Rod Roddenberry Jr. is the only son of “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry, yet he never watched the show as a child.
He was more interested in vehicles, heavy metal music, and action series like “Starsky & Hutch” and “Knight Rider.”
“It wasn’t until I was older and more mature that I began to understand the complexity and intellectual aspect of ‘Star Trek,'” Roddenberry, who was 17 when his father, Gene, died, says.
Roddenberry had a Trekkie conversion experience years later.
He began watching replays and speaking with admirers who told him how the show had helped them build more trust in mankind.
That’s when he began to value his father’s hopeful vision of a future in which people learnt to embrace diversity and “inclusivity and equality are the norm.”
Roddenberry has joined the cast of “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds,” which opens on Paramount+ on May 5.
It’s a prequel to the original series, which aired in the 1960s, and it’s set during the time when Capt. Christopher Pike, a fan favorite from the original series, captained the USS Enterprise.
The new show, one of several “Star Trek” spinoffs, has been promoted as a return to the original series’ optimism and romance, which aired from 1966 to 1969.
Such an optimistic perspective may be difficult to sell to today’s audiences, who have been pummeled by ugly politics, violence, conflict, and gloomy predictions of a fast warming globe.
But it’s a shift that Roddenberry, the new show’s executive producer, applauds.
“Saying nothing bad about the other shows, but this is the one I’m most excited about,” says Roddenberry, CEO of Roddenberry Entertainment, which develops sci-fi graphic novels, podcasts, television and film projects.
“It’s going to go back to the formatting of the original series. It’s the kind of thing we need to get out there to give us hope,” he adds. “I understand that this is just a TV show, but it inspires countless people to live better lives.”
What we can expect in the new series
The show’s executive producer, Akiva Goldsman, said the new series will be unique while remaining consistent.
Fans may expect more stand-alone episodes, as well as the optimism of the original series and mind-bending turns reminiscent of “The Twilight Zone.”
Another twist is the new show’s emphasis on some of “Star Trek’s” most recognizable characters.
According to Goldsman, the show will look at the growth of characters like Spock and Uhura before they became iconic figures.
“Our Uhura is young. She starts off as a cadet,” Goldsman says. “Where does she come from? What decisions did she make to allow her to be in Starfleet and become the heroine we know her to be?”Another big change is in the captain’s chair.
The character of Captain Pike is much different than Kirk, Goldsman says.”Jim Kirk is a young boy’s fantasy of a ‘Star Trek’ captain,” Goldsman says. “He’s brash, impulsive — he knows the rules but doesn’t follow them. He’s a swashbuckler. Pike is a thoughtful man of reason who builds consensus.”
In the Trekkie world, there are several discussions concerning whether television version of “Star Trek” is superior, and whether later shows deviated too far from the cheerful tone of the original.
Captain Kirk’s voiceover statement at the opening of each episode reflects this optimism.
He claims that the Enterprise’s mission is to “seek out fresh life and adventure,” as well as “explore odd new worlds,” rather than to conquer civilizations or force populations to follow specific ideologies.
In contrast, later incarnations of the program, such as “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” featured some ethically compromised people who made actions that contradicted their principles.
According to Ben Robinson, co-author of “Star Trek — The Original Series: A Celebration,” a return to the franchise’s “original formula” will keep the hopefulness of the first series while delivering multidimensional, morally conflicted characters.
“I’m searching for an original series with a 21st-century budget,” Robinson explains.
“I’ll be overjoyed if they can blend intelligent storylines with stunning visual effects and the 1960s ‘Right Stuff’ enthusiastic narrative.”
Why hopeful storytelling is never outdated
One unspoken issue in the upcoming series is one you won’t find on many of the show’s message boards: Will Star Trek’s optimism and emphasis on diversity feel out of date in today’s pessimistic world?
Looking at the daily headlines makes it difficult to believe in mankind.
Racial, ethnic, and political differences appear to be as profound as space itself.
However, feel-good, inclusive TV shows like “Schitt’s Creek” and “Ted Lasso” drew large ratings during the epidemic, a pattern many ascribe to audiences’ dearth of uplifting storylines.
“Dark times require hopeful storytelling,” says Goldsman. “Optimism and belief in a better future is necessary for a lot of us.”Goldsman says it’s a myth that the original “Star Trek” aired in an gentler era that was much different than ours. He cites 1968 as an example.
“We were at war,” he says of the US’s involvement in Vietnam. “The civil rights movement was still in its own intense moment of conflict. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were killed, not to mention the looming nuclear threat.
The country was quite factionalized. The ’60s were a tumultuous time.” “Star Trek’s” futuristic world allowed it to address some of the most explosive issues of that era in a way that no other show could, says Robinson, the author. The composition of the Enterprise crew was itself a call for tolerance, he says.
Consider: The US was embroiled in a cold war with the Soviet Union, but one of the Enterprise’s main officers was Russian (Chekov). The country had only 20 years earlier ended a brutal war with Japan, but the ship’s helmsman was Japanese (Sulu).
Black people couldn’t vote in many parts of the country, but a Black officer — and a woman — (Uhura) was the ship’s communications officer.
Spock was the ultimate model minority on the Enterprise. He was an outsider who endured prejudice.
Black and biracial people identified with him (there’s a beautiful story about the actor Leonard Nimoy writing a letter to a biracial girl who felt rejected). One Star Trek fan called him the “Blackest person on the Enterprise” because he “never let ‘the man” see his emotion and “was cool like the best jazz musicians.”
“It’s metaphorical storytelling that allows you a way of taking science and fantasy to look at your own society,” Robinson says. “He [Roddenberry Sr.] talked about race by having a Vulcan instead of a Black guy.”
The ‘troubled soul’ of ‘Star Trek’s’ creator
It’s a small marvel that the creator of Star Trek was so optimistic about humanity.
Throughout his life, he seen and suffered a great deal of tragedy.
Roddenberry Sr. was born in El Paso, Texas, and nearly perished when his house caught fire when he was a baby.
He was saved by a passing milkman.
As an adult, he had additional close calls.
During World War II, he was a pilot with the United States Army Air Corps, flying combat flights in the South Pacific.
He was also a part of the crew of a Pan Am flight that crashed in the Syrian desert, killing 14 passengers.
Later, as an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department, he was exposed to the shadier side of life.
And yet despite all that, Roddenberry imagined a compassionate and harmonious future world that was much different from the one he lived in.How can someone who’d seen so much tragedy be so optimistic?Robinson, the author, pointed to a quote from musician John Lennon.”Lennon said the reason I go on about peace and love so much is because I’m really angry,” he says.
“Maybe you look for what you need for yourself. Gene was a troubled soul for sure.” Roddenberry converted his pain into a vision of the future that still inspires millions more than 50 years later. Phrases such as “Live long and prosper,” “Beam me up, Scotty” and “warp drive” are now part of popular culture. And so is “Star Trek’s” humane message, which lives on in the new show.
“If people say, ‘Why is ‘Star Trek’ still around?’, I will tell you why,” Roddenberry Jr. says. “It’s because it’s the idea of appreciating all of the things that are different and not just tolerating them, and that it’s the differences that we’re going to grow from.”The response to “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” will reveal whether that vision still resonates with people, or whether the barriers of cynicism and hate are now too high for even the USS Enterprise to steer through.