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Mania Interview With Gene Roddenberry
Brushes With Greatness
By Dan Madsen
December 04, 2008
The late Gene Roddenberry, the man behind the culture phenomenon STAR TREK
© Mania.com/Josh Gordon
Star Trek creator and futurist Gene Roddenberry’s vision changed not only the world of science fiction but also the world at large. It has been 17 years since Gene passed away, yet his view of the future is more alive today than ever. With the release of JJ Abrams new Star Trek film in May, Gene’s original concept of Star Trek and his “children” of characters will come to life as never before on the big screen.
The following interview happened during the time “The Next Generation” was on the air and just a couple of years before Roddenberry passed away. Mania has reprinted it for your enjoyment.
Dan Madsen: Gene, as a young boy, were you interested in science fiction?
Gene Roddenberry: Yes, I was. I was not very healthy as a young boy and science fiction offered me an escape. You could travel to strange worlds, meet interesting creatures and, regardless of your disability, were able to travel anywhere. I remember listening to some of those old science fiction radio shows and being fascinated by them—they really encouraged your imagination. In fact, the radio itself was science fiction to me. But science fiction challenged the imagination and as a young boy that appealed to me greatly. You know, the funny thing is that everything is science fiction at one time or another. The time we’re living in right now would be science fiction to people living 100 years ago.
DM: Were you surprised when the original Star Trek series started gaining such a fan following?
GR: I thought we had a show that some people would remember. I thought it would be nice in future years if someone would stop me and say, “Hey, I saw that thing called Star Trek you did and I liked it!” That was the most I had hoped for and that would’ve been nice. But the phenomenon I was not prepared for. You can’t be prepared for those things. What kind of an idiot is going to sit down one afternoon and say, “Well, let’s see, what will I do today? I think I’ll create a phenomenon!” (Laughter) I was surprised every year when it came back. I was surprised when it came back in reruns the 10th time, the 20th time and even today I’m surprised.
DM: Looking back, would you have given the character of Janice Rand a second chance?
GR: I think I would have. The mistake I made with Rand, and I’ve regretted it many times, was the network said to me, “We’ve been meeting on this and we think what you should do is get a different, exciting young lady every week, rather than the same one.” And I had said, “No” so many times to the network that I thought I maybe should give them a “Yes” this time. But, looking back now, I would’ve kept Rand on the show and I’m sorry I didn’t. I know what a disappointment it was to Grace Lee Whitney as it was to Majel to be the number two in line and then be gone. But producing is not a science and sometimes we make mistakes.
DM: How would you feel about mixing the original crew and The Next Generation crew in an upcoming film?
GR: Absolutely not ever! They are different people. They are essentially apart. I think we should be happy that we have Kirk, Spock and McCoy who do their things so well and we’re now lucky to have Picard and Riker and Data, too, doing their thing so well. I think that if you start mixing them together it’s like having two great soups that people love. If you take those two soups and pour them into the same pot they don’t taste the same and, most likely, they taste bad together. So I don’t think it would be wise to mix our two crews.
DM: Does it still amaze you that, 25 years later, here you are still working on Star Trek?
GR: It does amaze me. I run between being amazed and then watching these things happen and saying to my wife, “Exactly as I planned it!” (Laughter) People who know me know the joke in that.
DM: Why have the Klingons changed in looks from the original series to the films and now The Next Generation?
GR: Because in the making of the original television show, the only Klingons or aliens I could get were basically people with two eyes, one head, two arms and all of that (Laughter). I couldn’t afford appliances. It almost broke our budget just to put the ears on Spock every week. We didn’t have any money. So when we came along and did a motion picture with Klingons in it, I said, “Let’s try to get them a little different than humans. As long as we’ve got the money, let’s try to do science fiction.”
DM: Going back to the original television series, who wrote the line that has now become so famous, “Space….The final frontier….?”
GR: I wrote that in one afternoon when the word came in that we had to have the titles finished. I sat down one afternoon and wrote those with the assistance and discussion of Bob Justman and Herb Solow and a number of other people. When I would finish a line a lot of them would say, “That stinks! Try to think of something else.” We were always sort of a loose group. We were friends and associates.
DM: How did you develop the original Star Trek characters?
GR: Like any writer, all of the characters come out of pieces of me. Captain Kirk was like the airline pilot I wish I had been. Cool, resourceful and all of that. Spock was very definitely out of a memory of mine that most of the times I had screwed up in life were because of emotion and I thought that would be fun. I also noticed women sort of liked a touch of evil and I thought if I had a character that looked something like Lucifer it would be popular. Doctor McCoy comes out of family memories. They’re all little pieces of me and it’s hard to pick a favorite. They’re all my children and I love them dearly.
DM: What inspired you to develop the transporter as a means of transportation?
GR: Sheer need. I had envisioned this ship 11 stories high and it suddenly occurred to me that I would blow my whole budget in the first act if I landed on a world. Then, working in panic from that, I came up with the idea of the transporter. I knew in theory that energy and matter are interchangeable but that was about all I knew. I don’t recall ever seeing something that mentioned a transporter-like machine but it is also not so totally unheard of in the annals of science fiction. I just utilized the idea in a unique way for our show.
DM: Why did you name the starship Enterprise? Why not the Yorktown or some other name?
GR: I fought in the Pacific in World War II and I was downed in the area where the Enterprise and others broke the back of the Japanese fleet. It was a proud name. It was to me in those days, but I was a very young man. I guess I still cheer those days.
DM: You’ve said before that you initially had envisioned the character of Mr. Spock as a “little person” and were indeed considering casting actor Michael Dunn for the role. What had inspired that idea?
GR: I just thought that there were such few choices in doing someone who was of average height. You can do a little with the ears and fake eyes and so on but actors tend to come in roughly the same size. So I was thinking of making Spock a “little person” which would at least break some of those things, and make him stand out. Then, it also fit into the feelings I had that size should not be that important. As you know, one of the joys of Star Trek, for me, has been the variety of our fans. When I go to conventions and I see people of all sizes and shapes and abilities, and when I see people with nerve disorders that can’t really sit properly and so on, I still know what’s in their mind. They are saying, “In a better world, I can do anything. I’ll be there in a better world. In a better world, they will not laugh at me or look down their nose at me.”
I used to speak at colleges a lot because it was what kept me alive and paid the mortgage in the days when Star Trek was considered a gigantic failure. I have met some of these people. I remember one night someone called me over and said, “Can you possibly talk to this man?” And here was a fellow with some kind of nerve disorder who had an electronic box, he couldn’t speak, and by hitting the box, he could make halfway intelligible sounds. He could only make grunting-like noises. And finally I began to understand what he was saying and he was asking me why I did a certain thing in a certain show, and why I had invented somebody who had something of his disorder. I said to him, “Someday when we become wise, we won’t look at those things. We will look at communication and knowledge, etc.” And I saw his hand rise up with great determination and he said loudly and clearly, “Yes!!” Those are the high moments in my life.
DM: It must make you proud when you hear stories of how Star Trek has changed people’s lives.
GR: When I get a letter, for example, from somebody saying that when Star Trek came on they were not going to go to college, and now they’re graduating from engineering school with honors, I’m staggered by the feeling that, “Wow, I can have this feeling and they paid me for it, too!” It is a complete joy. I’m also relieved about something. I would want to cut my own throat if this had happened out of a show in which I had an anti-hero saying, “Hey man, be smart, get yours while you can, screw the rest!” If the phenomenon had happened out of that I’d really feel bad. At least we did one with old-fashioned heroes that believe their oath and their word are worth something and they have a respect for life. That’s not too bad if that’s the things it stands for.
DM: Do you recall coming close to calling Star Trek something else? Did you have any other choices for another title?
GR: I can remember that no sooner did I come up with the name Star Trek that NBC said, “We don’t like it.” And I just decided to ignore them. I said, “Yeah, well, I’ll change it when I get time.” And I let it go and it ended up as Star Trek.
DM: You’ve created many heroes for people to look up to and indeed you are a hero to many. But who are your heroes?
GR: Oh, I have some strange ones: Jonathan Swift, Albert Schweitzer. Many of them are unknown people I’ve met which I consider remarkably brave, patient and understanding. But I have less of that collection of heroes than an overwhelming affection for humanity. I think the human race is just a fascinating creature. I think we are so wonderful they should build statues to us. (Laughter) The things we are able to do are just marvelous. I know that humans, even today, capture and torture people and commit war and all of that. But that’s because they are still children and children are violent. But I refuse to think any other way about the human race but that they are beautiful children. They will, in the end, persevere.
DM: Is there a piece of advice someone has given you that you have lived by all these years?
GR: I think perhaps the best piece of advice I’ve had came from my grandmother who told me to believe in myself, to believe in humanity, and to be patient and give them all the chance to realize what they are.
DM: You’ve passed on that very same advice to the entire world through Star Trek!
GR: I hope so. I hope that I helped to build a fierce pride in what we are and what we can do if we set our minds to it. The human race is a remarkable creature, one with great potential, and I hope that Star Trek has helped to show us what we can be if we believe in ourselves and our abilities.