I was fortunate to catch Rod Roddenberry for a quick chat about his new documentary, Trek Nation, premiering tonight on the Science Channel. We talked about what he learned about his father and himself in making the film. And how he dealt with standing in the shadow of a science fiction legend.
GeekDad: In doing this documentary on your father [Gene Roddenberry], you went on a search to find out more about the human side of a man most people consider an icon and a legend. Given that you were seventeen when your father died, how has learning about his human side underneath the pedestal helped you deepen your understanding of him as a person?
Rod Roddenberry: Well, I’ve had an opportunity far greater than a lot of people have ever had. They’ve lost their parents at a young age. They really haven’t had necessarily, the opportunity to learn more about them. Since my father’s passing, I’ve had people, stories, speeches, Star Trek itself to literally get all this information and get a well-rounded idea of who he is and who he was. And I question whether, if he were alive today, if I would have had that opportunity. I certainly in now way am I saying that I wish he wasn’t here. That I just feel so privileged that I have had that opportunity.
Humanizing him was very important to me. And you know that, as he was presented as a Greek god to me in so many different ways, yet, a son — how does a son connect to identify with that? It’s almost impossible. How does anyone? So humanizing him was extremely critical, not just for me, but also for the audience, for the people watching, ’cause I’ve had this amazing opportunity to learn about him from so many fans who revere him, but they would always sort of sit back and say, “Wow, the great Gene Roddenberry!” And I feel like they would look at themselves — I could never do that. I want them to see the film and realize he was fallible, he was flawed, of course he was human. And anyone who has passion and drive can be a Gene Roddenberry. That’s a little conceited to say, but I guess my point is anyone can do what they put their mind, their heart into. And I know, god, I hate to sound like a fortune cookie, but that really was an important part of the documentary, not just for me, but for everyone else.
GD: Would you agree that doing this doc was a kind of cathartic exercise for you?
RR: Absolutely — absolutely! I lived in his shadow to a degree. And you only live in someone’s shadow because you put yourself there. And so, yeah, I put myself in his shadow. So many people revered him. So many people had such high expectations of me, and of course, then I had such high expectations of me. But as I finally got to understand them all, understand the philosophy… You know, I found myself to a degree, and I found what I was comfortable doing and not doing, and who I was. And finding my own identity was very, very important. I’m still relatively young, and I will continue to learn who I am as I grow, but through this documentary as Gene Roddenberry’s son and Rod Roddenberry, I definitely figured out most of who I was. But I mean, the Roddenberry philosophy, the philosophy of Star Trek, is something I truly believe in. I love the future that he created and I want to carry on that name in my own way.
GD: The message of tolerance, acceptance and peace — has your father’s message been broadcast enough, or do you think there is more that needs to be told to film and television audiences?
RR: Absolutely. I think the most powerful thing about Star Trek is its ability to inspire. A simple TV show created in 1966 has inspired, I dare to say, millions, to believe in themselves and reach beyond their perceived limitations, whether it’s a handicapped individual — I mean, I’ve met these people throughout the world, and not only that, all around the world. I’ve met these people who, if they’re handicapped, they at least believe in a future where they’re no longer outcasts in society. If they’re at a young age and told they couldn’t do something, Star Trek told them “Yes, you can!” I’ve met astronauts, I’ve met politicians, I’ve met religious leaders. I’ve met all these people who have this commonality in Star Trek, and they were all challenged to reach beyond, to challenge themselves, to either think or achieve something they never thought they could.
GD: Based on past interviews, you seem open to creative interpretation of your father’s work. If you were approached by a motion picture studio, would you consider conceptualizing and producing another Star Trek series for TV, and what social issues might you explore?
These are awesome questions and you are really making me think, so I appreciate it. I’m torn as to whether I would accept or not. It depends on what the offer was, and I’m not taking about financial. I guess I really mean creative control. Not that I want to have complete creative control myself. I would just like to surround myself with people I know, trust and who get the philosophy. So I would be open to the idea. What sort of issues? There’s unfortunately, a lot of the same issues that were relevant in the sixties that are still plenty relevant today. Tolerance. You said it. In the documentary — I really want people to not just tolerate. I want people to accept the diversity of our planet. Acceptance doesn’t mean that you have to accept their ideas. That means just be willing to sit in the same room, accept the people for who they are and don’t fear their ideas, embrace them, learn about them. If it’s two different religions or two political views, I want people to not get so emotional and be able to sit down with someone of — I don’t want to say opposing — opposite beliefs and have a discussion back and forth. I mean, that’s the only way we’re going to grow and evolve. That’s how we’re going to learn new things.
GD: My son is a huge Star Trek: The Next Generation fan. What message do you think your father would want to send to kids of his generation?
RR: Good question. Well, I’ve already talked about inspiration. You definitely always want them to believe in themselves. Let me see if I can give you more to go on than just that. Always challenge themselves. That’s along the same lines. Never be afraid of a new challenge. My father loved to explore ideas, no matter how crazy they were. He read books about Kennedy and he read books about Hitler. He wanted to know the people. He wanted to hear everyone’s idea. It didn’t mean he agreed with it. But how else was he going to know the world without knowing everyone’s point of view on Earth, as many people as possible of course. He would watch people and kids, adults the same, to explore every idea no matter how crazy it sounds and then make an assessment or a judgement based on that.
He truly embodied the IDIC philosophy. IDIC means Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. And that is pretty much what I said, which is just appreciating diversity in all its forms.
GD: As Rod Roddenberry, do you plan on continuing your father’s work? Do you have any particular plans on continuing his legacy and putting your own stamp on that, in your own way?
RR: Absolutely. And, I don’t consider myself a Hollywood producer or a filmmaker, even with this documentary. I’m still not a filmmaker, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be one. What I am interested in is taking the family, taking the next steps. My father presented this future where everyone works together for the greater good and thirsts for diversity and new ideas. A lot of fans, and I’m not going to point the finger at them, I’ll point it at myself, we’re all sitting on the couch waiting for that to happen. Well, what we’ve done, we’ve created the Roddenberry Foundation, which, we’re out there working with organizations and institutions that are on the cutting edge of technology working for a long term solution for issues for our future. We’ve branched out in to the environment, human achievement, science and technology and education.
GD: Is there any particular message or any other information you might want to share with parents who are looking for something to pick up and share with their kids?
RR: I think it’s never being afraid of new ideas. Never stop asking questions. When I was young I was told this, but I didn’t really understand it until I got older. Really never be afraid of new ideas — always ask questions. You know, the best piece of advice I was ever given, and I don’t know who gave it to me was “Do something that scares you everyday.” To clarify, that doesn’t mean skydiving. That means talking to someone you haven’t talked to before, or asking a question that you’ve always been afraid to ask, or reading a book that you’ve always been afraid to read. I’ve always loved that idea, that philosophy.
GD: Is there anything else you want to add in particular about the documentary that you feel we should know?
RR: Yeah, it’s not along the same lines for kids or anything like that. And, it’s not me just saying this. But, there’s no way that I could have done this documentary by myself. Don’t worry, I’m not going to rattle off a list of names to you. There’s many, many times, I don’t want to say I gave up, but I definitely threw my arms up in the air and said “I don’t know what to do next.” And there’s a number of people who really helped make it happen, so I always feel awkward for getting the credit for Eugene Roddenberry creating this documentary. It wouldn’t have happened without them. I’ll just quickly say: Trevor Roth, New Animal, Science Channel and Atmosphere Pictures. They literally made it all happen.
Trek Nation airs on the Science Channel Wednesday, November 30, at 8:00 P.M. EST. For more information on the show, check out the Trek Nation site. If you are curious about Rod’s work check out the Roddenberry Foundation, which supports and inspires efforts that create and expand new frontiers for the benefit of humanity. It funds innovative solutions to critical global issues in the areas of science and technology, the environment, education and humanitarian advances. He also leads the Roddenberry Dive Team (RDT), which is committed to the promotion of education, exploration and stewardship of our oceans through safe diving activities.
This is one man who we will be watching, as he continues to explore, teach, and lead in his quest for knowledge about our world, our universe, and in the end, about himself. Truly his father’s son. Live Long and Prosper, Rod.