Angel or Klingon: Will the real Roddenberry please stand up?

August 21, 1994|By Desmond Ryan | Desmond Ryan,Knight-Ridder News Service

On a summer evening in 1977, Gene Roddenberry strolled past a movie theater in downtown San Diego and stared incredulously at an endless line of people waiting to get into a science-fiction film that had been released without the usual fanfare and promotional hype.

The movie was "Star Wars," and Roddenberry later recalled saying to himself, "Well, Gene, there goes 20 or 30 million dollars you're not going to make." His estimate of what George Lucas' great adventure would earn at the box office may have been woefully conservative, but he had a point. For in the years between NBC's notorious cancellation of the original "Star Trek" series in 1968 and the resurrection of the Enterprise in the first of six movies a decade later, Roddenberry was a voice in the wilderness.

In those years, Roddenberry was down on his luck and making TC living with lectures and appearances at Trekkie conventions. Whenever he suggested a feature film, Paramount, which owned the rights to "Star Trek," insisted there was no market for expensive science fiction. "Star Wars" changed all that, and its success proved an ironically defining moment in the life of the man who gave us "Star Trek."

On the Paramount lot these days, "Star Trek" is known simply and quite understandably as "The Franchise." Roddenberry, who died three years ago at the age of 70, lived to see his inspiration reimagined in "Star Trek: The Next Generation," the most successful syndicated show in television history. The series' crew will be seen in its first feature film this Thanksgiving, all but guaranteeing that Roddenberry's brainchild will live long and prosper into, well, the next generation.

Or so his public image and reverent Treklore would lead us to believe. "Gene Roddenberry: The Myth and the Man Behind 'Star Trek,' " by Joel Engel, seeks to deflate the legend. If this biography had been written by a Klingon and edited by a Romulan, it could hardly be less flattering to its subject. (A "warts and all" authorized biography, "Star Trek Creator," by Roddenberry's friend, David Alexander, also has been recently published, by Roc; $23.95).

In contrast, Yvonne Fern's collection of taped conversations with Roddenberry in his last painful months, "Gene Roddenberry: The Last Conversations," is favorable to the point of being idolatrous. Read the two volumes in sequence and you will have a very hard time believing they are about the same man.

The Roddenberry who emerges from Mr. Engel's account is a womanizing alcoholic who claimed all the credit for the creation of "Star Trek," cutting out other writers whose contributions were vital. As a boss, Mr. Engel insists, Roddenberry was mean and exploitative. When one of his writers, Dorothy Fontana, got into a dispute with him, Roddenberry banished her to a dingy office next to a loud generator.

Even Spock felt his wrath. "My business dealings with him were always miserable," Leonard Nimoy, surely the true star of "Star Trek," tells Mr. Engel. "Gene always had an agenda of his own. I didn't see him step up to bat and be the decent, honorable humanist that he portrayed himself to be, and that always disappointed me."

Mr. Nimoy is the only member of the original Enterprise crew who agreed to talk to Mr. Engel. Otherwise, the author has relied on published interviews with many people involved in the first series. Roddenberry is dead and cannot rebut Mr. Engel's allegations that, in his ambition and flair for self-promotion, this prophet of the future reinvented or exaggerated his past.

Roddenberry was a World War II bomber pilot who joined the Los Angeles police after the war and got into television when it was a wide-open and growing industry. Whatever the truth of Mr. Engel's foray through all the memos and memories, Roddenberry undeniably still deserves the lion's share of acknowledgment for a unique pop-culture phenomenon.

His concept is a continuing plea for tolerance and compassion and, perhaps most important of all in these desolate times, a vision of humanity's future that offers hope. Certainly, as one who spent a generous amount of time with Roddenberry for two magazine pieces, I would have to say he was a genial charmer and uncommonly good at hiding his supposed dark side from journalists.

Trekkies have been widely outraged by Mr. Engel's book, and they may find an antidote in Ms. Fern's collection of her taped conversations with Roddenberry. These are largely philosophical in nature. Ms. Fern's awed tone becomes exceedingly grating, and her interpretation of "Star Trek" is infused with religious overtones and unfortunate author's outbursts, such as, "I love the way you dreamthink."

To fans, Roddenberry is fondly known as "The Great Bird of the Galaxy." Was he the vulture that Mr. Engel sees or the beatific dove discovered by Ms. Fern? He was neither, and the first man to tell you that would have been Roddenberry himself.

Title: "Gene Roddenberry: The Myth and the Man Behind 'Star Trek' "

Author: Joel Engel

Publisher: Hyperion

Length, price: 283 pages, $22.95

* Title: "Gene Roddenberry: The Last Conversations"

Author: Yvonne Fern

Publisher: University of California Press

Length, price: 244 pages, $20

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