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Majel Barrett Roddenberry: An Interview

By Jim Plaxco

On October 1 (1994), just before the start of the Planetary Studies Foundation's Annual Benefit Dinner, I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Majel Barrett Roddenberry, the guest of honor. Also present were a reporter from the Daily Herald and Mike Caplan, the WLS-TVweatherman, who was serving that evening as the master of ceremonies.

Jim Plaxco (JP): Just to begin with a question of historical interest, why did Gene [Roddenberry] do Star Trek - why didn't he do a western or a comedy or something more traditional?

Majel Barrett Roddenberry (MBR): Because he didn't write a western or a comedy at that time.

JP: But what motivated him to go for something like Star Trek?

MBR: The idea of having a series that is producing some money. That's all. Nothing more than that.

He wrote other shows. He wrote a lot of westerns. He was head writer for "Have Gun, Will Travel". He was a very well known western writer. As a matter of fact, Star Trek was "Wagon Train to the Stars." That was the original concept of it. That's how it was supposed to happen.

See, Gene was a fantastic storyteller, probably the best in the business. What he did was tell stories. He didn't lay plots and ideas and things like that — he told stories. You can take any one of our stories that we use right now, put western clothes on us, stick us out in the west and they'll work just as well — any single one of them — because they're stories about people, they're stories about things. And, of course, Gene had to put some of his philosophy into each one of them, but that was just his way of, really, getting past the censors. The censorship in those days was just horrible.

JP: I also understand that Gene was quite a supporter of the space program.

MBR: Oh my yes.

JP: What was it in particular about the space program that so attracted him and made him such a supporter of it?

MBR: Well, the fact is that this is a new land, this is a new place, this is a new world, this is unknown. This is uncharted, this is all there is. We don't have any other place to go. I always quote Gene as saying "Why are we now going into space? Well, why did we trouble to look past the next mountain? Our prime obligation to ourselves is to make the unknown known. We are on a journey to keep an appointment with whatever we are." And that was his whole philosophy of Star Trek, of life, of everything else.

JP: I'm sure that he felt very proud and honored with the ground swell of public opinion that resulted in NASA agreeing to name the first Shuttle the "Enterprise."

MBR: And extremely shocked. And very, very surprised and very appreciative. What an honor.

JP: I know that you are a big supporter of space as well. You are active in the National Space Society. Is your vision the same as Gene's in that regard — as to why you support space exploration?

MBR: As to why, certainly yes. Because I too feel that that is the only place left to go and I think that man in space is very important. Man must be in space — that is what we are destined for. There is nothing else that we can do. And since we already have the program — I disagree with Carl Sagan. Why dismantle it? Why should we put 24 robotic missions up on Mars somewhere? That's silly. We could put people up on Mars. Why not let them do it because when something goes wrong only men can evaluate it. They can say what went wrong. One little dial isn't working correctly. Well, what's wrong with that dial? Somebody who is up there can take a look at it probably and come back and say maybe I don't know what it is but there it is and then we can fix it.

I don't think we're wasting people in space. I know we're not wasting money as I will address later in what I am going to talk to you about [referring to her formal presentation following the dinner] That's our frontier — that's where we have left to go now that we are capable of it. And if you dismantle, it's going to cost as much anyway so what's the difference. Might as well go forward. I have great faith that this year, well perhaps next year, we'll be putting one of the first parts up that we need for our space station.

JP: Which is?

MBR: For the space station.

JP: The first launch is in '97 for the first element launch. Next year is the mission to the Russian Mir station.

MBR: Well as a matter of fact, in February Jim Weatherbee, the captain of the Columbia flight that took Gene's ashes up, called me. He called a couple of weeks ago and they're in a go position right now and very excited about it. They are going to go within 15 feet of Mir and then the one that will come in June, I don't know who is going to captain that one but that one will dock with Mir. So that's our first great big step right into space and into the idea of being able to hook up and make this a really multi-nation project which I think has pretty much saved it.

JP: You are on the road all the time at conventions and you have a chance to meet and talk with a lot of people. How do you feel about the state of science awareness, science education, amongst the youth of our country today? What do you think about that whole situation?

MBR: Well, the fact that we are working so hard on the computer and technology — remember we weren't working around technology 25 years ago — sort of like it was happening around us but nobody really zeroed in on it. Now people, children, are being educated and its all the technology. That's just one step away from the starship — I mean to my way of thinking. There are a lot of steps in between. But I think that the public awareness is much, much greater now than it ever was before.

That's why I think that NASA will prevail. There are basically, I guess, two things that could happen. One of them is when the first ship comes back with a payload that can be turned into profit. You watch everybody line up in a hurry. And of course the other one is the first message we get from space from some other planet. That will make everyone really jump up.

Daily Herald (DH): Do you think that's possible?

MBR: Of course it's possible. How could you possibly think there wouldn't be people? I mean with the billions and trillions and quadruple that — that's for the seeable type of universe. There is so much of the universe that we can't even see or imagine. And as far as the age of our planet is concerned and to the age of the others it's possible that we may be one of the ones that are in this stage of evolution. What did we look like three billion years ago? We were a little worm — that was us. Now, what would one billion years from now look like? Certainly not like we do. And apparently extinction comes every million year so what are we going to be even one million years from now. So when you think of the age of the universe and the size of the universe, of course there is other intelligent life out there. Where we can find some that we can understand, that we can communicate with, that may be the problem.

Mike Caplan (MC): I just wonder how much of your advocacy on behalf of space exploration is your own vision, how much did Gene impart on you? Is this a cause you think you might have championed had you not gotten involved with Star Trek and Gene?

MBR: Well, had I not gotten involved with it, I wouldn't know what I know now and I wouldn't have been excited by it and I wouldn't have seen the things that I have seen — so I have to answer you no. Obviously, its because I was exposed to it. But had I been exposed [to space] by anything else and been able to do anything, thank God that I am able to make some kind of a difference. Thank God they ask me to go because if I were just anyone, I wouldn't be asked and I couldn't tell. And if somebody will listen to me somewhere, I'm delighted for that opportunity.

DH: How do you think Star Trek has helped the younger generations grow up and spawn an interest in space?

MBR: They see a future and not only that but they see a positive future. That was another thing that Gene always did — he never would have anything negative to do with anything, frankly to a fault. If it was negative and he didn't want to deal with it, he turned away from it and sometimes left it out hanging and left somebody else to pick up the pieces. But he just would not deal with anything that was not on a positive level and that's how he felt about things and that's how he lived his life.

I know a lot of that has gotten through to the people who are watching Star Trek and do have some belief for a future. Now Gene didn't actually think that this is the way it's going to be three or four or five hundred years from now. But if we can just get a little bit of it going for us, wouldn't that be remarkable and a little bit is going.

DH: I know that you speak at the Star Trek conventions often

MBR: Yes, and you see that the numbers are getting bigger and better and more powerful. You would be so shocked and so surprised at the people who are our fans and are really, basically hard core fans. I'm talking about scientists. Well, if you had been down to NASA at either Canaveral or Johnson, its the most amazing thing. You can walk through and everybody has their little cubicle there, especially at Canaveral, and I started to notice that everywhere that I went, on everyone's walls something of Star Trek — either a ship or a joke or something. It's so heavy down there. Even the computer, in the big computer room where they keep all this stuff, on all the computers are pasted little things about Star Trek.

JP: And its your voice on the computer.

MBR: And there is a brand new mission control down there and they took me into it - it hadn't opened yet.

JP: Is that down at Johnson?

MBR: I think it was Canaveral, yes because there was a mission up at that time I think. Anyway, they took me into where the brand new one is, nobody has been in it before, and it's set up exactly like the bridge — I almost died. You know where the screen is on the bridge, I turned around and there is the Federation symbol that they had put up for me. I said "God, somebody, please take a picture of this." It was beautiful. It wasn't operational — nobody's fooling around that much. Well, a little bit of money was wasted perhaps, but not that much.

JP: I also understand that you got to attend the July 20 25th anniversary of Apollo that was held in Washington, DC. How did that feel being a part of that — for those of use who couldn't be there?

MBR: Well, it was terribly exciting because I didn't know what to expect and I didn't know what it would entail. Then, all of a sudden, here I am in the Press Room in the White House and walking in with the guards, who handed me three little pieces of paper asking me to send pictures to the guards at the White House. So I walked on in and the pomp and circumstance that accompany all this — I'm just not used to it all. So we're ushered in. Now I'm finding a room that only has about 200 seats in it and the press is, I mean the press is all over and around. And 40 of those seats are taken up by astronauts and their wives. That leaves 160 seats in the entire place and I was sitting in one of them. That's the first time that it all hit me and I was really overwhelmed by it — totally. And then when the President came in and Gore and just everybody and then all the guys that I knew, you know, all the astronauts. Cause Gene and I had been able to, with the original eight, had been able to associate quite a lot. I remember we were up in Arrowhead having a conference up there with all of them and Deke Slayton and I went out on the water and we sat there for about two and a half hours dangling hooks and I never got a bite. He got one bite and that was it. It was just a beautiful way to spend some time.

They're just guys, they were a lot of fun guys, that's all. And we had rented a house up there and I was going to cook a fish dinner for them so we went out and bought some fish. I forget how many of them stayed for dinner — about four or five I guess. It was fun. Buzz was there and Deke, I can't even remember. But these are nice people so I don't separate them from the rest of the world although I probably should.

MC: How often do you get to see any of your former costars from the original series.

MBR: When we go to conventions.

MC: But how often is that.

MBR: Well, I saw Jimmy and Nichelle over in Germany about three weeks ago and it just depends on when we're thrown together. I haven't seen George — I've got his book and I haven't read all that yet. And I never see Bill or Leonard.

JP: Are there any new projects that you are working on?

MBR: Yes. I'm doing a comic book with D. C. Fontana who was one of the original Star Trek writers and she did the animated series just about single handedly and always took over for Gene. The comic book is called Techno Comics — its a new organization. They've taken twelve fairly well known celebrity type of authors throughout the world really. Anne McCaffery is one, there is some science fiction in there. Nimoy's book will come out in November I guess. Gene's, which is called "The Lost Universe" will come out in December. Micky Spillane's will come out in January and each one of us will have twelve books a year. Then they will go right into CD-ROM and from there, Disney, that's IBM whose a partner in it, I guess Disney is the other one, they come in and they do the animated and we're on live. We're having the first computer-generated comic strip in the United States. And what else have we got? They've got the games that I've already talked to people on. We're doing everything. Its going to be all techno. And we're going to be doing computer stuff.

JP: Is there a particular target audience you're aiming this at? Is it children, adults, or anyone who's interested in technology?

MBR: I guess it's going to be just everyone — everyone who's interested in technology. I'm keeping mine very, very close as I've told them and they want this. It will be within Gene Roddenberry's "Universe" cause Gene wrote a lot of things but you'd find that most of them all stay right within his universe and there is a pattern, there's a central type of focus there. And, again, its not even the positive world, it's still the idea of exploration and something with a meaning and with a sense and where people have to react to the problems that are going on in their days — such as now we're dealing with the '90s, back then we dealt with the '60s. So each one is entirely different. This one has nothing to do with space at all, except its on the remnants of space. It's part of a five planet system in another galaxy and we're on planet number two, which is eleven times larger than the Earth, which makes it probably a little bit bigger than Jupiter I guess. And the cataclysm hits, of course, and it's [about] what happens afterwards

DH: When do you expect this to be launched?

MBR: It'll be December. The first one will be in November. October is something — we're having a big huge sendoff at Griffin Observatory. There is a lot of money behind this organization and they are just going at it in a huge, huge way. It is aimed at adults. If a five year old child picks it up and you put some of the stuff that ordinary comic people put in their comics, I said they're never going to watch it again. Not only that, but they're not going to believe that Gene had anything to do with it because they're just going to know better. So we've kept a pretty tight rein on them so far. I don't know what this particular story is but I know the back story is just right in the center of Gene Roddenberry and we're going to try to keep it very, very close to that. So it will be adults. Hopefully, children will like it too. I wouldn't vouch for the five year olds because they won't understand it. Again, there will be a problem. We will deal with problems and problems of the '90s

DH: How about your own company?

MBR: Lincoln is almost on a hold. I'm going to take over on the Techno Comics so I'm going to be dealing in the children's merchandising type department. But that's just setting it up and having somebody run it.

I want to get out and spread out a little bit more than I have. Of course we'll go into Voyager and DS9 but we've never dealt with really commercialized type of material before. It was only started because of peer group advertising.

The best way in the world to advertise is to get somebody else to run around with the name of your product on their person or showing it around somewhere and not only that but they're paying for it. So its the best form of advertising you can possibly get. So that was our idea when we started out with the Star Trek stuff and it worked.

Everybody thinks that all this write in stuff was all a great big accident. Take my word for it, we worked very, very hard on that. That was no accident.

JP: That does it for me. If anyone has any questions that you want to ask?

DH: I just had a question that the Planetary Studies Foundation is looking to build a planetarium and that's something down to Earth I guess you could say that people can access. What is your thoughts on that, at least having that as a springboard?

MBR: Its a marvelous goal and its a good springboard. But I've got one that I didn't mention right now that I've got to start activating soon before I grow to old to operate it. I want to build a Gene Roddenberry Memorial Library of science and modern fiction. Just those two and have it an operational library. I want there to be books and I want there to be people and it will hold all the memorandum and all the stuff that has been collected forever so that it won't be sold at auctions and things like that. I want it to stay there and be preserved. I've got all my costumes and we'll steal a few things from Paramount and see what happens.

DH: Where do you want to build it?

MBR: Some city that will take it over. It's probably in the area of a 50 to 60 million dollar project. I haven't talked to anyone yet on it that much. The first people I talked to, I mentioned it in Dallas that was about two or three weeks after Gene had passed away, and I didn't get home for more than three or four days and they called me with an absolute total offer, but they wanted it right then and I wasn't ready to go on anything like that nor was the material, the books and the papers. I had to put it together and it was a dream at that time that somebody took me up on. So, really, any city that will give a good deal on it so that I can really accomplish what I want to accomplish. I don't want something that's just a haphazard type of thing. I'd like it to be a good viable type of thing and I want to talk to the Amundsens on it. They're very, very good at that and I do happen to know both of them very well. So that I think that, although I don't want them to take it over, I think I can get some pretty good advice on that as to how to start it up. Again, I don't want it to be a huge organization because I'd like the money that comes in to go for the project. I hate those things where 50 percent goes in the pockets of the people who run it and another 20 percent for operations somewhere and the organization winds up getting 30 cents on the dollar. That I won't do either. There's a lot of ifs and so forth.

DH: But you see this as a further promotion of space?

MBR: Oh yeah because it's going to be science fiction and science. And they're close together. So many people think of them as so far apart and they sure are not.

JP: Did Gene have any particular thing or legacy that he wanted to be remembered for?

MBR: Yeah, there is one thing he said when somebody asked him the question "What would you like to be on your tombstone" or such? He loved humanity — that was all. I think that kind of sums him up. He really did.

JP: That's a very nice note to end on. Thank You.

This article originally appeared in the January-March 1995 issue of PSF News.

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