Fifty Years of Star Trek: Interview with Lance Parkin

by on Sep 14, 2016 in Nonfiction | 0 comments

As the world notes and celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek, many books are coming out to commemorate the 1960s television series. These include novels, histories, and even a guide to the real universe (as noted by Apex Magazine back in July).

One book that deserves our attention is the new “unauthorised” biography, The Impossible Has Happened: The Life and Work of Gene Roddenberry, Creator of Star Trek (Aurum Press, $29.99) by British writer Lance Parkin. Parkin is arguably best-known for his Doctor Who novels and his guidebooks to the series, but he also has an encyclopedic knowledge of Star Trek and its creation.

I have to admit that when I started reading Parkin’s book, I was wondering if the world needed another biography of Gene Roddenberry, even for the fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek. Three years after Roddenberry died, two writers, David Alexander and Joel Engel, each published their own biographies of Roddenberry. Alexander’s was an “authorized” biography, and Engel’s wasn’t, but they seemed to cover Roddenberry’s life and work fairly completely. I read them both when they first came out and thought that I now knew all about Roddenberry.

It turns out that there is much more to know. Parkin seemed to have anticipated my thought about the previous biographies. Very early on in his book, he mentions the existence of both previous biographies, analyzes them, and discusses how they were received. He also provides an explanation as to why the world could use another biography of Roddenberry:

At this point, Star Trek has run longer since Roddenberry’s death than when he was alive. Since Roddenberry’s death, what with cast member biographies and memoirs, “behind-the-scene” books, and documentaries, more information has come out about the man than existed before. Parkin has reviewed an incredible amount of material to understand who Roddenberry was and what made him tick.

Interestingly, Parkin conducted no interviews for his book. But Parkin’s reliance on previously published material rather than interviews is actually a strength of his book, as he is able to draw conclusions about Roddenberry and bring threads together about the man’s life that no one had seen before in quite this way.

Parkin has written the most thorough and enjoyable biography of Roddenberry to date. This is a book that no lover of Star Trek should be without. If you want to know anything about how television worked in the United States in the 1960s, you have to read this book.

Parkin spoke with Apex Magazine and answered some of the questions we had about his journey in exploring the life of Gene Roddenberry.

Apex Magazine:
First of all, I presume that you yourself are a fan of Star Trek, else you probably wouldn’t have written this book. Can you describe your own interest in Star Trek? When did you start watching the series?

Lance Parkin:
Oh, yes! My experience was pretty typical of most British fans – the original Star Trek was a sort of methadone for when Doctor Who wasn’t on, and I was watching it as a kid in the mid-seventies onwards. I was there on the opening weekend for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (I’d have been eight), I have a bookcase full of Star Trek guidebooks and novels, and so on. Star Trek: The Next Generation peaked when I was at university, and I helped run the society that got tapes sent from the US. We were the first people in Europe to show the first episode of Deep Space Nine, to a room packed with about a hundred people more than the fire safety limit.

AM:
Do you have any favorite series or episodes?

LP:
I loved The Next Generation and I really enjoyed the first JJ Abrams movie. I’d always liked the original series – this is an understatement – but it was writing the book that forced me to rewatch it all systematically, and I love that show now, appreciate it on all sorts of new levels.

Er, let’s see … “Darmok” is my favourite episode, I have a soft spot for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, mainly because its eyes are so much bigger than its stomach. It’s ambitious, but also collapses around you as you watch it.

AM:
What drew you to write a biography of Gene Roddenberry at this time? Is it just for the fiftieth anniversary, or was there something more?

LP:
The anniversary was a nice hook for the publisher, and I was interested in writing about Star Trek and trying to place it in its various contexts. I could see gaps that I thought my book could fill. Roddenberry’s an interesting person, which helps, and everyone who met him has an opinion about him.

AM:
What impression did you get of Roddenberry as you were writing the book?

LP:
Reading about him, it felt a little like I was getting fragments of the story, and there were a few things that didn’t quite add up. There’s a mythical history of Star Trek, where Roddenberry was a voice in the wilderness and the network didn’t like the show and no one watched it at first. I looked at that and thought “well, hang on, the network ran the show for three years, and if they didn’t like it and no one was watching, why would they do that?” The answer to that leads to some interesting insights into Star Trek, but also the way TV drama was made in the sixties.

AM:
How long did it take you to complete this biography?  Did you find that your previous experience writing books about Doctor Who, Philip Pullman’s trilogy, and Alan Moore helped guide you?

LP:
It took about two years. It has the same approach as the Alan Moore book, which is “through his works shall you know him.”

Writers can be pretty boring. We sit around writing, and the only displacement activities really are moaning about the business practices of people we deal with, conducting feuds, egomania and addiction. But 95% of the time, it’s just sitting around tapping at a keyboard. Roddenberry’s work is quite distinctive, even though it’s written for American network TV, which is a notorious production line where the rough edges are smoothed away. So I wanted to draw out echoes of Roddenberry’s life in his work. He’s a writer who has his pet theories and philosophies and likes bringing them to his work. Behind that, there’s the unconscious stuff, so his attitudes to, say, women are specific to his own time and place. And he’s really good at a sort of propulsive, heightened drama, and it’s always thoughtful, but a lot of the time he can’t quite get these big ideas into the format without having characters just make stodgy speeches. And a lot of the time, for my money anyway, his “big ideas” aren’t quite as fascinating as he thinks. A lot of his thoughts about the meaning of life are his own hangups, rather than the lofty universal dilemmas he thinks they are.

AM:
I was interested in seeing you mention both the David Alexander and Joel Engel biographies of Roddenberry that came out in 1994, as I remember buying and reading them. Given that these two books already exist, along with the many other books you mention under Further Reading, what do you feel your book brings to the table that differentiates it from what has already been written?

LP:
Those books are great, and what’s great is that they could be about two different people! Alexander’s book is the official one, with access to all the family papers and so on. Engel’s is this gossipy, seedy tell-all. It’s like those Bugs Bunny cartoons with a cartoon angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other.

At first, I struggled a little – the first section I wrote, I was taking those two accounts and summarising them and trying to work out which of the two was ‘right’. If my book had been that, it would have been very lukewarm. I changed my approach, tried to take advantage of the fact that twenty-five years have passed since those books were written, that there’s a lot more information out there, now – just about every actor wrote their autobiography. We can see the bigger picture. I actually took my cue from William Shatner, who says that the basis of his performance is to find the most entertaining line reading. Obviously I’m trying to stay faithful to the facts and history and so on, but I wanted my account to be a very readable, entertaining guide to Star Trek, its creators and what was going on around it. Like Star Trek itself, I want it to be colourful and fast-paced, and when you’re done, you’ll hopefully see it covered quite a lot of ground and tackled a few issues.

AM:
You note how some people will portray Roddenberry as a saint, while others will portray him as a monster. From your research, do you think that only someone like Roddenberry could have had Star Trek made? What qualities of his made it possible for him to get Star Trek produced?

LP:
It’s clearly possible to make Star Trek without Roddenberry – more Star Trek TV episodes and movies have come out since he died than when he lived. But, yeah, there’s an X factor that Roddenberry brings to it. The paradox is that most of the best TV shows have this one person at the heart of them, maintaining the integrity, with a clear vision. It’s what you want from a TV producer, it’s not extraordinary. But Star Trek, like all TV and movies, is also a team effort. Everyone brings something.

The first pilot episode doesn’t have William Shatner, and it’s just not got that zing; you really see what he brings to it as Kirk. Leonard Nimoy’s just great as Spock. The original series benefits immensely from Gene L Coon, who comes along when they’re about eight episodes in, and fine tunes the show, makes McCoy more of a central character, makes sure the episodes start with a bang instead of easing into the action. There are writers, designers, all sorts of people who create these iconic things.

So the answer to your question is that Gene Roddenberry assembles a really good team. After the show is off the air, he tours the Star Trek conventions and the fans give him credit for everything, that everyone else was just dancing to his tune, and he does nothing to disabuse them of the idea that it was this one man band. This annoys just about everyone he ever worked with, and there’s something of a backlash against him.

AM:
Have you met anyone involved in the making of Star Trek? If so, do you have any experiences meeting someone that informed the book?

LP:
There are a lot of Star Trek books by people with skin in the game and axes to grind. I’m not that person, I’m never going to be that person. The selling point of this book is that I’m not arguing for my place in Star Trek history, I just want to navigate a course through this fifty year, multimedia phenomenon. I concentrate on the show’s creator, but I’m able to bring in things about business decisions and the like that very few people were privy to. I’m able to take a quick look at the tangled issue of who was watching Star Trek when it was first on. It’s quite a subjective book, it’s me writing it, exploring what I find interesting.

AM:
Please correct me if I’m wrong, but it looks to me as if you didn’t interview anyone for this book, but instead relied on primary and secondary sources of articles and previous books. How did you go about verifying and cross-checking what you learned about Roddenberry? I did notice that throughout the book you took great care to emphasize what was verifiable and what might not be.

LP:
True, I didn’t interview anyone. I talked to a fair few people and sounded them out, double-checked the odd detail, got some off the record “yes, that sounds about right” things. The fact is, just about everyone who worked on the show has already stated what they remember and how they feel about it for the record.

There were times I wanted to find out, say, what one guest actor thought about a particular decision or whatever, and the answer to that is in a newspaper interview from 1973, or they answered that at a convention in 1997 or whatever. I’ve tried to dig deep for those articles, looked at hundreds of sources. I’m a Star Trek fan, a lot of my friends are Star Trek fans who live and breathe it, and I was able to find things that none of us had seen before, or put two things we had seen together and spot a new and interesting pattern.

AM:
Can you provide an example of something beyond what other books and articles about Star Trek and Roddenberry have mentioned?

LP:
If we’re looking for a new contribution, there’s a chapter about The Lieutenant, the only other show Roddenberry creates that goes to series. That’s probably a better example of the sort of issues-led, smart show than Star Trek is, and he literally goes from writing the end of The Lieutenant to the pilot episode of Star Trek, and if you watch them both, you can see so many interesting parallels. There are scenes in early Star Trek that are just The Lieutenant, but in space.

Gene Roddenberry essentially spends the first ten years controlling what’s said about the show, talking to fans, authorising “making of” books, and doing interviews. And a lot of my book is – a lot of Star Trek behind the scenes books are – about taking a Gene Roddenberry statement and deciding whether it’s, well, true. And the more he repeats things, the more he starts to believe those things himself – again, that’s not a thing unique to Roddenberry.

AM:
Can you give an example?

LP:
Roddenberry always said Star Trek did badly in the ratings. He blamed the network for the timeslot, and he blamed the system used to collect ratings, saying it was skewed towards families, so there was a huge audience out there the network just didn’t know about. Roddenberry has this epic poem version of his role in standing up for quality television. And that’s nonsense. Star Trek does OK in the ratings, but it’s an expensive show. The first time they move the show, they put Ironside in its old slot – Ironside‘s a quality show, too, and far more people watch it. The network was right to move Star Trek. But I absolutely think, 100%, that Roddenberry convinced himself that his account was the objective truth.

AM:
Forgive me for asking about this, but… You go into some detail about the incident involving Grace Lee Whitney, who played Yeoman Janice Rand, and the story of “the Executive” who sexually assaulted her right around the time she was let go from the show. How relevant do you feel this particular story is to the biography, given the evidence you yourself present that Roddenberry was not involved?

LP:
It was something I wrestled with, definitely. It’s not pleasant to write about. Grace Lee Whitney wrote about her experiences at length in her autobiography, and I tried to do my best to respect her account. That incident is there, ultimately, because it’s a really stark reminder that the 1960s were a different time, that Hollywood was not a safe place for actresses. Roddenberry hires women a lot of the time because he wants to hit on them. He propositions his secretaries. There’s an undercurrent there which we have the words for in 2016 that they didn’t in 1966.  It’s a very masculine world, and Roddenberry is thoroughly part of that. His first feature film is Pretty Maids All in a Row, directed by Roger Vadim, and it’s a comedy about a high school teacher who sleeps with and murders his students. There are places where Star Trek has dated rather better than its creator has, and one of them is that he sees women as sex objects, he’s aware he does, and he’s unapologetic about it. Even in 1987, when he’s writing the TNG guidelines, he’ll describe a character as having “a striptease queen walk.”

AM:
One thing I notice you don’t spend too much time on is Roddenberry’s early religious life, with his mother being a “committed Southern Baptist.” Roddenberry once talked about how he came to the decision early on that he was an atheist, and you mention how in later life he thought of himself as a humanist. How do you see this aspect of Roddenberry influencing his earlier Star Trek stories?

LP:
There should probably be more in the book about his humanism. I mainly concentrate on how it informs The Next Generation, which is an exercise in Roddenberry putting his progressive ideas into action. I’m always a little wary of looking at a writer and saying “this writer was X religion, so believed X.” It’s inevitably far more complicated and personal than that. I think there is something very interesting in that fact that Roddenberry comes from what we would see as a conservative background – his dad’s a policeman and Roddenberry also served with the LAPD – and ends up as this icon of liberalism.

Again, though, I don’t think that’s unique to him. The story of the middle of the twentieth century is one of social mobility, a horror at having the same job or living in the same place as your parents. Roddenberry’s instincts seems to be to rebel against authority generally, not just a religious upbringing: “I’m not going to follow that stupid rule, whoever came up with something so dumb.” At the same time, I think he sees it more in terms of creating new institutions and rules, rather than abandoning rules altogether. Humane interpretation of the law, not anarchy. His solutions all end up as liberal tyrannies – his ideas for police reform boil down to hiring beat cops who you trust to be judge and jury. Starfleet will come in peace, but they’ll do it in a ship that can level a city with one photon torpedo.

AM:
In the last chapter, you go into a lot of detail beyond Roddenberry’s death to discuss how others wrote about him and what his legacy will be. Having learned so much about him to write your book, what do you think his legacy should be?

LP:
His legacy is the careers of the people who were inspired by Star Trek. The countless scientists, engineers, computer programmers, astronauts, doctors and teachers who are, at some fundamental level, doing that because they wanted to be Spock when they grew up, or Uhura, or Picard. People who look at the world and see things in terms of solutions, not just endless analysis of the problems.

The whole information revolution was engineered by people who have every Star Trek episode memorized. They saw Kirk’s communicator, or that clipboard thingy, or Spock talking to a computer and didn’t think “that’s hokey,” they thought “OK, let’s build one of those that works.” And I’m typing this answer on a laptop that would be right at home on Kirk’s USS Enterprise, and that’s not a coincidence.

AM:
What is your next project?

LP:
I try to keep a fiction and nonfiction project going at any one time. The next thing to be released is an audio version of Cold Fusion, a Doctor Who novel I wrote twenty years ago, which was huge fun to adapt, and will feature both the Peter Davison and Sylvester McCoy Doctors. I’ve got an original steampunk novel that’s nearly ready. My next nonfiction is in the early stages, but it’ll be a social history. A friend of mine, Brandy Schillace, wrote a book called Death’s Summer Coat about burial and mourning rituals, and I’m jealous of it, so I’m writing a book in a similar vein about another very large topic.

AM:
Do you have any final thoughts about this biography? What do you hope your readers will come away with after reading the book?

LP:
I think whatever your level of engagement with Star Trek, you’ll find a book that’s an interesting account of the factors that go into making TV and movies, into making a pop cultural phenomenon. Roddenberry led a fascinating life, and there are places where you’ll be cheering him on, and others when you’ll be booing. There will be things in there you haven’t seen, and I hope you’ll see some things you know very well in a new light.

Michael A. Burstein, winner of the 1997 Campbell Award for Best New Writer, has earned ten Hugo nominations and four Nebula nominations for his short fiction, collected in I Remember the Future. Burstein lives with his wife Nomi and their twin daughters in the town of Brookline, Massachusetts, where he is an elected Town Meeting Member and Library Trustee. When not writing, he edits middle and high school Science textbooks. He has two degrees in Physics and attended the Clarion Workshop. More information on Burstein and his work can be found on his webpage, http://www.mabfan.com.

0 Comments

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. THE IMPOSSIBLE HAS HAPPENED: THE LIFE AND WORK OF GENE RODDENBERRY, CREATOR OF STAR TREK | Lance Parkin - […] I was interviewed about it by Apex, and there I spell out why I think my book differs from…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *