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Gene Roddenberry:

The High Flying Bird

In 1976, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was in Washington DC for a fan convention. Norman Schreiber was there to interview Roddenberry for Swank magazine. The television legend generously shared experiences, insights and opinions. This was before any of the Star Trek feature films and before any of the Star Trek spinoffs. His candid comments not only tell us about man behind a cultural phenomenon. They tell us about creativity in the age of television then and, true to the spirit of science fiction, now. Here are the results complete with dated intro.

Bionic people come and go, Kung Fu went down for the count, the hippies and the yippies are gone, the Beatles have broken up, Maharaj Ji's voice has changed . . . but Star Trek lives.

Roddenberry started writing for television in 1953, the tail end of the "golden age." He sold scripts to many shows, and was head writer for Have Gun, Will Travel and producer of The Lieutenant. He made two Star Trek pilots and was actively involved with the first two years' worth of episodes. He agreed to participate in the third year if NBC. would give the show a favorable time slot. The network changed its mind. Roddenberry feeling he should stick to his word, retained his Executive Producer title, but stood helplessly on the side. Predictably, the time slot robbed the show of its last chance for survival. When the season ended, Star Trek ended -or so it seemed.

But, in 1969, Star Trek went into syndication. An intense cult blossomed around it. The show is now seen on 160 stations with a total estimated audience of 12 million people. Its success is reflected in the sales of old and new Star Trek gimcracks, in the many newsletters and fanzines published by enthusiasts, and in the Star Trek conventions which occur almost weekly across the country.

SCHREIBER: I think we'd like to know a little more about you. Where were you born?

RODDENBERRY: I was born in Texas, raised in California. A lot of my young life was spent in various parts of the world. I went into military service at 19 —the Air Corps—and became a military pilot. From there I went to Pan American Airways as a pilot. I have lived. I think, an interesting life. I was a Los Angeles police officer.

SCHREIBER: Were you on the street? Did you have a beat?

RODDENBERRY: I was fortunate. The chief of police was an old family friend. He wanted me to come in his office and write for him. I said I'd do that only if after every six months he'd put me on a new job so I could learn a little about life, because I wanted to be a writer. I worked investigation, patrol cars juvenile, public relations . . all of which I'm grateful for, because you really get a look at life.

Even in those days. I was a member of ACLU. But I was wise enough to carefully hide my card because it was considered, in those days, tantamount to being a practicing Communist.
SCHREIBER: What is the most interesting experience you had as a police officer?

RODDENBERRY: One night I almost killed a man — a burglar. When they took him in, his wife went in to meet him. I got to talk to him, and found out he was a very nice old man. I thought, thank God I didn't pull the trigger.

The Origin Story

SCHREIBER: How did you get the idea for Star Trek?
RODDENBERRY: I began thinking about doing a science fiction television show in the early fifties when I first began writing for television. As a sci-fi reader since junior high school. I had seen sci-fi on film and on television, and was generally dissatisfied with what I had seen. It seemed they were violating some principal rules of drama —one of which is that stories are about people, not gadgetry.

I began thinking that if I did a science fiction show—and did it properly, wrote it in the same way a person would write a Kaiser Aluminum Hour or Playhouse 90 —I might have something that people would remember me for. It wasn't until about 1961-62 that I began to put together the elements of the Star Trek format. At that time I had acquired a second reason for wanting to do science fiction. Having written in television for 10 years. I was sick to death of all the censorship restrictions on television scripts. You had little opportunity to talk about sex, religion, politics, economics —or to be very honest about anything meaningful in people's lives.

It occurred to me that I might take a page out of Jonathan Swift's notebook. When he wanted to write about conditions in the England of his time, he invented Gulliver and Lilliputia in the hope that the censors would see it just as something happening to giants or little people, and wouldn't realize he was making very shrewd comments on religious and political systems of his time. It seemed to me that if I had my things happen to polka-dotted people on far-off planets, I might be able to slip by a lot of things I wanted to write about. Indeed, it generally worked that way. We were able to get things past the network censors. In most cases, our audience—even the 13- and 14-year-olds—knew very well what we were talking about.

For example, during those dreadful years of Viet Nam. Star Trek was the only dramatic show that was consistently making comments on the futility and stupidity of war. It's a pity we couldn't have made those comments stronger or more identifiable, but at least we were able to make some.

A Star Trek Cult Is Born

SCHREIBER: One of the things that fascinates me is that in the course of pursuing an income you created one of the great cults of our time. How do you feel about that?

RODDENBERRY: Well, it was partly in pursuing an income. Part of it, though, was that I'm a writer. Writing is really an exercise of taking bits of the complexity of the world and arranging them into what seems a sensible pattern and saying to people. "Hey, here's how I see this."

Obviously, I'm interested in income. I would like to eat regularly, take care of my family, and all that sort of thing. But unless you're satisfied to be a hack, you cannot be a writer without caring about what it's all about.

But I would have had to have been insane to sit down and say, "Well, what am I going to do today? I think I'll create a cult, a phenomenon." You always write hoping now and then somebody will run in and say. "Hey, I saw that thing you did and I liked it." That's about the attitude I had when doing Star Trek. I thought I had a way of doing science fiction that was maybe a little better than a lot of it I'd seen—more emphasis on story, character dimension, reality. But, no, man, I never expected this to happen.

The next logical question is, my reaction to it? I'm very pleased. It's been very nice. Hell, I'm no saint. I love to walk up to the airline ticket counter, and the guys say. "Oh. yes, you're the Star Trek Roddenberry? We're going to give you the VIP treatment." It's nice to get a better table in a restaurant. Really, the nicest thing about it, though, is the fact that it's brought me in contact with a lot of amazing and interesting people. I have friends at the Smithsonian Institute. I was welcome at NASA for the Mars landing. Soon I'm going up to the Artificial Intelligence lab at MIT.

At the same time, there's always the danger that when you talk about things like that and the kids who, maybe, have been encouraged to go to college because of the show, you always come up sounding like you're saying. "I am a saint. I am an unusual guru-type of individual"—which is not true. I am in most ways a very normal person. I like girls. A shot of liquor every now and then doesn't upset me. I like motorcycles. I love sailboating. I have the ordinary amount of ego in the little places where I kid myself about what I'm doing.

Which Raises a Number of Questions

SCHREIBER: Are there certain questions about Star Trek that you hate?

RODDENBERRY: Well, you get tired of some of the obvious ones; but some of the obvious ones are necessary, too. Like, why did it go off the air? I'm asked that all the time. The answer's always the same. Our ratings were very low. They didn't help by switching us to worse and worse times. Also, people were not into science fiction that much.

See, man had not been into orbit or on the moon, and science fiction in those days was considered something a group of nuts did for a few other nuts. Of course, today it's really becoming a legitimate branch of literature.

SCHREIBER: How were you treated by scientists and the science fiction community?

RODDENBERRY: Scientists themselves were a great surprise. We tried to have a rule that everything on the show was an extrapolation of some known fact; but in fact you can't do this. You may realize that, in the future, commnicators with microminiaturization would be the size of the head of a pin: but you also realize that you've got to have a communicator that the audience can see. I thought the scientists would be writing all sorts of letters—upset, angry. criticizing. It turned out that the scientists—because they're bright guys—could understand the problems of drama. So we didn't get unfair criticism from them.
Now, science fiction writers are another story entirely. There is a pecking order in literature, as there is in almost everything else. Great numbers of science fiction writers who have been in science fiction for a long time and who are novelists still refuse to acknowledge Star Trek. They've taken little time to understand the problems of translating science fiction into sound and image. For example, you can't just describe the ship. You have to build it.

I have been hurt by the treatment, and the lack of understanding, and the lack of effort to understand we’ve  received in this field. This has not been true of all science fiction writers. Isaac Asimov, a shining example, immediately saw and noticed the difficulties of these translations, and has been a great help, as have Arthur C. CIarke. Ray Bradbury, and a few others.

SCHREIBER: Is there any one character from Star Trek with whom you identify?

RODDENBERRY: I think most of the main characters. Writing has some things in common with acting. You tend to create yourself in images of 'what I might have been if . ."I were a military pilot; and I think Kirk was a dream image of myself as I would have liked to have been. Always cool, always shrewd. As for Spock, I've screwed up so many times with emotion that it was fun to sit down and write myself as if I hadn't been troubled by that. The doctor's humanism is very much the way I'd like to feel, the decency I would like to have.

Sex in Space

SCHREIBER: I've always been fascinated by Captain Kirk's libido. He always seems to find opportunities for sex.
RODDENBERRY: Well, that's true. As a matter of fact, in the last year of the show, it almost became his girl-friend-of -the-week. I objected to that because it was just too cheap a way to get romance into it. I wanted him to have more romances that didn't work. I wanted to deal more with his great loneliness. It's a pleasant and lonely perversion that captains often have of being wedded, really wedded, to their vessels. We just didn't have time to do it, and the last year—when I didn't have my hands on it —we just almost lost it entirely at times.

SCHREIBER: I take it that your objections are more in the way that it turned out rather than the use of the subject matter.

RODDENBERRY: No objection to the use of the subject matter! I felt that our characters should be full human beings; that they should enjoy sex as much as they enjoy tennis or whatever.

SCHREIBER: Were there any episodes where there was some kind of sexual theme you would have preferred?

RODDENBERRY: Oh, yeah! Throughout the series I would have liked to have had a more grown-up relationship between all the men and women on the crew. I would hope that by two or three hundred years from now, a lot of the sexual insanity and sexual concerns and sexual restrictions would be gone—the old superstitions. Of course, sex on television then was a giant no-no. Network memos always had three or four references to no open-mouth kissing—that sort of thing. They wouldn't even let me have the ship made up of 50% men and 50% women. They were afraid that that would make it look like—in the words of one network executive‑“too much fooling around going on up there."

There's a story I've always wanted to do about a planet with a life form in which it takes three sexes to breed, and the whole planet is built on threesomes. On this planet, if two do it, it's a felony. It would enable us to make comments on our own insanities.

Behind the Scenes

SCHREIBER: To go from the ridiculous to the sublime, you acquired a couple of nicknames like Crazy Gene and the Great Bird of the Galaxy. How did these come about?

RODDENBERRY: Well, Crazy Gene was the studio and network reference to me, because I was doing things that seemed very crazy to them at the time. I was taking phone calls about how much does it cost to paint a woman green. The Great Bird thing came out of the memo our associate producer wrote one day to the art director about a set being built. It said, "If this set is not there and ready Monday morning, the Great Bird of the Galaxy is going to fly over and do something on you." The term Great Bird just stuck. As a matter of fact, Gene Coons, who produced the series for a year, never called me anything from then on but Bird. It became sort of an in-house joke. Most of our in-house jokes got out to the fans. Rather than have a family of 80 people, our family sort of grew to a million or two million.

SCHREIBER: I guess one of the logical effects of the Star Trek show is Star Trek Enterprises. What exactly is that?

RODDENBERRY: When our fan mail first started to come in, we didn’t see it. It was sent by the studio to a house that handled these things personally. Then I got a call from Isaac Asimov, who said, "I'd written you what I thought to be a fairly intelligent letter on your show, and I received back an autographed picture of Dr. Spock. And I'm insulted."

SCHREIBER: Which one did he want,  Uhura?

RODDENBERRY: He wanted an answer. He wanted to establish communications. We found out also that we'd gotten a letter from NASA that had never been answered. So I said to the studio. whatever you pay these people to do it, give me the same money and I will get some people who know the show really well and can give some answers. People then began writing in saying, "Can I get hold of a script, a regular film clip, a souvenir?" We couldn't afford to give film free, and so we began to put prices on these. At that time I married my present wife. Majel. I wanted her to have a business, an interest. I hate a wife coming to her husband saying, "Please, dear, can I have some money?" So I said, 'As a wedding present I'd like to give you this business," little knowing she would turn out to be a shrewd businesswoman and it would turn out to be a much larger enterprise. I have nothing to do with it. Majel runs it. It's not just Star Trek now, there are four or five other shows. It also has moved into promotion and publicity for networks and studios, too.
SCHREIBER: Does Star Trek Enterprises have anything to do with licensing?

RODDENBERRY: Star Trek Enterprises does the exclusive mail order sales of Star Trek items. Although there are a lot of people who bootleg things in the same area, Paramount has the license. The basic copyright is owned by Paramount. I have a profit participation. One day I hope to see it.

SCHREIBER: Oh, you haven't seen it?

RODDENBERRY: No. The last statement I saw from Paramount said that it's two million dollars in the hole.

SCHREIBER: I suppose that being a producer forces you to be a father figure. An authority figure.

RODDENBERRY: Oh, sure, sometimes people expected superhuman things. Many times there was annoyance from them when I turned out to be fallible and not there when I should have been minding the store. But I suppose it was the other way, too. I expected more of them than I really should have expected of human beings.

I would get tired. The only thing hat really annoyed me was, we were working twelve hours a day, six days a week. I would just get tired. And, of course, they can't feel that anymore than I can feel when they're tired on stage. They would be annoyed. and I really would feel put upon. Matter of fact, I know it, having raised a family. Fathers feel that way with the children.

We’re talking about fatigue. I don't think anyone has written about that, in regard to making a television show. It's a very big factor in almost any show. Fatigue for all of us was a common thing on Star Trek. A science fiction movie is hard to make. When you try to turn out the equivalent of half a science fiction movie every week, it becomes a near impossible thing. The first year on Star Trek every member of our production staff was in the hospital at one time or another with something related to complete nervous exhaustion. I had a period in the hospital where suddenly I began to bleed in my nose and throat, and I was in there for nine days. Suddenly I was alright again.

I have said that I didn't work as line producer the last year because I had bargained with the network on that basis and I didn't want to go back on my threat. There might be a little rationalization to that. It's also very true that I had had four years-including two pilots—on a most difficult show. I was fighting a network that really didn't realize what the show was, fighting a studio that didn't particularly like it, being creamed by every critic for years. I think we probably reached a point where we seized upon this as an excuse to get out from under the table. I think I said. "Hey, man, we just can't go on like this." My body was saying, "Find some way to get out—any excuse!"

It would be so much different to do four or six Star Trek specials a season. That would be fun. It's not fun to do it the other way and see your entire personal life going down the drain, not seeing the kids.

SCHREIBER: You made sacrifices for the show.

RODDENBERRY: Enormous ones! You give a bleeding hunk of yourself. It's like being at war. Now, we tend to look back and remember the great times, the little successes, the jokes we told. Men tend to remember war the same way. I know when I get together with guys I was in the South Pacific with, we remember the laughter and so on. None of us really talk much about the times we were scared shitless.

SCHREIBER: What were the new shows that were coming in when you went off the air?

RODDENBERRY: We went off when Laugh-In was coming in. It was funny, because we had had such trouble with the network over sexual things, like bare skin. They made us recut a show because we showed a belly-button. Laugh-1n came in and was successful. Suddenly, belly buttons and shaking hips and all the things we couldn't do were perfectly in. We were kind of amused at that, because we knew that if our show had a 50 rating, a top rating, we could have pushed things like that, too.

SCHREIBER: What do you do when you learn your show is going down the drain?

RODDENBERRY: There really isn't a heck of a lot you can do. One reason is that whatever you may be doing at that moment—whatever script you're working on or whatever show you're shooting —is probably weeks and, in some cases, months from ever appearing on the tube. When you're in trouble, the network is probably going to make its decisions in the next couple of weeks. Those things which are going to affect that decision have already been shot and cut. They're probably in the final process of sound effects and music editing. If they're not good shows, a little better sound effects or a little better music isn't going to make that much difference. Usually, the things that have a show going down the drain are outside the producer's or writer's or actor's province. They're things like where the show is slotted: what night of the week, at what time, following which successful or unsuccessful shows .

And Speaking of Television

In the beginnings of television, if your show was showing some weaknesses, you had a chance to change the format and your approach, and try to get better writing. But now television is a frantic, hectic, high-pressure thing. The decision to keep your show or throw it off the air is often made after only three or four episodes have been seen by the public. If you don't have-bang!—a high rating for your third or four episode, you're in great trouble. As a result, you will find fewer writers and producers who will risk doing an entirely new kind of show, an entirely new kind of format.

SCHREIBER: This is a good time to learn your views about television.

RODDENBERRY: I think the thing that television writers share is a great mistrust of the way this medium is being handled. We have great fears about what it can be doing to the nation.

SCHREIBER: In what respect?

RODDENBERRY: We have this marvelous, marvelous instrument, television, which is in every home; which people are watching at the rate of five or ten to one over books and newspapers. It has this incredible impact of sound and image. It can draw you into it. What a remarkable opportunity to reach out and touch the hearts and minds of people, and to present all sorts of different ideas and solutions. But it's been used solely as a device to sell cars, beer, underarm deodorant. The decision of what gets on the air is made solely on the basis of: does it sell products?

SCHREIBER: Howard Gossage said that the situation was similar to ball games being run on the basis of selling frankfurters.

RODDENBERRY: That's good. I hadn't heard that. This is that much more important than ball games, because we're talking about something that gets into people's minds. There's no way that the leaders of this country can escape responsibility for the fact that they have ignored this medium which affects what people are going to be. Children cannot live their lives watching that box three hours a day and taking on its attitudes and values. without it determining what kind of human beings they're going to be.

SCHREIBER: the extent to which the government has paid attention to the media has not had desirable effects.

RODDENBERRY: I'm not talking about politics. I'm talking about thinkers—professors, philosophers, statesmen. They should recognize that what is coming out of there is affecting the values of our future generations. They're sitting idly by, cutting pornography out of corner movie theatres, and then they're allowing Let's Make A Deal, which is an exercise in prostitution. They allowed shows like the Andy Griffith Show about a small southern town. The show had one rule: never show a black.

SCHREIBER: In the early days it was even worse. You couldn't do a script about Hitler killing Jews and mention gas—because you might lose gasoline advertising.

RODDENBERRY: What is even more appropriate to our times is that during this gigantic tragedy we endured in Viet Nam, dramatic writers were never permitted to write about the situation of the war.  lt may offend the public, and it doesn't really sell product. Had writers of all persuasions, pro and con, been able to write about this war and do what drama is really all about—push you to identify, to become that soldier or this Vietnamese peasant, and hurt with them as they watch their children die—if we'd been allowed to do that, the war would not have lasted for seven years. The only way you saw Viet Nam on television was in hundreds of thousands of feet of newsreel release. News, to the average viewer, is the fantasy world. It's happening somewhere else to a bunch of gooks. Reality is Marcus Welby, because you can identify, you can feel with the doctor.

I have no objection if somebody writes a show that is pro-Nazi. All that means is that we can write every side of it. I have enough faith in the intelligence of our society to make up their minds. If they don't lave that intelligence, then this exercise in democracy — which has been going on 200 years — has been just wasted time.

SCHREIBER: It seems to me that what you’re  saying is that basically you accept the system under which television works, but you would like different content.

RODDENBERRY: No! I think we have to have a different system. There must be better ways to choose what goes on that tube, rather than whether or not it will sell toothpaste. I think, ultimately, we have got to find a system in which the audience pays directly for it. They pay indirectly for it, already. The audience should make the final choice of what goes on the air. The networks have made a giant issue of pay-TV. They say, "Don't pay for what you're now getting free!" That is really a phony issue. We already pay for every­thing we see. We have pay books, pay movies. pay stage plays, pay magazines, and that's the way it should be. TV should be no different.

SCHREIBER: Do you watch television?

RODDENBERRY: Yes, selectively.

SCHREIBER: What shows do you watch?

RODDENBERRY: I watch Jacques Cousteau, National Geographic, and what seem to be important specials. I watch some of the other stuff, too, because my wife forces me to watch it by saying, "Look, you're in the business. I'm going to take you by the ear and make you watch these shows." I watch Norman Lear's shows. I like them. I watch Barney Miller. It's done by an extremely clever team.

SCHREIBER: What is in your future?

RODDENBERRY: I'd like to have something besides Star Trek carved on my tombstone. What it is, I don't know, which doesn't particularly bother me. My secretary and I have been through this a number of times. I've always had a theory or system that next week something grand is going to happen. And it always has. Once I needed S25,000, because things had gone bad in the worst way. I said, "We'll have it before the week's out. Don't worry." On Friday of that week, a man walked in with a script thing and a 525,000 advance. My secretary said, "How did you know?" It's not a case of knowing, just of having affection toward life, saying it's all going to be great. Something always comes up.

 Photo:: Larry D. Moore:CC BY-SA 3.0.