The Humanist Interview with Gene Roddenberry

The March/April 1991 issue of the Humanist magazine featured an exclusive, in-depth (twenty-six page!) interview between then-Editor David Alexander and Star Trek creator and humanist Gene Roddenberry. In celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the debut of the original series (the first episode of Star Trek aired on NBC on September 8, 1966) we bring you several excerpts from that interview.

Image via CBS/Paramount
The Humanist: Star Trek: The Next Generation is probably the most humanistic entertainment program that is on television—or, perhaps, ever has been on television. One of the underlying messages of both series is that human beings can, with critical thinking, solve the problems that are facing them without any outside or supernatural help. I was especially impressed with the episode, "Who Watches the Watchers.” A Federation anthropological field team is observing a medieval culture on a planet that had, hundreds of years before, dropped all supernatural beliefs. Captain Picard observes that this was a magnificent accomplishment. Then some technology fails and the observers are themselves observed. The storyline revolves around some of the natives' desire to return to the religion of their forebears since it explained, simply, the existence of the alien observers. One of the subthemes throughout the episode was how easy it was for some people to attribute unexplained events to supernatural causes instead of thinking things through. Picard spends a great deal of time convincing a native leader that he is a mortal like her and not a supreme being. Roddenberry: I've always thought that, if we did not have supernatural explanations for all the things we might not understand right away, this is the way we would be, like the people on that planet. I was born into a supernatural world in which all my people—my family—usually said, "That is because God willed it," or gave other supernatural explanations for whatever happened. When you confront those statements on their own, they just don’t make sense. They are clearly wrong. You need a certain amount of proof to accept anything, and that proof was not forthcoming to support those statements. A great deal of my early training was due to my father who, mysteriously, never showed up in church. I can remember now what things he had to say. He did not think the church was particularly the guidance that he would have pushed me to have. He felt that it was good for me to go to church but be damned careful of what the preachers say. [Laughter] He was caught in two life modes…. The Humanist: What was your father's background? Roddenberry: He left school in the third grade. Later on he taught himself to read and write. He was a very intelligent man. He learned much like I learned. He met people and fastened on to what they were saying. My father was a very common man who got his high school diploma while he was a police officer in Los Angeles. He was very pleased with that. I received a letter which told me a great deal about him. Two elderly ladies wrote from Jacksonville, Florida, when the original series was on NBC. They had watched Star Trek, saw my name, and wrote that they could have predicted that I would have done something like Star Trek because I had talked of such futuristic things when they had met me on my way to Europe to fight in World War I. They thought they had discovered my father and what he was doing long after he came back from the Great War. They thought I was my father. That told me quite a bit. They had remembered him all those years and said some very nice things about him…. The Humanist: Perhaps it is not until we are in our forties or fifties that we can really appreciate our parents. By then, for many of us, it is too late. Roddenberry: Yes, I have so many questions I would like to ask him if he were alive today. I have so different an attitude toward the rights and wrongs of his decisions. He very often said things about religion that wounded my mother in the early days. Later on, he didn’t wound her anymore because, as she grew, she understood that praying to Jesus doesn't solve problems. The Humanist: Did this affect your siblings? Roddenberry: Yes, my brother and sister are nonreligious. In fact, the whole family is. You don't see religious stuff in my family when you are around them. This, in a family that fifteen years before had Tuesday prayer meetings in the house. Mom began that in her early twenties and just drifted out of it in later years. My mother is still living and a pretty shrewd poker player as my driver, Ernie, will acknowledge. The Humanist: I see poker occasionally brought up on both the original and current series. I believe there is a weekly poker game on the Enterprise in the current series. Roddenberry: I agree with Somerset Maugham, who considered poker a test of a person’s intelligence and decency…. The Humanist: It is serendipitous that we are talking about family in this part of the interview, having just watched The Next Generation episode "Family," which is emotionally very powerful. The necessary healing that Captain Picard has to go through after his personal invasion by the alien Borgs and the interaction with his older brother was well-dramatized. That is another hallmark of Star Trek—the very human qualities of the characters. Roddenberry: Yes. That is a compliment. To do a science fiction series and have the characters come anywhere near human is an accomplishment. The Humanist: Some have described you as a modern Jonathan Swift. Would you explain that? Roddenberry: I always enjoyed Jonathan Swift, the lands he went to and the characters he invented. It always seemed to me that the type of writing I was doing was like what Swift did. Swift used his characters to point out stupidities in our own systems of thinking. When you see the Lilliputians fighting and double-crossing each other, you are watching humanity through Swift's eyes. I’ve been sure from the first that the job of Star Trek was to use drama and adventure as a way of portraying humanity in its various guises and beliefs. The result was that Star Trek—in the original series but even more powerfully in the second series—is an expression of my own beliefs using my characters to act out human problems and equations…. The Humanist: Before the original series, you were considering leaving television. If you walked away, what were you going to do? Roddenberry: Well, it goes back to a statement my grandmother made to me many years ago: “Keep pure, keep your head up, keep listening, and something will come along that you can do.” She told me that one of the tricks of life was to keep pure. By that she meant keep true to your own beliefs. There are always opportunities. I would hate to think that, if I hadn’t done Star Trek, I wouldn’t have found something else that means just as much to me. The Humanist: Now that you are doing a syndicated program instead of a network show, do you have greater freedom to say what you want to say? Is there more or less censorship on television now? Roddenberry: The areas to be censored vary as time goes on. The censorship we had in the early days was related to skin and kisses and the like. That level of censorship would not be acceptable today because audiences are becoming more educated. However, the truly serious things that we can be censored about are criticisms about the military-industrial complex and advertising. You have to tread very carefully around advertising because it uses television to whet appetites and sell products. You’ve got to be careful about that…. The Humanist: I read your observation about what television is—a giant medium to sell products. Roddenberry: Yes. Unfortunately, also to sell ideas—like that America is pure and decent and the rest of the world, depending on its relative darkness, is less so. There are two giant waves that are going on. There is the wave of the things which control television and make a lot of money, but there is also the wave of intelligence. It is said that we double our knowledge every seven years. If you take the time this phenomenon has been going on, we have quintupled our knowledge since the early days of television. Our knowledge has grown enormously, and the television audience's knowledge, even an untutored audience, has been growing. There is a limit to how much of a smokescreen you can throw up. There is a limit to what the audience will believe and accept willingly…. The Humanist: You had equality among the sexes and race with black, Asian, and female officers on the bridge. In the timeframe that the series was set—the twenty-third century—these things were taken as normal and unremarkable, but it was all quite advanced for mid-twentieth-century television. Roddenberry: Yes. For example, I tend to think that in the future it won’t seem at all strange that women are treated as the equals of men. I remember when NBC said to me, "How many women do you have on the ship?” They thought that we certainly couldn't have a ship's complement that was half men and half women. NBC commented that I should consider the amount of hanky-panky that would be going on if the ship were equally divided among the sexes. We argued, and I finally agreed with NBC that I would make the ship one-third women—thinking to myself, with a chuckle, that one third of a crew complement of healthy women could certainly handle the men anyway. It did not seem strange to me that I would use different races on the ship. Perhaps I received too good an education in the 1930s school I went to, because I knew what proportion of people and races the world population consisted of. I had been in the Air Force and had traveled to foreign countries. Obviously, these people handled themselves mentally as well as anyone else. I guess I owe a great part of this to my parents. They never taught me that one race or color was at all superior. I remember in school seeking out Chinese students and Mexican students simply because the idea of different cultures fascinated me. So, having not been taught that there is a pecking order in people, a superiority of race or culture, it was natural that my writing went that way. The Humanist: Was there some pressure on you from the network to make Star Trek "white people in space?" Roddenberry: Yes, there was, but not terrible pressure. Comment like, “C'mon, you're certainly not going to have blacks and whites working together.” That sort of thing. I said that if we don't have blacks and whites working together by the time our civilization catches up to the timeframe the series is set in, there won’t be any people. I guess my argument was so sensible it stopped even the zealots. In the first show, my wife, Majel Barrett, was cast as the second-in-command of the Enterprise. The network killed that. The network brass of the time could not handle a woman being second-in-command of a spaceship. In those days, it was such a monstrous thought to so many people, I realized that I had to get rid of her character or else I wouldn't get my series on the air. In the years since I have concentrated on reality and equality, and we've managed to get that message out… The Humanist: How is the Gene Roddenberry of today different compared to the Gene Roddenberry of twenty to twenty-five years ago? Roddenberry: He's a more educated man. There is a great deal of education in what I do. There are magazines and books that I read regularly and a process of education that I dearly hope will continue. I like me now, which is a change from my mid-thirties and forties. The Humanist: What do you attribute that change to? Roddenberry: I think it is ridding my mind of a lot of foolish passions, accepting myself as I am. I find that I'm growing and hope I will continue in that process. Not being so sure of everything and having an open curiosity is also important. I think I have, for example, a political philosophy now, but I have no guarantee that it won't change or, more correctly, evolve further. I don't think it is going to change markedly, but I am capable of changing as I learn more about the world and myself. Once I was very difficult to deal with. In my early years, I had set up the things a person must do to be a "proper person." That became a problem for my later years. I have discovered that we're not all proper people and that we're all very capable of error. At one time, I was very strict with my friends and associates and now I work at giving them the same affection I give myself. I guess in my majority years, somewhere along the line, I must have said to myself: "Hey, you’re not a bad person. Yes, you make mistakes, but you constantly strive to overcome that and to repair them. I’ve noticed, Gene, that as the years go by you’ve changed your points of view on things, which I like to see in a human and in a humanist." I think I try to continually perfect myself without any hope of reaching ultimate perfection. It is a marvelous journey.Tags: