Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Mirror, Mirror: Roddenberry's Goatee

Over the last day or so a few readers and friends on Facebook pointed me to this article on Blastr about how awful it was to work with Gene Roddenberry--the fact that he had a substance abuse problem and that he often deferred to his lawyer about important story matters on TNG, etc. The full interview, however, from TrekMovie is a much better, fuller read.

When I first saw the Blastr article popping up in my feed, I didn't even read it. Still, I somehow knew from the title, "Star Trek Writer Reveals Ugly Side of Working with Roddenberry on the Sci-Fi Classic" that the writer in question was most likely David Gerrold. I saw Gerrold speak last year at Star Trek: Vegas and he's a really candid, interesting, intelligent dude. He's always been very outspoken about what it was like to work on Trek and his opinions about the different courses the show has taken over the years etc. So, it didn't surprise me at all to open up the article and see that it was Gerrold who was speaking out about Roddenberry's issues.

Everyone is human--even the guy who invented Spock--and unfortunately it turns out that Gene wasn't so much a great guy to work for as he had a great idea for a show and then was dogged enough about pursuing it to actually get it on the air and make it exist for everyone. But... was he great to be around? No.

The thing about writers (and a lot of creative types, really) is that they're often awful people. I would have wanted to smack Charles Dickens every time I looked at that guy if I'd known him or been married to him or if I was his shoeshine boy or whatever other Victorian nonsense he got up to. It's the same with a lot of my favorite writers (and here's a great article about why) But I love Dickens' novels. His work gives the impression of a man thoughtful and gentle, caring more about others than himself but, in his private life, he apparently couldn't help being a complete ass. The thing is, authors get to be assholes in the privacy of their own home. Like me. I work for myself. The only people who have to listen to me whine and complain and act like a crazy person are my husband and Bunny. But--TV is a collaborative business. And, beyond collaborative, it's public.

As an author/artist, I write a book or a story. I give it to the editor at my press or the editor at a lit mag. They have some notes. I make them or I don't. I give it back. They publish it or they don't. A handful of people read it. Occasionally someone will write to me and say they like what I've written and my day will be better for it.

In TV, you work in a room full of people and hand that work off to other people who then hand it off to yet more people who then make it into an episode of TV with a bunch of other people. Your script passes through a ton of hands by the time its made. And everyone has opinions and input. Then, its aired and potentially millions of people will watch it on that first airing alone. Reviews are written. Folks write letters. Etc etc. The point is, there are about a hundred cooks in a very small kitchen and everyone's trying to make the same dish but they're not all using the same recipe. We, the audience, get the final product--presented to us by a single chef, for good or bad, as if he were the only one behind the kitchen doors.

In the midst of it all, for someone like Gene, you're operating from a place of fear and, as Picard says in Devil's Due, "Fear can be a powerful motivator." As the creator and show-runner, all of TNG's failings and successes were placed on his shoulders. Star Trek had already been cancelled once and Roddenberry'd had his baby taken away. Now, they were giving it back to him. Things seemed to be going well but my understanding about the resurgence of Trek is that TNG was always in danger of being cancelled again--until about the fourth season. After Roddenberry was already knocking on death's door and had apparently, for the most part, taken leave of the show.

Does the fear, the drugs, the deferring to ridiculous lawyers or whoever else Roddenberry was listening to make his actions toward Gerrold and the other Trek writers right? No. Absolutely not. Roddenberry was the captain of the Trek ship and, in many ways, he failed his crew. He wasn't living up to the standards he wished his fictional captain to portray on screen. Picard would never ignore the most basic needs or most important thoughts of his crew. But the guy behind Picard did. Jean Luc Picard is stalwart, even-tempered, and righteous--always standing up for what's right. Maybe the character was aspirational for Roddenberry. The portrait of a man he couldn't be.

As for Gerrold, he went on to do lots of other lovely things. And now, like me (only successful) he writes books. His editor or publisher have opinions but Gerrold has the final say. He's the only cook in his kitchen and I get that. He's given himself the power to operate without fear. He's won Nebula and Hugo awards. I get it. I get wanting the freedom to write whatever fearless idea you come up with. I just wish that kind of fearlessness hadn't come up against such heavy opposition. Star Trek was always supposed to be a show about fearlessly breaking boundaries, exposing injustices, and doing the right thing even when it's the hard thing. It's too bad that, behind the scenes, it was much the opposite.

This article has brought out a lot of talk about how Roddenberry's vision for new Trek made the show boring. I'll address this, and Gerrold's depressingly never-shot episode "Blood and Fire" in another post later this week. Also soon to come: The Trek/Bechdel Test #3.

A Year Ago-ish:  Voyager Season 1 Essential Episodes

1 comment:

  1. The worst expose I read on Roddenberry was Susan Sackett's memoir, Inside Trek. The misogynist side was especially painful. Really made him seem like Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde....still I couldn't let it hurt my love of Trek.


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