Sunday, July 8, 2012

Roddenberry’s Box

Note: After writing the screenplay for Star Trek: Insurrection-the ninth film in the series-the late Michael Piller prepared a manuscript for a book that detailed the film’s creative process. That book, entitled Fade In: From Idea to Final Draft, was never published because Paramount blocked its publication. It was briefly posted to in 2010, but it was taken down at the Piller family’s request. Fortunately, I was able to download a copy for myself. It left me with a lot of interesting thoughts, and they’ll form the basis for my next several posts. Oh, and since I don’t want to go against the wishes of the Piller family-or their lawyers-I will not be posting the book for download.

One of the worst things that can happen to a creative person is for them to become a huge success, because that success tends to insulate them from criticism. The poster child for this is George Lucas, but another interesting example is Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.

As I’ve written before, Gene Roddenberry spent a lot of time in the 1970s addressing adoring convention audiences who believed he was some kind of visionary prophet because he’d been partially responsible for a TV show they enjoyed. Unfortunately, Roddenberry believed it, too, and it started to drive him crazy. Like the folks who inhabit the lunatic fringe of the Star Trek fanbase, Gene stopped thinking of Trek as just a television show and started to believe that the imaginary future it depicted was real. By the time he got to work on The Next Generation in the mid-80s, he was a permanent resident of the alternate universe where the brain of one Eugene Wesley Roddenberry was the sole source of all good ideas. He’d make pronouncements about the 24th century as though it were a real place he had visited. “In the 24th century, no one goes hungry and you never lose your socks in the dryer,” was the kind of thing you’d hear him say on a disturbingly regular basis.

You know, as insane as George Lucas has become, you never get the feeling that he thinks Star Wars is real or anything. He openly admits that he’s doing what he thinks is cool, and he doesn’t really care what anyone else thinks. But with Star Trek, you hear a lot about “Roddenberry’s vision”, especially when the people who took control of the franchise after he died are explaining why spinoffs like Voyager and Enterprise were less fun than getting a root canal from Captain Hook. “We were just trying to stay true to Gene Roddenberry’s vision”, they’ll say. And from some of the stuff Gene Roddenberry said from the 1970s onward, you get the impression that he really thought he’d seen a vision of the future and it was his mission in life to faithfully translate it to the television screen, even if it did not result in what your or I would call entertainment.

A key part of Roddenberry’s vision was the idea that 24th century humans would have none of the foibles or personality flaws that people have had throughout recorded history. Only aliens would be allowed to have human failings. If a human character-especially a member of Starfleet-ever acted shifty, selfish, or even argumentative, it was a sure sign he was under the control of an alien brain worm.

Michael Piller called Gene’s rules of 24th century human behavior “Roddenberry’s Box” and he ran up against it on the very first episode he worked on as head of The Next Generation’s writing staff early in the show’s third year. A young aspiring writer named Ronald D. Moore (yes, the very same guy who went on to create the reimagined Battlestar Galactica) submitted a story called “The Bonding” where the mother of a young boy is killed on an away team mission and the boy bonds with a holodeck re-creation of her. Roddenberry flatly rejected it. “This doesn’t work” he insisted. “In the 24th century, no one grieves. Death is accepted as a part of life.”

In the end, Piller was able to save the story by reworking it so that benevolent aliens re-created an image of the boy’s dead mother and Captain Picard got to give them the “Death is a part of life” speech. “The Bonding” turned out to be a solid entry in the Star Trek canon. I’d be remiss, though, if I didn’t point out that later in the season there was an episode called “Hollow Pursuits” where a new crewman escapes into holodeck fantasies to deal with his social anxiety disorder, and our series regulars react to this by making fun of him behind his back like high-school jocks snickering at the awkward new kid. Strangely, there’s no record that Roddenberry had any problem with that script. So, according to Roddenberry’s Rules of Evolved 24th Century Conduct, grieving over your dead mother is not acceptable, but making fun of people who get nervous in social situations is perfectly all right. The future is easy!

Still, Mr. Piller began to view Roddenberry’s Box as a positive thing, believing that it prevented writers from falling back on familiar storytelling devices and forced them to be original. Also, he reasoned that Star Trek had been staying within Roddenberry’s Box since the 1960s and had proven to be successful, so obviously Gene was doing something right. Each of these lines of reasoning, I believe, is fatally flawed.

First of all, the huge run of success that prompted Paramount to bring Star Trek:The Next Generation into existence in the first place all happened before Roddenberry’s Box was even a thing. Watch the Original Series, which was produced before throngs of adoring fans convinced Roddenberry that he was a Visionary Prophet Who Could Do No Wrong. The regulars are all virtuous and generally free of the worst human flaws like bigotry or greed, but they’re not perfect.

And the most successful films that came out before The Next Generation went into production were the Harve Bennett-produced Star Treks II, III, and IV over which Roddenberry had no control whatever. In fact, Gene often complained vociferously about how Bennett and his team failed to depict the idyllic 23rd century future he envisioned. The control that Gene did exert over the first film was seen as a big reason why it turned out to be a talky and ponderous bore, and the word in the Star Trek fan community is that Paramount tapped him to create The Next Generation only after Harve Bennett and Leonard Nimoy turned them down.

Secondly, there are no truly “original” stories. Humans have been writing fiction for thousands of years, and virtually every story that can be told has been told in some form. In some ways, writing fiction is like reaching into a big bag of Legos and building something new out of the preexisting pieces you find there. This is especially true when you’re writing for an established franchise like Star Trek. All Roddenberry’s Box did was take away the various types of human conflict that writers have been using for millennia as the building blocks of drama. To replace them, Star Trek’s writers were forced to come up with new, inferior building blocks that mostly involved technobabble and increasingly ludicrous sci-fi scenarios.

In my next post, I’ll talk about some of those ludicrous scenarios and technobabble, and the fun that results when entertainment executives completely misunderstand their audience. Stay tuned!


  1. I think most people agree that a number of factors have contributed to Star Trek's longevity. There are other people who feel just as strongly that the number one reason for its success is the relationships between the characters, the charisma of the principal actors, or something else entirely. The exact reasons for the popularity of Star Trek or anything else to which people take a liking can't really be quantified and ranked on a numeric scale.

    And I have no problem with Star Trek's positive philosophy. In fact, I like it. My point was that Gene Roddenberry's dogmatic insistence that all humans should adhere to the 24th century code of conduct he invented was bad for drama. The excellent TNG writing staff was able to make it work pretty well for a few years, but by the 7th season they were out of ideas.

    Gene's mistake was that he became unbalanced and let his personal ideas get in the way of making good TV-which was what Paramount was paying him to do.

  2. No, it is not. It's the reason I and many others dislike so much of it. It hamstrung the franchise and kept it shallow. The lone exception is Deep Space Nine, which largely ignored Roddenberry's naïveté, and benefited as much as Empire Strikes Back did in not relying on Lucas so much. It also didn't help that, in the 80s, Roddenberry was either drunk or coked out of his mind.

    As to David's points, I as an outsider find them quite enlightening. I often wondered why Star Trek felt the way it did, and it turns out it suffered from things similar to what Star Wars endured.


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