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Rod Roddenberry on Being the Son of Star Trek and Carrying His Dad’s Legacy

"I'm so proud of my father. But I'm not trying to be my father."

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The vision of tomorrow, according to Star Trek, will be much better than the world we live in today. In the rosy Trek future, Earth will become an equal rights paradise. Eventually. Although the Trek franchise is often labeled as utopian prediction, the flawed human beings who live in that fictional Final Frontier had to go through a very rocky 21st Century before they got to the more enlightened time of Kirk and Spock in the 23rd or the even cozier 24th century of Jean-Luc Picard, Benjamin Sisko, and Kathryn Janeway. Still, it’s a comforting world, one that unsurprisingly has accrued a legion of fans who pore over the 55 years of material —13 films, 9 distinct TV series, totaling over 800 hours  — for solace and inspiration. 

Gene Roddenberry, the man who created Star Trek would have turned 100 this year. His legacy is alive and well, in the various new iterations of the series.  Star Trek: Discovery Season 4 will air in late 2021 and the comedy series Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 2 hits this August. The Nickelodeon kids series Star Trek: Prodigy also comes out this year, while Picard Season 2 and the retro prequel Star Trek: Strange New Worlds and are both warping to Paramount+in 2022. Not to mention a new, mysterious feature film in 2023. That’s a lot of Trek, for various different kinds of audiences. But the spirit of Starfleet doesn’t just live on in the shows, it also exists in the imaginings and hands of Roddenbery’s son. 

“I enjoy Star Trek, the TV show,” Rod Roddenberry tells Fatherly. “I am a fan, but what I really love is the idea behind it.” A lot of Star Trek fans might say the same thing — the series isn’t only about the phasers, warp drive, and pointed ears. It’s about a vision of humanity that puts peace, diplomacy, and curiosity above all else. It’s why you figure out how to show Star Trek to your kids (when they’re old enough; we think 6-years-old is about right for most) and why the franchise has created generation after generation of equally die-hard fans.

The mark left on the fans is now equally felt by Rod. It took some time — and to have a kid of his own — to fully appreciate what his father left behind. Gene Roddenberry passed away in 1991 when Rod was just 17-years-old. Growing up, Rod says he didn’t really understand the appeal of Star Trek, and as he admitted in his 2010 documentary Trek Nation, he didn’t really understand his father either. Now, in 2021, Rod Roddenberry is a father of a 7-year-old son. And, he’s reflecting on what would have been the year his own father would have turned 100. We know his dad created Trek, and through that, gave millions of people philosophical advice. But did Gene Roddenberry give good advice as a dad?

“It annoyed the hell out of me, but my father always told me, ‘always think twice,'” Roddenberry tells me. “I can’t say I do that now with my son in a stern way. But I do it. It was ingrained in me. ‘Always think twice.'”

The idea of self-interrogation, of checking yourself before you make a colossal (in many cases in the series, planet-destroying) mistake, is prevalent throughout all of Star Trek. In The Next Generation (TNG), Captain Jean-Luc Picard famously loved to call emergency meetings so he could get all the options from his crew before making a big decision. In the 1987 series debut of TNG – “Encounter at Farpoint” — all of humanity is put on trial for the sins of our history. Even in Gene Roddenberry’s enlightened future, the horrific mistakes of the past were not so easily forgotten.

Picard and crew in the first Star Trek: TNG episode

Picard and the crew are put on trial for the crimes of all of humanity. Rod was ingrained by his father with the notion that you live with your mistakes. (Credit: CBS/Paramount.)

Gene’s life mistakes weren’t so extreme, but they were there in plain sight. As he was taught, Rod takes stock in his father’s past — the good and the bad — in his dad’s life, from the time even before he was born.

“I think when my father left his previous wife, I think that certainly hurt his daughters,” Roddenberry tells me.” And I think when my father entered Hollywood, he was consumed by the lifestyle, whether it was alcohol, late nights, hard work, I mean, legitimate things, and extracurricular things. And so the rift grew, my father eventually left his first wife and met my mother [Majel Barrett Roddenberry]. And I think that really harmed the daughters and that previous family. My dad had so many regrets about that. But with me, and our family, he was there. I can’t say he certainly wasn’t a bad father. But he was there. He was present.”

That Hollywood lifestyle, of course, eventually resulted in the creation of the original Star Trek, which debuted in 1966. As a TV series, it struggled, but eventually (only after its cancelation) it went on to become the most enduring, and prolific science fiction franchise of all time. Sure, there are a lot of Star Wars movies and TV shows now, but without the popularity of Star Trek, it’s hard to believe the science fiction fantasy entertainment landscape would have shaken out the way it did. In his 2010 documentary, Rod Roddenberry even got George Lucas to say as much on camera. Without Star Trek, without Gene Roddenberry, the basic thrust of pop culture would be massively different — and likely much darker.

“My father did not invent sci-fi and he did not invent morality plays,” Roddenberry says. “But, in that time, in the 1960s, it was one of the first times you had stories like that on television. In “The Devil in the Dark,” we find out that the monster is not a monster, and it’s just trying to protect its young and we are the villains. That wasn’t done back then. Not in that way and not with sci-fi.”

Spock mind meld with horta Star Trek

Spock realizes we’re the bad guys in “The Devil in the Dark.” (Credit: CBS/Paramount.)

Roddenberry’s optimism ran deep. In 1968, in the pages of the book The Making of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry said that the notion of intolerance in the 23rd Century was “improbable,” because if humanity survives that long into the future “we will have learned to take delight in the essential differences” between various cultures and viewpoints. In The Original Series episode “Is There In Truth No Beauty?” this concept was described by the Vulcan philosophy of IDIC, Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. Through Roddenberry’s philosophies, characters who were shunned from the dominant, mainstream culture have always been the beacons of hope that help tell Trek’s most illuminating stories.

“I call them the Roddenberry characters,” Rod Roddenberry says. “Spock. Data. The Hologram Doctor. Seven of Nine. Saru. It’s always the aliens or outsiders on the crew that show us our humanity. I think that was my father’s way of sort of letting us look at ourselves from an outside perspective. And I think that’s essential.”

Roddenberry acknowledges that many of the characters he mentioned were created after his father’s death — like Jeri Ryan’s Seven of Nine. That’s kind of the point. His father’s hope for humanity endures in these characters, and Rod is making sure it continues to flourish. As an executive producer on all the contemporary Paramount+ Star Trek series, Roddenberry doesn’t tell the writers what to do, but he does try to keep his father’s vision alive. In “Encounter at Farpoint,” when Picard is asked to reckon with all of human history, he tells Q (John de Lancie) that the point of life is to keep moving forward. “We are what we are and we’re doing the best that we can,” Picard says with grace and humility. For Rod Roddenberry, the legacy of Star Trek and fatherhood is the same.

“I’m so proud of my father,” Roddenberry says. “I’m so proud of what people call the Roddenberry vision because I believe in it too. It’s my vision as well. But, I’m not trying to be my father and run the show. I’m trying to keep it going and in its own way. Hopefully, I’m a halfway decent father, too.”

Every Star Trek TV series, new and old, are all streaming on Paramount+.