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Mania Exclusive Interview-Part II: Eugene Roddenberry
Carrying the Torch of a Trek Nation
By Dan Madsen
March 25, 2009
Eugene "Rod" Roddenberry, Jr., the only son of Star Trek's late creators Gene and Majel.
© Mania.com/Robert Trate
Under Rod’s leadership, he expanded Roddenberry Productions, adding an e-commerce store and establishing a new mission for the company, to create new sci-fi content and make Roddenberry Productions the place where sci-fi begins. Along with his business/creative partner, Trevor Roth, Rod began developing new content aimed at moving the company into the digital age. Together the pair have successfully developed new properties across a variety of platforms, including popular web comic series, a new comic book franchise and development of film and television projects.
Especially close to Rod’s heart has been the documentary film project “Trek Nation.” Born out of a desire to get to know his father after his death, “Trek Nation” is a son’s quest to get to know his legendary father through the eyes of the fans that loved him. The film is set to debut sometime in 2009.
When not working, Rod’s passions turn to the oceans. Much in the same way his father explored the heavens with Star Trek, Rod has a devoted passion to exploring the great mysteries under the sea. Attempting to spread this passion, Rod established the Roddenberry Dive Team, with the mission of helping to educate, preserve and explore the oceans.
Dan Madsen: Rod, one of the things I have admired about you is that you have made a real effort to carry on your father’s legacy and respect what he accomplished.
Eugene Roddenberry, Jr. : Thank you. I can’t say that I know exactly what my father was thinking. I will hear interviews and things and fairly often I will think to myself, “Oh, that is exactly what I think!” He was such a reader – he knew so much. As far as his views on humanity, life, religion, our future, I hold those very near and dear. I think I have very many of the same views he did.
DM: What was your earliest memory of Star Trek?
ER: My earliest memory of Star Trek was going to conventions. I think I knew that my father was the producer of Star Trek but I didn’t even know what those words meant. I remember sitting in my father’s office bathroom. He had his 16mm projector and he would show the Star Trek bloopers on a little piece of white cardboard. It was literally 12 inches by 12 inches. I would sit there and giggle and laugh, as the guys would fall down the stairs and slip and stuff. That is definitely one of my first memories – sitting there and watching that. I still never grasped, though, that this is what my father did. I even less understood what Star Trek meant to the world. My first real comprehension of Star Trek’s impact would be much later in life at my father’s memorial service. A number of people went on stage at his service. I was 17 years old at the time. I had worked on The Next Generation as a PA for a couple of summers. I had also been to conventions. I knew there were devout followers. But I never connected with Star Trek. I even watched The Next Generation religiously when my father would bring home tapes on Thursdays. But I don’t know that I really got the metaphors and subtext that were in that show. They weren’t as prominent as they were in the original series but they were there.
At my father’s memorial service a gentleman went on stage and talked about a letter my father got from a quadriplegic who was in a wheelchair. His parents had put him in a home because they couldn’t take care of him. For years, he contemplated suicide because he thought life was not worth living. Then Star Trek came on the air and presented a future where it had matured and he would not be such an outcast in society. He went on to credit my father and Star Trek and basically ended with him explaining that he was now in his late 40’s, married and had several kids. I don’t necessarily believe in life-changing moments, but that was one for me. That’s where I said, “Holy shit! I don’t understand. My dad did this?!” I just thought there were a bunch of crackpots running around in costumes.. But there was much more to it than that. I went to college and digested everything. I had the opportunity to work on Earth: Final Conflict and really proactively sought out to learn what Star Trek was and who Gene Roddenberry was and what made all these people so passionate about Star Trek. Those years, 1996 to 2000, are the years I learned the most about what Star Trek was by traveling to conventions and asking questions and watching episodes. I would look at a scene on Earth: Final Conflict where the lead guy dives through a window shooting his gun and ask myself, “Shouldn’t he knock first?” I watched Star Trek and there was always some sort of peaceful ending. Something just didn’t feel “Roddenberry.” I would go and talk to the crew and talk to the fans and say, “Yeah, I thought this was bullshit.”
DM: What do you share most in common with your dad?
ER: A lustful respect for women! (Laughs) I want to say all these philanthropic things like an open mind and a unique vision for the future but, like everyone else, I am a major hypocrite. I have this positive view on humanity and I do think everything will work out. I do think we are going to go through some rough patches. But I will wake up and have a shitty morning like anyone else where I hate everyone and everything. One of the struggles I have gone through my entire life is that we all have our own battles on our own levels of life – not that my life has been horrible in any way. Hearing how wonderful Gene Roddenberry was and what a genius he was – those are all true statements – but we all have to realize he was only human and there is another side to all these people who are visionaries and geniuses. While they are not rotten people they have their bad days and Gene Roddenberry was not always the wonderful happy genius.
DM: He told me one time that while fans put him on a pedestal and think he is perfect that he is still just Gene Roddenberry – warts and all.
ER: Yes, and I think that goes down to one of his philosophies about how we need to embrace our fears and acknowledge our weaknesses. To be weak and to make mistakes is to be human. That’s what Star Trek always said. The human factor is the most wonderful factor – warts and all.
DM: How would you describe your relationship with your dad?
ER: From birth to ten, he was the father figure. The guy I looked up to. He was larger than life. He was also an authority figure but he was my dad. He would talk to me about girls and things that a dad would talk about. But then I became a teenager and he became busy with The Next Generation and we were at odds. I was rebelling and we did not have the best relationship then. We were not at each other’s throats on a daily basis but there was definitely constant tension. That pretty much lasted right up to the point where I was 17 and he passed away. Unfortunately, my relationship with him from roughly 11 to 12 years old and on wasn’t that good.
DM: How do you see him now?
ER: It is much better. I am making a documentary film on him and have met a lot of people and had a lot of different thoughts and I have spent a lot of time dwelling on Gene Roddenberry. One of the things that I always wanted to do that has worked for me, and I hope it comes across in the documentary, was to really humanize my father. I spent a lot of time hearing people say, “The great Gene Roddenberry.” I really tried to come to grips with who Gene Roddenberry was. Was he the great Gene Roddenberry, visionary of the future or was he the guy I knew as the teenager? Of course, the answer is “both.” For a lot of people, the “warts and all” aspects of him are the things they don’t know about him. Essentially, his home life. For me, his “warts and all” were the things I had to battle with while everyone was saying how great he was. I saw him kind of the other way. I saw the human side of him. I had to come to terms with his “greatness” and love him and accept him for being human. One of the things that was revealed to me was that Star Trek and fandom were all his children. They really were. Star Trek was a family he created the way he wanted to. He had all the admirers and adulation. That was a slightly painful realization for awhile but then I really came to terms with it and it ended up being the realization that I have an amazing opportunity to know my father through so many different resources and I have millions of brothers and sisters around the world who can tell me great things about my father and I can learn from them. So the positive definitely outweighs any potential negatives I may have seen.
DM: Do you have a favorite Star Trek memory over the years?
ER: The people I have met throughout the world who have all had this common vision of the future is a wonderful thing. But I would have to say that a few years back, I briefly communicated with a lady who was born and raised in Iraq and she said that in the 70’s two episodes of Star Trek came on there and she had been a fan ever since. She said there are plenty of Star Trek fans in Iraq. I love the idea that in our two warring nations, so to speak, there are people on both sides who see this united future and don’t harbor resentment towards the other.
DM: What’s happening with your new documentary, Trek Nation?
ER: It’s about eight years in production now! We basically have 200 to 300 hours of footage. We started with a concept but not really a script, which would account for a little bit of this overtime. I ended up buying the rights from my producing partner about a year ago. We basically ended up producing about four or five different versions of Trek Nation and they all missed the mark. We had an amicable parting of the ways and I took control. I brought on a new editor and now Trevor Roth and I have been technically producing this with the new editor. We have a new solid rough cut that I finally think is there. I have been very apprehensive for giving a time frame because I feel the last few years I have been saying it would be released soon. But I feel we are closer than we ever have been. I feel we will see it released sometime this year. Ideally, we would like to get it out near the release date of the new movie. That will be the best market for it. I want to make sure it is on its own. It is not going to be one of the features on the back of the new Star Trek movie. It will be its own thing. I am really happy with it now. I grew concerned that it wouldn’t get to this point. One of the reasons it has taken so long is that simply I have never done this before. It is my first time. It is such a personal subject that it is so hard to be objective. It is so hard to watch a scene and know it is good for the right reasons. That has had a lot to do with these numerous versions of the film. We would have someone tell us that “this is not about Gene Roddenberry. This is about Rod Roddenberry.” We had a cut that focused too much on me – not necessarily from my arrogance but it just ended up that way. Instead of learning about Gene Roddenberry through his son’s eyes it became learning about the son and how he came to terms with his father’s love. Which, for me, in its own way was a beautiful story but was not what we set out to do and, to be honest, is not what the public would like. This is not a documentary about Eugene Roddenberry. That was a fine line to navigate. It was tough. We have always been shooting for a theatrical release and a theatrical release, in the best-case scenario, would be around two to five theatres around the country. That would just be for publicity. Then it will most likely go straight to DVD or Blue Ray. It was all shot in high definition.
DM: Was your mother aware that you were making this documentary?
ER: Yes, she was. I actually borrowed money from her in the beginning to start it off. We’re all flawed and while I wasn’t the best son my mother probably wasn’t always the best mother. She loved me and no matter fail or succeed would have continued to love me but I don’t know how supportive she was of this project. She would say, “Oh, it’s wonderful and it’s going to be great,” but I can also tell you other conversations I had with her where she would say, “Why are you wasting your time and money on something as ridiculous as this?” She definitely wanted me to be my father. She wanted me to be producing television and Star Trek. That’s for certain.
DM: Did you ever have aspirations of carrying on the Star Trek torch and producing your own version of your father’s show?
ER: It’s been a love/hate relationship of mine. There has been fear – there has been a little bit of everything. Part of me never wants to do anything with Star Trek because I don’t want to have the built-in criticism, not just from the fans, but also from myself trying to live up to my father. I have always had a healthy respect for Star Trek but also wanted to keep my distance. If I get into Hollywood, I am not going to go mainstream television. I don’t like working under the constraints of the current television industry. I will want to do something that is probably more low budget and independent. But my main focus and my main interest is the amount of technology and talent that is not recognized by Hollywood. If I can put together the right team of individuals with talent and get my hands on enough technology we could create a full one-hour television series that has almost studio quality and produce a series for the Internet or anywhere. I want to make the studios say, “Holy shit! They did this for how much?!” I am talking about doing a concept of my own. There are a couple of groups out there like New Voyages who have already kind of done this with Star Trek and they are the ones that have shown me that this can be done. While theirs aren’t great they are pretty damn good! They have shown me that the drive, the passion and the quality and determination are all there. We could do a serious one-hour pilot, with people giving up a lot of their time no doubt, to really blow the socks off of Hollywood. That is what I am excited to do. We could do this in a garage or a warehouse with a green screen, whatever, and make something very cool.
DM: Well, your dad made Star Trek on a shoestring budget and wowed people. I don’t mean to keep comparing you to your dad and have you live in his shadow.
ER: I am over the “shadow” thing. That was part of the whole Trek Nation thing. I have come to terms with that and I think it is a great thing. I am now honored by that as opposed to being scared by it or rebelling against it. Of course, whatever I do I want the fans to love it and feel the Roddenberry side of it. It will definitely deal with a future where humanity is working together. It won’t be a copy of Star Trek but it’s own thing.
DM: What is your opinion of the future of Star Trek?
ER: Long-term future I don’t think Star Trek will ever die. Star Trek is the modern day Shakespeare. Scholars will scoff at that comment and I am not necessarily comparing my father to Shakespeare but the collaborative effort of what Star Trek has become is of that caliber. I think for generations to come, whether it is on the air or not, it will be spoken about and used in conversation and be a household word. That is the worse case scenario. If Star Trek becomes the next Star Wars it might be around for a lot longer and on television and in movies and it might be great sci-fi. My only concern is that the philosophy gets lost on the young generation so that kids grow up learning about Star Trek as “the other Star Wars.” Either way, though, I think Star Trek will always be there. I think its philosophy will always be there – I just don’t know how ingrained into society it will be. I think we are at a crossroads to some degree. I think JJ Abrams has a lot riding on him whether he knows it or not. This next movie, I think, determines not just if Star Trek gets a television deal and a second movie but just what direction the Star Trek franchise will go. I have extremely high hopes for JJ and the next film.