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Today in science: Gene Roddenberry

Happy 95th birthday to writer and producer Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek.

Gene Roddenberry with Enterprise in the background. Credit: Letters of Note.

Gene Roddenberry with Enterprise in the background. Image via Letters of Note.

August 19, 1921. Eugene ‘Gene’ Roddenberry was born on this date. He would have been 95 on today’s date in 2016. Roddenberry wrote scripts for many television series before creating his own series, Star Trek, which debuted in 1966, was canceled after just three seasons … and went on to spawn a franchise, consisting of five additional television series, 13 feature films, numerous books, games and toys. Star Trek is now widely considered one of the most popular and influential television series of all time.

The most recent film in the Star Trek film franchise is Star Trek: Beyond, released in 2016. A new television series – Star Trek: Discovery – will begin airing in January 2017.

In 1986, Gene Roddenberry became the first writer and producer to have a star in his honor at the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

The original Star Trek cast. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Desilu Productions, NBC.

The original Star Trek cast, via Wikimedia Commons, Desilu Productions, NBC.

Third from right is Gene Roddenberry with the majority of the original 'Star Trek' cast in 1976 with the Space Shuttle Enterprise in the background. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Third from right is Gene Roddenberry with the majority of the original Star Trek cast in 1976 with the Space Shuttle Enterprise in the background. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Eugene Wesley Roddenberry was born in El Paso, Texas, and, soon after his birth, the family moved to Los Angeles, where his father worked as a police officer. As a child, Gene loved reading fiction. Later, he followed his father’s steps and also became a police officer with the Los Angeles Police Department.

He developed interest in aeronautical engineering and obtained a pilot’s license. He flew 89 combat missions during the World War II from 1941 to 1945. During the war, he was involved in two airplane crashes and was awarded both the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross. After the war, he worked as a commercial pilot and was involved in another crash in June 1947, when the Clipper Eclipse crashed in the Syrian desert. He’s said to have pulled injured passengers out of the burning plane, and to have led the party that sought help.

Roddenberry then returned to the the LA Police Department, where he got some writing experience as a speech writer for the Chief of Police. During this time, he was also an advisor for a television show called Mr. District Attorney. After selling a few scripts for this show and some others, he resigned from the police force in 1956 to become a full-time writer.

A photograph of Gene Roddenberry from 1961, used to advertise for Mutual of New York. Published in Look magazine. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

A photograph of Gene Roddenberry from 1961, used to advertise for Mutual of New York. Published in Look magazine. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Gene created his first series, The Lieutenant, which premiered in 1963. It was cancelled after the first season. While filming The Lieutenant, Roddenberry was already working with many actors who would later appear in the original Star Trek television series including Nichelle Nichols, Leonard Nimoy, and Majel Barrett, who was best known best known for her role as Nurse Christine Chapel in the original Star Trek series and who later became Roddenberry’s wife.

Even as The Lieutenant was being cancelled, Roddenberry had a new idea in mind. On April 24, 1964, he sent three copies of Star Trek to the Writers Guild of America. He later explained:

Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms. […] If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.

Star Trek had a rough beginning and was at first rejected by both NBC and CBS. NBC agreed later on to air it, however, and The Man Trap became the first Star Trek episode on television. It premiered on September 8, 1966 on NBC.

Star Trek’s Nielsen ratings on NBC were low. NBC often threatened to cancel it and finally did, after three seasons and 79 episodes. At that time, Roddenberry said he would never write for television again.

The last episode of Star Trek aired 47 days before Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon.

But Star Trek had fans, devoted fans, who would watch the reruns of the show again and again. Within a few years of cancellation, the series became a hit in broadcast syndication, remaining so throughout the 1970s, and ultimately achieving cult classic status with a profound influence on popular culture.

Gene Roddenberry listening to fans after his lecture at the Student Union of the University of Texas at Austin. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Gene Roddenberry listening to fans after his lecture at the Student Union of the University of Texas at Austin. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Roddenberry worked on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which was a success. He was greatly involved in the creation of the first season Star Trek: The Next Generation, which premiered on September 28, 1987. His input diminished afterward.

During the 1980s, Gene’s health diminished. He died on October 24, 1991 at age 70 in Santa Monica, California.

Gene Roddenberry left a priceless ideological and cultural legacy. The writer and producer did his research, and even though there are many scientific discrepancies in the series, there are also many scientific realities that helped guide the series.

Star Trek inspired many people to support the space program and even to pursue careers in the sciences. He spread the hope that it is, in fact, possible:

… to go where no one has gone before.

Live long and prosper.

Roddenberry's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, via Wikimedia Commons.

Roddenberry’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, via Wikimedia Commons.

Bottom Line: Eugene ‘Gene’ Roddenberry was born 95 years ago today, on August 19, 1921 in El Paso, Texas. Gene gave birth to the famous science fiction series Star Trek, a cult classic that’s inspired many spin-offs that continue to this day.

Daniela Breitman

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