Eugene Roddenberry and the legacy of ‘Star Trek’
Eugene Wesley “Rod” Roddenberry, the only child of Gene Roddenberry and Majel Barrett Roddenberry, recently took some time to talk to Hero Complex’s Linda Whitmore. He has a couple of irons in the fire. First, with the annual Star Trek Convention coming up this week at the Las Vegas Hilton, Rod plans a tribute to his mother, who died in December at age 76. Rod lives in the San Diego area and was at the recent Comic-Con International to promote his current project, the comic book series “Days Missing.” Along with his career in science fiction, he has collaborated with NASA, Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Kennedy Space Center to promote space exploration. He was frank, articulate, humble and undeniably logical when he talked to our resident “Trek” specialist, Linda Whitmore.
HC: First, let me just say, sorry to hear about your mother. I lost my father last year, and I know it’s not easy.
RR: Sorry for your loss.
HC: Thank you. I’ll ask you about your mom in a moment, but first, let me start with a question I’m sure everyone asks: What was it like growing up being the son of two of the most famous people in science fiction history?
RR: You know, you always need perspective on these things to give a fair answer. And I can’t say I have perspective. But for me, growing up was fairly average, although I guess slightly privileged. My parents did keep me slightly down to earth, I believe. Kirk and Spock did not show up every night at the house for dinner. The Hollywood schmoozing parties of the old days — those sorts of things didn’t happen. My father kept his home life and his work life pretty separate. He went to work in the morning, he did what he did. I went to school and — “Star Trek” was not shoved down my throat. Occasionally a fan would send something, and I would see it, and I knew my father worked on “Star Trek,” but I didn’t really get the enormity of what it was.
HC: I was looking at your biographies on the Internet, and it looks like you spend a lot of your time in the world of science fiction, but it looks like you also straddle the world of hard science too — things like Project X and your association with JPL and NASA. Would you care to go into that a little bit? And also, what’s your educational background that drew you into both worlds?
RR: Well, I was sort of a goof off in high school. I cared more about girls and being cool than getting an education.
HC: Pretty much like everyone else, I think.
RR: Well, toward my senior year, I was able to…
…choose some courses and one of the courses I chose was astronomy. I became enamored with that, just loved the creative side of science, where you would get some data — some information — then it was up to your imagination to find out why that data existed. And the creative part of that I loved. And that kind of brought me full circle into “Star Trek.” Of course, the passing of my father and the learning of what “Star Trek” was — the fact that it was more than just entertainment, the fact that it touched lives and, I would say, made this world a better place in some small way — THAT really inspired me. And so I kinda buckled down in the last year of high school and then college and really pursued interests, and found the importance of getting an education.
HC: Where’d you go to high school and college?
RR: I went to Harvard-Westlake in Studio City, and I went to Hampshire College in Massachusetts. Now, I’m reluctant to say I never actually finished college. Toward my final semester, my mother called me and asked me, “Would you like to work on a TV show?” which became “Gene Roddenberry’s Earth: Final Conflict.” I wasn’t aspiring to be in the industry, but I thought this would be one hell of an opportunity to really pay attention and learn something, because when I was a kid my father gave me jobs as a PA [personal assistant], and I didn’t appreciate them. I was 13. It was summer. My friends were playing. I wanted to go play. I didn’t give a rat’s you-know-what about working on “Star Trek.” Again, having him pass away and gaining an appreciation for really exploring — I wouldn’t say following in his footsteps, but exploring who he was — I thought it would be a great opportunity to work on the show. So I left college, worked on the show for four years, and quite frankly, never went back.
HC: What was your major?
RR: Well, believe it or not, I was inspired in high school, by my astronomy class, to become an astrophysicist, which I kind of laugh at now. I knew an astrophysicist. And learned — remember, this is the mind of a teenager — I knew a lady who worked at Mt. Wilson [Observatory]. She was an astrophysicist. And while she was taking readings at night looking through a telescope, during the day she would chop hot rods and rebuild them and she had this amazing gun collection and flame throwers and she would go to festivals and stuff. I put the two together and thought, “You can be smart AND cool.” And so I figured I could do both. So I thought being an astrophysicist would be cool. Unfortunately, three years into calculus and physics, I realized that it might not be my forte. So I had had a backup, which was photography, and I had been pursuing that in an amateurish fashion ever since.
HC: Now that you’ve got a background in hard science and a career in science fiction, what if anything do you think scientists and sci-fi fans have in common?
RR: The connection I made was the creativity. Everyone kind of knocks down science as being just by the book, and numbers, and boring. And no doubt I’m sure some of it is. But it’s that “what-if” — the big what-if, in any science — my knowledge is astronomy — I love the what-if factor. As I said earlier, when you get your data or you see some results of something, and you need to connect it to something that’s never been seen before — I’m an avid scuba diver. I go down in the ocean I try to see things that no one else has seen before. That weird octopus that no one has ever seen. I love the creative, exploratory side of science.
HC: Now, let’s get to the big event of this past summer: What was your reaction to J.J. Abrams’ reboot of your dad’s series? And what, if any expectations do you have for future installments?
RR: I began very apprehensive. Someone new was coming in, and they were gonna do my dad’s “Star Trek.” And they even put a commercial out saying, “This is not your father’s ‘Star Trek.’” Which concerned me for two reasons. My love, my respect for my father. What that name means to fans, and the fans’ expectations. I really wanted to make sure they were protected. A lot of them look to the Roddenberrys to make sure this doesn’t go down the wrong road. So, scared, apprehensive. But I’m also not a problem starter, so I wasn’t going to go stomping my feet and knocking on doors and saying, “You’d better do this right.” Uh, when I sat in the theater and saw it, I have to say I was blown away. Bottom line, I was very impressed, very happy. J.J. and [Alex] Kurtzman and [Roberto] Orci, the two writers, did a fantastic job. I think they’re a great team. I’m guessing that Kurtzman and Orci, being fans of “Star Trek,” kept it true to the philosophy, kept it true to the time line and they were able to take their own time line to make changes. And J.J. made it a roller-coaster ride for everyone to enjoy. They brought it out of the old and into the new. They made “Star Trek” cool again.
HC: I like how they created a new time line basically, with Eric Bana going back in time, destroying Vulcan — so the adventures we’ll watch Chris Pine and Zach Quinto go through will be totally different than what we saw William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy go through. It opens up a totally different facet of the franchise.
RR: Exactly, and at the same time, all the hard-core original fans, myself being one of them, their time line is not disturbed. They didn’t say “screw you” to that and just rewrite it. It’s an alternate reality, and I am fine with that. I am thrilled about that.
HC: Is there anything you would like NOT to see in the sequels? Or anything specific you WOULD like to see?
RR: Well, not that this is factual information, but we all know they’re going to make another one. They would be crazy not to. So we all know that that’s going to happen. I’d like to see that the same team stays onboard. What tends to happen is someone comes in, they make their mark, now they’re gonna bring in someone else, and it becomes generic sci-fi action. That’s not “Star Trek.” “Star Trek” was never science fiction. “Star Trek” was about people, humanity, characters. That was just thrown into the bubble of science fiction.
HC: Do you have a favorite “Trek” possession?
RR: That’s a great question. You know what I have to say? In going through some of my family’s things — we have an archive of script concepts and original ideas that my father wrote, and those are probably the most valuable things to me. Those are really right now the most valuable things — those are ideas that no one else has seen.
HC: What an interesting comment, because rather than having, say, a phaser from the original series, what you have is your dad’s intellectual property, which is priceless.
RR: It’s priceless emotionally, too, because I believe in the philosophy. It’s something I felt I had inherently, because I would say things, and I would ask questions, or I would see an old interview with my father, and go, “Hey, that’s what I think too.” My father and I never sat down and had long discussions about philosophy, but somehow I must have absorbed something from him.
HC: Maybe it’s in the gene pool. Which leads me to your mom. What did it mean to you that her voice was in the new film?
RR: It was tremendous. They called and they asked if it could happen, and we did everything we could to make it happen. In fact, it didn’t take much. My mother loved being in “Star Trek.” Not because she loved acting — [but] because she loved the fans. And I genuinely mean that. She loved the adoration. She really loved being a part of “Star Trek,” and when they asked her to, she said yes with no hesitation. And we were a little bit concerned because her health had started to go downhill and her voice had started to change a bit. And what was very interesting, again, she had not been in the best health. She had not been able to move around much, but when the people recording her came to the door — ’cause we asked them to do it at the home — she did a whole 180. She brightened up. She had tons of energy. Her voice changed. So it really brought out the best in her. And she was fantastic.
HC: Now, let’s get to the upcoming convention, which I have attended in the past. You’re planning a salute to your mom. What is that going to entail? And I’d also like to ask you: What would you hope your mother would be most remembered for?
RR: It’s more of a tribute and I want to keep it informal. It’s for the fans. We had a memorial service for her back when she passed, and not everyone was able to make it. But I know she was adored by so many people. It’s going to be comprised of me showing the 15-minute tribute video, which we put together, and then sharing a few memories. I think we’ve got one or two special guests who’ll come up to speak about their stories with her. And then I’m going to invite people to come up from the audience. It’s one of the best things — I’ve learned so many things about my father, and now my mother — from people just walking up to me and saying, “I met her in Denver.” The best story about my father was that he didn’t have a coat, and he was supposed to go onstage and a gentleman went to his room and got a jacket and gave it to my dad. And my dad wore it onstage, and then actually took it home, had it dry cleaned and sent it back with a kind letter. And this guy’s life is almost changed — he was so thankful and happy that he could help my father. And he said how gracious my dad was. So those kinds of stories are what I cherish most. As far as what my mom will be remembered for, I have to say [for being] the First Lady of “Star Trek.” She wasn’t the wife who just stood by the side and smiled. When my father passed away, she took the torch and carried it on. She went to convention after convention, doing speeches in his name. And people can feel her love for him and they love her for it.
HC: Now I’d like to ask you about the comic book series. Let me see if I have this right: There are days whose occurrences have been erased from all human memory by an entity. Can you reveal at this point why the entity would be doing that?
RR: Of course, without giving any specific stories away: There have been points in our history — and what I love about this is that it’s connected to real events in our past, significant events, as you just said. There are 24-hour periods that are missing and have been folded back. Something terrible happened during those 24 hours. And The Steward, the lead character, was able to fold that 24 hours — kind of erase it, and start back — because something cataclysmic must have happened. And the best thing about it, when he folds that time he’s able to influence or gently nudge the individuals in question, to perhaps make a different and more wise decision so they don’t go down that wrong path. Now, he’s a very fallible character, and even though he’s not human, he’s very Roddenberry. All Roddenberry projects have this type character. For example, there’s Spock, there’s Data, the hologram doctor, there’s 7 of 9 — these are all nonhuman characters that are windows into humanity, that in the end, after you’ve spent some time with them, you see that they are probably more human than the characters that surround them. So you see that this character is our window into humanity and shows us the things we take for granted, and lets us solve the problem ourselves. He never solves the problem for us, but kind of leaves it up to humanity to make the final decision. And that’s something that means so much to me and the comic book creator Trevor Roth, to make sure that character is not a superhero.
HC: So if YOU had The Steward’s power, what day would you like to erase, if any of them?
RR: That’s a darn good question. I would have to say, not any of them, because I’m a big believer in being a product of life experience and the mistakes made. And while I’m far from a perfect human being, I’m proud of who I am today and I like who I am today. And I’m a product of all my successes and mistakes, and would never want to go back and make everything perfect. If someone went back in history and corrected all of humanity’s wrongs, we’d be cavemen. And women. We never would have grown. We never would have evolved. We’d just be sitting there on a hilltop, picking our noses.
HC: An interesting point. Now, for the final question: What do you think is the greatest accomplishment of your career thus far? You’re only 35 … .
RR: I’m only 35 and I have a lot more to look forward to. Oh. Wow. I know the answer to that is I know my mother and father would be very proud of me. I know many of the fans are proud of me for doing what I can to carry on the name and it’s far more than a business, just carrying on the Roddenberry name. It’s not about making money. My father really created something, and I have to say it was really a collaborative effort — my father and the team that created “Star Trek.” My father’s philosophy, which was embedded in “Star Trek,” really touched lives. I can’t tell you how many people from all walks of life, all faiths, socio-economic backgrounds — they’ve all found this message, which is something I’m so passionate about and have done everything possible to incorporate that into my life. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, but I’ve done everything I can and I’ve received plenty of compliments; my mother and my father are very proud of me. And I’m very proud of myself. And I don’t mean that in an arrogant way, but I’m OK with my mistakes and I like who I am, and I know they’d be very proud of me.
The Roddenberry Productions Panel will be from 3:40 to 4:25 p.m. Friday at the Las Vegas Hilton, and the half-hour Majel Barrett Roddenberry Tribute will immediately follow.
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Photos, from top; Gene and Majel Roddenberry; Anton Yelchin, from left, as Chekov, Chris Pine as Kirk, Simon Pegg as Scott, Karl Urban as McCoy, John Cho as Sulu and Zoe Saldana as Uhura in this year’s “Star Trek” movie; William Shatner, from left, as Kirk, DeForest Kelley as McCoy and Leonard Nimoy as Spock in the original “Star Trek” TV series. Credits, from top: Roddenberry archives; Industrial Light & Magic; NBC