Sunday, February 22, 2009

Roddenberry's Contradictions

In a recent interview at, LeVar Burton made the following comment about Star Trek founder Gene Roddenberry:
TM: In a recent blog post you talked about about Gene Roddenberry and how as a big Trek fan, you were confused and disappointed to find out that he was human, can you go into that a little more?

Burton: I will go a bit into detail but no too much because, obviously, a lot of that I consider private. However, I will share this…Gene was a human being and full of contradictions. He was this great visionary, and yet he was a womanizer. All of the women all wore short skirts you know? He had somewh
at sexist views. Star Trek was full of spiritual meaning and yet he was an agnostic. Those kinds of things.
This is something that struck me a while back while I was reading Inside Star Trek: The Real Story. It is written by Herbert F. Solow and Robert H. Justman. Gene Roddenberry had this lofty ideal based largely on humanism and an evolutionary view of man. He painted a picture where man had evolved beyond human conflict. They had united and lead a peaceful Federation. This isn't to say they're were never internal conflicts in the Star Trek universe--yet good always triumphed. 

Roddenberry's future was one of radical equality for races and sexes. For example, the very first pilot had a woman as the first officer 'Number One.' Even more, Star Trek had the first inter-racial kiss portrayed on Television. According to what I once read, the scene was actually shot two ways: one with the kiss, and one without an angle where it looked like they kissed but they did not. The censors saw the later and made sure there was no kissing. Nevertheless it was controversial and revolutionary. Dare we say it was even visionary. 

The sad irony of Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future is how he failed to live it. The idea was we work to better ourselves. Yet Roddenberry was known as selfish and a womanizer. He may have such a vision of human society but on the most basic level that builds society--the personal life--Roddenberry fell far short. The reality is that secular humanism cannot change the human heart, and like all of us Roddenberry had a heart problem. 

Justman and Solow, in my estimation, are not disgruntled colleagues spilling the beans to get even. They seemed content to bring a realistic picture of Roddenberry. We shouldn't minimize Roddenberry's impact in science fiction and the vision of Star Trek--yet we should not idolize the man. 

Solow and Justman point out that remarkably Roddenberry was sexist. "[F]or Gene, a woman's role was primarily as a decorative tool in a man's workshop" (p.226). He was known for sneaking woman into his office and then subtly parading his escaped and affairs. He consistently saw woman as sex objects.

In another respect, Roddenberry was consistent with the personal ethics of humanism. Yet this puts oneself in conflict with the worldview of Star Trek. On Star Trek 'we work to better ourselves' to quote Captain Picard from First Contact. Yet listen to Roddenberry in his own words:
I practice what I preach. There may be times when I feel like "dipping my wick" and I do so. When it's right. When it feels good. People may say "Oh, that Gene Roddenberry. He's no good. He's an unfaithful husband." I say unfaithful to what?...They may condemn me for breaking a vow they think I made. Whereas in fact, I didn't make it. I could never adhere to an agreement that deprived me of myself. Majel and I  have our own agreement. [p.375]

Bob Justman goes on to account the effects that this had on Majel Barrett. Sadly, while she later married Gene Roddenberry, she was Roddenberry's mistress during his first marriage--along with the other women he had relations with. This is one of the grave inconsistencies of humanism it has such noble goals and visions for societies morals but such unrestrained personal morals... as if the two are not in conflict. Yet I would submit that without personal virtue one can never obtain to the ideals for society that humanism holds out to us.

Among other things, it seems over the years Roddenberry developed an inflated sense of self. It should go without saying such self-glorification never allows for attaining the betterment of society. To attain a betterment of society one has to serve for other's benefits which takes self-denials. The best way to look after number one is to cut out number two when it doesn't serve your purpose. Herb Solow recounts a conversation that he had with Herb Schlosser of NBC Universal when Schlosser wanted Roddenberry to produce another series:
"Please don't ask that of me [Herb working with Roddenberry]...Gene has changed since the early days of Star Trek. It's almost as if he's become one of those gods he used to write about..." [p.419]
Solow may not be entirely objective here as they were once close but after about nine years the close friendship did not last.  He writes, "Gene had lots of good qualities, but his need for self-glorification stood in the way of continuing our personal and professional association" (p.430). Solow does feel that Roddenberry kept all the glory of Star Trek for himself rather than sharing it with some of the major contributors, including Gene Coon, Bob Justman, Matt Jeffries, and Solow himself (p.430). Justman notes some of the same qualities in Roddenberry but they were able to remain friends even working together on The Next Generation.

My intent here is not to bash Gene Roddenberry. We are all human and we all have glaring faults. My goal is point to the fatal flaw in the ethos of Star Trek: you cannot truly attain to the ideal. You end up falling fatally short. It is too easy to buy into the evolutionary idea of moral advancement and the basic goodness of humanity--until you stare boldly into the human condition. Ironically, the best Star Trek plots in the various episodes are the ones that have pushed the boundaries of internal human conflicts. Why? Because we resonate with the realities of life and the reality is that we can strive for the ideal but we always fall horribly short.

It is this falling horribly short that will always plague us and leaves the hope of Star Trek truly vain and void. I am sure the new movie will do a great job of capitalizing on character conflict and holding out the ideal hope of the Star Trek universe. But as long as I live in the real world, I will continue to see Christianity as the only way of achieving the peaceful humanity (in the 'age to come') that ST looks for while redeeming us from the problem of 'this age' that ST never overcomes.


Anonymous said...

This is a great post. And I agree that it's not about bashing Roddenberry. But we can learn some things about the merits of his worldview from the way the man lived. A wise man once said "wisdom is proved right by her actions." The fruit of Roddenberry's secular humanism is evident....

Anonymous said...

This #is Roddenberry bashing "Plain and simple" Look at every other actor/producer/director in the world "Past or present" including SOME of OUR BELOVED Trek cast and crew and see how many of them come out squeaky clean! #VERY-VERY few I would say! Look in your own back yards before knocking what is considered normal behaviour by the stars! Most are not loyal to their Spouses/drink/take drugs and live like they own the damn world! Get over it!! Yeah, I'll even give my name here. Narda Campbell!!

"The Voyages..." Forays into Biblical studies, Biblical exegesis, theology, exposition, life, and occasionally some Star Trek...