Jul 23, 2012

What can Gene Roddenberry teach you about writing?

No one in his right mind gets up in the morning and says, 'I think I'll create a phenomenon today' – Gene Roddenberry

Last week we went to France, so now we’re making a sharp turn and heading out to the United States of the Future. Or should I say United Worlds?

To speak of Gene Roddenberry is to speak of Star Trek -- the Trek universe overshadows everything else.

Indeed, Star Trek inspires almost religious fervor in some people. A Leicestershire man turned his house into a Star Trek shrine after his wife left him. Others decorate their bedrooms almost exclusively with Star Trek collectibles. Yet others would like to build the Starship Enterprise for real, while an artist like Faith Pearson is content to build an Enterprise out of used ink cartridges.

Faith Pearson's ink-cartridge Enterprise.

So it’s legitimate to ask: Who’s the guy that jumpstarted one of the most remarkable pop-culture crazes of the past fifty years?

Gene was born in El Paso, Texas, a city founded by Spanish Franciscan friars. The area had been settled for thousands of years and, when the Spanish arrived, they found the Manso, Suma and Jumano tribes living there.

El Paso, 1908.

The El Paso area would become a focus for Mestizo culture — mestizo meaning ‘mixed,’ as in racially mixed. Here’s a significant passage from Wikipedia:
During the colonial period, mestizos quickly became the majority group in much of what is today Latin America, and when the colonies started achieving independence from Spain, the mestizo group often became dominant. In some Latin American countries, such as Mexico, the concept of the "mestizo" became central to the formation of a new independent identity that was neither wholly Spanish nor wholly indigenous and the word mestizo acquired its current double meaning of mixed cultural heritage and actual racial descent.    
 (emphasis mine.)

Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de Los Manso, a missionary church.

I can’t help but think there’s a connection with Roddenberry’s portrayal not only of Captain Kirk’s pansexuality, but also to the widely disseminated interspecies romance in the Star Trek universe. Furthermore, such romance often leads to successful procreation. I remember Star Trek: Voyager featured a little girl born to a human-alien couple who sported three little horns on her head. And then, of course, there was B’Elanna, part human, part Klingon; Deanna Troi, who was half Betazoid; Tora Ziyal, half-Cardassian, half-Bajoran; finally, at the heart of the original series was Mister Spock, the human/Vulcan hybrid.

Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy

Roddenberry was also a traveling man, and quite familiar with authoritarian organizations based on clear chains of command. He studied to become a police officer, served in the US Air Force (flying a total of 89 missions between 1941 and 1945) and then worked as a Pan Am pilot until 1949, when he moved to LA and joined the Los Angeles Police Department. There he became a speech writer for chief William H. Parker III, who fought police corruption staunchly and provided the inspiration for Spock.

Gene’s writing career took off around 1955, while he still worked for the LAPD. Under a pen name, he scripted episodes of Highway Patrol and Have Gun—Will Travel.

In 1956, Roddenberry quit the force, and devoted himself to writing full-time. Freelance writing wasn’t enough for him, so he decided to become a producer. Gene developed Star Trek in 1964, a series that almost – almost – died on the vine, like a few other brainchildren of Gene’s. The original Star Trek ran for three seasons, courting the audience desperately, but ratings were poor. The series got a second lease on life through syndication, and in 1975 plans were afoot to relaunch the show. Phase II eventually sank, but it would give birth to an explosive moment in Trek history: Star Trek, The Motion Picture. It grossed $139 million – that’s $411M adjusted for inflation.

Explosive indeed. More than 30 years on, we’re still surfing that particular shockwave. So what can Gene Roddenberry teach you about stories, exploration and world-building?
Star Trek speaks to some basic human needs: that there is a tomorrow — it's not all going to be over with a big flash and a bomb; that the human race is improving; that we have things to be proud of as humans. No, ancient astronauts did not build the pyramids — human beings built them, because they're clever and they work hard. And Star Trek is about those things.”

There’s talk of a movement towards pessimism in science fiction. Dystopias are on the rise because, as Moira Young wrote in the Guardian, adults write books for teenagers. So anxious adults – worried about the planet, the degradation of civil society and the bitter inheritance we're leaving for the young – write dystopian books.

Many fathoms below the surface, it is ideology that drives a story. And ideology is a matter of choice, assuming you’re not completely brainwashed. You can choose what you believe. (Yes, even the pseudo-scientist Elizabeth Shaw chose belief over doubt.) While dystopian stories are popular, they shouldn’t be read as pronouncements of the inevitable; rather, like letters from a bleak, avoidable future.

A civilized ideology pervades Star Trek, although writers must sometimes betray that ideology for the sake of entertainment. Trek is consistent about one thing: use your brain before your guns. It’s no accident that phasers all come with a stun setting. Diplomacy outweighs all other modes of first contact. (Unless your name is James T. Kirk.)

The series conveys a notion of progress undeniably rooted in the present. We can be remarkable and build remarkable things — even self-aware beings like Data the android — but we keep struggling with social mores. In space. In the 24th century. When money no longer exists and people no longer care that Captain Picard is bald.

Picard is the one I grew up with, and my favorite Starfleet

Kirk was all shoot-from-the-hip, an action hero, while
Jean-Luc Picard embraced strategy and diplomacy.
Captain Picard is portrayed by Patrick Stewart.

All science fiction is a meditation on the present, as preparation for the future. Never lose sight of that. Where your own process of discovery leads you depends, in no small way, on your own choices.

“If man is to survive, he will have learned to take a delight in the essential differences between men and between cultures. He will learn that differences in ideas and attitudes are a delight, part of life's exciting variety, not something to fear.”

Star Trek is about the frontier. About knocking down walls and meeting the Other face to face. Many times, the Other was just like us, except for its forehead.

Look. Aliens. 

When you write for TV, there are budget constraints. Improvisation often means compromise. It wasn’t until the Galactica remake that someone thought, “you know, let’s have fewer special effects and makeup effects, but make those really good.” Maybe I’m being unfair to Babylon 5, I don’t know. That series was crawling with aliens, if memory serves, and they didn’t all look great.

Gene Roddenberry was a skyward traveler in body and mind who could barely contain the power of his imagination. Because there were technical and budgetary constraints, he must ground his dreams and work to overcome creative difficulties.

Despite certain limitations, the extraordinary diversity of aliens in the Trek universe speaks volumes to Roddenberry’s appreciation of difference. Now, let me remind you of the Borg, the machine civilization that devours or “assimilates” other civilizations, like a cancer. What are they if not the ultimate enemies of individuality, the ultimate deniers of selfhood?    

And yet they understand the power and meaning of individuality.
Jean-Luc Picard, converted into Locutus of Borg.

“It is the struggle itself that is most important. We must strive to be more than we are. It does not matter that we will not reach our ultimate goal. The effort itself yields its own reward.”

Spock tried to reconcile his human/Vulcan natures.

Data’s lifelong ambition was to become human.

Seven of Nine struggled to recover her lost humanity.

Maybe the most profound message in Star Trek is that improvement is a lifelong process. Until you draw your last breath, you learn.

I conclude this discussion with Gene’s own words —

Reality is incredibly larger, infinitely more exciting, than the flesh and blood vehicle we travel in here. If you read science fiction, the more you read it the more you realize that you and the universe are part of the same thing. Science knows still practically nothing about the real nature of matter, energy, dimension, or time; and even less about those remarkable things called life and thought. But whatever the meaning and purpose of this universe, you are a legitimate part of it. And since you are part of the all that is, part of its purpose, there is more to you than just this brief speck of existence. You are just a visitor here in this time and this place, a traveler through it.

TRIVIA that I couldn’t fit in anywhere else

There’s a band named after Spock’s beard in the episode “Mirror, Mirror.”

The opening theme to the original Star Trek show was composed by Alexander Courage. (That’s fitting.) Courage also worked as an orchestrator on other popular soundtracks, including Superman, Jurassic Park and Mulan.

Worf with alien lady friend.
Worf, son of Mogh, longtime favorite of my fellow blogger Stan Faryna, has appeared in more franchise episodes than any other Star Trek character.

Patrick Stewart, who played Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation, knew nothing of the original show when he signed on for six years of TV work. He believed the show would tank before you could say ‘space-time continuum.’ The press called him ‘an unknown British Shakespearean actor.’

Jeri Ryan, who played Seven of Nine on Star Trek: Voyager, is a Francophile and loves gourmet cooking. 

Leonard Nimoy penned an autobiography titled I Am Not Spock. Due to fan outcry, he later published I Am Spock. Nimoy is also an accomplished photographer.

Different types of phasers in Star Trek

What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times.

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