It began, as all great things do, with an idea.
That idea was not Star Trek.
But its journey to becoming Star Trek shaped what the Federation and the 24th century would be as surely as the experiences of its beloved creator shaped the man behind the franchise; as surely as the franchise continues to shape our 21st century world and how we imagine our future.
Gene Roddenberry didn’t always know he wanted to create the Starship Enterprise. He didn’t even always know he wanted to be a writer. In fact, he originally set out to follow in his father’s footsteps and majored in police science before the onset of World War II. He was a pilot — first in the Army Air Forces and then for Pan Am — then a police officer, then the speech writer for William Henry Parker III, the controversial anti-corruption Chief of Police of the Los Angeles Police Department.
It was then he began to advise on the writing of a television program about a crusading District Attorney, the hilariously-named Mr. District Attorney, which eventually led him to write for the show under a pseudonym. By 1956, Roddenberry resigned from the LAPD and embarked on a career as a screenwriter.
Surely this is the moment, you might think, free for the first time of his former martial identities, when our intrepid hero begins to write about aliens and spaceships and peace. But, ah, gentle reader, that is not always how humans work. No, Star Trek did not come to Gene Roddenberry at a dangerously high warp, straining its engines to the brink of physics, but rather in little thruster bursts: an ethical boundary drawn here, an actor found there.
Gene Roddenberry spent his early writing career on procedurals and Westerns. His time as a police officer and a pilot in the war perfectly suited him for the kind of John Wayne Americana fare that made up the majority of the network television landscape at the tim . But however much he fit into the demands of these hypermasculine genres, they never quite fit into his. He began subversively. TV Westerns at the time were expected to end in a quickdraw shootout, but while lead writer on Have Gun, Will Travel, Roddenberry began submitting scripts in which the climax was solved without violence, or in which Paladin, the main character of the show, played no part in whatever
violence occurred. As Gene once said in a 1991 interview with The Humanist, “I think we sanitize violence and escape any real feeling about what it really is. Television violence has no agony in it — or anything else, for that matter. People who are shot clutch their breast with a brave little smile and die…but off-camera. Violence is an ugly thing. When it is done, it should be done for the sake of the ugliness so that you are saying to the audience, ‘This is a terrible thing, even the hero is doing an ugly thing’. There should be a comment on that ugliness.” By the late 1950s, with a few awards under h s belt, that quiet progressive streak had grown like an unsupervised tribble nest.
When asked to develop a show called Riverboat set in 1860s Mississippi which included not a single black cast member, Roddenberry argued so much that he lost his job. Frustrated, he briefly considered moving to England, only to be offered more money and his first producing credit by an American company called Screen Gems, which also backed his first pilot. It was during this time that he began collecting the puzzle pieces that would eventually fit together to make Star Trek.
The main characters of Roddenberry’s first pilot were named Philip Pike, Edward Jellicoe, and James T. Irvine. He was contacted by an actress newly arrived in Hollywood who wanted to meet with him, launching a friendship and eventual romance with the one-and-only Mother of Star Trek, Majel Barrett. His second pilot was about a lawyer, played by our very own DeForest Kelley. He first entertained the idea of a show about a multiethnic crew on a ship — though it was an airship and their mission took them around the world, not around the galaxy — in 1961 after seeing the movie Master of the World, but as the time wasn’t right for a science fiction show on TV (this writer thinks the time is always right), he instead created The Lieutenant in 1963, set on a Marine base. The cast and crew was littered with stars that would eventually shine in the Star Trek universe: Majel Barrett, Gene L. Coon, Joe D’Agosta, Gary Lockwood, D.C. Fontana, Leonard Nimoy, and Nichelle Nichols.
Nichols’ first television role was an episode of The Lieutenant in which Roddenberry openly portrayed interracial cooperation. Called “To Set It Right”, it featured a white soldier and a black soldier finding common cause in their roles in the Marines. The Pentagon had been approving scripts for the show, but withdrew their support in the wake of the episode’s airing. The Lieutenant was canceled after its first season.
But Roddenberry was already dreaming up something entirely new. That’s right, reader. He took a few of his earlier ideas, especially that one about the multiethnic crew on an airship, and set them in outer space. He called it Star Trek. Yes! You may be thinking, “Finally, Roddenberry knows what he’s about!” But, ah, gentle reader, that is not always how humans work.
The fight to create Roddenberry’s ideal Star Trek began almost immediately. On one side were Roddenberry, Desilu Productions (including producers Herb Solow, Bob Justman, and, of course, Lucille Ball), his writers, the cast of the Enterprise’s intrepid crew, and history. On the other side were NBC, oppressive moral codes on what was allowed on television at the time, a strict bottom line, and an American television audience who had never seen anything like Star Trek. Though Roddenberry sold the show to Desilu Productions and then to NBC as a space Western — “a Wagon Train to the stars” — he privately discussed his vision as something closer to Jonathan Swift’s subversive adventure story Gulliver’s Travels.
The galaxy he intended to create was post-scarcity, post-sexism, post-racism, post-religion. Humanity would have achieved its fullest potential, having united centuries before upon First Contact with the Vulcan species. The reigning power in our sector of space, The United Federation of Planets, would be an ntergalactic cooperative government modeled on the United Nations. Roddenberry’s crew, part of the peacekeeping and exploratory armada known as Starfleet, would not only be multiethnic; it would be multispecies. The network was less than thrilled. The mid-1960s were a turbulent time in the American political and social landscape. It was the height of the Civil Rights Movement. The infamously discarded first pilot, “The Cage” went into production in November of 1964, caught in time between the hopeful highs and violent lows of one of the most volatile years in United States history. In July of 1964, the Civil Rights Act ordered the integration of schools across the country, and a summer of brutal race riots began in Harlem and spread quickly to New Jersey, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. By the end of 1964, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was presented with the Nobel Peace Prize. In the midst of this, Roddenberry put a black woman in a position of authority on the bridge of the Enterprise. From the second pilot onward, Nichelle Nichols played Lieutenant Uhura, an African-born, Swahili-speaking communications officer.
The ramifications of that choice are still being felt. The stories by now are the stuff of science fiction and television legend: Martin Luther King Jr. himself convincing Nichelle Nichols how important it was she stay on the show, a young Whoopi Goldberg running through the house yelling about a black woman on TV who wasn’t playing a maid, and the first interracial kiss that almost wasn’t, saved from the cutting room floor by a wily Bill Shatner.
Things were far from perfect, of course. Uhura had to wear a revealing and impractical uniform and occasionally made choices or said things that were tone-deaf to the realities of being black and a woman, even in the 24th century.
The character never got an episode of her own and had shockingly few lines, but Nichols’ portrayal is ever-present and alive in the background, reacting, opinionated; fully human.
In the US, the Civil Rights Movement was at its chaotic apex, the Vietnam War and the last American draft had been going for over a decade, and the Women’s Liber tion Movement was just getting started. Meanwhile, the world held its breath each time Russia and the United States found a new way to test each other in a Cold War that had launched nearly the moment World War II ended and would still be going by the time Star Trek: The Next Generation began. American children regularly hid under their desks in drills to prepare for Russian ukes. On the island nation of Japan, reconstruction in the wake of World War II and the devastating effects of nuclear war was ongoing. It was an effort spearheaded by the US, who had dropped the bombs, and whose own Japanese citizens were still struggling to recover from years of imprisonment at the hands of their neighbors and friends.
In Roddenberry’s future, hu-manity was beyond such things. Despite the network’s persistent protestations, Ensign Pavel Chekov, a Russian wunderkind, and Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu, a Japanese American, took their positions on the bridge. Actor George Takei, who spent years of his childhood in an American internment camp for the crime of a shared ethnicity with one of America’s then enemies, was cast as the swashbuckling Sulu.
With the global social and political temperature at such a fever pitch, a more cautious writer might have made a point to avoid controversial topics.
But, ah, gentle reader, that is not always how humans work. Roddenberry built the perfect vessel to fly cloaked past the censors’ sensors.
“[By creating] a new world with new rules,” according to his assistant Susan Sackett, Roddenberry said, “I could make statements about sex, religion, Vietnam, politics, and intercontinental missiles. Indeed, we did make them on Star Trek: we were sending messages and fortunately they all got by the network…If you talked about purple people on a far off planet, they (the television network) never really caught on. They were more concerned about cleavage. They actually would send a censor down to the set to measure a woman’s cleavage to make sure too much of her breast wasn’t showing.”
Of course, Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov were all later additions to Star Trek. Roddenberry’s first attempt included Majel Barrett as Number One, a no-nonsense woman who was the executive officer of the Enterprise, a sad- ly-doomed Captain Pike, and Mr. Spock as a much more humanthird-in-command. When NBC rejected the pilot and recommissioned a different version (”Where No Man Has Gone Before”), they also demanded some changes. It seemed the network executives didn’t think the world was ready for a wo- man in any kind of command, with the added insult of that historical cliché about how it was also this particular woman. She was too logical, said the men in charge, too unlikeable. But given that her character involved a secret romantic fantasy for her captain, the legacy of her impact on representation for women if she continued in the series would have been complicated.
Instead, the alien Spock was promoted to executive officer and essentially given Number One’s logic-driven personality. Leonard Nimoy took that and ran with it, wrapping it up in a blanket of Tolkien obsession and cultural Judaism until he shaped the Vulcan race into what we know and love today.
Rounding out the series cast were three more white men from Earth — Captain Kirk, a Starfleet maverick from Ohio, Dr. “Bones” McCoy, a disgrunt led divorcé from Georgia, and engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott from (you guessed it) Scotland and two additional white women who appeared infrequently and rarely without controversy the Spock-infa- tuated Nurse Chapel, played by the previously ousted Majel Barrett, and Yeoman Rand, whose sole purpose seemed to be having feelings for Captain Kirk.
This trope of making sure that nearly every recurring woman on the show had a romantic interest in one of the men continued through to The Next Generation with Dr. Beverly Crusher and Counselor Troi, though with much more nuance and success. With the cast set and a viable pilot in the can, Star Trek finally aired on NBC with “The Man Trap” on September 8, 1966. It ran for three seasons, finally getting canceled a mere month before man first landed on the moon. During the three years we saw of its five-year mission, the crew of the Enterprise encountered everything from a deep v-neck on Ricardo Montalban to infestations of furry lumps (not on Ricardo Mon- talban). They traveled through time, were split in twain, fell in love, fell in lust, went into heat (and what an “Amok Time” that was!), were captured and tortured and forced to fight and/ or kiss. They caught strange diseases and encountered new species, fought injustice both within and without the Federation, and occasionally played fast and loose with the Prime Directive. Kirk developed quite a reputation for going where no (hu)man had gone before, if you know what I mean. Sometimes the strange scenarios the Enter-prise endured were allegories for all the things Roddenberry wanted to discuss with the American public. Sometimes
they were frothy episodic romps through Soundstages 9 and 10.
Gene Roddenberry presided over his writers throughout all of it, making cuts and changing scripts with a near-papal authority. His vision was firm and his edicts absolute, often to the fervent chagrin of his crew. Roddenberry was adamant in his design to show the full flower of human possibility. Though there was sometimes violence the producers and the audience always loved a good space battle or grappling match with a Gorn Roddenberry was determined that his characters, when in their right minds, would reach for physical conflict only as a last resort. He wanted Star Trek to portray a humanity beyond war, materialism, and prejudice, not as an impossibility or a final destination, but as a daily struggle to transcend our animal natures. This is reflected constantly in the choices each of the characters makes, in the ways they make amends after falling short and conducting themselves in a questionable manner, or in the ways their fellows choose to trust that anomalous behaviors come from a place of secret nobility or undiagnosed illness.
On Kirk’s Enterprise, there are arguments and squabbles over the best course of action, over the moral righteousness or precariousness of their options, over the very ways in which each character sees the universe. This is most notable in the trio of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, who respectively represent that mythological storytelling triumvirate of Id, Ego, and Super Ego the manifestations of the pursuit of pleasure, the practical demands of reality, and the conscience. Without one of the three, the character of the entire crew is unbalanced. Without Bones, the relativistic morality is missing. Without Spock, the pragmatic maturity is gone. Without Kirk, nobody’s having any fun. But the three of them can also not exist without discord between them. Many of the best moments in The Original Series come down to the sometimes reluctant friendships they’ve built over their years of service together, the respect for one another’s skills, souls, and opinions. These things did not appear magically in the first episodes; they were earned one episode at a time by the writers, the actors, the audience, and the characters themselves. It is satisfying when Spock finally has a drink with Bones and Kirk because it took us so long and so much work to get there. We weep at his sacrifice in The Wrath of Khan because he so rarely has expressed his affection for Kirk, but in that moment because we have been on this journey with them from the beginning, we feel as though we too are losing something irreplaceable when Spock promises Kirk, “I have been and always shall be your friend.”
As Gene Roddenberry once said, “To do a science fiction series and have the characters come anywhere near human is an accomplishment.” And, ah, gentle reader, that is how humans work. The Original Series ended in 1969 after 79 episodes, despite an enthusiastic letter writing campaign from the fandom, but it began running in syndication almost immediately. Its growing cult popularity led to the creation of Star Trek: The Animated Series, about that same Enterprise crew, which aired on Saturday mornings from 1973 to 1974. With every year that passed, more and more people discovered Star Trek in syndication, finally leading Paramount (formerly Desilu) to attempt a new series. It was called Star Trek: Phase II and included a mixture of returning characters from Kirk’s Enterprise and new characters to replace Kirk and Spock, whose actors were too expensive or no longer interested. After the Paramount television division folded, the project was repurposed by the head of Paramount Pictures into Star Trek: The Motion picture. The cast of The Original Series would go on to make a total of six motion pictures from 1979 to 1991. Shatner would make a seventh with the cast of The Next Generation. In the nearly 20 years that passed between the last live action episode of The Original Series and the official conception of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the world — and the United States especially had gone through a drastic transformation. After the hippies and rock and roll, after integration and assassinations, after “Tricky” Dick Nixon and second-wave feminism, the Space Race and Vietnam and recession, the late 1980s were a strangely conservative but ultimately hopeful time. Thanks in no small part to The Original Series, Americans had come to accept a certain amount of diversity in their lives and on their TV screens. No television show to come after it had been quite so progressive or inclusive, but the very existence of Nichelle Nichols and George Takei in living rooms across the country altered the fabric of society. In fact, Nichelle Nichols would go on to work with NASA to help recruit young women into STEM fields.
The Western world that existed when The Next Generation was born was slightly less oppressive of women they could more easily get divorced, apply for credit cards in their own names, serve on juries, and obtain legal abortions, for instance. There were government structures in place for people of color experiencing prejudice, even if they didn’t always work in actuality. It was finally legal for interracial couples to be married. Harvey Milk had become the first openly gay politician elected to office in California. Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Justice, and Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman Justice, were appointed to the Supreme Court. Sally Ride was the first American woman in space. In the wake of Vietnam, many Americans no longer trusted their government, but they had seen how powerful the people could be when they rose up as one for a just cause.
The Civil Rights Act, and its ban of discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, had been in place for decades. There were young adults who could not remember a time before such a thing was the law of the land. The arc of the moral universe was long, but it seemed mostly to bend toward justice. But Harvey Milk had been assassinated after only eleven months in office. The AIDS pandemic was raging through marginalized communities, decimating a generation of artists and creatives. The Reagan administration was reluctant, even negligent, in addressing the growing epidemic due mostly to a belief that it was a “gay plague”.
The LGBTQ community also experienced (and still does) a disproportionately high percentage of abuse, violence, and murder. Women and people of color were still fighting harassment and discrimination in all areas of their lives, but especially in the workplace, where pay disparity, a lack of upward mobility, and genderand racially-motivated aggressions were commonplace. In communities of color, the ravages of CIA-seeded cocaine and heroin were compounded by a racist War on Drugs that focused not on rehabilitation but mass incarceration. The USSR was in its final throes and would collapse entirely during the run of The Next Generation. The Cold War was soon to end and the Gulf War was soon to begin.
The world had evolved and sohad Gene Roddenberry. Because, ah, gentle reader, that is how humans should work.
Roddenberry was the first to admit that his understanding of the world and his stances within it were in a constant state of questioning and growth, a phenomenon he called ‘The Education of Gene Roddenberry’. He readily confessed by the end of his life that there were things he regretted about The Original Series, usually regarding choices made to appease the network and the censors. By the time Paramount approached him about taking full creative control of a new Star Trek series, he had officially declared himself a secular humanist, a philosophy which posits that human beings are capable of making ethical and moral choices without the aid or judgment of religion. No one who had seen an episode of Star Trek was surprised. In the 1991 interview in The Humanist, Roddenberry said, “[My political philosophy] would have to be similar to the philosophy of Star Trek because Star Trek is my statement to the world. Understand that Star Trek is more than just my political philosophy. It is my social philosophy, my racial philosophy, my overview on life and the human condition. I have been able to comment on so many different facets of humanity because both Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation have been so wide-ranging in the are capable of making ethical and moral choices without the aid or judgment of religion. No one who had seen an episode of Star Trek was surprised.
In the 1991 interview in The Humanist, Roddenberry said, “[My political philosophy] would have to be similar to the philosophy of Star Trek because Star Trek is my statement to the world. Understand that Star Trek is more than just my political philosophy. It is my social philosophy, my racial philosophy, my overview on life and the human condition. I have been able to comment on so many different facets of humanity because both Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation have been so wide-ranging in the stars, Captain Picard — played by the classically trained Patrick Stewart — was an intergalactic Renaissance man (and the only non-American captain to lead a show so far). The Enterprise was still Starfleet’s flagship, the first and most essential cynosure of the Federation’s intentions, but its mission was focused less on the business of risk for its own sake and more on diplomacy. There were even families with children on board this new, harmonious version of the Enterprise.
The Id, Ego, and Super Ego of Kirk, Spock, and Bones existed entirely within the person of Picard, who Roddenberry described as “an explorer, philosopher, and diplomat.” Picard, in echo of Roddenberry, believed wholly in the power of humanity to transcend its baser drives and in the personal responsibility of all beings to contribute to that transcendence. If the thesis of The Original Series was a bold vision of what we could accomplish when we work together, The Next Generation posited that individual growth was the basis for species evolution, that humanity should be judged not on its worst moments, but on what we do now that we know better, and that it is on each of us to deliver. As part of this more nuanced ideal, Roddenberry had decided with all his creative stubbornness that in the century between The Original Series and The Next Generation, human beings would have outgrown their interpersonal differences and quarrelsome tendencies. It was a noble construct, and one that required the series to become a melodrama in which all the conflict came from outside the ship and its crew.
But, ah, gentle reader, that is not always how humans work. From 1986 to 1991, with Gene Roddenberry at the creative helm of Star Trek: The Next Generation, his writers many of whom were young people who had grown up watching The Original Series fought to do away with this ruling. Their reasoning was two-fold: it was detrimental to the quality of the show, but more importantly, it was unrealistic to think that even at their very best, humans wouldn’t struggle with themselves and with each other.
How else could they grow and transcend if they were never forced to compromise with or question themselves or their friends and fellows? In many ways, it was this insistence on external conflict that arguably makes the first season of The Next Generation the weakest season of the show (the other parts involve the show finding its feet and a lot of terrible sexist and racist casting/writing choices). In other ways, however, the mandate allowed for some incredibly progressive portrayals of people with different abilities, genders, needs, and backgrounds cooperating seamlessly in a high-stress workplace and socializing in a large community. Old lovers respected and supported each other for years through fleeting and sustained romantic pairings, through heartbreaks and violations and family issues. Trauma and illness were usually treated with weight and care.
The crew was overwhelmingly compassionate and considerate of one another’s shortcomings and unique difficulties. While on Kirk’s Enterprise, Bones might refer to Spock as a “green-blooded son of a bitch”, the vast majority of the crew of Picard’s Enterprise takes the time to teach and understand one another, to cater their behaviors to better serve the unity of the whole. “Star Trek,” Roddenberry once explained, “was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms.” If The Original Series was tolerance, The Next Generation was to be a special delight. This was often the case, but not always. Whereas Roddenberry once spent a good deal of his time during The Original Series fighting censorship, the network, and the producers to cast and write what he wanted, for The Next Generation, he would be one of those producers. He would have no one to blame for the final decisions and discordant notes but himself. The three highest-ranking officers on the new series, Picard included, were once again played by white men (sometimes painted green).
The second-in-command, “Number One”, was Commander William Riker, a man with Kirk’s heart under a philosophe’s mentorship. An Alaskan with an undiscriminating libido, Riker would ultimately value his time with Picard so much he would turn down command of his own ships to stay on the Enterprise. He would also grow a righteous beard. The next in line was Lieutenant Commander Data, a humanoid android and one of only three sentient synthetic beings in the known galaxy. Data, who did not experience emotions like his comrades, and his personal pursuit to better understand and emulate the humanity to which he aspired would ultimately be credited by a generation of neurodivergent fans with helping them come to terms with their own abilities and social differences. His bodily autonomy and personhood would be the subject of some of the best episodes in Star Trek canon.
There were two black men on the bridge of the new Enterprise, though Michael Dorn was playing an alien and covered in Klingon prosthetics. His Lieutenant Worf was a war orphan, adopted and raised by Eastern European humans and with a similarly complicated relationship to his native culture that Spock, a half-human half-Vulcan, had experienced in The Original Series. Though Worf began as a relief officer on the bridge, he would quickly be promoted to Chief Security Officer. Lieutenant Geordi La Forge, played by Roots actor and Reading Rainbow host LeVar Burton, was the helmsman and then the Chief Engineering Officer. From the United States of Africa specifically Somalia and named after quadriplegic fan George La Forge, Geordi was blind from birth and used a VISOR attached to his optical cortex to see the electromagnetic spectrum.
The three women who originally began on the bridge were also entirely played by white actors. Although Lieutenant Tasha Yar, who was Chief Security Officer before Worf, was initially meant to be Latina and then Asian, Roddenberry’s final casting decision put the blonde Denise Crosby in the role. A survivor from a colony planet with a collapsed government, Tasha was inspired by Vasquez from Aliens and could, according to concept, defeat most of the rest of the bridge officers in martial arts. Her biggest claim to fame and one of the biggest missteps in The Next Generation’s seven seasons came in the second episode of the series, when she had sex with the “fully functional” Data to prove to audiences she was not a lesbian. The character was killed off toward the end of the first season when Denise Crosby, frustrated with her lack of development, left the show.
The remaining two women were Dr. Beverly Crusher and ship’s counselor Deanna Troi, and though they would eventually have their own stories and episodes, they were introduced in the pilot mostly as love interests of Picard and Riker, respectively. Deanna Troi was a half-human half-Betazoid, making her an empath and sometimes-telepath, and was designed to be an object of sexual desire for the audience…and the producers. She would be misand under-used for the majority of the show’s run and repeatedly subjected to those tired sci-fi/ fantasy tropes for women: rape (both physical and psychic) and mystical pregnancies.
Dr. Crusher, meanwhile, was the widow of Picard’s late best friend and mother of Gary Stu boy genius, Wesley Crusher (no offense to actor Wil Wheaton, who is lovely). She was played by Gates McFadden, who spent most of the first season behind the scenes fighting the writers about sexist content and a lack of development for the women characters, until one of the writers demanded she be fired. She was replaced during the second season with the underrated Dr. Katherine Pulaski, who was, like Bones, prejudiced against one of her crewmates and suspicious of transporter technology. However, the change was met with extreme upset by fans, and a campaign spearheaded by Patrick Stewart himself eventually brought Gates McFadden and Beverly Crusher back by the third season. The writer she clashed with left the show. And, of course, there was the eventual recurring character of Guinan as played by Whoopi Goldberg, who took quite a cut to her usual pay rates to be on the show that had once starred Nichelle Nichols. The Next Generation pilot “Encounter at Far Point” aired on CBS and in syndication on September 28, 1987, mere months after the Challenger explosion. Over the next seven seasons and 178 episodes and four movies, it would become the most financially viable and popular of any series in the Star Trek franchise, as well as the most awarded.
At its worst, the show fell back into ridiculous sexist and racial stereotypes and tropes, undervalued its women, made some of its men creeps without consequence, and missed some huge opportunities to be truly groundbreaking (e.g. the androgynous race in “The Outcast” could have been played by men, as Riker’s actor Jonathan Frakes hoped). At its best, it would spend whole episodes exploring controversial topics like torture, imperialism, gender identity and sexuality, bodily autonomy, personhood, corruption and conspiracy in government, capitalism, witch hunts, addiction, technology advancement, racial and cultural identities, post-war prejudice, gaslighting, the dichotomy between freedom fighters and terrorists, and religion, and anodyne topics like integrity, loyalty, what makes us human, mortality, family, regret, ambition, and the lingering effects of trauma…sometimes against Roddenberry’s express wishes.
In between, it took us along on daring adventures, wooed us with romance, and delighted us with character driven high jinks. The Next Generation, like The Original Series before it, changed the very landscape of television. It was, after all, one of the first shows to do a true season finale cliffhanger (”Mr. Worf—fire”), saw the beginnings of multi-episode and -season arcs, and, according to The Mary Sue, passed the Bechdel Test a progressive 44.9% of the time. Gene Roddenberry’s health was already in decline in the late 1980s as he began work on The Next Generation. After years of regular drug and alcohol use, he developed cerebral vascular disease and encephalopathy.
Though he remained at the creative helm of The Next Generation, his final co-writing credit was in the first season, and, according to producer Rick Berman, his direct influence lessened each year. He had his first stroke in 1989, leaving him wheelchair-bound, and another in early October 1991. On October 24th, 1991, at the age of 70, Eugene Wesley Roddenberry died. His wife, Majel Barrett, was by his side. In 1985, Roddenberry became the first television writer to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in 1992, he was one of the first humans to have their remains carried into orbit. Much of his legacy is still being written literally, now that Star Trek is back on television but the ways in which Gene Roddenberry changed our culture and how we tell stories has been undeniable for over half a century. Now, you may be thinking, Star Trek’s evolution has ended. How can an idea continue to grow when its creator is dead?
But, ah, gentle reader, that is not always how ideas work
With Roddenberry gone, creative control of the franchise fell to Rick Berman and recently-promoted showrunner Michael Piller, who had only just managed to establish a stable writing staff on The Next Generation after two years of chaos. The general consensus among critics and fans is that the third season was when the series finally started fulfilling its potential. It’s certainly the point at which the show began to produce consistently quality and frequently great episodes. Does it mean something that this stabilization and increase in caliber occurred largely as Roddenberry was no longer able to contribute to and control the series? While it may be part of it, the truth is much more complex. The Next Generation would not exist in the way it did at its core without Roddenberry’s insistence on the nature of Star Trek and on the progress of the 24th century, but it wouldn’t become truly great until he relinquished control. Roddenberry was needed to design and build the ship; those who came after him were needed to make that ship fly. But it couldn’t fly while he was keeping it docked. There’s a special kind of modern phenomenon that seems to exist only in franchises like Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Doctor Who, Harry Potter the kinds of revolutionary creations with a clear heart, soul, and message that altered the trajectory of storytelling
and defined a generation who grew up dreaming of those fictional worlds. The Originator has an Idea, often radical for its time, fights for that Idea, builds on that Idea, puts it into the world, changes everything… and over the course of life, grows beyond or away from the person they were when they first conceived of the Idea. When the Originator is next put in charge of that Idea, after decades of the Idea germinating out in the world and the world itself shifting, the Originator is surrounded by the now-grown children whose imaginations were built by the Idea, whose worldviews were structured around the essence of the Idea.
The children are now the age the Originator was when the Idea was new, they know the Idea with a zeal that can only come from adolescent obsession, but most importantly, they know their world and their time with a freshness and understanding that only the young can have. The ideal is a collaboration, with both the Originator and the generation they helped shape listening to one another to create a version of the Idea that is radical and relevant while still retaining that heart, soul, and message that changed the world in the first place. But, ah, gentle reader, that is not always how Ideas work.
Roddenberry’s infamous attitude and not necessarily an incorrect one during the first two series was, “’Who knows what Star Trek is? I do!’” But often it is the audience, the reader, the viewer who groks the true breadth and depth of a work of art, its meaning, its impact, when the artist knows only their intention. Who knew what Star Trek was? Michael Piller must have known some of it because he ran The Next Generation through its most critically and commercially zoetic period. Ronald D. Moore, a kid who slipped a spec script to one of Roddenberry’s assistants on a tour of The Next Generation’s set and ended up becoming one of the most influential showrunners in modern television, must have known quite a bit of it. Moore’s long-time writing partner, Brannon Braga, who started as an intern on The Next Generation and eventually showran Voyager and co-created Enterprise, probably knew a good amount.
Did Rick Berman, who would successfully produce all seven seasons of The Next Generation as well as create and produce Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and the tragic early 2000s run of Enterprise, know what Star Trek was? Critics and Trekkies have been debating that question for the last twenty years. Berman himself told The Chicago-Sun Times in 1994, “I don’t believe the 24th century is going to be like Gene Roddenberry believed it to be, that people will be free from poverty and greed. But if you’re going to write and produce for Star Trek, you’ve got to buy into that.” It’s that exact opinion that led Berman to create Star Trek: Deep Space Nine with Michael Piller in 1993, when The Next Generation was still on the air. It would be the first series in no way overseen by Gene Roddenberry, the first series to take place on a space station rather than a ship, and the first series with a black captain as the lead. Commander (and then Captain) Benjamin Sisko was unlike any Starfleet lead we’d been asked to invest in before; he was widowed in the Borg assault while Picard was assimilated, a single father to a teenage son, and a black American man from New Orleans who would present the most succinct version of the show’s revolutionary thesis in the second season: “Do you know what the trouble is? The trouble is Earth—on Earth there is no poverty, no crime, no war. You look out the window of Starfleet Headquarters and you see paradise. It’s easy to be a saint in paradise, but the Maquis do not live in paradise.
Out there in the demilitarized zone all the problems haven’t been solved yet. Out there, there are no saints, just people—angry, scared, determined people who are going to do whatever it takes to survive, whether it meets with Federation approval or not.” Deep Space Nine would boldly go where no Star Trek had gone before. It would delve deep into religion, into the privilege of a Federation with a decidedly Western mentality, into who gets to be righteous, when, and why. It would take place at the edge of Federation space in the immediate aftermath of a long and traumatic Cardassian occupation of the Bajorans, whose whole way of life was now centered around fighting the Cardassians at any cost. The station on which the majority of the action takes place and the officers and civilians who reside there create a sort of chunky intergalactic cultural stew (or a wriggling intergalactic cultural gagh?), where each group is struggling to be heard, to receive justice or revenge, to survive or thrive. It is as though Starfleet has been given control of Mos Eisley, with barely enough authority to keep the cantina lights on.
The crew was the most diverse of any series yet. A black man was in charge, a white Bajoran woman was second-in-command, a white “joined” Trill woman was Chief Science Officer, and though Dr. Julian Bashir never specifically notes his ethnic background, Alexander Siddig, his actor, is of North African descent. The remaining recurring characters were Sisko’s son, a young black man, a family of ruthlessly capitalistic Ferengis, a pair of deliciously enigmatic Cardassians, a shapeshifting head of station security, and, from the Enterprise-D, Lieutenant Worf and Chief Miles O’Brien. Over its seven seasons and 179 episodes, Deep Space Nine took a deeply nuanced view of life when that final frontier is an actual frontier, of the complicated nature of conflict, prejudice, trauma, and war, and ultimately of what it takes to make good people do bad things. By the end of the show’s run in 1999, every sentient power in the Alpha
and Gamma Quadrants of the Milky Way were decimated, their morals twisted, and their citizens forever changed. It was one of the first television shows to commit to season-spanning story arcs, effectively altering once again how we tell our stories. It passed the Bechdel Test 57.8% of the time, and, among other things, included one of the first same-sex kisses in TV history.
In 1995, following the release of the first The Next Generation movie (also starring William Shatner) and with Deep Space Nine in full swing, Berman, Piller, and final showrunner of The Next Generation, Jeri Taylor, co-created Voyager, a new Star Trek series about a science vessel and a renegade Maquis ship whose crews team up after being transported more than 70,000 lightyears from Federation space to a quadrant of the galaxy no known species had ever explored. The initial trip kills a good portion of both crews, damages the ship, and leaves them all a 75-year journey from charted space. Like Deep Space Nine, its thesis was based on the complexities of human behavior when those who have always known justice and plenty more are faced with true adversity. What happens to the paragons of Starfleet when they’re stranded far away from their families, their homes, and their resources, and surrounded by rebels, criminals, and the unknown?
RODDENBERRY WAS NEEDED DESIGN AND BUILD THE SHIP; THOSE WHO CAME AFTER HIM WERE NEEDED TO MAKE THAT SHIP FLY. BUT IT COULDN’T FLY WHILE HE WAS KEEPING IT DOCKED
The show was meant to be a return to an earlier kind of Star Trek, in which the crew didn’t get along and the conflict came just as much from within the ship as outside it. The crew was a mixture of Starfleet officers, Starfleet officers turned freedom fighters, and aliens from the new species being encountered in the Delta Quadrant. Captain Kathryn Janeway, played by Kate Mulgrew, was the first woman captain to lead a show, and a straight forward scientist trying to gain control in an impossible situation. The rest of the crew was diverse in theory, though often ethnic identities were handled clumsily and reinforced stereotypes more than offering any kind of true representation. While there is much that is commendable and worthwhile (including a staggering 86.9% Bechdel Test passage rate) in the seven seasons and 172 episodes of Star Trek: Voyager, it didn’t take long for the thesis and premise to be forgotten in favor of sexier, less challenging storylines. But at least, you might be thinking, Star Trek was trying to push boundaries and create something new, even if they sometimes didn’t succeed! But, ah, gentle reader, that is not always how Star Trek works. The last of the Star Trek series Rick Berman produced was Enterprise, a prequel set a century before The Original Series, when there was not even yet a United Federation of Planets. The captain and most of the crew were white men, with the exception of a white Vulcan woman in a skin tight catsuit as executive officer, a black human man as helmsman, and a Japanese woman as communications officer. Even the aliens on the crew were played by white people. In many ways, Enterprise felt like a huge step backward. It was a show without a thesis. It had a soft rock theme song, threw its highest ranking woman into a sexy Pon Farr scenario in the second episode, and was generally panned by critics and fans alike.
The pilot aired just weeks after the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the aftermath would eventually influence a major plotline on the show. Despite the science fiction community’s great love for Scott Bakula, who played Captain Jonathan Archer, the show was such a flop that it effectively killed the two decade long run of the second coming of Star Trek. It ran for four seasons and 98 episodes. Since then, though there have been fun, high budget movies helmed largely by J.J. Abrams and featuring the rebooted and updated characters from The Original Series, over a decade passed before anyone was allowed to blow the dust off the bridge consoles and create something new. As always, the world has changed in the interim. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Western world went on a panicked lockdown that is still going to this day. We are in our 19th year of a war in the Middle East with no current indication of its ending. Social media and the internet have transformed the way we interact with one another, smart phones have become a pivotal fixture of our day to day lives, and there is no longer such a thing as privacy from the government or corporations. A foreign power hacked American elections.
The Supreme Court ruled that same sex marriage was legal, but also that corporations were people. We experienced the worst recession since The Great Depression. The United States elected its first black President for two terms and a woman was the Presidential nominee for one of the two major political parties for the first time in the country’s history. We have just impeached a President for only the third time in 244 years. Voyager 1 became the first human made object to ever leave our solar system. We have successfully landed four rovers on Mars. The world is facing an unprecedented climate crisis. Instead of hiding under their desks from nuclear bombs, children now hide under their desks from active shooters.
We could use the hope of Ro ddenberry’s vision now, perhaps more than ever. Star Trek: Discovery debuted on CBS All Access on Septem ber 19, 2017 after a rocky deve lopment. The brainchild of Alex Kurtzman and Bryan Fuller, it takes place a decade before the events of The Original Series. The show involves the recasting of several key characters from the crew of that original USS Enterprise, including Captain Pike and Number One from “The Cage”, a young Spock, and Spock’s parents Amanda and Sarek. It follows the exploits of mutineer Michael Burnham, who is the first black woman to lead a Star Trek series. 2020 will be a banner year for Star Trek. Discovery will begin its third season.
CBS All Access periodically drops what they call Short Treks, mini-episodes that provide additional materials to their other series. Star Trek: Picard, which is not a prequel and follows the last adventures of an aging Admiral Jean-Luc Picard, premiered in January and is already renewed for a se cond season. The first animated series since 1974, Lower Decks, has a two-season order. There is already a joint commission for a children’s animated series be tween CBS and Nickelodeon. A series about Section 31 will star Michelle Yeoh’s mirror universe version of Philippa Georgiou and will be the first Star Trek led by an Asian woman. There are talks regarding a similar series based around Christopher Pike as portrayed by Anson Mount. There has not been this much consistent Trek activity since 1995. But what does it mean? What boundaries are we seeking to push in the year 2020? Disco very has already had its fair share of controversy because of the diversity of its cast and characters, including the first openly gay couple in Star Trek TV canon. But Star Trek can do more.
Star Trek was made to do more.
It is a vessel designed to con sider the darkest, most painful parts of ourselves, of our world, to explore the ills and injustices of our present society with the objective distance of a Vulcan scientist, the empathic heart of a naked Betazoid, and the stub born daring of a human being.
In the 1960s when Gene Rod denberry was creating the first series, 2020 seemed so far in the future that he set a terrif ying eugenics war in the 1990s and a complete breakdown of our major superpowers by the mid-21st century. He placed First Contact with the Vul cans, when Zefram Cochrane tests out the warp drive, in the 2060s, 100 years from when Star Trek was born. That’s only 40 years from now. How can we take Star Trek into our vision for the 21st century? How can the vision of Star Trek lead us into a brighter future?
Television these days is vastly different than it was in the early 2000s. We’re living in the golden age of streaming servi ces and narrative risk. Shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones have changed the way we experience things on the small screen as surely as Star Trek ever did.
Star Trek must keep up, one assumes, with the times. Star Trek must continue to evolve. The new style of Trek is exciting and cinematic with twists and turns and neverending action. The writers and the characters are more cynical, the tone is darker, the humans are more flawed, dependent on vice, more reminiscent of our present than Roddenberry’s future. It is not the ponderous and episodic fare of its earlier incar nations. The two current series are piloted by their plots with the characters and dialogue strapped in for the ride. If Disco very and Picard have thesis sta tements, they have yet to reveal them. None of this is inherently bad or wrong or not Star Trek. Certainly both series are explo ring traditional Star Trek themes in their own ways. It’s just diffe rent, as The Next Generation was different to The Original Series, as Deep Space Nine was different to The Next Generation.
As we enter this brilliant new age of Star Trek saturation, of Star Trek possibility, how can we adapt the breakneck pace of modern television with the room to think and breathe that has so long been the backbo ne of the franchise in order to create something entirely new, radical, and relevant? How do we satiate a television audience used to drugs, cursing, and nudity without sacrificing the humanist optimism that is the beating heart of Star Trek? Each cultural and moral taboo we consider now, each ethical dilemma the crew of a Starfleet ship faces in 2020 is a chance for a kid watching at home to see themselves on TV for the first time, to consider the world from a unique perspective, to remember that they are not alone, to remind us all that we can do better.
The year is 2020. Star Trek is back. The future is in our hands.
Why not boldly go where no Trek has gone before?
For Roddenberry. For the next generation. For ourselves. Be cause, ah, gentle reader, that is how Star Trek should work.