“Star Wars stood on the shoulders of Star Trek,” said George Lucas

Eugene ‘Rod’ Roddenberry talks exclusively to SciFiNow about his documentary Trek Nation, exploring the impact of the fandom, and meeting George Lucas

Trek Nation JJ Abrams

Trek Nation JJ Abrams
Star Trek reboot director JJ Abrams with Rod Roddenberry

Where did the idea for Trek Nation come from?

I have to say it came from up until my father passed away, maybe back even further. As a young child I didn’t really understand Star Trek, I didn’t care about it, I did my own thing. I knew my father worked on it but I didn’t get it. After he passed away, my eyes and ears were opened to the phenomenon of Star Trek because I heard stories of how it touched people’s lives.

I didn’t believe that a TV show could do that, let alone my father, so I started to explore fandom at conventions and events, and learned for them how impactful it was, and then wanted to do a documentary that focused on the diversity of fans, from where they are in different places in the world, what their socio-economic backgrounds they are, what their religions are, what their political belief systems they had – how this diverse group of fans all shared belief in this one future. That’s the commonality, that Star Trek could actually unite so many people of difference.

And so that was the first idea I had for – I don’t even know if I want to call it a documentary – but for something on Star Trek. Then I met a gentleman by the name of Scott Colthorp, who really said “It’s the father/son thing we need to bring to fruition here, something that we need to make a reality that will hold everything together.” So he bought in that angle, and I was somewhat resistant to it at the time because it felt odd, it felt a little self-serving to have me in the documentary. My initial plan was just to have the fans, but after a long while I understood that a son searching to understand who his father was, was more of a universal story.

Did you grow up around Star Trek, and was having it as part of a furniture a reason you never really considered it?

Quite the opposite! I enjoyed Star Wars – I had a Star Wars birthday party, much to my father’s dismay. I enjoyed Dukes Of Hazzard and Knight Rider. Star Trek was on late Sixties, early Seventies, and as I was becoming a young boy watching TV, that was the late Seventies, early Eighties, and that was cartoons and other shows.

Believe it or not, I didn’t see Star Trek on that much and I didn’t take notice of it – it was too serious. I was a kid, I wanted kid thing. Star Trek wasn’t around that much, my father would bring home something from the office now and then, and to me it was just a toy – I had no concept of what Star Trek was. I knew there was a TV show called Star Trek, my father said he was a producer on it, but I didn’t know what that meant, and mostly, I didn’t care.

Did anyone from the show ever come home?

Shatner and Nimoy, I can tell you for certain, at least when I was in school, didn’t come round every evening for drinks, and sit by the fire and talk about Trek, I didn’t see those guys very often, except at an event. I knew my father was definitely friends with DeForrest Kelly and definitely James Doohan – we’ve got some great family video of my father, he and James Doohan and their wives would go out on a boat that my father had, which was appropriately named ‘Star Trek’, and so they spent social time together. I think that might have been prior to my birth, but I did not see a lot of Star Trek at home.

How did you first become aware of how big it really was and how much it meant to people?

Actually, that’s a difficult question to answer because it took many years. Every time I thought I’d learnt something about Star Trek and how “big” it was, next year it was even bigger when I met someone else, internationally. I think the moment of realisation was at my father’s memorial service, I don’t know if there’s a word called pre-realisation, where a few stories were told about Star Trek and how impactful it was, and it was really more me being vulnerable, and having my eyes and ears opening , and hearing these stories and internalising them. That would be the genesis of my initial understanding of how big Star Trek was, and then it just grew from there.

Was there anything you discovered while making Trek Nation that really surprised you?

A tremendous amount! What you see in the documentary, is anything from two to five per cent of the documentary – it took little over ten years to do, we shot close to 200 hours of footage, and I don’t mean b-reel, actual interviews! There was a tremendous amount of diversity of interviews and I learnt how diverse fandom is, and how so many people have taken such value from Star Trek. In terms of my father, I learnt a tremendous amount about him and his history, I learnt about his views, I learnt about the good and the bad. I don’t want to give anything away that’s in the documentary, but my father sort of had two families – there was the Star Trek family, which includes the fandom and the cast, and of course his biological family, me.

There were tons of people who’d say “He was like a father to me”, or “I looked at him like a father”, and during the journey – because doing Trek Nation was a real journey – I went through waves of emotion as I realised things and learned things. And there was a large part of it that was jealousy – how could these people love my father, it seems more than I do? Not that I don’t, but there’s real reverence out there, and so many people got to work with him and have special times with him – like Wil Wheaton. There was definitely a father/son type of relationship there, and Wil would tell me stories and I would get extremely jealous because I never got to do that.

What I came to the realisation of, was that I basically have a few million brothers and sisters. It wasn’t me versus them, it was a we, and we all got to experience to different sides of my father. And we all got to benefit, through them, of hearing different stories, of hearing different interactions, whether as a fan who met my father in an elevator, or as Wil Wheaton who spent a lot of time in his office. I’m very happy, and very comfortable – there’s definitely a sense of fulfilment after I talked through this with my friends and family, I came to a strong realisation that it’s not me versus them, it’s a sharing, we’re brothers and sisters, and as an only child, I didn’t know what that was like.

It must be really overwhelming to think that the relationship you shared with your father, is something you share with so many people you don’t even know.

It has been, and I think I’ll be processing it for the rest of my life. I learn more everyday, but then again I’ve had an opportunity far greater than so many other sons and daughters who have lost their parents. I have a huge legacy, whether it’s books, whether it’s speeches, whether it’s episodes, whether it’s fans. I probably know more about my father now than I would have if he was alive today – that doesn’t mean I don’t wish he was still around, of course I wish he was still around, but to have this opportunity so few people have is tremendous.

Trek Nation interview Enterprise
Rod Roddenberry talking to protesting Star Trek: Enterprise fans in Trek Nation

What was it like meeting George Lucas? There’s obviously a rivalry between Star Trek and Star Wars, is this something the fans have projected onto it?

It’s definitely something the fans have projected. We got in touch with his office, I think we sent a letter, and sure enough he responded. I think Mr Lucas appreciated the father/son journey, it only became apparent during the interview with him – I thought it was maybe him and his father, or something like that, but his world is father/son – Luke and Darth Vader.

It may be obvious, but it was only during the interview I realised how obvious the father/son relationship was to him. He was so gracious, so respectful, so kind, and I have to say, extremely genuine, he would say a lot of flattering things about my father, but they didn’t come off as just buzzwords, they didn’t come off as just lines he was trying to feed me.

As he got comfortable with who I was in the interview, and that my journey was a genuine one, he really opened up and said some amazing things, like “Star Wars stood on the shoulders of Star Trek.” One of my favourite interviews for sure, by far, and I have tremendous respect for him having had that opportunity to have met with him.

I’d never done a documentary before, nobody on my team had done a documentary before, so we didn’t approach it, in my opinion, as organised as we should have. So we didn’t have a script, nor did we have the five questions we had to make sure to ask every interviewee. We interviewed people that became a conversation that would go anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours.

Each of our interviews – I’d feel comfortable saying there’s not one that’s less than 45 minutes, there’s tons of material. And what you see with JJ Abrams or maybe George, is 60 seconds, or two minutes, in total, and there’s so much good things were said, and there’s so much good stuff that we’re going to have an amazing DVD that comes out, probably a year from now or a little bit longer.

We’re gonna come out with a DVD sooner, but it’s just the movie, maybe with some commentary, but we’re working really hard since we have so mant extras to put in, to secure a deal and put a really kick ass DVD together for sometime late 2013.

Has working on Trek Nation made you appreciate Star Trek: The Original Series a lot more?

I guess it was even before Trek Nation – there was fandom, there was going to conventions. After my father passed away I went to college, after college I had the opportunity to work on a TV show that my mom started, using some of my father’s old notes called Earth: Final Conflict. It had a good a very good first season, and in my opinion lost its way after that.

However, during that process, being as emotionally involved as I was in learning about my father, I became very proud of my father, and I wanted to make sure the show I was working on represented the name. I explored what Roddenberry meant, and explored the phenomenon of Star Trek and fandom. I spent a tremendous amount of time watching Star Trek and talking to the fans, and learning what it was about this TV show that touched so many people.

So that’s really where I learnt a tremendous amount about Star Trek, my father, and fandom and that all culminated in this desire to make this documentary.

What else are you working on?

The Roddenberry Foundation is a big part of my life right now. The main idea is that the future that my father envisioned is something that we want to make a reality, so we’re working with organisations which are on the cutting edge of innovation, who are looking toward solving some of humanity’s long term problems. So that’s something that I’m very, very proud of and you can find that at Roddenberryfoundation.org.