This is the adventure of the United Space Ship Enterprise. Assigned a five year galaxy patrol, the bold crew of the giant starship explores the excitement of strange new worlds, uncharted civilizations, and exotic people. These are its voyages and its adventures.
We’re fast approaching the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, as September 8th 2016 will mark a half-century since the first broadcast of The Man Trap, the premier of TOS. As such, people have been looking back to the beginning, each in their own different ways; we had the recent Star Trek Beyond, which aimed to act as a 50th Anniversary Special, as well as a recent series of celebratory convention panels. I’ve got a few plans in place myself, actually, to try and celebrate the full 50 years of Star Trek as best I can, but more on that next week.
Also in time for the 50th anniversary, we’ve got Lance Parkin’s new biography of Gene Roddenberry. Parkin was someone I was aware of because of his long history of writing excellent Doctor Who novels; I’m quite fond of his book The Eyeless, but I think his most acclaimed is probably Cold Fusion or Father Time. Outside of that, he’s also written lots of different nonfiction guidebooks and studies of popular fiction, but most pertinently he’s completed an autobiography of Alan Moore. I confess I’ve never read that one, but it was quite well reviewed. So, then, a few things had coalesced – my pre-existing respect for Parkin’s work, the Star Trek 50th, and a growing interest to learn more about the start of the show. It made a lot of sense, then, to buy this book – and thus, I did.
It’s billed as a biography of Roddenberry, and while it is undoubtedly that, it’s worth keeping in mind the subtitle: “The Life and Work of Gene Roddenberry, Creator of Star Trek”. Parkin is approaching Roddenberry’s life through the lens of the final frontier – and I’d argue rightly so, to be honest, because the insight we gain into the relationship between the Great Bird and his greatest creation is both informative and insightful. Equally, however, if you’re looking to learn a lot about Roddenberry’s time as a commercial pilot or a beat cop, this is perhaps not the book to consult; while these aspects of his life are covered, they’re not really done so with the same amount of detail as that of his later life.
The one aspect of Roddenberry’s pre-Star Trek life examined in most detail is his prior television career, specifically his work on the show The Lieutenant, and the manner in which it informed that which became his lasting legacy. I have to commend Parkin on this, actually; The Lieutenant was something I was only ever really vaguely aware of, and I would have put its Star Trek connections as little more than a share creator and a few overlapping cast members (Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nicholls, etc.) However, it soon becomes clear that The Lieutenant’s position in Trek history has perhaps been understated, with Parkin using it as a springboard to discuss Trek’s reputation for social justice and diversity, as well as the oft-quoted story of Roddenberry having to fight tooth and nail to present and preserve his vision in the face of the restrictive conservatism “the networks”. As with many things, it becomes clear that the truth is far more nuanced, but also far more interesting, than the legend.
A picture is painted of a man who was in some ways ahead of his time, yet in others quite painfully of them; it’s clear that what we refer to as “Gene Roddenberry’s vision” may perhaps more accurately be described as “the Star Trek vision”, encompassing all the many individuals who contributed to the sense of idealism and inclusivity we all love so much today. Indeed, Parkin makes much of the contribution of early fans, particularly young and female fans; in some ways, actually, it’s a really nice way of looking at things, because we end up building an image of a man who learned just as much if not more from Star Trek’s fan, and from it, as we did from him.
Ultimately, this book is essential for any Star Trek fan. It’s able to present a very coherent and informative description of Roddenberry’s career, taking both its ups and downs and always remaining fair and even handed; at the same time, it’s compulsively readable throughout, with a host of engaging anecdotes, behind the scenes stories, and detailed analysis of what it might all mean. (Parkin, for example, has some particularly insightful commentary as to the nature of the feud between Roddenberry and Leonard Nimoy.) The book acts as something of a historiography for Star Trek, with a clear view of the contributions not just of Roddenberry, but also of individuals such as Gene Coon, DC Fontana, Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner, and so on and so forth. While Roddenberry is far from lambasted, this isn’t a hagiography either; it’s perhaps one the most balanced accounts of Roddenberry’s life I’ve ever come across.
And as we embark on the next stage of our ongoing mission, I think that’s the right direction to boldly go.