The Great Boor of the Galaxy, Reconsidered


Let me confess right off the bat that this post is a bit off-topic. It has nothing to do with Horror Incorporated, or with horror movies, or with TV horror hosts. It does, however, have a lot to do with TV of the 1960s and 1970s, and how our ideas and attitudes change over time. So I can at least make a tenuous connection. Plus, I’m in my own tavern and I guess I can change the rules as I like.

I’ve got plenty of other things to work on, including things related to this blog (several posts are in various stages of unfinishedness) but I’ve been thinking a lot today about an article Matthew Continetti wrote for The National Review. Amidst all the remembrances this week of the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, Continetti pauses to criticize the show’s creator Gene Roddenberry for basically being a boorish hypocrite, a liar, a cheat, a money-grubber, and a misogynistic perv to boot in an article entitled “The Great Boor of the Galaxy” (NR is not known for its subtlety) and while Continetti is clearly a fan of the show and makes some good points I think he’s being unfair. It’s important to bear in mind that The National Review is a conservative political journal and the real target is likely Star Trek’s depiction of a liberal, technologically-driven utopia. Still:


Roddenberry’s insecurities were apparent from the start. He fought with the studios, the network, the writers, anyone who crossed his path. “During the first year,” he says, “I wrote or rewrote everybody, even my best friends, because I had this idea in my mind of something that hadn’t been done and I wanted to be really there. Once we had enough episodes, then the writers could see where we were going, but it was really building people to write the way I wanted them to write.” But no one could do that. Roddenberry never stopped rewriting. “The problem,” says his biographer Joel Engel, “was that he basically couldn’t write well enough to carry it off.” For 25 years, a script never left Roddenberry’s hands without becoming worse. For all of the control Roddenberry exercised over Star Trek, the franchise prospered only when it was under the aegis of others. As early as one month before the show’s premiere, an exhausted and embattled Roddenberry took a vacation. Television veteran Gene L. Coon, a Marine veteran of the Pacific, was hired as producer. “To a large degree,” write Gross and Altman, “it would be Coon who would ultimately define the show creatively in the coming months.” The Star Trek that has imprinted itself on fans for decades is Gene L. Coon’s. His shows deepened the relationships between Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy. He created the Klingons. There was more humor. Says writer David Gerrold, “Gene L. Coon created the noble image that everyone gives Roddenberry the most credit for.” Shatner puts it this way: “Gene Coon had more to do with the infusion of life into Star Trek than any other single person.”
I think there is some truth to all this, but it’s a flawed and incomplete analysis. Roddenberry was difficult to work with? That’s been well-documented. Gene Coon never received enough credit for the stamp he put on the show? I readily agree. But it seems wrong to criticize Roddenberry for rewriting so many scripts for Star Trek, since Gene Coon had to overhaul nearly all the scripts that crossed his desk too. That’s hard to imagine here in 2016, because we have generations of screenwriters who grew up watching science fiction shows on TV, including Star Trek. 
But when Star Trek debuted in 1966, nothing like it had ever aired on television, and very few writers could turn in acceptable scripts for it. Experienced TV screenwriters, who had cut their teeth on shows like Bonanza and Combat!, didn’t understand the conventions of science fiction, while the science fiction writers brought on board didn’t understand the conventions of TV. And so it was necessary for any producer of the show to extensively rewrite every script that came in.
I’ll concede that Coon was a better writer than Roddenberry, but if you want to see a producer making things worse, I’d recommend you look into the work of the Star Trek’s season 3 showrunner Fred Freiberger. Freiberger was so dismal that he acquired the nickname “The showkiller” because no program that he produced was ever renewed for another season. Freiberger’s third season of Star Trek is proof of the damage a bad producer can do – a season that started with “Spock’s Brain” (a particularly brainless episode) moved on to the crew meeting Abraham Lincoln, and concluded with an episode in which Captain Kirk is forced to switch bodies with an embittered ex-girlfriend.
Anyway, Continetti continues:
With Coon at the helm Roddenberry turned to other projects, and to his own worst instincts. He was a horn dog. Affairs with police secretaries had been just the start. While on the force he had become friends with Jack Webb, the star and producer of Dragnet, who eased his entry into Hollywood and competed with him for the affections of actress Majel Barrett. Meanwhile Roddenberry also had an affair with the actress, singer, and model Nichelle Nichols. His relationship with Barrett was an open secret, lasting a decade before he divorced his wife. He and Barrett got married in 1969. (Their son, Rod, was born in 1974.) As for Nichols, Roddenberry cast her in a history-making role as Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura.
Now, Continetti isn’t entirely wrong about Roddenberry. The guy clearly had issues with women — anyone who’s seen Pretty Maids All In a Row, the feature film he wrote, could tell you that. He was by all accounts a money-grubber, willing to cheat those around him (he famously wrote lyrics to go with the Star Trek theme music, not because he intended to use them, but so that he could claim co-credit with composer Alexander Courage and therefore pocket half the royalties). He was neither the visionary nor the creative genius he fancied himself. After Star Trek, Roddenberry had little left to offer creatively. He wrote series pilot after series pilot, even getting a few of them produced, but they were almost completely bereft of ideas– and even among that small number, he kept recycling the same stale concepts.
But again, I think Continetti overstates the case. Roddenberry wasn’t the first guy in Hollywood history to be a horndog, or to have affairs, or to cheat people. It’s disappointing when people don’t live up to their ideals, or to ours. But it happens.
Nor was Roddenberry a great writer or a great thinker, but he did a number of things with the original Star Trek that were quite innovative, and for which he deserves a lot of credit. It’s easy to overlook those things now, because the world is a very different place than it was in 1965.
But consider that in those days, TV had never had a straight-no-chaser science fiction show for adults. The episodic science fiction you saw on TV before then was strictly for the kiddies: Space Patrol and Fireball XL-5 and Lost In Space. Star Trek was the first series that respected the intelligence of its audience and tried — not always successfully — to tell a serious and compelling story.
Roddenberry’s utopianism may seem naive today, but it was well-suited to the time in which it was made, and its optimism still resonates with people today. The closest analogue to Star Trek that existed in 1966 was the 1956 film Forbidden Planet, but instead of the all-male, all-white, all-American crew of the C57-D, Roddenberry’s USS Enterprise featured a racially and ethnically diverse crew of both men and women. Again, this doesn’t seem like a big deal today, but it was back then; it said explicitly to TV audiences, for the first time, that the future would have people of different races and nationalities living and working together, and getting along just fine. The idea of women serving alongside men on a ship seemed unrealistic, even alarming to the network at the time, but the linchpin in Roddenberry’s idea of the future was that human nature isn’t immutable —  our culture can change, and we can choose for ourselves the kind of future we want to live in. As shabbily as Roddenberry might have treated women in his personal life, he clearly was an idealist, going so far as to depicting a woman as first officer of the Enterprise in his first Star Trek pilot — a pilot which began shooting in 1964. Roddenberry was deeply disappointed when not only men but women in a test audience reacted negatively to her character, finding her pushy and aggressive — though, watching the pilot today, she seems quite the opposite. But that just goes to show, times and attitudes change.
Sorry, Number One.
Continetti’s criticism then takes an odd turn, saying that Roddenberry’s money-grubbing was why the franchise continued to exist after the show was cancelled in 1969:

The reason Star Trek exists today is money. Roddenberry needed it, and so did Paramount, which has owned the property since Desilu closed its doors in 1969. There long had been interest in a Star Trek movie, but nothing ever materialized. At one point in the 1970s, director Philip Kaufman of The Right Stuff was brought in for the feature film. But the pattern held: Kaufman and Roddenberry fought until Kaufman walked off. Then the idea was to go back to television and produce Star Trek: Phase Two. The bible for the series and the concept for its feature-length pilot episode were finalized on July 15, 1977. That was about six weeks after the premiere of Star Wars. Science fiction and fantasy were now bankable genres.

Hey, now there’s a shocker — people in Hollywood are trying to make money! Don’t tell Matthew, but that happens a lot. It’s important to remember that Star Trek was an odd show to start with, in that it limped along with mediocre ratings during its original network run, got cancelled, then unexpectedly caught fire when the reruns went into syndication. Reviving the show in some form meant you were basically starting from scratch. And very few creative projects get off the ground smoothly; in Hollywood, deadlines routinely get pushed back, key players step in and out, and projects get shelved, revived, shelved again. Star Trek: Phase II was supposed to be a flagship program for a 4th TV network run by Paramount, but the network didn’t materialize. Whenever the TV show hit a roadblock there was always talk of producing a low-to-medium budget feature film instead. Finally, as Continetti points out, the runaway success of Star Wars opened the floodgates for money to science fiction projects in development, and the Paramount felt confident enough to back it as a big-budget A-picture.

All of this, of course, is well-documented. I understand Continetti’s impulse to pull Roddenberry down from the pedestal some have put him on. He didn’t deserve the kind of adulation the fans were willing to shower on him over the years. The man certainly had his faults: peevish, greedy, insecure and misogynistic. But that doesn’t negate his talent, limited though it might have been; and the inconsistencies and blind spots don’t negate his  idealism. Maybe Roddenberry’s foibles seem to jarring because they cut against the future the show imagined, a future in which we are all called upon to be our best selves. But just as Saint Augustine pointed out that the Church is more hospital for sinners than museum for saints, maybe the future is something we’re always striving to reach, even though we know we’ll never get there, and that utopia is a place we keep trying to make, even though we know we’ll never succeed.


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