This week, we mark the anniversary of Eugene Wesley Roddenberry's journey to what Nicholas Meyer and Denny Martin Flinn (with an assist from some British guy) called the “undiscovered country.” On October 24th, 1991 Gene Roddenberry passed away at the age of 70. In a rather fitting coincidence, this was just before the TNG “Unification” episodes would air, irrevocably linking the then-current series with the original work with a plot-hinging appearance from Leonard Nimoy. Roddenberry's most celebrated creation, Star Trek, had expanded into a fully realized fictional universe, featuring over a century of great stories.
Roddenberry's mark on pop culture is enormous – this very website is just tip of the iceberg stuff. Apart from being one of the few TV show creators before the current age that most people can name (it's, like, Norman Lear, Rod Serling and him for me; I don't know about you) his vision of the future is practically synonymous with hard-fought optimism. What makes Roddenberry so extraordinary is that Star Trek was just one of the many cool things about him. Here are some additional fascinating facts about “The Great Bird of the Galaxy” that maybe you did not know:
Roddenberry was a bomber pilot during the Second World War and flew in close to 90 missions. So that tension you feel in episodes like “Balance of Terror” comes from a real place. He won the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.
After the war, he was a pilot for Pan Am. On June 18, 1947, as the airline was inaugurating its “round the world” service, the engines of the “Clipper Eclipse” conked out, the aircraft caught fire and crashed in the Syrian desert. Roddenberry was third in command and sprang to action to aid many of the passengers. He spotted a light before the plane went down, and by contacting them was able to get word through for a rescue. (It involved, as highest-ranking surviving officer, sending someone on a night swim across the Euphrates River.) Certainly the “The Galileo Seven” and even the survivalist nature of “Arena” come to mind hearing this story.
Between pilot and television show creator, he tried his hand at another less-than-soporific career: police officer. Working on scripts during his off hours, Roddenberry spent seven years in the LAPD, eventually becoming a Sergeant. While many of the teleplays he sold to Hollywood were under a pseudonym (“Robert Wesley” had some success on Highway Patrol and some Westerns), his knack for writing wasn't kept a secret. He did some speechwriting for the rather high-profile (and sometimes controversial) head of the Los Angeles police department, William H. Parker. Roddenberry later asserted that Parker's cool, calculating demeanor was influential in creating the character of Mr. Spock.
So… war hero, brave pilot at the dawn of the jet age and a member of the 5-0. Not too shabby. After Star Trek, whose initial run may or may not have been considered a success (this is open to quite a deal of debate), he continued to work in Hollywood. He produced an oddball film called Pretty Maids All In A Row. This 1971 curiosity mixes comedy, horror and the exploits of the sexual revolution. It was directed by the guy who made Barbarella and stars Telly Savalas, Angie Dickinson, Rock Hudson and has music by Lalo Schifrin. James Doohan and William Campbell (Trelane and Koloth!) show up, too. Just this year, it was named by Quentin Tarantino as one of the 10 greatest movies ever made. Go figure.
Nifty points of pride follow Gene Roddenberry even after death. Chief among them, being mentioned on the greatest science fiction comedy of all time - Futurama. To list the Star Trek references on Futurama would be like counting grains of sand, but in the episode when the Tribble-like creatures appeared, a gag about hunting for “Roddenberries” may have been the best one.
Lastly, this: Gene Roddenberry's earthly remains will be the first to make a second return to space. What do I mean by that? Well, in 1992, Roddenberry's ashes flew with STS-52 aboard the the Space Shuttle Columbia. In 1997, a portion of his ashes (along with those of 22 others, including Timothy Leary's) was fired into orbit from a Pegasus XL rocket. Alas, the orbit deteriorated in 2002. However, Roddenberry's ashes (along with those of his late wife, Majel Barrett Roddenberry) are scheduled to head to the stars in 2014. So, that'll make three trips. And tell me if it doesn't remind you of the first season TNG episode “The Neutral Zone” a little bit.
Surely it's impossible to sum up the life of a giant like Roddenberry's in one quick essay. These were just some corners of his life that I found amusing and/or under-discussed. Tell me what you find inspiring about Gene in the comments below.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, ScreenCrush and Badass Digest. On his BLOG, Jordan has reviewed all 727 Trek episodes and films, most of the comics and some of the novels.
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