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Rod Roddenberry explores Star Trek fandom in "Trek Nation"

Elliott Serrano, for Redeye

August 14, 2013

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For many sci-fi geeks, the name of Gene Roddenberry will always be synonymous with Star Trek and visions of the future. When the creator of the classic science fiction series passed away, his son took it upon himself to carry on his father's legacy. But it wasn't a mantle that he would readily assume. And as he explained to me in the following interview, it would take almost a decade for Rod Roddenberry to discover how important his father's creation would be to scores of "Trekkies."

His acceptance of the significance of Trek would culminate in his role in the Roddenberry Foundation, and the creation of a new documentary exploring fandom in "Trek Nation."

Roddenberry spoke with me about his new documentary; the current state of Star Trek; his opinion of the J.J. Abrams films; and what the Roddenberry Foundation is doing to continue promoting his father's vision of the future:

(The following is the full unedited transcript of the interview that ran in REDEYE on August 9, 2013.)

Geek To Me: Can you describe the moment you decided that Star Trek was something you really wanted to explore and get to know on a personal level?

Rod Roddenberry: Sure, I’ll give you two answers for that, sort of. When my father passed away, when I was 17 - and you may have heard this before, I’ve said it a billion times before - I didn’t know Star Trek. I didn’t care about Star Trek. It was really at his memorial service where I heard stories from people, and I heard letters that people had written to my father saying “Star Trek touch my life, changed my life.” I didn’t know that. I didn’t want Star Trek. I didn’t care. I liked “Dukes of Hazzard”, I was entertained by “Knight Rider.” I didn’t know something could go beyond that. So, that was when my interest was highly peaked.

It wasn’t really until I saw - and there’s no exact moment but - I watched the documentary “Trekkies”, I think back in 2000-2001.  Which showed the extreme sides of fandom, which said look at all these whack-jobs wearing costumes. And I was really turned off by that. “Trekkies 2” did a much better job, in my opinion, representing the fans.

Anyhow, the fans I’d met at that point, a majority of them, if not 99% of them, were down-to-earth normal people who had a passion for Star Trek and its vision of the future. Them wearing costumes on the weekend were no different than guys putting on leather chaps and vests, and long hair, and getting on their Harleys. Or people who go to sports events and paint their faces. So I was really disappointed in that. And I wanted to do something different. I wanted to do a documentary that showed the positive side of fans.

Remember, that was 2001, my father passed away in ‘91, I had spent those years talking to fans and finding out what it was about Star Trek all over the world and learning that these people were really inspired. And being sort of blown away.

I guess in short - that really wasn’t short was it? - I guess in long (laughs), that was really when I decided to do it. Now, Trek Nation evolved, in many different ways from that point onward. And I can go into that, but-

Geek To Me: Feel free if you’d like.

Rod Roddenberry: Sure, um. I met a very talented producer by the name of Scott Colthorp who really got the ball in motion. I spoke to him about this, and he wanted to sort of bring in the Gene Roddenberry angle, and I was really focused on fans. I was so inspired by the fans’ stories I’d heard,  and how Star Trek inspired them, I wanted to show them in a positive light.  And he really pushed for this father/son angle. And at that time I didn’t really connect with that, so I sort of fought that for a while.

As the years went on, I began to see the story. I began to see what he was talking about. However we didn’t put a script together, and we had an idea of what we wanted to do, and so we just started shooting interviews. So, I don’t wanna say “mistake” but the mistake we made was that when we would interview someone, I would sit down with them, or they would be interviewed, and it would be a conversation. We didn’t have the same five or ten questions, necessarily, to ask them.

You know having those questions allows us to thread and link a story together as we would go. The topics were generally the same, but that really made it difficult in the editing process. And many, many times during the editing process I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. That it was such a personal journey. And so we into some personal issues, of my father‘s love.  Did he love me? Did he love the fans more? And these sorts of things.  Which were tangents, and they didn’t really play well with the people we showed the early versions of the documentary. Sorry, I’m going way off…

In the end, we were able to refocus and find a production/producing team that was able to make this documentary everything that I wanted it to be.

The downside was, out of the 200-plus hours of interview footage, not B-roll, but interview footage that we had, we had to condense it to 90 minutes. And so the most painful part of the editing process was - literally like turning a knife in my stomach - was cutting out so much amazing material.

And to finish this monologue here, the new “Trek Nation” Deluxe DVD set, we’ve finally bee able to do what we wanted to do from the beginning, and add in a bunch of this additional content in the form of featurettes and extended interviews with some of the most amazing people that we met.

Geek To Me: Besides your producer, was there anyone else guiding you as you were going on this journey exploring fandom?

Rod Roddenberry: Excellent question. You know, this doesn’t necessarily answer that, but -um- we all worked together. There were many times when I threw my arms up in the air because it became to difficult and too hard for me to figure out what the hell that we were doing. (Pardon my language.) But Trevor Roth - a good friend of mine and he runs Roddenberry Entertainment - came on board and really helped me refocus on what this needed to be, and helped bring us together. And really had that sort of objective point of view. I can say that for everyone involved, it wouldn’t have happened, but Trevor especially.

Geek To Me:  The landscape has changed since Star Trek first started. There are a lot of other shows out there, that while they may not explore the same themes, similar themes and have similar fanbases. Do you think in today’s media Star Trek still holds a unique place in sci-fi and holds its own spot?

Rod Roddenberry: That’s an interesting question. I don’t know if I need to think about it more. My instant response is absolutely it holds its own place.  If only for the almost 50 years of content it has. I certainly don’t want to say that there aren’t other stories, and there isn’t other sci-fi out there that has ethics, and meaning, and talks about social issues. What I might be able to say is that it was the only sci-fi of the day, at least the original series, that did that. And it was the only sci-fi on TV. My father was not the first one to put morals, messages and meanings into a story. There were plenty, plenty before him in sci-fi. Of course, in television in the Sixties he was probably the only one.  I’m fairly certain of that comment. Or, I could be confident in saying he was the most successful one.

Yes, it definitely stands on its own.

Geek To Me:  And looking at how media has evolved, Star Trek is more than a television show these days. It’s video games, it’s books. How do you feel about the current state of Star Trek these days?

Rod Roddenberry: Well, I’m impressed and I give credit to everyone involved, including Brannon Braga, Rick Berman, and of course everyone involved; the studio executives for giving Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise, and the movies life. And J.J. (Abrams) of course.

But at the same time - I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing - see what (George) Lucas and the Lucas team have done with Star Wars.  There are six movies - if not only three- and look at what they’ve been able to do with that franchise.

And I don’t just mean merchandising. I mean, they’ve done an amazing job merchandising, but the way that they’ve approached the fans.  The kind of respect they’ve given the fans.  They let the fans do certain things. They really interact with them.

I’m a little disappointed from that point of view.  I feel that the powers-that-be have really lost that opportunity. I think they’ve gotten better in recent years, but I’d say for decades, there was a point back I’d say in the early nineties,  where they were sending cease-and-desist orders to fan websites that had photos of actors and Star Trek logos on them.  That’s someone who is looking at the here-and-now and not thinking about the future. And those sorts of things went on for years and really upset me.

To be honest, it benefited the Roddenberrys. Because the Roddenberrys, in my mother and my father before that, were so involved in fandom. I found boxes and boxes of personal correspondence from my father and the late 60’s and the early 70’s on carbon copy paper. Where he responded personally to fans who were sending in questions about the show.  And that’s what strengthened the Roddenberry connection with them. In that we genuinely care. And the studio at that time, and not so long ago, really didn’t seem to.

Geek To Me: I‘m sure you’ve heard that there are many who like the new Star Trek films, but there are others who feel it’s strayed from the original concept. Let me ask you as a fan, how should I accept these new Star Trek films?

Rod Roddenberry: That’s an excellent thing to throw at me. First of all, no one has to accept anything, but I know what you mean.

I’ve been very - although I think "forgiving" is too string a word - I’ve been very forgiving with the different reincarnations and interpretations of Star Trek.  You know from what Rick Berman and Brannon Braga did, to what J.J. Abrams has done.  I don’t think any of them have done anything wrong. I think it could have been far worse. Yes, my father would have done things differently. I would have done things differently.  But no one was out there trying to be Gene Roddenberry. No one can be Gene Roddenberry. Everyone is very aware of that. 

I won’t talk about Deep Space Nine and Voyager, but as far as these new movies go, I flip-flopped for a while on those things. I used to say that the first movie, the casting was phenomenal. I think everyone will agree on that. The casting was great. There were maybe one or two characters people don’t like but let’s not get into details.

The fact that they did a prequel, and went back to when Kirk and Spock met - to answer your question there are gonna be inconsistencies with the characters that we know and love today, with what was portrayed on screen, because this was before they met, or at least when they met. And so I’m able to give leeway to these characters that are behaving differently because they’re raw, they’re brash, and they don’t know what the Prime Directive is.

I think they did a great job with Kirk. Initially I didn’t like how brash he was. Initially I didn’t like that he wasn’t as humanistic as I remember.  He’s been growing in these last two movies.  I liked that at the end of the very first movie he at least offered assistance to Nero as his ship was being sucked into that hole. I don’t like the fact that they launched all torpedoes, but it’s earlier is his career, okay.

And then in the next movie, the characters, again, were evolving. And Starfleet was evolving. And you know, I see that. And I appreciate that they did that.

Khan and that sort of stuff, I won’t get into whether that’s the way Khan would have done things or not. It really had been focused on the character evolution and the evolution of Starfleet. I think they nailed it. I’m very happy with what they did in that respect.

Geek To Me: What kind of role do you see yourself playing in the future of Star Trek?

Rod Roddenberry: Paramount and CBS have owned Star Trek since my father passed away. My family does get residuals, but we have no creative control whatsoever  on Star Trek. So even if I wanted to, there isn’t a person who’s gonna listen to me. And I’m not willing to go knocking on doors saying I can do it better , frankly I don’t know if I can do it better. And I don’t have years of experience.

I guess the short answer is I focus on Roddenberry. I love the philosophy of Star Trek. I love the vision of the future that my father created. It’s my vision as well. So what we’re doing, whether it’s entertainment, or adventure, or in philanthropy, we’re trying to keep those ideals going.  We’re trying to continue to inspire.

Star Trek really inspired a lot of people to really believe in themselves and believe in that future. So whether it’s a new comic book series like “Worth” ; whether it’s our new Roddenberry Adventures group, which gets people out to explore our planet and appreciate diversity; and whether it’s Roddenberry Foundation where we’re trying to find people on the cutting edge of technology making breakthroughs for the future.  We’re trying to keep that inspiration, that vision, that ideal alive.

Geek To Me: A word about "Worth", the comic book from Roddenberry Entertainment?

Rod Roddenberry: "Worth" was created and produced by Trevor Roth. He knows Roddenberry, he gets Roddenberry, we’ve been friends for a long time. And he’s a fan too. He gets it.  Most of our content if not all of our content deals with an alien or superhuman-type character. But whether it’s Star Trek or one of these things, it’s always the inhuman character, or the alien, that shows us our humanity. And “Worth” is no different.

“Worth” is essentially the idea of what happens when a superhero falls from grace? What happens when the ability of a superhero from days ago are now obsolete? How does that individual cope with that and reintegrate into society?  And how might those powers evolve? What’s on the inside? It’s certainly not Superman. It’s certainly not a comic book about a superhero fighting danger. But it is a story about a human fighting danger, as well as figuring out who he is.

So if you like Roddenberry, if you like this sort of thing, you’ll like this. If you just want explosions and lasers from the eyes, this may not be for you.

Geek To Me: (laughs) That’s Man of Steel.

Rod Roddenberry: Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Superman. But I also love Star Trek.

Visit RODDENBERRY.COM for more info on the Roddenberry Foundation!