Gene Roddenberry's Wagon Train to 'Star Trek'

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Born Eugene Wesley Roddenberry, the man who would create "Star Trek" spent his boyhood in Los Angeles before volunteering for the Army Air Corps during World War II and eventually becoming a pilot for Pan Am. In 1947, one of his flights from Calcutta lost both engines and crashed. Roddenberry was the senior surviving officer, and had to send two colleagues swimming across the Euphrates River to get help. Photofest

After Gene Roddenberry’s death in the early ’90s, Newsweek explored the universe the Star Trek mastermind created. This article, originally from Newsweek's Archives, is excepted from a Newsweek Special Edition, Star Trek—50 Years,

The phones began ringing in Aurora, Colorado, Friday morning at Star Trek: The Official Fan Club—250 calls in the first few hours. “We’ve had people breaking down on the phone crying,” says president Dan Madsen. “Their lives are so influenced by him that they can’t imagine the world without him. But Gene’s creation will live long and prosper long after he’s gone.” If you need to be told that “Gene” is Gene Roddenberry, who died last week at 70, if the words “Live long and prosper” don’t evoke the image of his pointy-eared brainchild Spock giving that splay-fingered Vulcan valediction—and if you’re confusing Mr. Spock with Dr. Spock—you’re clearly no Trekker. Gene Roddenberry would’ve had hope for you anyway.

When he launched Star Trek in 1966, its high concept (no one called it that) was “Wagon Train to the Stars”: a Western in space. Roddenberry’s model, though, was Gulliver’s Travels: social, political, even philosophical commentary disguised as adventure. Yet instead of Swift’s savage indignation, Roddenberry had an unsentimental optimism. His earthlings of the future were the same old unstable compounds of good and evil, but they hadn’t destroyed themselves, and darned if they’d let ornery aliens push them or anybody else around. Good to hear, especially with Vietnam and the arms race going on. The Original Series only lasted three seasons: It aired opposite Bewitched and My Three Sons, then moved to Friday night, opposite teenage fans’ dates and parties. But those 79 episodes are still syndicated to some 200 stations, and they’ve sold more than a billion dollars’ worth of books, videos and paraphernalia. The five Star Trek movies have grossed $400 million; a sixth is due in December. And the hit series Star Trek: The Next Generation, now in its fifth season, beams down into 12 million households.

Roddenberry rashly signed away his interest in The Original Series; at one point in the early ’80s, he had to borrow $35,000 to see him through the year. Income from the movies—he was executive consultant for four—and from the current series, which he co-owned with Paramount Television, was a nice consolation prize. But if he’d been in it for the money, he would hardly have gambled half a lifetime in creating and re-creating a single private universe—especially since his earlier life had been so daringly diverse. He flew a B-17 on 89 missions in World War II and won a Distinguished Flying Cross. He was a Pan Am pilot. He was an LAPD sergeant, serving as flack and speechwriter. By the mid-’50s he was writing for such TV shows as Dragnet and The U.S. Steel Hour, and he won a WGA award as chief writer for Have Gun—Will Travel, the quintessential “adult Western.”

NBC found Roddenberry’s Star Trek even more cerebral: Not only did it have a spaceman with funny ears but also a spaceship with a female second-in-command. They vetoed the woman, but Roddenberry stood fast for Spock’s ears—even though they got airbrushed out of early publicity photos. He was right about the ears, of course—their ever-present comic gloss on Spock’s relentless logic helped make Leonard Nimoy a star—and right about the woman, too, though the show’s sexual politics were never better than confused. One of Star Trek’s seldom-mentioned selling points was women in spacily skimpy costumes; Uhura, the ranking female crew member, was merely a futuristic receptionist. Still, the Enterprise maintained an interracial, one-worldish crew—a Scot, an Asian, even a Russian, whose very presence was an implicit rebuke to the Cold War—not because the network wanted to appease the PC police (who didn’t exist then) but because that was the future Roddenberry believed in.

EFA4RM Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock, WIlliam Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk and James Doohan as Mr. Scott. When Doohan passed away in 2005, his ashes were shot into orbit, where they revolved around the Earth until burning up on re-entry and dispersing through the atmosphere. AF archive/Alamy

He kept believing. The crew on Star Trek: The Next Generation even welcomes a dark race of Roddenberry’s own imagining: the Klingons, who in the original series were essentially unassimilable space savages. A white male is still in command—the bald, preternaturally gloomy Captain Picard, a spiritual descendant of Have Gun—Will Travel’s sardonic Paladin—but the Enterprise swarms with smart, active women, from Whoopi Goldberg’s sibylline, turban-clad bartender and resident crying shoulder to Gates McFadden’s businesslike doctor. “I’m a lot closer to women than I was,” Roddenberry told Newsweek last year. “What Kirk wanted every evening was to go to bed with a beautiful woman. Our captain now is a man of infinitely more skill. A better man.”

For the past two years, Roddenberry’s involvement had been minimal—reading scripts, visiting sets—because writers and directors finally had it right. He ended up as one of those rare American storytellers who neither exhausted his vision nor trashed it. The Star Trek films use the actors’ aging to advantage, and play wittily with the show’s conventions. The new series lacks the old endearing cheesiness—they used to make stars by punching holes in black cloth—but all its high-tech son et lumière hasn’t rendered it cold or inhuman. From the Vietnam era to the promising, profoundly shaky age of Glasnost, Gene Roddenberry made our future seem not merely possible but bearable. Even logical. So: a splay-fingered farewell. Prosper.

This article is excerpted from a Newsweek Special Edition, Star Trek—50 Years, by Issue Editor Tim Baker.

Star Trek Clockwise from bottom left Photos 12/Alamy (2); AF Archive/Alamy (4). Digital Imaging by Vanessa Ynda