Monday, September 18, 2017

Gene Roddenberry Is Not Here

A while back we were treated to an anecdote from the set of Star Trek: Discovery. It seems they were filming a tense space battle scene, and actor Jason Isaacs ad-libbed "For God's sake!" at the end of a line. When the take was over, writer Kristen Beyer told him that he couldn't say "for God's sake" because in Gene Roddenberry's vision of the 23rd century everyone is an atheist. A few days after the story broke one of the executive producers, Gretchen Berg, contradicted her and cast doubt on whether the initial incident even happened.

Whether or not the story is true, it got me thinking about Gene Roddenberry and the very long shadow he continues to cast over Star Trek. Every time a new iteration of Star Trek comes out, the people behind it make the traditional statement that they're trying to Honor Gene's Vision. They have to say this; if they didn't, angry Trekkies would attack them with plastic bat'leths. But, 26 years after his death, what does honoring Gene Roddenberry's vision even mean?

I'm thinking of a story I heard about one of The Next Generation's most critically-beloved episodes, "Family". It's the second episode of the fourth season, and it comes right after the epic two-parter in which Captain Picard is captured and assimilated by the Borg. Rather than having Picard and the crew of the Enterprise jump right back into action like nothing ever happened, the writers wanted to take some time to show Picard recovering from his ordeal. The result was a wonderful character-driven story that was a nice change of pace after the high-stakes sci-fi action that dominated the season opener. Most people agree that "Family" is one of The Next Generation's finest episodes. But Roddenberry hated it. When the script was in development, he complained that it lacked any physical peril for the ship or characters, and he objected to Captain Picard and his brother not getting along. (Because in Roddenberry's 24th century, humans never disagree with each other, only with hostile aliens, and even then the disagreements are always the hostile aliens' fault and never the perfect enlightened humans'.)

Twenty-three years after the series finale, much of The Next Generation's storytelling seems very dated; episodic A-plot/B-plot scripting that takes very few chances and is always careful to maintain the show's status quo no matter how many outrageous plot gymnastics it takes to do so. "Family" is one of the few scripts they did that could totally work as an episode of 21st-century television. And it's precisely the things that make it work as modern TV that Gene Roddenberry objected to.

"But Dave," you say, "surely if Roddenberry had lived his opinions would've mellowed."

But we can't know that. Because he didn't live. The business of TV production has changed dramatically since Gene passed away in 1991. It's fruitless to try to read the mind of a guy who's been dead 26 years and decide which aspects of a modern TV show he might approve or disapprove of. Gene Roddenberry's ideas about what constituted good Star Trek changed and shifted almost constantly during his lifetime. The one thing that stayed consistent was his belief that the Starfleet characters always viewed violence as a last resort, and would never whip out a phaser and zap an alien creature just because it seemed threatening or gross-looking.

So, if Discovery gives us violent "hero" characters who want to wipe out the Klingons because they look funny, and presents that in a way that makes it clear that the audience is supposed to like and root for these people, then I'll be the first one to say "this is not Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek". But I won't pick through every episode with a proverbial pair of tweezers just to hold things up and say "Gene Roddenberry would never approve of this tricorder sound effect, or that spaceship design, or this line of dialogue that I'm taking out of context so I can get angry on the Internet about it."

It's impossible to know exactly how Gene would react to Discovery. Because Gene Roddenberry is not here anymore.

As of this writing, the show premieres in six days.Watch it if you want. If you don't like it, fine. But let your reasons be your own; don't try to give your personal opinions some greater legitimacy by projecting them onto a dead guy you probably never even met.