Looking Back at Gene Roddenberry as Executive Consultant

Looking Back at Gene Roddenberry as Executive Consultant

The 50th anniversary of Star Trek has been, and continues to be, a celebration of what began in the imagination of a single man: Eugene Wesley Roddenberry. There have been articles, documentaries and biographies that have tried to understand Trek’s enigmatic creator. Somehow, though, there is something most satisfying when we are able to hear directly from Roddenberry himself – through his own writings or interviews – when trying to gain an understanding of who he was as a person and artist at a given time of his life. One source that sheds light on Roddenberry’s thoughts and feelings were his memos written during the time in his career when he became an executive consultant to Star Trek – the era between The Motion Picture and The Next Generation, from The Wrath of Khan to The Final Frontier.

It is easy to presume that Roddenberry’s title of “Executive Consultant” was somehow merely honorific. It wasn’t. He had served a similar role on The Animated Series, which was under the daily stewardship of Dorothy "D.C." Fontana. Roddenberry took his role seriously as the amount of writings and memos he drafted and sent to the producers, writers and directors of the Star Trek movie sequels attest. While his opinions and thoughts were not always taken, they were always seriously considered – often resulting in line by line responses to his points. By exploring these Roddenberry memos and notes, it is apparent that Roddenberry cared about the future world he originated even if he wasn’t in charge of its day-to-day creation anymore.

A case in point is Roddenberry’s thoughts about the character of David Marcus from The Wrath of Khan. Following some memos about what Roddenberry considered less-important concerns (suggestions about jargon, for example), he crafts a 7-page, single-spaced memo dated September 30, 1981 to the attention of executive producer Harve Bennett called “SCRIPT COMMENTS – Items Considered Important.” He begins the memo by praising the script version created by Nicholas Meyer earlier that month: “First, let me say again how pleased I am with the number and quality of script improvements.”

Among his comments about other characters like Lt. Saavik and Khan, and his concerns about the over-militarization of Starfleet, there are recommendations about the character of David Marcus. At the time of Roddenberry's memos, the name “Marcus” had not yet been official determined to be the last name for Carol and David, and in fact, he uses the original last name of “Manning” from earlier script drafts in his September memo. Roddenberry is concerned about several aspects of the David character. His primary concern is that he thinks that a 23rd-century character as educated as David, and who was raised by Carol and possessing “Kirk’s genes,” would not have a negative view of Starfleet as he does in the film. Roddenberry says that David’s attitude towards Starfleet “causes me major concern.” To Roddenberry’s estimation, David “would not be capable of foolish and unsupported anti-military bias against Starfleet. There hasn’t been such a thing as a 'military mentality' around for over a century!”

Roddenberry crafts a lengthy suggestion around this problem by recommending that David start the film instead with conventional, pro-Starfleet attitudes. He could think perhaps that Starfleet’s “wanderer” nature isn’t the only way to explore the universe, thereby setting up some kind of contrast with Kirk’s more “boldly go” exploratory personality. But he should recognize the importance of Starfleet's humanitarian and exploratory mission. David could become angry at Starfleet, however, seeing it as not protecting him, his mother and friends, and his research after Khan’s attack. Where was Starfleet to stop Khan? This arc, Roddenberry suggests, has more verisimilitude to the universe he created.

Roddenberry's view on that was not necessarily adhered to. However, another of his concerns about David, specifically his dialogue and tendency to speak too much like a 20th century person, even using common 20th century swear-words, did have an effect -- and much of that was removed from the film's script.

The September 30th memo is followed by another 10 pages on October 2nd, which demonstrate Roddenberry’s commitment to his role as consultant. His comments show how his thinking had evolved regarding Starfleet from the original show, and how that evolution would eventually affect his 24th-century creation, The Next Generation. It is perhaps no surprise that Roddenberry, a writer his entire life and long before he sold his first professional script, would focus so much of his recommendation on the characters and their motivations. What it does show is that one of the reasons that Star Trek has endured over the past 50 years is that those who created it – beginning with Roddenberry and continuing with those who carried on his legacy, including Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer – cared very much about the characters and worlds of the future we love so much.

Maria Jose and John Tenuto are both sociology professors at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Illinois, specializing in popular culture and subculture studies. The Tenutos have conducted extensive research on the history of Star Trek, and have presented at venues such as Creation Conventions and the St. Louis Science Center. They have written for the official Star Trek Magazine and their extensive collection of Star Trek items has been featured in SFX Magazine. Their theory about the “20-Year Nostalgia Cycle” and research on Star Trek fans has been featured on WGN News, BBC Radio and in the documentary The Force Among Us. They recently researched all known paperwork from the making of the classic episode "Space Seed" and are excited to be sharing some previously unreported information about Khan's first adventure with fellow fans. Contact the Tenutos at jtenuto@clcillinois.edu or mjtenuto@clcillinois.edu.

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