Signature Showcase: Gene Roddenberry
Futurism as Revolutionary Optimism in Star Trek
A study of the usage of the future as a form of revolutionary utopian optimism through Star Trek.
Can I just say I love politics? Sure, I understand that makes me a horrible human being, so let me backpedal faster than a cable-news pundit and say, “I love studying and reviewing politics.” I’m honestly fascinated by how our various mindsets can lead us down roads we might never have thought we’d go down. That brings us to cults, strange bedfellows, apocalyptic forecasts of tyranny, strange groups forming and putting on bad cosplay, and of course, your uncle’s emails that we’d all rather not talk about. Politics, as much as I like to study it, brings out some of the worst in us, myself included.
But you remember the 1960s, right? Not the free love and drug use, I mean. No, I don’t mean the Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion either. I mean the Vietnam Conflict, the Civil Rights Movement, the platform switch of the major political parties, and a great many other details I’ve probably forgotten. You know, because I’m in my 40s, and history classes were a while back. Okay, fine. I’ll sit through some documentaries later—but listen to what I’m getting at.
One man came along: Roddenberry. Gene Roddenberry. His goal? To give us all a vision of the future that wouldn’t be quite so rife with insane politicking, inane conflicts, horrific disasters in the headlines, or petty spite. He saw the glory of humanity, a phrase that I’ll admit makes me cock my head and wonder if we’ve met the same human race. But Roddenberry looked at everything people on Earth had accomplished and extrapolated from there [ 1 ]. Some have observed that most of what the man wanted for humanity, most of humanity wanted for itself—an end to homelessness, hunger, war, and all the other things that prevent us from living happily. Roddenberry didn’t speculate much on how we might achieve those things, but he did posit a future in which people had accomplished all of these and most wanted for nothing [ 2 ].
And so, in 1966, we got Star Trek in all its glory. A series that was misunderstood more often than not, and that didn’t last long in the scheme of things, at least compared to its contemporaries (and definitely compared to the series we’d get later) [ 3 ]. Still, we had our perfect crew, with nary so much as a personal imperfection, demonstrating Roddenberry’s vision for humanity.
Don’t believe me? Have you watched the original series? Or TOS as many fans refer to it? There’s no real conflict among the main cast. Oh sure, external things like mind control and cosmic rays might cause Chekov to briefly go ballistic until someone takes him down, but is there any real, rooted aggression between personalities? No, McCoy doesn’t count. In fact, I’m semi-convinced he was comic relief. Yes, future series, starting with The Next Generation, would show us complicated crew members with inborn tensions, characters with histories that begged to be played upon for that classic, space-opera drama. But initially? That wasn’t Gene’s bag [ 4 ]. You can say what you like about the man himself, his motives, and the endless drama that apparently went on behind the scenes. We’ve all heard about some of that as convention drama with a producer here, a writer there, or that actor who had a cameo in the second season who’s talking to a panel about how much he charges for autographs.
So let’s explore something we don’t normally look at. Science fiction is rife, overflowing even, with dystopian futures that make us look at our bank accounts and social security numbers askance. Let’s look at that most feral of beasts, the utopia. Let’s watch a world where things work out right for a change, more hopeful and sappy than anything even Uncle Walt might ever give us. No racism, sexism, wealth inequality, or even pollution to give a hippie from Roddenberry’s day something to complain about. Let’s look in depth at what Star Trek promises us, why we want it, and what that might involve.
The Roddenberry Factor
Given this notable distinction, it is almost self-evident that TOS would engender a massive, dedicated fan base that is nigh ubiquitous in popular culture. The wholly enlightened, progressive vision of the future apparently appealed to (and continues to appeal to) a great many. Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, is often posthumously treated more like a religious figure then an artist.
The National Review chronicles some of the thoughts others had about him, pointing out that Roddenberry has received laurels as a prophet and a progressive icon. The series creator, known as the “Great Bird of the Galaxy,” has been referred to as a genius by actors like Diana Muldaur and Whoopi Goldberg and film producers like Harve Benett, according to the profile, but the article’s point is to suggest Roddenberry was not the visionary he was often touted as but was instead misogynistic, a poor writer, and an in almost all regards unexceptional for Hollywood:
Roddenberry never stopped rewriting. “The problem,” says his biographer Joel Engel, “was that he basically couldn’t write well enough to carry it off.” For 25 years, a script never left Roddenberry’s hands without becoming worse. For all of the control Roddenberry exercised over Star Trek, the franchise prospered only when it was under the aegis of others. As early as one month before the show’s premiere, an exhausted and embattled Roddenberry took a vacation. Television veteran Gene L. Coon, a Marine veteran of the Pacific, was hired as producer. “To a large degree,” write Gross and Altman, “it would be Coon who would ultimately define the show creatively in the coming months” [ 3 ].
Other criticisms of Roddenberry would surface as well. Coon’s assistant, Ande Richardson, who had worked for both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., expressed that the Star Trek creator was “a sexist, manipulative person who disregarded women” [ 5 ]. Science fiction writer Alan Dean Foster, who had worked with George Lucas on Star Wars-related projects as well as doing script work on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, characterized Roddenberry as “standard Hollywood” [ 3 ]. In other words, it appears that, despite his idealistic version of the future, Roddenberry was very much the antithesis of the progressive, visionary, and intellectual man he had the reputation for being. Stories persist of his on-set multiple affairs, up to and including Nichelle Nichols. Despite the level of truth of these assertions, Roddenberry has still a cult following.
Optimism and idealism are central to the tenets and core of the franchise’s soul, but in an otherwise glowing review of Star Trek: Secrets of the Universe (a History Channel documentary about the science used in Star Trek), the reviewer notes his disappointment with the lack of any analysis of the psychology and sociology of the utopia presented in Star Trek, citing those to be more central to the Star Trek universe than its scientific and technological advances [ 6 ]. The series “isn’t about technology,” they said, but more concerned with “the evolution of our culture. To achieve Star Trek‘s utopia, we’ll need to end prejudice, foster cooperation, and develop empathy for others. It’s not impossible—we have decades of brain and behavioral science showing us how to make it so” [ 7 ].
Likewise, a Deseret News article attributes the massive success of the Star Trek franchise to the idealistic worldview of The Federation, at least as the primary factor:
Back in the day Astronauts were considered to be heroes. They did things that no one else could do and went places that no one else could go. They espoused all that was good and decent in a world being bogged down in racism, communism, war, greed, and mistrust of the government and murder as a means of political change [ 8 ].
The cast was an amazing one, though we sometimes hear stories about conflict behind the camera. I think the one in the reboot holds up a bit better in some ways here, but for 1960s sci-fi, the original feels genuinely human enough to feel authentic.
But Star Trek is about good things. It’s not the gritty, dirty universe of Babylon 5, Firefly, or the Battlestar Galactica reboot. It’s a world where humanity eventually made the right choices, whatever those might be, and got the utopia everyone should want. Humanity then found kindred species that went in that same direction, and that’s where we get beautiful unions like the one that birthed Spock.
My brother-in-law is fond of saying that he loves “dirty sci-fi,” since it feels more authentic to him. Here he finds the future that humanity is likely to create, rather than the one Roddenberry wished it would create. And I’ll confess, I tend to agree with that take myself. It allows a certain parallel set of motivations when someone writes a story set in the future. If people a millennium from now have similar problems to us, then they might be more relatable.
Not every race in the Star Trek continuity (any of the continuities, really) agrees with the motives and methodologies of the Federation. From this, we get our parallels to the conflicts the U.S. faces with other nations, even if there’s no one quite like the Klingons or Romulans. The metaphor was the conflict, not the enemy. Well, that’s what I choose to think. I still can’t really picture Putin in a ship with a cloaking device. Not even if it’s playing his theme song…
Meanwhile, what is Kirk? If this is all a metaphor, what or who did the captain of the Enterprise represent? Was he the maverick at the front? Was he the careful, calculating diplomat? Was he the source of the conflicts or their solution? It really depended on the episode, when I was watching it. The man didn’t come off as “Picard, but brash and foolhardy.” He came off as being whatever was needed at the time, by both the script and the scenario.
Back to that union that gave us Spock (and to this day I wish he had a last name; maybe his mother’s?). Humanity—and presumably the Vulcan race as well—has overcome the prejudices that would otherwise prevent that kind of inter-species marriage. I’m sure a biologist might have more ideas on what would prevent it, but let’s focus on the fiction aspect of science-fiction for now. To cross that bridge, the people of Earth would have to cross every bridge that came before it, and that means true unity among all peoples across the globe.
Heavy Handed—but Important—Messages
Star Trek went where few pundits would willingly go before. It didn’t always do that swimmingly, but that’s part of what makes it a product of its time. Yes, Ricardo “gimme more seats on the Love Boat” Montalbán was given the role of a genetically engineered man from India. Sure, the episode featuring him (let’s not go into Star Trek II just yet) went into a subject that had mostly been avoided since World War II only a couple of decades earlier, but “Space Seed” didn’t really do a good job of representation when it cast a Latin-American man as Khan Noonien Singh [ 9 ][ 10 ]. Still, they had this person-of-color on the show, along with others like George Takei as Sulu and Nichelle Nichols as Uhura. And the show even had one of the earlier interracial kisses in a prime-time slot, so that definitely puts it ahead of its time [ 11 ][ 12 ].
Likewise, the success of Star Trek comes not from a constrained pseudo-utopia where the good comes at great expense, but from a benevolent but sober image of the future. There are no particular trade-offs made for the utopia as presented. While other works of science-fiction have had relatively optimistic worlds presented in them, generally with high levels of technology overcoming scarcity and allowing humanity to flourish, these have generally involved some level of authoritarian regime or else invoked existentialist crises in the minds of a humanity that had lost all purpose in the collapse of challenge.
Manu Saadia of BoingBoing makes the case that Star Trek is in fact primarily a critique of the writer Robert Heinlein and his own pseudo-utopia (of the first type mentioned above), Space Cadets. The novel features an egalitarian “Space Patrol” that holds total, authoritarian, militaristic control of the planet and essentially forces world peace. This was highly optimistic for its time but not the whole utopianism of Roddenberry’s creation. As the article explains:
Compared to his later works, Space Cadet is relatively happy and idealistic, if a bit sociopathic. It makes a lot of sense that it had inspired Roddenberry. In Space Cadet, Heinlein portrayed a society where racism had been overcome. Not unlike Starfleet, the Space Patrol was supposed to be a force for good. The fat finger on the nuclear trigger makes it a very doubtful proposition, however. The Space Patrol, autonomous and unaccountable, is the opposite of the kind [of] democratic and open society championed by Star Trek. It would appear that to Heinlein that humans would never naturally overcome their fear of the other and would always act tribally until forced to act otherwise [ 13 ].
The hierarchical structure and naval ranks of the first Star Trek series were geared to appeal to Heinlein’s readers and demographic, all these starry-eyed kids who, like Roddenberry himself, had read Space Cadet and Have Spacesuit—Will Travel. Star Trek used all the tropes of Heinlein—but sanitized. For instance, racial and gender equality were prominent features of Heinlein’s stories. Nobody cared about your sex or the color of your skin as long as you were willing to sign up for the Space Patrol or the Federal service. Starship Troopers’s hero, Juan “Johnny” Rico, was Filipino. In that regard, Heinlein had undoubtedly paved the way for TOS’s integrated crew. From Space Cadet onward, he made it a new norm in science fiction that people of color and women (as in Starship Troopers) could also be protagonists. That they were bestowed visibility and full agency in an authoritarian version of E Pluribus Unum is a different question altogether. Kirk himself, manly, resourceful, and decisive, came across as just dim enough to evince Johnny Rico. William Shatner played up to perfection the character’s kitsch, his martial swagger and womanizing slightly off-kilter in a world ruled by diplomats and scientists, all eggheads and sissies, with or without pointy ears [ 13 ].
One could say this was a big bait and switch, as we swapped racial discord for social discord as seen most obviously in the science-versus-country-common-sense running dispute between Spock and Bones. Indeed, we are having the same problem in states run by red politics vs. blue politics. But being able to examine race relations and other social challenges at a remove is a signal feature of speculative fiction. A story exploring Human-Romulan conflict in the far distant future is less likely to elicit an adrenaline response in the reader than a story with similar themes set here and now in the context of a U.S.-China conflict.
Summary and Conclusion
It’s funny—and occasionally cringe-inducing—watching the old show today. Our smartphones can probably do most, if not all of the things your standard ensign’s gear might accomplish. We have the tools, and we have the technology, but how are we using it? Picture the following:
“Captain’s log, stardate 11172020.zero. I’ve found more cat pictures from the 21st century. Spock promises me he’ll trade for a video of famous Vulcan pets. Bones looks at all of these and continuously reminds us that he’s not a veterinarian.”
And this is why I’m no longer allowed to write Star Trek fanfics. That’s the “future” we’re in at the moment. It won’t matter if someone on Earth develops warp travel, or even a simple, impulse drive.
Why did Star Trek begin? Because writers need money too, but also because one man had a vision, and he wanted us to see it too. Did the man have his flaws? Of course he did, but he also envisioned a world in which a person would be free of want, and by extension, all the foibles that cause conflict between us as human beings. I think that’s something to try for. No money required anymore, no need to make sure your family has a roof over their heads, no worrying about next year’s election cycle… I can already feel pundits from both sides of the aisle screaming that I’m variously a hippie and a fascist, but that’s why I like this little escape from the politics of the modern world.
And yes, I still like studying politics, like I mentioned earlier. Hell, I absolutely adore the episodes of all the various Star Trek series that go into the Federation’s relations with its surrounding neighbors. Humanity might have achieved an ideal, but it might also be in conflict with other races’ “utopias.” I assure you, I’m trying very hard to not quote a certain grim vision of the future right now, even though I’m a fan of those dystopias as well.
I keep hearing about the various shows out there, featuring the world that old Gene envisioned. At the moment, I lack the desire to allocate standardized credits to the data feeds that these items might be acquired on. Yes, I’m a smart-ass. But I take comfort in knowing that these shows are still going on, exploring the idea and taking it where no scriptwriter has gone before.
These are the voyages of… well, whatever ship and crew that we as a culture want to see tomorrow, need to see today.
- “Roddenberry himself, the ‘Great Bird of the Universe’.” Source: Cite Wikimedia. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7d/Gene_Roddenberry_crop.jpg
- “No matter how dated its origins, nor the perennial debates about its most recent incarnation, it is indisputable that the values and prescience of its founder have left an enduring mark on our culture.”
Source: https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/wellesbourne-warwickengland-uk-0206-model-starship-1638465247 (“Wellesbourne, Warwick/England UK – 02.06.2020: A model of the Starship Enterprise from the TV series Star Trek dramatically lit from below against a black background to replicate space.” Rob Lavers RIBA ARPS. Shutterstock.)
As SFS’s Chief Administrative Officer, Mr. Cardinal has found his editorial duties at Steam-Funk Studios often reconnect him to parts of fandom he’d have otherwise overlooked. Andrew has DJed, catered, and run travel logistics in the goth scene as DJ Rasclin. Other credentials include staffing for Anime Central and work for the US Census Bureau. As the second of our Senior Editors, he advises on strategy for both The Unconventional and The Living Multiverse, remaining a steady guiding hand.
- Frost, Robert, “What Is The Philosophical Perspective Of Star Trek?,” Slate, 24 Feb. 2015. slate.com/human-interest/2015/02/star-trek-what-is-the-show-s-sociological-point-of-view.html. Accessed 28 Mar 2021.
- Mattu, Ali, “The Psychology of Star Trek’s Relentless Optimism about the Future,” Quartz, 7 Sep 2016. qz.com/775804/star-treks-50th-anniversary-reminds-us-to-be-optimistic-about-the-future-of-humanity. Accessed 28 Mar 2021.
- Continetti, Matthew, “The Great Boor of the Galaxy,” National Review, 10 Sep 2016. nationalreview.com/2016/09/star-trek-gene-roddenberry-was-misogynistic-hack. Accessed 28 Mar 2021.
- Jusino, Teresa. “Star Trek: Discovery Changing Roddenberry’s ‘No Conflict’ Mandate. That’s Okay, So Did Roddenberry.” The Mary Sue, The Mary Sue, 23 Jun 2017, themarysue.com/star-trek-discovery-changing-roddenberrys-no-conflict-mandate. Accessed 28 Mar 2021.
- Gross, Edward, and Mark A. Altman, The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek: The First 25 Years. New York: Macmillan, 2016.
- Giacchino, Anthony, Star Trek: Secrets of the Universe, History Channel, 2013.
- Mattu, Ali, “First Contact with Aliens Could Bring Peace, but We Might Kill Our Extraterrestrials Guests,” Brain Knows Better, 5 Apr 2013. brainknowsbetter.com/news/2013/4/5/first-contact-with-aliens-could-bring-peace-but-we-might-end-up-killing-our-extraterrestrials-guests. Accessed 28 Mar 2021.
- Pierce, Scott D., “RODDENBERRY GAVE US HOPE TO LIVE LONG, PROSPER IN IDEAL FUTURE,” Deseret News, 26 Oct 1991. deseret.com/1991/10/26/18948092/roddenberry-gave-us-hope-to-live-long-prosper-in-ideal-future. Accessed 28 Mar 2021.
- Wilber, Carey, and Gene L. Coon, “Space Seed,” Star Trek S1 E22, Desilu/Paramount, 16 Feb 1967.
- DeCandido, Keith R.A., “Star Trek The Original Series Rewatch: ‘Space Seed,’” Tor.com, 25 Aug 2015. tor.com/2015/08/25/star-trek-the-original-series-rewatch-space-seed. Accessed 28 Mar 2021.
- McKenzie, Sheena, “Uncovered footage reveals TV’s ‘first’ interracial kiss, long before Star Trek,” CNN, 20 Nov 2015. cnn.com/2015/11/20/world/first-interracial-kiss-on-tv/index.html. Accessed 28 Mar 2021.
- Pilgrim, David, “TV’s First Interracial Kiss,” Jim Crow Museum Questions, Ferris State University, Nov 2007. ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/question/2007/november.htm, Accessed 28 Mar 2021.
- Saadia, Manu, “Roddenberry’s Star Trek was ‘above all, a critique of Robert Heinlein,’” BoingBoing, 7 Jun 2016. boingboing.net/2016/06/07/roddenberrys-star-trek-was.html. Accessed 28 Mar 2021.