – division of the LA police, probably the first of its kind in the world but entirely fitting for a city in which everyone was involved in generating (or preventing) publicity of some kind. 

Roddenberry was extremely fortunate, because his stint in the public information division not only enabled him to become a speechwriter for the Chief of Police (again, only in Los Angeles would the chief of police have had a speechwriter at this time) but it literally brought him into contact with the new and burgeoning medium of the day – television. As TV began to boom in US in the late 1940s and early 1950s, with mass ownership of TV sets, cop shows soon became one of its staples and consequently various production companies and directors began approaching the LAPD for assistance, to ensure the verisimilitude of their product. As a result, Roddenberry first became a technical adviser to these companies and directors, on shows such as Mr. District Attorney (a TV version of an already popular radio drama), then a contributing scriptwriter (initially writing under the alias of “Robert Wesley”) and finally a full-blown television writer. In the end, because he was increasingly unable to perform the two very different jobs of policeman and TV scriptwriter, he finally quit the police in 1956 and became a full-time writer. 

It would be an entire decade before Star Trek first hit the TV screens of America and in that time Roddenberry, like so many of the great TV writers who were to follow him, wrote for numerous television programmes of wildly varying quality. His military experience proved invaluable on his first major job, writing for The West Point Story, a “title-story” (i.e. the title is the story) about the famous military academy, and even this early on his career he was obviously prolific, as he apparently wrote about a third of all the scripts for the show during its two-season run. However, many of the other programmes that he wrote for throughout the first half of the 1960s, from Hawaii Passage (a drama set on a cruise ship) to Have Gun – Will Travel (a Western drama), were not nearly as successful. Nevertheless, the money was good, even if the shows themselves often were not. 

Roddenberry finally got the chance to create his own show and draw on his own experience as both a former pilot and a former policeman in 1963, when he created The Lieutenant, a series about a young officer of that rank who is assigned his first command at the height of the Cold War, when Americans genuinely feared that a Soviet attack or even invasion was imminent. It was not a big hit – in fact, it was cancelled after just one series – but it was none the less invaluable. First, it proved to Roddenberry that he could create his own series (however short-lived); secondly, it allowed him to examine the idea of command or leadership that had been so important to him throughout his whole life, from being the son of a policeman to commanding men in the air and on the ground; and, finally, at around this time he also came up with the idea that would change both his own life and the still-new medium that he was writing in. That idea, of course, was for a show called Star Trek. 

The genesis of Star Trek can be traced back through Roddenberry’s earlier television writing, even on shows that never actually made it to the small screen. Before he had begun work on The Lieutenant, he had seen a film, Master of the World (1961), which was based on a classic Jules Verne novel, about an airship that had travelled around the globe, and had thought that it could provide the basis for a television series. The idea came to nothing originally, but after The Lieutenant was cancelled, partly because Roddenberry had run into difficulties when writing a script about racial tensions in the military, he returned to it. However, rather than keep the idea earthbound, as it were, he decided to take it into space – literally. So, in 1964 he wrote a pitch or outline document and registered his idea with the Writers Guild of America. Before he had even written a pilot or spec script, he called the show Star Trek, and with that two-word title he effectively created a television series that would not only outgrow television and indeed other story-telling media (particularly cinema) but expand into and directly influence the wider culture, both in America and around the world, in a way that Roddenberry himself surely could never have imagined.

As is often the case with any kind of trek or journey, the first few steps on Roddenberry’s quest to create Star Trek were faltering, to say the least. He shopped the idea and the outline around various studios and production companies, and even had to shelve it briefly while he worked on other shows, but finally it found a home at NBC, one of the three main US TV networks. The first ever episode was broadcast on 8 September 1966, but just as Roddenberry had struggled to sell the show in the first place, now it struggled to find an audience. Ratings were low initially and barely recovered during the first series. Nevertheless, despite the widespread belief that the original Star Trek television series was cancelled virtually immediately, it ran for three series and nearly 80 episodes, which would be a good run now in the 21st century but was exceptionally long for a non-hit series in the 1960s. However, despite this investment by the network, Star Trek failed to capture a widespread audience and it was finally cancelled in 1968.

There are many theories, especially among Trekkies themselves, as to why Star Trek enjoyed its spectacular, indeed unprecedented, rebirth after the relative failure of the original series. The most popular is that the first ever moon landing in 1969, which was broadcast live around the world and remains even today arguably the single greatest and most important broadcast in the history of television, stimulated an appetite for science fiction in general and for stories about space travel in particular that had never existed before. If that was the case, the fact that actual manned space travel did not go any further than the moon and has still not done so today, more than a half-century on, may have created an appetite for something that could only be sated by art or entertainment, rather than reality itself, and Star Trek effectively filled that void.

Another theory is that although the initial audiences for Star Trek were relatively small, the members of those audiences were devoted to the show in a way that had not really been seen before, and arguably has never been seen since, or at least not until the development of social media in the early 21st century. Throughout its initial three-season run, Star Trek was in perpetual danger of being cancelled, but one of the reasons why it survived was that both individual fans and fan groups organised letter-writing campaigns to NBC demanding that the show continue. That devotion to the show led to avid fans of the series, such as Frasier’s Noel more than thirty years later, being called “Trekkies”, which was originally regarded as a put-down but soon became a badge of honour.

Whatever the actual reason for it, there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that after the original series was cancelled repeats or re-runs of Star Trek began to attract far bigger audiences than had ever been the case when the series was first shown. Those repeats or re-runs led, in turn, to fans’ conventions and other events that celebrated the original show, and throughout the 1970s Star Trek became one of the most widely syndicated TV shows around the world. Overseas audiences, who were largely unaware that the show had supposedly been a flop in America the first time around, added to the burgeoning US audiences. Finally, by the time that the extraordinary success of Star Wars (1977) officially ushered in “The Age of Sci-Fi” (the cultural moment that we are still living in today and conceivably will be for the rest of human existence), the old TV show whose title sounded very similar to Star Wars – Star Trek – was becoming a fully-fledged cultural phenomenon. 

While all this was going on throughout the 1970s, Roddenberry himself was experiencing an extremely difficult decade. Having risen relatively quickly from being a humble police officer to a seemingly successful television writer and producer, he then experienced a downturn after the original run of Star Trek was deemed a failure. Even as the show he had created was being broadcast to more and more nations and ever bigger audiences around the world, he himself was reduced to writing “sexploitation” movies, such as Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971), for Roger Vadim, the French film producer and self-styled “discoverer” of Brigitte Bardot. Later still, he was reduced still further to paid appearance at Star Trek fans’ conventions, of the kind so brilliantly parodied in various episodes of Frasier, particularly in the superb episode, The Show Must Go Off, in season eight, when British acting veteran Derek Jacobi plays a classical actor reduced to playing a cyborg on a Star Trek-type TV series. 

Fortunately for Roddenberry and his creation, the ever-growing interest in Star Trek around the world was finally and financially realised right at the end of the 1970s when, in the wake of Star Wars, the first ever Star Trek film (which was simply called Star Trek: The Motion Picture) was released in December 1979. Consequently, more than a decade after the original TV series had been cancelled, Star Trek began a new journey, one that has proved to be infinitely more enduring and more successful than its first attempt at a trek or quest. And such has been the success of the Star Trek franchise (no other word will do to convey the numerous films, TV sequels, merchandising items and every other conceivable product related to the original idea and title) that it can now legitimately lay claim to being the single-most successful television series – at least in financial terms – ever made. 

Gene Roddenberry died in 1991 from heart difficulties, but by that point it could truthfully be said that he had lived out the Vulcan maxim that arguably his greatest character, Dr Spock, had made almost a universal greeting back on Planet Earth: “Live Long And Prosper”. The military and then commercial pilot who had somehow survived three plane crashes ultimately survived the initial commercial “crash” of his most beloved creation, Star Trek, and lived long enough to see it “prosper” and eventually make him very prosperous indeed. Even more remarkably, after his death he effectively embarked on his own actual and personal Star Trek, as some of his ashes were stored, sealed and put aboard first the Space Shuttle and then other manned and unmanned space flights. And even if those missions ultimately failed to reach the deep space that Roddenberry had so beautifully and vividly dreamed of, the man himself would surely have realised that his original vision – “To Boldly Go Where No Man Had Gone Before” – had finally made him The Writer Who Boldly Went Where No Writer Had Gone Before. 

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Martin Keady is an award-winning scriptwriter whose work has been produced for film, television, stage and radio. His major credits include: The Final, a short film about the famous ending of the 1979 FA Cup Final, which was shown on Channel Four; Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon, which was premiered at The Edinburgh Festival; and a collection of love poetry, Shards, extracts from which have been broadcast on Radio Four.” http://theshakespeareplays.com/


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