Humanist Trek is a weekly fan podcast about the humanism in Star Trek. Sarah Ray and Allie Ashmead slingshot around the sun back to the 1960’s and the very first pilot episode of Star Trek, “The Cage”. Each week, they journey through the Star Trek catalog recapping and discussing the humanist themes and ideas Gene Roddenberry and the writers were communicating through sci-fi storytelling. You can listen and subscribe at HumanistTrek.com or wherever you replicate your podcasts!
Eugene Wesley “Rod” Roddenbery, Jr. is the son of television legend Gene Roddenberry, creator of the Star Trek franchise. Gene was a member of the American Humanist Association (AHA) and received its Humanist Arts Award in 1991 at the 50th Anniversary AHA Conference in Chicago. His brand of storytelling helped define the sci-fi genre and provided a way to hold a mirror up to humanity making us question our thinking, beliefs, and what it truly means to be human. His humanism informed these stories deeply, and this worldview shaped not only the Star Trek universe, but also his son Rod.
Today, Rod is in the Captain’s chair as CEO of Roddenberry Entertainment, guiding an ever-expanding universe of new Star Trek series and movies, and carrying on the legacy and vision of his father, the Great Bird of the Galaxy, along with Star Trek’s humanist values. Through the Roddenberry Foundation, he brings Gene’s vision of a better tomorrow closer and closer to reality.
The following are excerpts from a conversation with Roddenberry on the Humanist Trek podcast recorded on First Contact Day (April 5, 2023). In the Star Trek universe, this day celebrates the first warp flight by humans. Warp travel being the cornerstone of deep space travel, it is used as a marker to determine when a civilization is ready to become part of a much larger community of other space travelers. In the 1996 feature film Star Trek: First Contact, Vulcans detect the warp signature of the Earth ship and make first contact with humans in Bozeman, Montana on April 5, 2063.
As Rod notes in this conversation, perhaps what we think of as god or gods were just aliens dropping by on their own trek through the stars—or not. But its fun to think about what might be.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. A full transcript and audio of this interview are available at HumanistTrek.com
Sarah Ray: We reached out to you and said, “We do this podcast, would you like to come on and chat with us.” What made you say yes?
Eugene Roddenberry, Jr.: Well, humanist, atheist—I don’t want to sound like I have two totally different personalities, but I would say probably everyone has this now in the day of social media, you have sort of what you’re willing to say publicly and then you have your true thoughts… When it comes to being atheist, humanist, let’s just say it, not believing in God, those are my true feelings. And the fact that there is a group of people out there who wants to discuss this—I welcome that. I’m excited. I wouldn’t call myself a card-carrying atheist, humanist. I just don’t believe in the supernatural.
I love the idea of what could be confused as God, or there’s perhaps energies or science or something out there that might seem mystical to us, that we might interpret or get confused and think its ghosts or whatever the case is. I’m willing to have that discussion. Is there something out there?… Are humans from the future sending images back? I don’t know what it is, but I enjoy it. That’s fun talk, you know? That’s exciting. But if you’re telling me there is a child that died in the 1800s that walks around your house, I’m not gonna say you’re wrong. I’m not gonna say that’s stupid. I’m gonna say I don’t necessarily believe that. But is there some sort of weird something that could be explained by science one day? Is there something happening temporally or whatever that is causing something? That is kind of the cool stuff.
Ray: That’s one of the things I think a lot of people have a hard time with is that idea that it’s okay to say, “I don’t know”. It’s okay to not have the answer. And there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging, “I don’t know. And maybe one day we’ll figure it out. In the meantime, it’s really interesting to think and talk about that”.
Rod: And it’s okay to say, “I don’t believe” either. I don’t believe in God. I don’t even believe in any version of God. If there is a super powerful being out there, it’s an alien who came here and was insecure enough to try to make us worship him, or her, or it. So yeah, I mean that’s a whole other thing.
Allie Ashmead: I understand that growing up you did not watch Star Trek, but that you did get into it a little bit later. Talk about your experience of delving into Star Trek for the first time.
Rod: Yes it is true. I didn’t really watch Star Trek as a kid. I remember my father took my entire elementary school to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture when it came out, I think in 1979. And I was bored out of my mind.
You know, there’s people who grow up and they’re able to be curious about science fiction and see these kinds of movies like 2001 and at a young age really kind of grasp them. I will openly say that I was just a typical little kid who wanted to watch laser fights and action, and explosions. So, I did not watch, nor was I into Star Trek at a young age. I didn’t get into it until, I’d say right around the age of thirteen, fourteen, right around Next Generation.
My father would bring the tapes home every Thursday and I would come home from school and watch ’em. It took me a while. It’s not like day one, episode one, I was into it. I did work on the show as a thirteen-year-old, fourteen-year-old as a PA.
But as a kid I didn’t really appreciate or grasp the magnitude of what I was doing. Even though it was just delivering scripts and coffee. So it took a little while, but, I watched it and I was like, “Oh, you know, I kind of like this. There is a different kind of show besides Knight Rider. It doesn’t have to be just good guys/bad guys. There is complexity.”
So slowly, I’d say over the next fifteen-twenty years, I started to get Star Trek from that moment, and it probably took me about that long to have it fully registered. Well, that’s an exaggeration. I did get it. It’s just that, as you get older and mature and continue to watch Star Trek, you can go back and watch shows again and then see it in a whole new way. Because of how you might mature over time.
Ray: Literally what we’re doing –
Ashmead: -we’re doing right now. That’s exactly what we’re doing.
Ray: We kind of talked a little bit about that in the beginning too, where I think our love of Star Trek came. Mine specifically came directly from The Next Generation because that was the series that was on when I was growing up. There’s just so much about being able to connect with that. I didn’t understand it then either, and it is so much fun now to go back and re-watch it and be like, “Oh my God, that’s what we were talking about. I had no idea! I was watching a fun show in space.”
Ashmead: Yep, me too. I started watching the old Original Series reruns in the ’70s, but I was less than ten years old so I don’t think I knew what I was watching. The reason I watched it was because of my mother and Nichelle Nichols was on there and that’s why she watched it. And like you, I didn’t get the magnitude of what that meant until much later, of having a black woman on the bridge.
Rod: I certainly didn’t get that until much later… My father worked on a show called Star Trek, and I don’t wanna sound like I was completely oblivious, but I had gone to conventions, people revered it, people loved it. I had seen some of it. I thought, “You know, it’s interesting,” but I didn’t get it. And it was when people started coming up to me, telling me stories of how Star Trek changed their lives, whether they were in an abusive relationship, whether they were belittled in any way, whether they were told they could never do anything, whatever the situation was in their life.
And I don’t mean to minimize it by just making it a sound bite, but there are so many incredible and terrible and wonderful stories out there. I was like, “Holy shit! Star Trek did this? Wait a second.” It was this process of me meeting people and learning how Star Trek affected them and inspired them and gave them hope for the future. That made me go like, “Oh wow! Hold on. This thing my father does is a whole lot bigger than just a TV show.” And that’s the “holy shit!” moment. That’s the, “wait, I have to… do I have to carry this on? Wait, I don’t know if I can do this.”
So, yes, the long answer is, as I got older, as I understood more about what Star Trek was, being far beyond just a TV show, then the pressure came on, then the immensity of what this legacy was hit me.
I now feel very comfortable ’cause I’m doing it my way. I am not Gene Roddenberry. I never think I want to be Gene Roddenberry. Of course, I love and admire my father, but I’ll be myself. And I’ll carry it on however I carry it on. There will never be another Gene Roddenberry and I am never gonna measure my success by his and what he created.
I love him. I love Star Trek. I love the messaging and I will fight for the messaging more than I’ll even fight for the show itself because I believe in that future.