The Spirit of Trek – Trek Nation: The Documentary

By Mike Medeiros


Welcome back to the Spirit of Trek, a weekly column where I will identify and celebrate Gene Roddenberry’s vision for humanity by discovering how the spirit of Star Trek has started spreading throughout humanity’s collective consciousness by searching for it on the Internet and within popular culture. Last week, I examined Trek Nation’s web assets, which included their website and YouTube Channel. This week, I conclude the series by jumping right into the documentary.

I have to admit that I fully intended to take notes during the film for this article, but found myself swept away by Rod’s journey and the stories that the celebrities, stars, and fans shared with him about his father and Star Trek that I completely forgot to write a single word. It was a touching experience that had brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion. Despite my failure, I was pleased to get the opportunity to watch the film again.

Trek Nation is about Eugene “Rod” Roddenberry, Jr.’s journey to discover what Star Trek meant to people, and where he discovered a facet of his father, Gene Roddenberry that he hadn’t previously understood. It was directed by Scott Colthorp, edited by Jessica Brunetto, with music by Brian Langsbard, and features interviewed appearances from JJ Abrams to George Lucas; Nichelle Nichols to Patrick Stewart; DC Fontana to Ron Moore, and many others that shared their memories of Star Trek and what it meant to them.

The film opens with a fly-by of the Enterprise as the musical notes that have become synonymous with Star Trek play. Gene shared his thoughts on Star Trek, before Rod introduces himself as a person that didn’t get Star Trek. The film featured clips from every series; home movies; and interviews from fans, celebrities, stars, and the people that have worked on Star Trek over the years.  Everyone had a story or two to share, and some of them differed greatly from one to the other, but each identified a piece of what of made Star Trek special.

Rod shared a bit about the strained relationship that he had with his father. Gene had died when Rod was 17 and in the midst of a rebellious streak. Like many of us at that age, he was more concerned with himself. However, I was moved to tears to hear him recount a fan letter that had been read at the funeral about a man with a major disability that was inspired to keep living and eventually find happiness because of his father’s work. Rod admitted that moment changed his life and prompted his desire to learn more about his father. He was about to embark on a journey of discovery that epitomized the true spirit of trek; a journey that would change his life.

Rod began attending conventions to find out what it was that attracted people to Star Trek. He states proudly, that everything he learned about Star Trek, he had learned from the fans. It was heartwarming to see fans of all ages share their Trek experiences with him, especially the young ones. It reminded me of my own recent experiences at STLV, where I not only got the pleasure to meet an online friend in person, but also his son who was perhaps a year old. Its people like him that will ensure that Gene Roddenberry’s legacy will continue on for generations to come.

Over the course of the documentary, Rod spoke with many fans that offered their insights into the metaphors, symbolism, and subtext of the series. They shared with him its meaning for them, and how it gave them hope for the future. One fan explained that on Star Trek, she had seen every variation of alien; which in turn, made her more tolerant of every type of human. It was followed by Nichelle Nichols who summarized the sentiment, when she recited the Vulcan Idic: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. Star Trek was so much more than entertainment. It was something of substance that had the power to touch people’s lives.

Rod’s quest to learn about Star Trek awakened a hunger within him to learn more about his father. The leg of his journey took him to see his father’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. With news footage from the event, Gene described the human race as an incredible, but still young species. He, then, called Rod up to the podium and they shared an awkward hug. Rod never quite understood the man behind it all, but he was now interested in learning more about the man before he created Star Trek.

Rod spoke with his mother, but was disappointed that she couldn’t quite grasp what he was trying to do. Although, their conversation did shed some light into their home life, it did cause him to look for answers elsewhere. He sought out the people that worked with Gene. Through a series of clips, we learn that Gene was a sailor, a police officer, and a pilot that had traveled the world and seen the best and worst of humanity. When he decided that he could write better stories than those seen on television, he sold his first script.

When the idea for Star Trek occurred, he shared some of it with DC Fontana who was intrigued by the character of Spock. The pilot was made, but the executives were expecting an action adventure. Surprisingly, they allowed him to create a second pilot with William Shatner in the lead role and included a knockdown, drag-out fight. Some people may not see Star Trek in the first pilot, but the essence of it was certainly there, hidden behind the façade of Wagon Train to the Stars.

People couldn’t decide whether it was the ensemble, the audience, its stories, the characters, their adventures, their technology, or Gene’s philosophy that made the show special. It aired during a volatile time in human history, when hope was at its lowest and it seemed that humanity was on the road to self-destruction. Space exploration was just starting to enter into the human consciousness, and Gene Roddenberry used science as a tool to tell stories about us; about our hopes and dreams; and most importantly about our the ability to solve our problems by working together. He showed us that all people were equal regardless of gender, skin color, or even species.

The show had a small, but passionate audience that worked together to save the show from cancellation when the studio deemed it a failure during its second season. The studio relented and gave the show another try, but the news crushed Gene and he walked away from Star Trek.  It was woefully ironic that the show was finally canceled the year man landed on the moon.

After Star Trek, Gene married Majel Barrett and they began their family together. However, it wasn’t all rainbows and daisies. Gene struggled to get another writing job. There was also a little bit of Kirk in Gene, since he began to step out of his marriage. Finding that out about Gene humanized him, because it reminded us that he was a flawed human being like the rest of us.

Around the time of Rod’s birth, conventions were starting to come into their own. Throughout the 70s, Star Trek was in syndication and was being broadcast in more than 48 countries and in many languages. It was through syndication that Star Trek first captured my imagination. This resurgent of interest in Star Trek fueled the success of conventions by continually supplying a steady stream of new fans that grew more passionate over time. Their determination was seen when the fans persuaded NASA to name the first space shuttle Enterprise.

I found it humorous to see Rod have a total fan boy moment when he was presented with the opportunity to speak with George Lucas about Gene Roddenberry. Lucas was a Star Trek fan while he wrote Star Wars. After Star War’s success in the theaters, Gene was given the opportunity to create The Motion Picture. While Rod found the film boring, the fans loved it, which prompted the creation of two more films before Gene was given the rare opportunity to resurrect Star Trek on television for a whole new generation.

Gene’s vision of the future had evolved and Star Trek: The Next Generation embodied that new vision. It wasn’t the same Star Trek, despite bringing back many of the people that had worked on it. Gene had changed the rules by eliminating conflict from the bridge crew of the Enterprise. He reasoned that by this point in the future, humanity would have further matured from the time of Kirk, which troubled many of the writers who wanted the conflict to help flesh out the characters and stories. However, even with these restrictions, The Next Generation’s popularity grew as Gene’s health deteriorated.

During this time Rod was pursuing his own interests. It seemed to widen the schism between father and son. Gene had introduced Picard, Riker, and Wesley in TNG that some believed represented the various stages of his life, while others perceived the character of Wesley as perhaps the son that he wished he had. I couldn’t help but feel Rod’s pain, when he heard a story from a convention where, Gene defended Wesley’s character. It hurt Rod deeply because he hadn’t had that kind of relationship with his father.

When Gene died, Berman took over the reins and despite his best efforts to remain true to Gene’s vision, TNG changed. The writers took advantage of the opportunity that it afforded them to explore some of these characters even further, which led to the further development of the Klingons through the exploration of Worf’s character. The show grew more popular and even received an Emmy nod, legitimizing it as a great drama. Its success led to the creation of Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and later Enterprise.

After going to college on the east coast, Rod was given an opportunity to work as a Technical Advisor for Gene Roddenberry’s Earth: Final Conflict. However, he eventually grew disillusioned and left the project, because Rod felt that the show had lost its humanity and had strayed from the Roddenberry vision.

When Rod learned that Enterprise was going to be canceled, he discovered fans protesting the decision and petitioning to keep the show on the air. I was touched to see Rod lend his support to the petitioners by scrawling the message that “Star Trek will never die!” After the show was given one last season, Rod visited the set and spoke with Scott Bakula about Star Trek’s future. Bakula had explained that it may be off the air, but it wasn’t dead. The sentiment turned out to be true, because shortly after Enterprise’s cancellation; JJ Abrams began working to introduce Star Trek to a new generation of fans.

Star Trek’s long history has allowed it to seep into our culture, to become a part of our lives. Its spirit exists and is shaping our society in ways that have yet to be measured. Its ideals of mutual respect, understanding, collaboration, and cooperation have started to bring together the family of man. Although, we have a lot of growing yet to do, I believe that humanity is on the right track to make Gene Roddenberry’s vision for humanity a reality. I invite you to take the journey with me as I attempt to identify how the spirit of trek has started to change mankind for the better.

Well, that’s all for this week, my friends. If you come across something that embodies the Spirit of Trek on the Internet or within popular culture, please share it with me so that I may talk about it in a future article. Thank you.

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