Star Trek has, in our day, become such a cultural phenomenon that it’s hard to think back to the days when it wasn’t. Even before J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot, Star Trek was a brand name, its five television series inspiring an endless onslaught of books and an even more endless onslaught of merchandise, marketing everything under the sun with the Starfleet insignia on it.
But that wasn’t always the case: in 1969, The original series was cancelled after only three seasons, leaving its creator, Gene Roddenberry, in disgrace. There was an time when you couldn’t easily purchase the series on DVD, when action figures of Captain Kirk were limited to a select few, and when it was nigh impossible to assemble an armada of model starships named Enterprise. Despite its devoted following, Star Trek faced an arduous uphill climb to become what it is today. And, naturally, one wonders how Star Trek got from point A to point B, from being the little show that could to a worldwide phenomenon.
Trek Nation, one of many documentaries made about Star Trek and its history, is, in part, a search for the answers to precisely this question. On the surface, it’s the story of a son discovering his father: it tells of the journey of Gene Roddenberry’s son Rod to understand his father and his father’s creation. On a deeper level, however, it’s a journey to understand the meaning of that creation, to discover the myth behind the man and comprehend why that myth has changed lives and influenced culture. In a way, Mr. Roddenberry Jr.’s journey is a perfect approach: it provides an outsider’s perspective into the phenomenon, making the documentary a perfect entry point for the less fannish viewer who wishes to be taken into the world of Star Trek.
With that said, this documentary still manages to aptly balance that content which would intrigue the casual Star Trek viewer, interested in learning more, and that information which would be intriguing to the avid fan. For the more casual viewer, the documentary provides an overview of why Star Trek was so groundbreaking in the 1960s, presenting a future of optimism, equality, and acceptance that so poignantly confronted the tribulations of that tumultuous decade. It tells of the enthusiasm and diversity of a fandom that embraced those ideals in their passion for Star Trek and brought it to life through conventions, stories, and letters of support. It’s the kinds of thing an avid fan would know, providing a sort of warm satisfaction at having been a part of this phenomenon.
But there are things here for the avid fan, too, interested in the more elaborate details behind the creation of the shows and films and invested in learning more about Gene Roddenberry as a person. Star Trek’s creator boasts a bright and varied career – a World War II pilot, and a police officer who turned his experiences into screenplays before creating his own show. Trek Nation recounts his personal struggles throughout the years of making Star Trek, his family life (he married Star Trek actress Majel Barrett), and his relationships with many of the people interviewed in the documentary, from Star Trek writers to personal assistants and fellow executive producers. It brings Mr. Roddenberry to life in a way that’s more engaging than the simple dry facts of a biography.
All this, of course, is interspersed with a variety of perspectives from both a number of sci-fi luminaries and personal acquaintances of Gene Roddenberry, and an overarching commentary by Rod Roddenberry. It’s a journey with many voices, which a documentary on Star Trek well should be.
The two-disc set also comes with a second disc full of special features. Of these, particularly interesting are the extended interviews with figures who appeared in the documentary itself. Here, George Lucas overcomes the stereotype that Star Wars and Star Trek must be enemies to speak of his admiration for Star Trek, its excellent storytelling, and its impact – and it’s very clear he knows what he’s talking about (which almost makes me forgive him for the terrible script of Revenge of the Sith).
Seth McFarlane (creator of Family Guy), also provides some interesting insight into what makes Star Trek both a good story and a good show. Rick Berman, who took over as executive producer of The Next Generation after Gene Roddenberry passed away halfway through the series, speaks about carrying on this great man’s legacy. Wil Weaton (who, it must be noted, is infinitely more fun and interesting than his The Next Generation character Wesley Crusher) recounts tales from the making of the show and gives some intriguing insights into Gene Roddenberry as a man and an artist.
Ernie Over (Gene Roddenberry’s Executive Assistant) speaks about his experience working for Mr. Roddenberry and the last few years of his life, while Christopher Knopf, in a short feature, recalls Roddenberry’s original idea for the show (fun fact: the Enterprise was originally supposed to be a dirigible in the late 19th century). Put together, these interviews provide a varied combination of intriguing insights.
The second disc also features original footage of Gene Roddenberry’s Hollywood Walk of Fame star ceremony, and though the several-decade-old video is terrible in quality, it’s absolutely heartwarming to watch Roddenberry honored by his own actors with laughter and admiration, and touching to see Roddenberry himself vibrant, happy, and joking , finally recognized for his contributions after the hardship he endured throughout Star Trek’s creation.
Also on the second disc is a small collection of Roddenberry family home movies, some of them narrated by Rod Roddenberry. The first is footage of Gene Roddenberry and Majel Barrett’s wedding – in Japan, in full Japanese attire, showing just how much Roddenberry embraced the ideals of acceptance on Star Trek. But most intriguing in this short collection of clips is the footage of Roddenberry sailing his boat, named Star Trek (yes, that was actually what he named it) with Jimmy Doohan.
Unable to captain the starship Enterprise, it seems like Roddenberry found the next best thing in boldly sailing out to sea instead. One does wonder whether Mr. Doohan was also “giving her all she’s got, captain!” on this particular ship. Though we may never know the answer to that question, the entire DVD set was worth this two-minute gem in the honest opinion of this Trekkie.
Lastly, there’s a feature on Star Trek fandom, assembling interviews from a wide variety of Trekkies (or Trekkers, as you will) and Rod Roddenberry’s own commentary and experiences attending Star Trek conventions. Of all the content on the two DVDs, this is perhaps the least interesting, reiterating so many of the same ideals about the fandom’s diversity and optimism that the documentary itself emphasized.
Overall, though, Trek Nation is a celebration of the wonder and importance of Star Trek, a heartwarming documentary that reminds you of just why you love this little show that could, or why you should.