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Mania Exclusive Interview: Eugene Roddenberry, Jr.
Roddenberry Talks New JJ Abrams Trek Film
By Dan Madsen
March 24, 2009
Eugene "Rod" Roddenberry, Jr., the only son of Star Trek's late creators Gene and Majel.
© Mania.com/Robert Trate
Part I of II- Eugene “Rod” Roddenberry, Jr., carries the torch left to him by his iconic father, visionary Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. The only son of Gene and Majel Barrett Roddenberry, Rod is continuing in their footsteps, seeking to make the utopian Roddenberry vision a reality. As CEO of Roddenberry Productions, Rod has returned the company to its original mission, creating thoughtful content.
In addition to revitalizing the Roddenberry name, Rod remains an active philanthropist. In 2009, Rod announced the creation of the Majel Barrett Roddenberry Tiger Maternity Ward at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, a tribute to his late mother. Rod has also established a variety of scholarship funds to help support education for underprivileged children and is a major benefactor of several aquatic preservation groups.
It was in the late 1990’s that Rod got his first taste of the family business, serving as an advisor on one of the last television shows to carry his father’s name “Gene Roddenberry’s Earth: Final Conflict.” Rod spent four years ensuring that the Roddenberry vision was respected and that the show stayed true to his father’s philosophy. After returning to Los Angeles in 2001, Rod took over the famed Lincoln Enterprises, now Roddenberry Productions. The company which had been founded by his parents in the 1960s had become famous for its merchandise and for being a fan favorite.
Dan Madsen: How do you think your dad would feel about the new JJ Abrams Star Trek film?
Eugene Roddenberry, Jr.: I think he would love it. I think he would put his arm around JJ and hand over the keys, so to speak. He would say, “This baby is yours.” You had it in an interview you did with my father in your magazine, the Star Trek Communicator, where my father said, in essence, “I look forward to the next young writer who will come up and take steps beyond what I have done to create the next Star Trek and make it better.” That was the true humble nature of him. I think, in his older years, he was more than happy to pass on the torch to someone who was young, smart and able to take the next steps with it. I think JJ would be that guy. I think if my father had been able to get to know JJ Abrams he would have gladly given the reins of Star Trek to him.
DM: You and your mother visited the set of the new film, correct?
ER: Yes, we did separately.
DM: What was your opinion?
ER: I was there on the second to the last day of principal photography. It seemed like a great crew. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto were there. JJ Seems like a very casual director. Everything was very low key and fun and loose. Not unprofessional, though. It was a machine that was working and everyone knew their place and how to do their job. He seemed like a great director. He was not one of those stereotypical dick-heads. He just seemed like a great guy. He would talk back and forth with the actors; suggest they do something, and they would say, “Like this?” And he would say, “Yeah, that’s great!” It was a very collaborative environment. He definitely seemed to be in control and knew what was going on. He was very confident and knew what he was doing. When you get someone like that, those are the kind of people you want to work for because they will collaborate and they will listen to you. They’re not scared of losing their job.
DM: Have you seen any footage from the new film?
ER: Not much, I just visited the set. After my mother passed away, I had some people come in to help me with the logistics of the funeral service and I got to focus on the things I wanted to like putting a memorial tribute video together and the music, which really allowed me to grieve and was helpful. I contacted JJ’s office and told them that I wanted to end the video tribute with a clip from the new movie of her voice as the computer. It was a way of saying she will live on. After a few phone calls, they did give us a clip. It was a ten second clip at most and they didn’t make us sign any agreements or anything. I said, “You have my word that it will be used in the tribute video at the memorial and that’s it.” It was just a very nice way that they responded. That’s all I’ve seen.
DM: Do you have any concerns about the new film?
ER: Well, I just don’t know JJ Abrams that well and while I have recently fallen in love with his series, Lost, I think he is extremely talented. He is a fantastic writer, producer and director. I know he is a fan of Star Trek. I just want to make sure this new film doesn’t become Star Wars. My concern is that it will be an awesome Star Wars/sci-fi/action movie but it will lose the subtext and metaphors that were at the core of Star Trek’s humanity. I don’t think it should go as deep as Star Trek: The Motion Picture did but I just want to make sure the bad guy isn’t a black & white bad guy like in Star Trek: Nemesis. I just want to make sure they show both sides. You get a little bit deeper into the characters and you have some empathy for both the good and the bad. In the end, they have to make that tough decision perhaps like they made in the episode The City on the Edge of Forever. I hope there is some depth in the humanistic elements.
DM: How did your mother come about to do the starship’s computer voice in JJ Abrams film?
ER: I am guessing that JJ being a fan and also wanting to pay tribute to her and the fans and to do what was right decided that he had to bring in the computer voice from the original series. She has done it in just about everything else.
DM: Did she finish her work on the film before she passed away?
ER: She did. She loved that sort of thing. Her health had been declining for a number of years. As it got worse and as her energy level and voice declined she would have ups and downs. I had very serious concerns when they contacted us and said they wanted her to do the computer voice again. I said, “I don’t even know if she can do it.” They would have to have somebody come to the house and they would have to accommodate her in every way – not because of her ego but because of her health. I thought to myself I still don’t know what they are going to get even with all of that. So the day comes around to record her voice work and I am just wondering what is going to happen. I am wondering if they are going to do it and just say it is not useable. Apparently, when her friend, Reina, reminded her about this her entire mood changed and she became uplifted and happy and came out with plenty of energy. She wasn’t just putting on a show. She genuinely loved doing this sort of thing for the fans and for the show. She was a “show must go on” kind of lady. I think, in the end, she was doing it for my father. Her love of him and of Star Trek was special. I heard that it was phenomenal. They taped all of her lines right there at the house. She couldn’t travel at that point.
DM: What do you believe is your mom’s greatest legacy to Star Trek?
ER: I think the lives she touched in-person. I only know half of the story because they had an entire life before I was born and before I reached any comprehension of what Star Trek was. From what I saw, it was her genuine interaction with the fans. When she met people, she was genuinely interested in them. She wasn’t like a lot of the other actors who charge $50.00 for an autograph and they don’t even look up. She would look up and smile and talk with the fans. And she wouldn’t just stay for an hour; she would stay for three or four hours until everyone got an autograph. It is that little personal touch. I keep saying to people, “Paramount owns Star Trek but they still don’t screw with Roddenberry because there is a loyalty that my mother and father earned with the admirers of Star Trek.” Whether it was speaking to them as people in-person, on stage or at the autograph table or corresponding through letters and acknowledging their support over the years, it was all of those actions that made a loyal fan base to the Roddenberry name. That is what keeps Roddenberry alive as far as Star Trek goes.
She had a feisty side to her as well. The memorial service we gave her was not a sad event. It was to acknowledge her and who she was. It was the real her. We had a number of people come on stage who talked about how feisty she was and how she would sit with the boys and tell dirty jokes! There was a Star Trek element but it was really there to remember who Majel Roddenberry was.
DM: What was your relationship like with your mother?
ER: I had more time to spend with my mom than my dad but, unfortunately, it didn’t get much better. When we worked on Earth: Final Conflict we would always butt heads. We would always be kind of driving in the same direction but coming from two different points-of-view. She loved being in control and I am sure I have that as well from both her and my father. There were always two alphas wanting to control the discussion or the argument. We loved each other but we weren’t the closest or the best of friends. As she got older, we became closer. There were fewer things to argue about in life.
DM: Do you have any cool mementos your mom and dad kept from the early days of Star Trek?
ER: There are a few things. We do have some of the original costumes. I think one is Sulu’s and the other is Kirk’s. We have a number of costumes. We don’t have the original Enterprise ship or anything like that. There is a rumor that I threw it in the pool as a kid and that never happened! We have a number of scripts with my father’s notes. There is a lot of material like that. I often get confused between the sentimental ones and the valuable ones. Some of my father’s old computers that he wrote some of The Next Generation notes on are special to me.
DM: Do you think your father had any regrets that he sold the rights to Star Trek years and years ago?
ER: I am sure he did to a degree. My understanding is that he sold the rights in either 1982 or 1984, right after Star Trek II. Star Trek II was a moderate success but I know my father was fighting with Paramount every step of the way. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was basically considered a flop. So I can understand at the time that Paramount may have come to him and said, “Here’s X amount of dollars. This is more than you’ll ever get and nothing will ever come from this.” He probably just took it. I think after The Next Generation’s fifth season, around 1991, when it was successful he probably had some regrets because his child was coming alive again.
DM: If your father were alive today, where do you think the Star Trek franchise would be at this point?
ER: I know exactly where it would be. He signed on to do The Next Generation and after he did that he went, “Holy shit! What did I do?!” It was his opportunity to get a second chance to make it a success. Not that the first series wasn’t a success but he hit every stumbling block along the way. The Next Generation was his chance to get everything right and get his vision out there. He did do that. After The Next Generation ended he would have said, “Well, I did it. I proved it.” He would have retired and moved onto something else. Since Paramount essentially owned Star Trek I am sure it would have continued with Deep Space Nine and the same path it did take, I just don’t know if he would have kept away from it and said, “That’s their ball game. I’m doing my own thing.” Or he might’ve said, “Oh shit, they are doing it wrong! I have to get my hands back into it.” But since Paramount owned it, I get the feeling that, even if he wanted to and even if he raised hell, they may not have let him back in.
Stay tuned for part 2 of our exclusive interview with Eugene "Rod" Roddenberry, Jr. on Wednesday.