We were asked in a recent interview – as we often are -- what kept Star Trek so popular for so many years. This ongoing question never seems to be answered to anyone’s satisfaction, but everyone keeps asking. We’ve often wondered if the real answer is too simple. Perhaps the interviewers are looking for a more complicated answer that makes sense to them.
It reminds us of a telephone interview we did soon after the original Save Star Trek campaign had actually worked. We were contacted by a Washington Post reporter who wanted to know how we’d managed to reach so many Trek fans in so little time -- this was well before home computers.
Bjo told the reporter that we used the Rule of Ten: ask 10 people to write a letter and they each ask 10 people to write a letter, and each of those 10 asks 10 people to write a letter. And so on and so on… The reporter pondered this answer for a second, and then said firmly, “No, that can’t be it. That’s too simple.”
Bjo said, “You may be right,” and hung up the phone. A visiting friend was shocked and said, “You just hung up on the Washington Post!”
“He called me a liar,” said Bjo, ‘so the conversation was over.”
Back to the question about Trek’s popularity, today’s interviewers are not so blatantly impolite – at least to our faces – but they are just as incredulous over the simple answer to Star Trek’s continuing popularity. We’ll share this simple answer with you, to accept or reject as you wish.
But first, a little background. After the fan-organized Save Star Trek campaign, we found ourselves without a job. One of the things that became obvious during the letter-writing campaign was that Star Trek’s fan mail was not being answered well. Added to that, Gene felt that that there were enough fan requests for souvenirs to warrant setting up a mail-order business. So we eventually ended up working for Gene Roddenberry, answering Trek fan mail and starting Lincoln Enterprises for him.
Since Gene knew nothing about a mail-order business, the start-up required our getting together with him at least once a week, often in his Desilu office late at night. This was the only time he was free to kick back and talk with us. This was the quiet time at the studio, after the daily workers had gone home, and few people were on the lot except security and a few people preparing for an early day next morning. A dark studio lot seems deserted except for feral cats slipping from sets to the cafeteria patio looking for snacks. Our footsteps echoed off walls painted to look like a city street or a cloudy sky.
Sometimes business details would take only a few minutes, so GR would pour us a tot of brandy, and we’d talk about other things. We’d sit in his office, enjoying the deep, soft chairs, and look at his collection of photos and posters on the wall. There were more photos of space endeavors than of famous people. Gene liked gadgets, especially space-related ones, and he had many of them scattered around his workspace. It was in his office that we saw our first ‘space pen’ hovering between two magnets.
It would be difficult to describe Gene Roddenberry’s office, except to say that his door was seldom closed. It was a good-sized room with medium brown walls, lots of dark brown bookcases, giving an overall effect of a dark-paneled room, because the lighting was subdued. Captain Picard’s personal ready room was very much like it in general atmosphere. Certainly GR had much more paperwork in evidence, but his office was not a messy place. Rather that both personalities had things around them that meant a great deal to them.
Gene’s desk was large, and on top of it there were usually several different scripts open, lots of pads with notes, some pictures, a desk calendar, and his treasured Selectric typewriter to one side. (These were the days before personal computers!) Both personalities loved books, but while Picard had only his rare Shakespeare book in evidence, Gene had shelves of books in his office. It is not unusual to see bookshelves in TV producer’s offices but generally there are not many items in them. Gene’s bookshelves were crammed full of scripts, magazines, space and science fiction sculptures and models, and books. He leaned heavily toward space-related and reference books covering a wide area of interests. It was a pleasant room, which was good, because he spent a lot of time in that office!
A favorite Roddenberry topic was the philosophy on which he based his Star Trek concept. Gene was a secular humanist, willing to search for a deity but just as ready to question anyone who claimed god-hood. He felt strongly that humans would find their greatest strengths within themselves, and by reaching out to each other to build on their strengths. We do not pretend to have been such cozy buddies with GR that we could speak for him at every turn. But we can tell you this was his firm belief.
His favorite statement was “The human spirit will prevail.”
What a beautifully stark truth! Gene loved to discuss how humans, a small, weak, unlikely survival species on an extremely hostile planet, managed to overcome amazing setbacks to get where we are now. Gene could argue several sides of his vision of where we could go – should go, in fact, must go - from here. He could see us reaching even farther, progressing well beyond what we are today. He knew, in the face of our many human frailties, that we would eventually reach to the stars and beyond.
Among Gene’s many friends were people who worked very hard all their lives to get us off this planet. He agreed with them that humans were a very fragile basket of eggs to trust to only one planet. He felt that between humanity’s need to broaden our earth-bound scope, and our consummate need to see what was over the next hill, mankind would go into space. And throughout all the travails that such travel would cause, the human spirit would prevail.
This simple philosophy is the basis of many Trek episode and movie plots, though it may often be muddied by non-Trek pandering to “the public” (whoever they are) or glossed over by computerized fast-action prestidigitation that has nothing to do with the Trek we all know and love. The message is still clear: we can and will find a way to not only get out of our current hazardous situation, but we will find a way to make life better.
Gene Roddenberry’s philosophy could be the motto for any major human endeavor, but he meant it especially for our lust to explore everything, everywhere, and to continue looking until our curiosity was satisfied. He saw it as the reason we would eventually overcome the Luddites who fearfully vote against space exploration funding, and finally build some version of that wonderful spaceship, the U.S.S. Enterprise. This is what the fans saw: that Star Trek showed us a future where we did not murder the entire human race, one where we not only had a future of vast exploration, but that we managed to do it with everyone, of whatever creed or color.
We hope to still be on this plane of existence when that first true humans step into deep space. If that does not happen, perhaps we will end up sharing another tot of brandy with Gene in the good company of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke while they argue philosophical opinions with Zhang Zai, Anaximander, G.E. Moore, Mark Twain, Gandhi, and others who also enjoyed the human parade.
Bjo & John Trimble