Gene Roddenberry between Star Treks





After the Star Trek: The Original Series 

On June 3, 1969, the 79th and the last episode of the original Star Trek (now referred to as Star Trek: The Original Series or ST: TOS) series, “The Turnabout Intruder”, was broadcast and the series ended its first run on TV.  Gene Roddenberry, the show’s creator and producer, had not been involved with the show for a year. The last episode Roddenberry had produced had been the second season’s final entry, “Assignment: Earth”. 


Roddenberry, sometimes called “The Great Bird of The Galaxy” by some staff members of Star Trek had backed off from the job of show-runner because NBC had moved ST: TOS to Friday night at ten o’clock, then known as the “TV death-slot”. Roddenberry demanded that the series be moved back to its original time-slot. The network executives refused to do so. An angry and frustrated Roddenberry stepped away from day-to-day producing, although he remained as executive producer. Fred Freiberger took over as producer and the day-to-day show runner.


While the poorly received third season of Star Trek ground on, Roddenberry worked on new projects, hoping to move away from science fiction. He also needed to make money, as Star Trek had yet to become a cultural phenomenon and was certainly not yet a financial success. 

Roddenberry had back-doored a pilot for an espionage and sci-fi mash-up series called Assignment: Earth into the second season of ST: TOS. The would-be series would have followed the adventures of Gary Seven (Robert Lansing), a human reared, educated and trained by aliens and his Girl Friday, the normal human, Roberta Lincoln (Teri Garr), as they struggled to prevent humanity from destroying itself.  NBC did not pick up the series. Also, in 1968 Roddenberry co-wrote the book The Making of Star Trek with Stephen E. Whitfield. The first book of its kind; examining the behind the scenes of producing a TV show. The book sold well and went into multiple printings. Roddenberry received 50% of the royalties from sells of the book.

Next, Roddenberry wrote a script for a new Tarzan tv movie which concentrated on the Lord Greystoke part of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ ape-man. The project never made it to film. After the cancellation of ST: TOS. Roddenberry declared he would never work on a TV show again. This turned out to be a promise he could not afford to keep.

As a favor, Herbert Solow, the executive in charge of Star Trek for Desilu Studios, got Roddenberry the assignment as the writer and producer for the 1971 sexploitation film, Pretty Maids All in a Row, which paid him $100,000. Roger Vadim, then husband of Jane Fonda and famed for Barbarella, directed the film. The movie was a dark comedy and murder mystery which also featured copious nudity and sexual situations with several new, and nubile young actresses who were billed as “the Pretty Maids”. Despite this and the fact that the feature starred Rock Hudson and Angie Dickson, it was panned by the critics and flopped at the box office. Pretty Maids was Roddenberry’s only big screen writing credit. His chance of becoming  a big screen success gone, Roddenberry had no choice but to turn back to television.


Roddenberry became depressed, later saying of the period: "My dreams were going downhill because I could not get work after the original series was cancelled” and that he was "perceived as the guy who made the show that was an expensive flop.”   He was now also in hard financial straits. He was divorced, owed alimony, had two children to support and had married Majel Barret in Japan while working on Pretty Maids. In a later interview Roddenberry said: "For a couple of years our only income was lecture fees I got from colleges where kids still loved Star Trek, even though it was not a commercial success." 


Roddenberry now felt he had been “typecast” as a writer and producer of science fiction, despite getting his start in Westerns, police shows and military dramas. His first creative award had been the 1958 Writers Guild of America Award for Best Original Screenplay for the episode, "Helen of Abajinan" in the Western series, Have Gun - Will Travel.  Although in 1971 he did sell a script for the Western series, Alias Smith and Jones, he never managed to do any more work outside of science fiction genre. About this time, Roddenberry decided to embrace his “typecasting” and began to try and revive Star Trek in various forms and also to write and produce new science-fiction TV shows.  


In 1972 NBC execs offered the idea of reviving Star Trek as a TV movie. When asked about the idea, Roddenberry said: "My own feeling is not to go back into television. I'd like to have a series of Star Trek feature films in the theaters, like Planet of the Apes has done.” He also stated that he thought there was an audience of “at least three million” that would pay to see a Star Trek feature film. After that, the idea of the TV movie was dropped.


Roddenberry and Star Trek: The Animated Series


During the last season of ST: TOS Lou Scheimer of Filmation Studios approached Paramount, NBC, and Roddenberry about creating an animated spin-off series.  This proposed animated series would have featured a teenaged crew of the starship Excalibur being trained by the original crew.  However, due to a bitter dispute between Roddenberry and Paramount over money and merchandising, Scheimer was unable to complete the deal. But in early 1973, Roddenberry and Paramount put aside their differences and the deal was done to produce the animated show. The deal was exceptionally generous for a Saturday morning cartoon, with a guaranteed minimum of two seasons with a least 22 episodes, a budget of $75,000 per episode, and with Roddenberry in full creative control. 


Roddenberry, as executive producer, hired back many of original cast; William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelly, James Doohan, Majel Barret and ultimately Nichelle Nichols and George Takei. He also employed many veterans of ST: TOS. Dorothy Catherine "D. C." Fontana, the story editor for ST: TOS was hired as the series' story editor and producer. Also, regardless of the meager payment for writers at a mere $1,300 USD per script, with no residuals, many well-known writers wrote for the series. For example, Larry Niven wrote “The Slaver Weapon” adapted from his story “The Soft Weapon” and David Gerrold, who wrote “The Trouble With Tribbles” script for the original series wrote two episodes for the cartoon.  Further several stories and characters continued from the original into the animated series for example, the tribbles along with Cyrano Jones. Harry Mudd made an appearance. The Guardian of Forever from “The City of the Edge of Forever” also appears in the time-travel episode “Yesteryear”, as well as many others. 


The animated series won the Emmy in 1974 for "Outstanding Children’s Series". However, just as with the live action series, despite the loyalty of the audience and the great reviews, the show was not a financial success and lasted only two seasons with the second season having just six episodes. 


Genesis II and Planet Earth and Strange New World


Once ST: TAS was up and running, and the first season, largely thanks to D.C. Fontana going forward smoothly, Roddenberry started to work on another live action series pilot, titled Genesis II.  Despite the number in the title, the show was not a sequel. The pilot was broadcast as a TV movie in March 1973.


The plot told the story of NASA scientist Dylan Hunt (Alex Cord). While testing a suspended animation system in 1979 in Carlsbad Caverns, an earthquake struck causing a cave-in and Hunt was lost. Hunt was found and revived by "PAX" (the Latin word for "peace") in 2133 after a third World War called "The Great Conflict".  PAX members are explorers and scientists who are preserving information and technology which survived the Great Conflict. They are also pacifists.  They use an advanced "sub-shuttle", an underground rapid transit system which spans the globe, to explore and re-discover information.  After some adventures, including organizing a slave revolt and destroying an enemy nuclear missile, Hunt agrees to not kill any more and joins PAX in their quest to rebuild a new and better world. 


The show did well enough in the ratings for CBS to order 20 scripts written for the potential series. The scripts were largely written by Roddenberry and many trod the same ground as scripts from TS: TOS for example: In "Robots Return”, the sophisticated computers left on a moon of Jupiter by a NASA have evolved into a new form of machine life and come to Earth in search of the "God" which created them. They meet Hunt and consider him the messiah. This story clearly shares similarities to the ST: TOS episode "The Changeling", written by John Meredyth Lucas. 


In "The Electric Company", Hunt and his PAX team find a place where a priesthood holds a primitive society in thrall through the clever use of electricity. Dylan's team puts an end the tyranny when they come up with still better tricks. This episode resembles the Star Trek episode "Return of the Archons", written by Boris Sobelman, based on a story by Roddenberry. 

Ultimately, CBS decided not to produce the Genesis II series and went with the Planet of the Apes series instead, which flopped and was canceled after half a season. 


ABC now approached Roddenberry to produce a second pilot around the same concept. Roddenberry and Juanita Bartlett (who later wrote for The Rockford Files) took a script Roddenberry wrote for Genesis II called “the Poodle Shop” about a society of women who keep men as pets and rewrote it into the TV movie, as a second pilot, Planet Earth. John Saxon replaced Alex Cord as Dylan Hunt and PAX was revised into a high-tech society that lived in a above ground city. But the second pilot retained many of the ideas from the first, such as the “sub-shuttle” and the pacifism of PAX. Broadcast in April, 1974, Planet Earth was well received by the critics and did well in the ratings, but ABC chose to not produce it as a series over creative differences with Roddenberry.  


In 1975 a third and final movie, Strange New World, was aired. This movie also starred John Saxon, but this time as Captain Anthony Vico. The plot was that a trio of astronauts returned to an Earth devastated by an asteroid storm after 180 years in suspended animation. Their mission was to reach PAX headquarters and revive the people there being held in suspended animation. Roddenberry was not directly involved in Strange New World. As a result, many changes were made in order to avoid potential legal action. Strange New World was not developed into a series, either.


The Questor Tapes and Spectre  


Next Roddenberry and writer Gene L. Coon produced The Questor Tapes. The show was about an android named Questor (Robert Foxworth) with an incomplete memory who was seeking both his creator and the reason he was created.  Helping him in his quest was Jerry Robinson (Mike Farrell) one of the scientists who helped assemble Questor. 


Produced for Universal, this was the last time Roddenberry and Coon worked together as Coon was ill and died before the movie started shooting. D. C. Fontana was hired to write the novelization of the script. Leonard Nimoy was originally cast as Questor, but in a surprising and unexplained move, Roddenberry dumped Nimoy for Foxworth without even telling the Star Trek alumnus. Nimoy found out he had been fired when he bumped into Foxworth on the studio lot.     


The Questor Tapes aired on January 23, 1974 on NBC and did well enough in the ratings that it received a 13-episode order from the network. However, both NBC and Universal wanted major changes to the series, notably ignoring the revelation that Questor and his predecessors were to: “protect, but we do not interfere. Man must make his own way. We guide him; but always without his knowledge” and also removing the key character of Jerry Robinson. This was too much for Roddenberry, who walked away and the series was abandoned without a single episode being produced.


Now Roddenberry tried something very different from his previous work, Spectre. Spectre was created, written, and produced by Roddenberry and aired on NBC May 21, 1977. The show was a supernatural thriller about paranormal investigators played by Gig Young and Robert Culp combating powerful and frightening force troubling a wealthy London banker. The TV movie was ratings flop and after that Roddenberry swore off trying to get another TV series on the air. 


However, Paramount now offered Roddenberry a chance to revive Star Trek on television as Star Trek: Phase II. Many of the original cast was rehired, excluding Leonard Nimoy, so a new actor was hired to play a new Vulcan character. Paramount gave Roddenberry an order for a pilot and 13 episodes.  After some twists and turns, including the release of Star Wars, Paramount cancelled the series without the pilot being produced and shifted the effort into making Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The film was released on December 7, 1979 and was a major hit, making $139 million dollars on a $46 million-dollar budget.  


The Great Bird of the Galaxy without his Galaxy


From 1969 to 1979, the live action shows Roddenberry produced, besides Pretty Maids All in a Row, where he was merely a “hired gun”, and Spectre, where he was consciously seeking to do something different, were attempts to recapture the lightning in a bottle that was Star Trek.   


In Genesis II, Planet Earth and, of course ST: TAS, Roddenberry often explored the same themes and subjects that he had done in ST: TOS. In the two TV pilots and despite the post-apocalypse setting, Roddenberry stated that the Genesis II/Planet Earth concept was possibly even more intrinsically optimistic than the concept of Star Trek. He said: “The concept of the show says look, we can survive even this, the destruction of our civilization.” 


While in The Questor Tapes there are clear parallels to Data from the Next Generation, as an artificial intelligence struggles to understand humanity and perhaps find their own humanity.


Ultimately, Roddenberry’s failures with other shows besides those with the Star Trek franchise were because Star Trek is unique. In creating Star Trek, Roddenberry, like many great visionaries, had fused two elements, Westerns, thus Roddenberry’s famous pitch line: “A Wagon Train to the Star” and the optimism and ambitions of the New Frontier and Great Society to build a better society. By combining the two elements he created something that in retrospect seems the product of genius and also has a special, universal appeal. This was something that could not be re-created, even by the Great Bird of the Galaxy. Star Trek: The Next Generation writer and producer Burton Armus, said it best when he said “Look, Roddenberry can’t write very well. He came out with a concept that suddenly got hot, so he moved his house into this spaceship and he lived on it for the rest of his life.”



Sources:


Alexander, David. Star Trek Creator (New York: ROC Books, 1994).


Gross, Edward and Mark A. Altman. The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek; Volumes One and Two (New York: Thomas Dunne, 2016)


Bond, Jeff. "Reviews: Gene Roddenberry's 'Genesis II' & 'Planet Earth." TrekMovie.com. (23 October 2009). Retrieved 24 August 2019.


Engel, Joel. Gene Roddenberry: The Myth and the Man Behind Star Trek. (New York: Hyperion, 1994).


Van Hise, James. The Man Who Created Star Trek: Gene Roddenberry. (Las Vegas: Pioneer Books, 1992)


Ingram, Billy. “Gene Roddenberry: What Might Have Been.” TVParty.com. Retrieved 24 August 2019 

 





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