30 years after the series’ creator passed, what remains of his message as Star Trek is bigger than ever.
For Star Trek fans, there are two very important dates decades before the very first episode of the original series ever aired. On August 2, 1943, the B-17 “Yankee Doodle” overshot its runway in the Pacific nation of Vanuatu and crashed, killing two crewmen. The pilot went on to be a crash investigator, serving stateside through the end of World War II, but it wouldn’t be the last time he narrowly escaped death in plane crash. On June 19, 1947, a Pan Am flight crashed in the Syrian desert after a catastrophic engine failure, killing most of the crew and passengers. One of the few survivors was the flight’s third officer, the very same man, a then-35-year-old Texan named Gene Roddenberry.
The world knows Roddenberry as the man who invented Star Trek and gave the world decades of deep space adventures. When you look at all of that in context with the early morning when he narrowly avoided death, there’s the obvious takeaway that Kirk and Spock and Picard and Data and all the stories and faraway worlds that spun off from them are a kind of miracle. For me though, it’s impossible not to think of that biographical detail every time the Enterprise-D (or the Defiant, or the Protostar) is being dragged into a singularity or scrambling to restore shields in a fight with the Borg, klaxons blaring and crew members gritting their teeth as stuff combusts around them. The miracle, I think, is that Roddenberry survived something like that and then went on to create a story like Star Trek, a story with plenty of ships on the brink of disaster that isn’t really about disaster, but rather overcoming it.
Roddenberry was born in 1921 and died in 1991 at 70. As we come to the end of 2021, we’ve passed both his centennial, and the 30th anniversary of his death. His creation has not only outlived him, but thrived: The shows Roddenberry directly created are all more readily available and beloved than they’ve ever been, and there are now three regular Star Trek shows airing (four if you count Picard). People use Star Trek images and clips as memes so often that an episode of The Next Generation about trying to communicate with an alien who only talks in references is now itself a meme about how we talk on the internet.
What this means for me, a kid who grew up on Star Trek: The Next Generation, though, is that I’m always looking for something of Gene Roddenberry in the Trek shows now airing. I obviously love it when we unload quantum torpedoes and mess around on the holodeck, but as I’ve gotten older, and the world seems to calcify toward inescapable dystopia, what I like about the shows is the message Roddenberry was trying to sell us: we can be good to each other, and when we are, nothing in the universe can stop us.
In its first season finale, “The Neutral Zone,” TNG sets up conflict between the Federation and the Romulan Empire, but it was really the B-plot of the episode. The main focus is actually on three cryogenically frozen humans from the 20th century, encountered on a spacecraft drifting around derelict. Data calls an audible and rescues them – as he explains to a somewhat annoyed Picard, preserving life seemed like the right thing to do in the moment. The thawed out survivors, all from our time and representing different motivations for living, have no idea how to comport themselves in the future of Star Trek: There are no wages and there is no want, and the survivors seem unmoored without them.
That episode, airing when Roddenberry was still alive and fairly involved in the show, almost reads like a thesis statement on all of Star Trek, and the shows that came in the years following his death almost read as a response to his sunny optimism. Deep Space Nine is a long look at the Federation at war, Voyager intended (and occasionally succeeded) at trying to separate its protagonists from the safety of the Federation, Enterprise chronicled the stumbling first steps of humanity onto the galactic stage. In DS9, there is a scene where Commander Worf and Chief O’Brien, reunited, talk about the good old days on the Enterprise-D under Picard. Serving on that ship, Worf reflects, was like being a hero in the old Klingon sagas: “There was nothing we could not do.”
The message is pretty clear: The Original Series and TNG were rosy looks at the flagships of the Federation, ships where the lowliest crew member cried themselves to sleep over getting a 35 on the ACT. That’s nice, the shows that have come since seem to be saying, but it isn’t believable.
“The Federation. It’s just another name for someone else in charge. Janeway sings a nice song, but I can tell you from experience: People in authority lie. They try to sell you the good life, but it’s a good life for them. Not us.” – Dal, Star Trek: Prodigy
After the long pause following Enterprise, and a new directive by Paramount to Make All The Star Trek, there’s a new thread running through all of the more recent shows. They’re united by both a belief in the shining future of Star Trek – where the replicators will give you any meal you want for free and Data’s decision to let his daughter choose her gender is just the respectful and logical thing to do – can exist, but it’s a fight to get there, and it’s a fight to stay there. Discovery and Lower Decks are resolute in their premise that you aren’t seeing the best and brightest of Starfleet, but that the same ideals guide them. Picard is about Patrick Stewart’s legacy character reckoning with forces within the Federation that are making it a tougher and more fearful place.
Prodigy is one of the more interesting takes, though. The show’s premiere made it seem very much like a Star Wars cartoon, but then a hologram of Janeway shows up (portrayed by original actor Kate Mulgrew’s voiceover work and a really good CGI likeness, honestly). The crew of the Protostar – all of whom are escapees from a slave labor hellworld – learn about Starfleet and the Federation, about working together and taking advice and trusting one another. And yes, about how the replicators really will make whatever you want and they really are free, even if Dal doesn’t quite trust the sales pitch right out of the gate. That’s just as much a conflict as the snarling bad guy and his robot army pursuing them.
We’re living through a profoundly horrible time right now, one marked by inaction and failure in regard to tasks it should not be difficult to agree upon: a deteriorating climate serves nobody. A starving population deprived of basic services profits no one. An unchecked pandemic hollowing out our species accomplishes nothing.
Gene Roddenberry, in response to living through a world war that ended in atomic fire, two plane crashes, and the insane nuclear brinksmanship of the 1960s, responded with Star Trek. Even as his creation has moved past him, there’s the desire for better times administered by better people in every Trek property. The difference is that now they admit it’s going to be a struggle.