As ‘Star Trek Beyond’ continues to perform well at the box office, it is an opportune time to revisit the life of the man that started it all. This is exactly what Lance Parkin does in his new book ‘The Impossible Has Happened: The Life And Work Of Gene Roddenberry – The Creator Of Star Trek – A Biography’. This is an unauthorised work examining Roddenberry’s life and career and clearly focuses on his pivotal work ‘Star Trek’. There have been other official and unofficial biographies of ‘The Great Bird Of The Galaxy’ before, as well as several volumes of memoirs from actors on the series and, more luridly, a tell-all expose by Roddenberry’s own secretary. In this book, Parkin attempts to reconcile the different points-of-view about Gene Roddenberry’s life and work.
It’s no secret these days that Gene Roddenberry had a turbulent private life. He cheated on his first wife regularly, including with Nichelle Nichols, who he would later cast in ‘Star Trek’. He courted Majel Barrett, who also appeared on the show and who he would later marry. He drank, smoked pot, took coke and fell prey to many of Hollywood’s vices that under-pinned show business. Roddenberry however was no innocent kid seduced by the big city, he was a grown man that genuinely believed that human beings could evolve beyond the boring norms that society insisted upon. He imagined a world without sexual mores or racial divides and went further to dream of post-scarcity societies and space exploration.
It is the divide between Roddenberry the Visionary and Roddenberry the Normal Human Being that Parkin explores well in this book. Using a well-researched variety of sources, this biography presents us with an overview of Roddenberry’s work and how it related to the man. Pleasingly, this doesn’t just mean focusing on ‘Star Trek’. Parkin devotes a whole chapter to Roddenberry’s first show, the Marine Corps based drama ‘The Lieutenant’, starring Gary Lockwood as USMC Second Lieutenant William Tiberius Rice (sound familiar?). This show is notable, not only for giving Roddenberry his first taste of creating a show, but also that it featured several ‘Star Trek’ stars such as Nichelle Nichols and Walter Koenig.
As Lockwood’s character name suggests, Roddenberry would recycle his ideas over the years and settle on some character archetypes. The balanced, moral yet pretty boring authority figure as epitomised by Rice and latterly Pike in the ‘Star Trek’ is one and the outsider who understands the potential of humanity but can’t fit in is another, see Spock, Data and Questor. The biography examines the difference between these characters and Roddenberry himself. This is an important part of the creative question: Kirk and Spock undoubtedly work because of the actors playing them, but does that mean they belong more to Shatner and Nimoy or to Roddenberry? It is a question that would not only be played out by fans but also in legal governance, too.
Some of the other creative decisions around ‘Star Trek’ are more clear. Gene L Coon, one of Roddenberry’s producers on ‘Star Trek’, was responsible for much of the terminology and back story that we take for granted in the franchise today. Dying prematurely of cancer in 1973, Coon was never around to counter Roddenberry’s myth-building at conventions that he was the sole driving force behind the programme. Parkin does a good job in exploring this and also other myths that have built up around the programme. There are forensic examinations of the letter-writing campaign that supposedly propelled ‘Star Trek’ into its third season and also a whole page on whether or not a belly button was allowed to be seen on screen.
Overall, Parkin’s biography is a good amalgamation of sources on Roddenberry and performs admirably in perforating the myths around the man while celebrating his creative imagination. However, if you’re a reader of the ‘These Are The Voyages…’ books or listen to the ‘Mission Log’ podcast, which has been referring to the Roddenberry archive for the past few years now, there may be little in the book to surprise you or hold your interest. Rightly or wrongly, Roddenberry was lauded in the past but there’s now been enough time for us to give a more objective view on his achievements.
‘The Impossible Has Happened’ is a good book if you have a passing interest in Roddenberry and want to get to the bottom of some of the rumours you might have heard. If you’re more well-versed in the history of ‘Star Trek’, you will probably appreciate this concise version of the way one of the world’s most famous television shows was created, died and was then reborn over and over. Just don’t ask about the Ferengi sex positions.
(pub: Atrium Press. 389 page hardback. Price: £20.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78131-446-3)
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