Eugene Wesley “Rod” Roddenberry Jr. is the son of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and Majel Barrett (who played Nurse Chapel on the original Star Trek series). In addition to running Roddenberry Enterprises, Rod is an executive producer on the forthcoming Star Trek: Discovery series, due to premiere January, 2017.
I had the opportunity to chat with Rod during this year’s San Diego Comic-Con to reflect on the Star Trek legacy, his father’s still-relevant philosophy of the series, and the big anniversary.
Happy 50th Anniversary.
Thank you so much. It feels like it’s only been 42 years. I’m 42 years old. I wasn’t even around.
So you weren’t even born yet. I was a really young kid and my mother said there’s a new show that I want to watch tonight. I liked cartoons; I was 10 years old. She sat me down, and Star Trek came on. I totally and completely feel in love with Spock.
As 10 year old?
Yes. I confess. I fell in love with Spock, and it set up for me the type of character to which I’ve always gravitated. As a viewer, reader, and as a novelist. That duality; tormented, tortured, outwardly cold but inwardly noble. It spoiled me for everything I’ve ever watched and read. I’m indebted to Start Trek for having been very early an inspiration.
I’ve heard many stories of Spock inspiring people but not exactly in that way.
It’s interesting. In fact, on my website, I say I always look for the unlikely heroes. In other words, “Spock not Kirk. Kuryiakin not Solo.”
Full circle. So a new Star Trek is on the near horizon. (Star Trek: Discovery, we learned at Comic-Con)
I can’t say much, but I can say that we’re very happy that CBS is bringing it back to the air [for a new series]. What really excited me was when the decided to really bring, what I say, is the perfect team together with Alex Kurtzman and Bryan Fuller. Brian Fuller is a fantastic writer and he knows Star Trek. He’s worked on Star Trek. He knows the new media landscape out there, and how to write for it. He is the perfect one to develop this series.
Amazing. Fuller is also doing American Gods (for Starz), now and this. Is he going to have to get rid of his amazing Star Wars blazer he was wearing at last year’s Comic-Con and replace it? The whole Star Wars vs. Star Trek thing?
They can co-exist.
I agree. I’m a fan of both of series but not all the fans think that. I’d like to talk about your dad’s (Gene Roddenberry) legacy. I’ve been trying to find the right context to write about the 50th Anniversary. Having talked to Liz Kalodner from CBS, Adam Nimoy, and a few other people, I’ve kind of come to realize that this anniversary comes at a time of great turmoil, so similar to the time frame of the original Trek series in the mid-‘60s. That was a time of political turmoil and social division, and here we are 50 years later.
It’s tough. You ask the context of this. For me it’s always been the founding philosophy of Star Trek. IDIC: infinite diversity and infinite combinations. As you were just saying, incredibly relevant in the ‘60s and sadly, incredibly relevant today. In many ways celebrating the 50th Anniversary, we talk about looking back 50 years and how far we’ve come. We’re also kind of think about what’s going on today and think “Wow. In some ways we haven’t really haven’t come too far.” Many of us have and that’s important but we’ve taken a few steps back and we try to look forward and say “What are the next 50 years going to look like. How can we continue to inspire people to appreciate diversity, to accept new ideas?’” That, for me, is the main message of Star Trek. Accepting not tolerating new ideas.
To what do you attribute both the enduring nature of the original series, and its reinvention over the last 50 years?
I don’t know if this has been said too many times but it’s the fans. I hate even using the word fans because of the word fanatic, but, really, the admirers of the show. The people who truly believe in that future. The difference between Star Trek and Star Wars is that Star Wars is fantasy. Trek explores real possibility of our future. That was very important to my father. To make everything believable. From the technology to what society might look like in that future. I think it just gives everyone so much hope. You’ve heard this I’m sure countless times but, “Wow wouldn’t that be a great future? Wouldn’t that be spectacular?”
Everyone working together. It’s funny because back in the middle ‘60s we had Star Trek and Man from U.N.C.L.E, both on NBC, completely different shows but really both saying the same thing. Here we are in this really broken crazy world in the middle of the Cold War and we can work together united.
It’s a really good point.
Until this moment, I’d never made that connection.
I never had either. We get so much more done when we work together. It’s our fears. Our fears keep us apart. Listen, I can stand here on my soapbox and preach all this stuff. I’m scared of plenty of things. It takes a lot of guts to walk up to someone who might have an opposing point of view and say, “Let’s talk,” and not get emotionally involved and be able to say, “That’s really interesting. I’ve never looked at it that way. Wow.”
What’s your favorite concept—idea—that viewers today can take away from the original series?
IDIC. For me, that is everything Star Trek. I’m myopic about the series. The science fiction is there and that’s great, I’m always about the philosophy it presents. That’s what my father really brought to it.
Fans like Star Trek for so many good reasons. But yes, the philosophy of the show. One I keep coming back to concept of sacrifice for the greater good. And how the greater good often conflicts with what we want to do—or maybe what our hearts, minds, and guts tell us we should do. The show’s hallmark “prime directive.” “Don’t go monkeying around all over the universe trying to change things we don’t understand.”
I’ll tell you, it doesn’t answer your question, but something that I’ve always loved because it’s been a challenging concept: If you have the opportunity to go back in time and change something, do you do it? Or decline to interfere. If you come to a planet and there’s a Hitler-like ruler down there and genocide is going on, what do you do? Do you stop it? Or leave it alone? I feel strongly that you don’t interfere. If the planet has not had any contact from any outside source yet, you need to let that planet or that civilization or that species, evolve even with the atrocities that happen. The minute that you go in and save the day, whether it’s there or going back in time, they’ll no longer grow or evolve. If we go back and kill Hitler, what’s to stop us from righting every wrong, we’ll never evolve. We’ll be in the cave.
Let’s talk for a minute about the technology of Trek. How close it came to our current reality.
Again, my father wanted things to be believable. There’s a great book by Stephen Whitfield called The Making of Star Trek and in they talk about how my father would talk to Cal-Tech and Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL) and they would extrapolate essentially from current day technology to where we would be in the Trek time frame of the future. There’s one note in there about the Taser, I think, he talks to someone and they say, “We need a weapon they’d like to be non-lethal. What would be the next thing?” They said, “Well we have lasers but what about a phasing laser?” There you get the famous Taser weapon on Star Trek. I love that sort of stuff.
And of course We all have tricorders in our hands nowadays. At least sort of. And definitely little handheld communicators (minus the beaming feature). . .
And soon, in actuality. [Several companies are] developing handheld portable devices that can, with certain criteria, diagnose something like 11 or 22 diseases.
Star Trek: Discovery will debut on CBS in the U.S. and via Netflix internationally in January, 2017.
During Comic-Con, I had the rare opportunity to do several one-on-one interviews about Star Trek‘s 50th Anniversary, including chats with Adam Nimoy (son of Leonard), Liz Kalodner executive vice president at CBS, and Star Trek Beyond actor Jason Matthew Smith.