The Impossible Has Happened: The Life and Work of Gene Roddenberry, Creator of Star Trek

Before I start this review proper, a couple of notes. Firstly, to apologise to my Goodreads friends, who will see this both on my blog feed and in the reviews — an unfortunate problem with having one’s blog syndicated to a review site.
Secondly to say that Lance Parkin is a Facebook friend of mine, and that I received this as a review copy from his publishers (unrequested — I was actually on their list for an earlier book of his, which I rather shamefully didn’t review because it coincided with a period of illness — but gratefully received). While I don’t think that either of those things have affected my review — as with many of my writer friends, I got to know him because I admired his work, rather than the other way around — you might want to bear them in mind.

The Impossible Has Happened is subtitled The Life and Work of Gene Roddenberry, Creator of Star Trek, but in truth the work takes centre stage. This is not a book like Parkin’s previous biography (Magic Words, which will remain the definitive biography of Alan Moore for many years to come) which goes into every detail of the subject’s upbringing and social status; rather the first forty-plus years of Roddenberry’s life are summed up in the first forty or so pages of the book — and most of that is spent looking at which actors he worked with would later appear in Star Trek, or what ideas from his earlier series The Lieutenant would be reused for his more famous show.

But this is not in any way a demerit of the book. Put simply, Roddenberry was clearly just not a very interesting person for anything other than his one famous creation. The picture one gets of him from this book, no matter how sympathetic Parkin is towards him (and he is) is of a repellent individual, physically and emotionally abusive towards his first wife and a serial sexual harasser of women who worked for him, horribly insecure about his own work, and even more insecure about the people who arguably did far more of the work than Roddenberry himself. Basically, move the life of Bob Kane forward in time thirty years, and stick him in the middle of the “sexual revolution”, with all the ambiguously unpleasant attitudes towards women that entails, and you have Roddenberry.

Parkin really does try his best to see Roddenberry’s good points, as well as his bad ones — this is a scrupulously fair-minded book — but the story becomes very clear, and rather depressing. Roddenberry was a mediocre writer of TV melodrama who came up with a reliable formula for a space adventure show, which other, more talented, people (mostly Gene Coon, DC Fontana, Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner) turned into a mildly successful TV series Roddenberry was slowly edged away from. Thanks largely to an actor (Leonard Nimoy) Roddenberry disliked and who loathed Roddenberry so much he would barely mention his name, the show developed the kind of female fanbase that sustains TV shows after they’ve been cancelled, and as with so much genre TV fandom, those fans reinvented the show in their own image, taking a handful of odd bits of background detail here and there and extrapolating them until the show became, in their minds, a vision of a utopian future.

And Roddenberry was unsuccessful enough in everything else he did, while also being a massive egotist and claimer of credit for others’ work, that he eventually seems to have convinced himself that he had created that future, and the man who couldn’t write a description of a female character without talking about how much like a stripper she was found himself playing the role of a frustrated utopian visionary whose great work had been watered down by those philistine executives.

But he became a genuine advocate for this fan-created vision of the show, and genuinely seemed to believe that the progressive, liberal, future the fans saw in his work was one worth creating, worth fighting for, and worth turning into TV and films.

He got the chance to do just that when the opportunity arose to make Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which went woefully over budget due in large part to Roddenberry’s constant tweaking of the script to make it fit his conflict-free utopian vision. While I have a lot more time for that film than most, and while it was a massive hit, Paramount decided once again to ease Roddenberry out of his creation — he hated the subsequent films, for which he basically got paid to shut up and go away — because it was regarded as being dull and lacking drama, and because no-one liked working with him.

He then had the chance again to put “his” vision of Star Trek on the screen, with The Next Generation. And once again, it was a success, but regarded as lacking in drama, and no-one liked working with him, and he was slowly eased out of the show.

In many ways it’s a horribly sad story — the story of a very flawed man discovering the possibility of a better person within him, but then also discovering that that better person is, if anything, less likeable and successful than he was to start with. On the other hand, Roddenberry was probably comforted at least somewhat by the multi-million dollar annual income and the adoration of hundreds of thousands of fans, and all the people telling him he’d changed their lives. Would that we could all be such failures.

Parkin’s book is extremely well-written, with a very light touch that belies the amount of research it must have taken. While it doesn’t give Roddenberry the man the same amount of attention his earlier book gave Moore, that’s more to do with the relative statures of the two figures — Moore is, whatever one thinks of him as a person, a very serious artist, while Roddenberry simply wasn’t. At times it seems as if he was only the stone in the stone soup that was Star Trek, responsible for nothing of what made it work. That’s probably an exaggeration, but scarcely less of one than the official Trek history version where the show sprang fully-formed from Roddenberry’s brow. The fact that Parkin manages to make Roddenberry, despite all his flaws, into someone with whom it’s impossible not to sympathise, shows what a skilled writer Parkin is, as well as what a fascinating show Roddenberry created.

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6 Responses to The Impossible Has Happened: The Life and Work of Gene Roddenberry, Creator of Star Trek

  1. prankster36 says:

    I’ll definitely have to check this out. Your description here seems to confirm the picture that’s been forming of Roddenberry in my own mind, and which the official fan hagiography from my childhood completely wrote around: that Roddenberry wasn’t very talented but then ended up being eaten by his own creation, in a *good* way. (Comparing him to Bob Kane seems a little harsh, though–pretty sure Roddenberry never literally took credit for stuff he didn’t write.)

    Star Trek really is the pop cultural equivalent of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, isn’t it? A legend that far outgrew and ennobled the actual people involved in it.

  2. Tilt Araiza says:

    Any good stuff about Have Gun, Will Travel?

  3. plok says:

    I think I believe that Roddenberry was actually quite a good writer of TV melodrama!

    I mean where is the Shakespeare to measure him against. There’s definitely a Shakespeare somewhere in TV melodrama, but probably no one knows his name…

    I’m highly impressed by Roddenberry biographies in general. Such a conflicted figure! Was he any good? Was he a fraud? I feel like the more takes on this, the better, and I’ll be interested to read this one. Tales of Roddenberry’s personal life and social behaviour always scare the shit out of me…but the work merits analysis.

    One day someone will do a magisterial biography of Stan Lee, I sincerely hope…

    • prankster36 says:

      The Shakespeare of TV melodrama? Errmmmm…Rod Sterling? Or maybe Clifford Odets?

      • Sean Dillon says:

        Would Sydney Newman, Verity Lambert, or David Whitaker count as creators of melodrama?

        • plok says:

          Oh, definitely! I won’t get tired of people praising Verity Lambert!

          In Shatner’s “Heavy Metal Memories” or whatever it’s called, a picture of Roddenberry emerges that is also not too nice…yet at the same time, apparently he is (at least for a while) a relentless script doctor in the Serling style, staying up all night with a bottle of whiskey and a case of cigars to add his own version of a perfect polish to every script. Control freak? Asshole? Point-misser? Probably, but I think of that all the time, what the scripts looked like before and after.

          But there were so many people working in television who did such remarkable things. Episodes of Columbo! Or the theme to Hogan’s Heroes. A friend of mine, binge-watching Star Trek for the first time ever, made special note of the score and how snazzy it was: music for fighting, music for Spock falling in love, music for everything. I don’t know who the Shakepeare of incidental music for TV was either…

          Uh…Mike Post and Pete Carpenter?

          I suppose we could write Mark Evanier and just ask him to send us a list of every brilliant person whose name was never known…

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