Writing Lessons from Gene Roddenberry

Writers are often asked who their influences are.  The most literate of us will rattle off a multitude of the classical masters – Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Hugo, Kafka, Flaubert, Joyce, Proust; others will offer more contemporary choices like Melville, Hemingway, Kerouac, Fitzgerald, Marquez.  Still others will rely on the latter half of the 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st:  DeLillo, Morrison, Franzen, even J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer.  You’ll of course have the hipsters who will proclaim their allegiance to some underground deconstructionism theorist you’ve never heard of.  But for all of us, inspiration is where we find it, even if it’s in a dime-store potboiler by a forgotten hack that you simply can’t put down.

I’ve decided to devote a few blog posts to talking about the influences on my writing.  I’ve wanted a career in writing of some form or another ever since I was young.  As a junior reader I devoured Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series, and my first effort at a “novel” was a forty-page hand-written knockoff called A Champion is Born.  I had great plans for that little book.  It was going to be published and make me a literary sensation at the tender age of 9.  I even had five or six sequels plotted out before puberty set in and my interest in horse racing abated in favour of a fascination with those far more mysterious and wonderful creatures, girls.  There is probably still a copy of A Champion is Born packed away in a box somewhere, best left as a memory of a simpler time.  Not to be too hard on a 9-year-old, but the biggest problem with that story, aside from its lack of originality, was that it wasn’t about anything.  It was the story of a rich kid with no problems who inherits a horse and ends up winning the Kentucky Derby.  You’re asleep already.

About the same time girls were becoming less icky and more ensorcelling, I discovered Star Trek.  An English writer named James Blish had novelized most of the episodes of the original series and these adaptations were bound into four “Star Trek Readers” that had been the property of my uncle and fell into my hands when my grandmother decided to do some spring cleaning.  I had flipped past the show without any great interest, thinking it “weird.”  But I loved those books.  That image of the kid under his bed with the flashlight?  That was me reading the tales of Kirk and Spock.  It wasn’t long before I decided I should see what these books were about.  At that time the only opportunity to see Trek on television was on CBC, Saturday mornings at 11.  You couldn’t tear me away.  Great screaming matches resulted if the parents attempted to insist on grocery shopping or other meaningless errands.

The story of the creation of the original Star Trek is a fascinating one.  Former police officer Gene Roddenberry wants to do a television series addressing topical issues like racism and the Vietnam War.  In the 1960’s, network executives want nothing to do with that.  Roddenberry’s solution is brilliant – set the show in outer space and tell those same stories as allegories and parables.  Instead of whites oppressing blacks, make it about blues oppressing greens.  Cast it with minorities in roles other than houseboy and comic relief.  Sneak the relevance past the network suits who can’t see beyond the weird makeup and special effects.  In ways that seem obvious to us now, Roddenberry breaks new ground and creates a series whose message resonates with millions of people so deeply that five spinoffs, eleven movies and hundreds of episodes later it has become far more than its creator ever could have imagined.  Why?  Well, the simplest answer is that it was about something.

Fundamentally, the purpose of all literature in whatever its form is to answer the question of what it means to be human.  Whatever I’m writing, I’m always mindful of that question – if I’m not, all I’m contributing is background noise.  Gene Roddenberry’s eyes were on the stars but his feet were on the ground.  That’s what made Star Trek work, and why it and not say, Lost in Space, became the classic it remains.  The lesson I take from him is that no matter what you are writing, no matter how out there the setting or how bizarre the characters seem, the story should always be about something.  The trick, as he showed with Star Trek, is to veil that “message” beneath a frame of entertainment.  People don’t want to be lectured.  They want to enjoy themselves.  To reach that audience then, there should be two levels to every story – what happens in it, and what it is about.  The two should be closely intertwined, but the latter should be hidden away, a treasure that must be unearthed, the nutrients beneath the sweet taste.  That, I believe, is what separates greatness from hackery and feasts from mere snacks.

Gene Roddenberry wasn’t the first person to figure this out, but it was his work that revealed it first to me.  For that I’m eternally grateful.  So if you read something here that you like, a tiny part of it is thanks to Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock.

Live long and prosper.

5 thoughts on “Writing Lessons from Gene Roddenberry

  1. Roddenbury had an abiding faith in Mankind mayhaps a bit naively for Man is a warring animal and without conflict tends to stagnate. He had a vision and who knows maybe a window into our future. He also had the ability to make others see what might be. The only complaint I have about Star Trek was casting Shatner as Kirk. Shatner is a trained Shakespearean and a bit too over the top in his performances.

    1. Shatner? Over the top? Surely you jest. But a starship captain is a variation on the classic archetype of the hero, and should be larger than life.

      Roddenberry is fascinating to me as another deeply flawed man – like Lennon – who saw a better future and wanted to share it with the world.

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