Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek and his name is still found at the beginning of every episode or movie created either by fans or Paramount, including the latest (excellent) movie directed by JJ Abrams. Roddenberry’s life ended in 1991, just prior to the public release of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, but not prior to the conclusion of Yvonne Fern’s work on Gene Roddenberry: The Last Conversation.
Though the title was certainly posthumous, she obtained an enormous corpus of material from Roddenberry, asking questions that he had never been asked before. The book is utterly engrossing reading, in part because Roddenberry reveals a narcissism not entirely uncommon to science fiction progenitors. Many answers are contrived by Roddenberry to seem profound, as when he argues that he created Kirk and Spock as two halves of the same person. In the best case scenario, he’s implying that he created them having the next 3 seasons and several movies in mind when he made them. But he never did. That’s quite silly, and I don’t want to get into all the reasons why because they’re too arcane and Trek-oteric, but much more powerful arguments have been made that, if anything, he unconsciously developed Kirk as a virtually archetypically superego, Spock as ego, and McCoy as id.
Even worse, Roddenberry keeps invoking the word humanity for so many weird reasons. You can tell he’s grasping at his own greatness and not quite getting there. I am sure that the author must have realized this, but perhaps only after the fact. It is clear that Roddenberry bought into his own myth: that he was a visionary. Many Star Trek fans adulated him, so it’s not a mystery as to how or why. It also explains part, though not all, of the comments about money being obsolete in the future — statements that would involve destruction common sense (see this excellent explanation of the glory of currency by Murray Rothbard) to say nothing of human nature. Ironic, since in “What are Little Girls Made of?”, an original series episode, Kirk argues with Dr. Roger Corby over his achievement of creating robots that feel no hate, jealous, or anger, saying that they will also never know love, tenderness, and sentiment.
As you can see, although I haven’t laid eyes on this book in probably five years, the book definitely messed with my head. I am someone for whom Star Trek can be said to be a religion. I don’t wear it on my sleeve, like some, but it comes out in many conversations, my nickname, all sorts of ways. Gene Roddenberry was demolished by this book. I can’t imagine that the late Majel Roddenberry, who was a gifted and charismatic keeper of the flame, would have been pleased with this. His sometimes extraordinary and cruel vice, which will not be mentioned further here, were not actually balanced by all the humanity hogwash. If anything, they were exacerbated by the delusions of godhood. I was really, really, really disappointed. Star Trek has inspired millions and will continue to do so — and Roddenberry deserves an enormous amount of credit for that — but it goes only so far. It turns out that Bob Justman, Gene Coon, Herb Solow, and many others deserve almost equal credit.
Nothing wrong with that.
In any case, as I read the book, I took a few notes on passages that seemed interesting. My favorite is an exchange on “leadership.” Gene says, my emphasis:
You see, Captain Kirk is a good man. And he is also an excellent man—well trained, experienced. But he is a man who was born to be a leader. And whatever that is, it is what makes him capable of convincing others who are less experienced, less able, to allow him to lead. In his leadership, he gives others the opportunity to grow. He isn’t so in love with leading that he forgets his duty. His duty is to seek out life—and that also means the lives in his care—to bring them along, to see that they have the opportunity to learn and grow to their fullest. Their fullest may not be a quarter of what Kirk’s is, but it’s theirs and they have a right to it.
This is the best explication of great leadership that I have yet encountered. In order to be a great military commander, you probably need to be terrific at training troops, understanding logistics, and possessing keen strategical insight. Someone who fits that bill is General Douglas MacArthur. In order to be a great politician, you need to have a sense of people, vision, and drama (poise, theater, timing). Someone who fits that bill might be Margaret Thatcher. In order to be a great team captain, you are going to need will power, demanding requirements, and respect of others. I can think of several in basketball: Michael Jordan and Tim Duncan come to mind. In order to be a great fashion model, in order to separate from the pack, you need an engaging personality, an entrepreneurial command, not to mention tenacious will. Heidi Klum comes to mind. But what do all of these people have in common? They all have the ability to, as Roddenberry put it, coax everyone’s full potential.
Kirk did it on an episode-by-episode basis, demanding brilliance from his chief engineer, results from his first officer, instant vaccines from his chief medical officer. He expects genius first, but he’s not disappointed or vindictive when they do not come through because he knows that it is simply not possible. MacArthur is often considered to be one of the greatest commanders of men the world has ever known — his ability to train troops was unsurpassed, and many of the greats, including Eisenhower, came through his command. Thatcher sapped every bit of strength and potential the Conservative Party had in order to revolutionize and revive the United Kingdom. Before she took over, it was the poorest Western European democracy. When she left, it was the richest. Michael Jordan learned in part from Phil Jackson how to respect his teammates and to will a team to victory — two sets of back-to-back-to-back championships. Many of his teammates overachieved and never did so well again on any other team. Heidi Klum has encouraged and allowed Tim Gunn’s peculiar genius for leadership to bloom, so much so that he probably overshadows her in terms of love from Project Runway fans.
So this is all to say that I think Roddenberry’s statement is a necessary condition for great leadership. It may not be sufficient, the exact conditions for that changing based on situation, context, or industry. I think that one of the enduring mysteries for me is how he might have unwittingly said these words, but done so poorly at executing them in his many years involved in Star Trek. Even after he had long been removed from day-to-day running of TOS or TNG, he seemed to rarely if ever express any humility, any mention of others at all. Indeed, it must be said to helping others to fulfill their potential has to be more than asking them to do it in your own name.
Sigh, I can’t end this post having written all this negative stuff about the creator of Star Trek. His contribution to the world is far beyond what most of us mortals ever get to do. Kirk lives on today as an example of leadership. Spock lives on, if not as President Obama (contrary to the MSM’s belief, he is much more a TNG than a TOS character), then as a courageous, selfless, and devoted friend. McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu, Chekov — they’re all there too, to say nothing of Picard, Riker, Data, Troi, Crusher, Worf, and LaForge. These are all his children. They’ve inspired so many firsts. Interracial couples, interracial children, dozens of astronauts, writers, teachers, actors, mothers, fathers, children, challenged persons, businesspersons, just all kinds of people. And it is the thing that, thank God, will not die. It will keep going and going, forever. And all this… from Roddenberry? The answer to the question is that it seems like it’s one of those paradoxes that mostly come from human perception. We’re not all light and we’re not all dark. Maybe Herbert Muller writes it best when he discusses the Hagia Sophia:
Only, my reflections failed to produce a neat theory of history, or any simple, wholesome moral. Hagia Sophia, or the ‘Holy Wisdom,’ gave me instead a fuller sense of the complexities, ambiguities, and paradoxes of human history. Nevertheless, I propose to dwell on these messy meanings. They may be, after all, the most wholesome meanings for us today; or so I finally concluded.
This rambling post is all about messy meanings, but they are undoubtedly the most wholesome meanings for us today.