Gene’s vision. The Roddenberry philosophy. The message of Star Trek. The legacy.
For Star Trek fans, these phrases are common vocabulary. To Trekkies, as we often call ourselves, the vision of Gene Roddenberry—the creator of Star Trek, who died in 1991—is inescapable. On Star Trek Day 2021, Rod Roddenberry, the son of Gene Roddenberry and himself a Star Trek producer, spoke at a panel dedicated specifically to his father’s legacy, observing that it is so impactful because “the majority of this world, they want to share that common bond with their fellow brother and sister human, and I think that is what keeps Star Trek around. It shows us a future where we’re doing that” (“Gene Roddenberry’s Enduring”). Showrunners of each new installment rush to assure the fanbase that their TV show will continue Roddenberry’s vision, following in the footsteps of the series before it. It is taken for granted that his vision is what has made Star Trek a success. For Trek fans, Roddenberry’s name is revered, godlike. But although Gene Roddenberry contributed significantly to science fiction through Star Trek, his bigotry, personal failings, and artistic shortcomings are too often ignored, and the remembrance of Roddenberry as an idealized figure holds the fandom back from appreciating modern installments of the franchise.
On the surface, it makes sense that Gene Roddenberry has the reputation that he does. In creating one of the most significant sci-fi franchises of all time, he was guided by valuable principles. For example, representation in storytelling was very important to him, and his casts were relatively diverse, despite pushback from studio executives (Diaz). Star Trek has indisputably contributed to culture and society, and there is much to admire about its legacy. It has helped raise awareness for space travel efforts, with NASA even naming a shuttle after the Enterprise, the ship of Captain Kirk and his crew (Dumoulin). It inspired a generation of young people, particularly underrepresented minorities, by showing them characters with their identities in positions of power: for instance, it was the character of Lt. Uhura, a Black woman, who inspired actress Whoopi Goldberg to campaign for her own role on a later Star Trek series (Hanson). And oftentimes, such inclusion was hard-won, with serious resistance from a network that feared losing viewers because of controversial casting (Good Morning America). As the head of many such efforts, Roddenberry deserves some credit.
That being said, Roddenberry is often remembered exclusively in the context of these accomplishments, while his shortcomings are left unaddressed. Roddenberry was prejudiced, not a radical. Although he believed humanity would someday move past internal conflict, among his coworkers he was a source of drama and exploitation. And on an artistic level, he held the franchise back from more ambitious storytelling in the name of upholding his vision of an ideal future.
Roddenberry’s intolerant beliefs often did not align with the supposedly inclusive message of his franchise. He did include multiple women in the Star Trek cast, despite receiving pushback from studio executives, which was very significant for the time. However, he engaged in misogynistic language and behaviors on set. His fellow Trek writer Herb Wright recalls instances of Roddenberry referring to women as “goddamned c–ts [sic]” during a writers’ meeting. Another writer, Tracy Tormé, said Roddenberry told him that women “suck the marrow out of your bones” (Oleksinski). Anecdotes like these fly in the face of what we think we know about our beloved Great Bird of the Galaxy, as fans call him.
But Star Trek itself also carries evidence of this behind-the-scenes misogyny. The episode “Turnabout Intruder” of The Original Series, co-written by Roddenberry, essentially suggests that women are too emotional to be effective leaders. In it, an ex-girlfriend of Captain Kirk, Janice Lester, swaps bodies with him because women are not allowed to be captains in Starfleet, making a body swap the only way for her to obtain a command. The crew is able to figure out that Kirk is possessed because his behavior is too emotional and irrational to be his own. These stereotypes are bolstered by William Shatner’s over-the-top, melodramatic portrayal of Lester in Kirk’s body (“Turnabout Intruder”). In this instance, Roddenberry’s ideological failing—his prejudice toward women—was not just damaging to those around him but also destructive to the themes of Star Trek.
This bigotry was not directed merely at women. Sheldon Teitelbaum, a journalist for Jewish Journal, describes being told by Roddenberry during an interview that “You Jews […] have a lamentable habit of identifying those characteristics in a society that you deem positive and then taking credit for inventing them.” Teitelbaum also describes Paramount blacklisting him for interviewing an actor on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine about antisemitic alien representations (Teitelbaum). Although this last part would have occurred after Roddenberry’s death in 1991, the aliens in question, the Ferengi, were created under his leadership on a previous series, Star Trek: The Next Generation. The greed of the Ferengi, along with their facial features, is read by some as being rooted in negative Jewish stereotypes. Once again, Roddenberry’s prejudice has had an impact on both his interactions—including, presumably, with the Jewish members of Trek casts and production teams—and the quality of Trek itself. Roddenberry’s sexism and antisemitism are not consistent with the image of him that Trekkies have so long promoted, and so they are ignored along with the sexism and antisemitism of the series themselves.
Even when Roddenberry’s ideals were more admirable, he did not necessarily live up to them. One example of this hypocrisy is the story of Roddenberry and Alexander Courage, who wrote the Star Trek: The Original Series theme song. Roddenberry, fearing that he would not make money off of Trek, wrote lyrics to the song, without any intention of using them, to get half the royalties—money that should have gone to Courage. Courage was so furious that he never returned to work on Star Trek (Deezen). Roddenberry, unapologetic, continued to see more and more profits from the franchise, becoming very wealthy over the years. The irony is that Roddenberry identified as a communist, according to his wife Majel Barrett-Roddenberry (Bennett). One would expect someone who identified as a communist, a bold label to adopt during the Cold War, to go to greater lengths to avoid such a serious income gap between himself and his employees. But that did not stop him from exploiting those who worked for him and ultimately using capitalism to propel himself to immense financial privilege.
Recently, it seems like we are always hearing about the idea of separating an artist from their art, and one might be tempted to apply that to Roddenberry. For instance, the work of Joss Whedon, against whom many recent allegations of sexism have been made, is still generally recognized for its quality, even if its creator is no longer taken as seriously. However, even as an artist, Roddenberry was flawed, and Star Trek has suffered artistically from Roddenberry’s influence. Given that Star Trek has had many writers over the years, it can be hard to chalk up its shortcomings to a particular person, but in at least one case, we can do just that: Roddenberry was specifically responsible for a mandate that the conflict of a story could never be between the main characters, unless they were under the influence of some kind of possession or other sci-fi mental alteration (Anderson). This mandate was designed to support Roddenberry’s insistence—his vision, essentially—that humans will someday evolve past the point of internal squabbles and in-fighting. In reality, all this did was severely reduce the possibility of depth among the main characters of the series.
It was not until Star Trek: Deep Space Nine—the first series released after Roddenberry’s death—that any Trek series had a truly robust and intricate cast of characters who were allowed to disagree with each other. In fact, internal conflict among the main cast was one of its defining features from the pilot. The tension between the first lead, Captain Benjamin Sisko of Starfleet, and the second lead, Major Kira Nerys of the planet Bajor, enabled rich discussions of imperialism, which had never before been so explored in Star Trek. Deep Space Nine was made stronger by this capacity for nuance; it was a better series because its writers were not under such tight restrictions. Had Gene Roddenberry not died two years before the show’s release, I do not believe it would have taken this direction. At the time, Deep Space Nine did not receive the credit it deserved for the uniqueness of its style within the context of the Star Trek franchise—in fact, it received significant backlash for dropping the more optimistic tone of earlier Trek installments. Since being added to Netflix in recent years, however, Deep Space Nine has been gaining more recognition, and Star Trek fans are finally discovering how well it has aged, both ideologically and artistically, compared to the rest of the franchise.
Roddenberry believed, as many Trekkies do—myself included—that art should involve discussions of morality and politics. In one interview, he responded to a comment about learning lessons from watching Star Trek by saying, “That’s what writing is really about” (“Gene Roddenberry”). He argued that having those lessons intertwined with the plot of a story is what makes something good or bad art, a classic or not. Many Trekkies herald platitudes like this, celebrating the “lessons” that Star Trek teaches us about whatever issue at whatever time. But artistically, this moralizing attempt was yet another shortcoming of Roddenberry. So much of Star Trek is rooted in flawed allegory that excludes the marginalized groups it claims to represent by casting them, didactically, as aliens or robots. This allows an audience to comfortably learn a “lesson” from them without any real application of said lesson.
It more or less took Roddenberry’s death for Star Trek to grow beyond this didacticism, with Deep Space Nine becoming the first Trek series to deal less in painfully reductive allegory and more in explicit discussions of the issues themselves. Even when Deep Space Nine employed allegory—such as in an episode that discusses homophobia through the metaphor of an alien taboo regarding something other than gender—it was always more direct; the same episode featured an actual lesbian kiss, in 1995 no less, between the victims of said taboo (“Rejoined”). It was still a political series, arguably even more political than any other Trek show, but it was not weighed down by Roddenberry’s awkward need to make storylines that were reducible to simple lessons that left audiences morally unchallenged.
This may seem petty, superficial. Why should anyone care so much about this dead guy, a mere sci-fi writer no less? The problem with Gene Roddenberry is that his legacy is an active part of modern Star Trek, both for the creators of new series and for the fans evaluating them. Citing Roddenberry’s vision, many Trekkies actively rail against any new series that challenges the norm of what it means to be Star Trek. Discovery, for example, the first in a recent wave of modern Trek TV series, has always struggled with this, probably due at least partially to the writers’ explicit rejection of Roddenberry’s mandate that there be no internal conflict among the lead characters (Anderson). A Reddit post from user Yws6afrdo7bc789, published on August 25, 2020, and the comments it elicits serve as a fantastic example of this controversy. The post describes the user’s feeling of hope from watching Star Trek, the optimism that it gives them regarding the future of humanity. The comments, however, are filled with vitriol toward newer adaptations that, according to the commenters, do not live up to what the post describes. One person wrote, “I think you are talking about Gene Roddenberrys’ [sic] Star Trek and not J.J [sic] Abrams’ [sic].” To this, even the original poster agreed that “All the ‘new trek’ stuff can call itself Star Trek but is devoid of the depth and writing that is Star Trek,” expanding the criticism beyond the films by J. J. Abrams to all modern iterations of Star Trek. Another user, responding to a comment about someone not enjoying Discovery and Picard (both more recent adaptations), wrote, “Neither are what Gean [sic] wanted for his franchise” (Yws6afrdo7bc789). There are more examples, even within this same comments section, demonstrating a sense of allegiance to Roddenberry and his vision.
That’s not to say that one cannot dislike or criticize modern Star Trek, or even write off modern series for their shortcomings; that would be absurd. Many of the modern series do suffer from some serious structural issues. The crew in Discovery, for example, always seems to be dealing with the fate of the entire galaxy, which can be tiring for the audience, and Picard struggles with pacing and juggling multiple storylines effectively. But oftentimes, the objections to these shows have nothing to do with these structural problems and more to do with whether or not Roddenberry would approve of them. Deviating from Roddenberry’s vision, allegedly or actually, does not mean a Star Trek series is failing as a show. Morally gray characters, longer story arcs, and so-called forced diversity are not out of place in Star Trek just because they are not what Gene tended to write. What worked in the 1960s does not work in the 2020s, not just ideologically, but also stylistically. And that is okay—expected, even. Modern Trek is different from what came before, but despite its critics’ claims, it still captures some essential component of Star Trek: the optimistic, often cloying, assertion that humanity is fundamentally good and getting better. Even Discovery, which so many haters claim to be needlessly dark and pessimistic, has no shortage of speeches and reflections on the ultimate tendency of humanity toward progress and togetherness. Discovery endlessly champions the Federation and Starfleet: the same fictional organizations set up by Roddenberry himself on The Original Series to represent humanity’s bright future. Honestly, though, I think Roddenberry would approve of Discovery because of its sheer profitability more than anything else.
Gene Roddenberry is not worthy of the idolization he so often receives. He was bigoted, he was greedy, and he imposed foolish creative standards on his writers. And despite all this, he still managed to leave Trekkies with the impression of himself as someone greater and more brilliant than he actually was. We cannot write Roddenberry off entirely: his contributions to the Star Trek franchise as its creator are undeniable, and he did truly change the lives of many people for the better through his emphasis on diverse casting and inclusive storytelling. However, it is long overdue that we Star Trek fans stop evaluating each new Trek series by whether Roddenberry would have approved of it: something that, ultimately, none of us can truly know. Star Trek now exists beyond Roddenberry, beyond any one writer, actor, series, or even era. And even if we were to decide that Star Trek’s primary job should be to continue Roddenberry’s vision, why not approach it in a way that is engaging for a modern audience?
The world has moved on since the 1960s, politically and artistically. Star Trek writers—and, even more so, Star Trek fans—need to do so too. Roddenberry created the framework; now, we get to adapt it.
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“Rejoined.” Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, season 4, episode 5, 30 Oct. 1995. Paramount+, www.paramountplus.com/shows/star_trek_deep_space_nine/video/bxQw0osiVw82D_Yti2ae1zoNGAixBo9J/star-trek-deep-space-nine-rejoined/.
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Yws6afrdo7bc789. “Star Trek gives me hope.” Reddit, 25 Aug. 2020, www.reddit.com/r/startrek/comments/igi7cf/star_trek_gives_me_hope/. Accessed 6 Nov. 2021.
About the Author
Penny Joseph is an Undeclared first-year student at Fordham College at Lincoln Center. They are originally from East Aurora, New York. In their free time, they enjoy playing saxophone, singing, going to the theater, writing, playing Dungeons & Dragons, and, of course, watching Star Trek. Live long and prosper.