In Star Trek’s first televised episode, broadcast Sept. 8, 1966, the earnest Hikaru Sulu, played by George Takei, invokes a mythic winged creature of the 23rd century when a yeoman on the USS Enterprise brings him his lunch: ”May the Great Bird of the Galaxy bless your planet,” he says.
After the death of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry on Oct. 24, 1991, from a heart attack, legions of distraught fans worldwide offered their own wishes: ”Sleep well, Great Bird of the Galaxy,” read one online posting.
The avian nickname — bestowed upon Roddenberry by members of the classic series’ cast, which included William Shatner as James T. Kirk and Leonard Nimoy as Spock — was appropriate for a man whose life was spent in flight, first serving in the military, then giving wing not just to Star Trek but to the attendant mythology and social phenomena surrounding it. A decorated B-17 pilot in the Pacific during World War II, Roddenberry worked as a commercial pilot for Pan Am before he turned to television, penning episodes of Dragnet and Naked City and eventually taking the reins as head writer for the 1950s Western series Have Gun Will Travel.
With Trek, Roddenberry sought to dramatize ”the best of humans solving problems and learning about their own humanity,” he said the year before his death. ”Our characters symbolize where humans could be if they wanted to be.” In fact, the creator’s insistence that the show’s world adhere to his own tightly calibrated code of conduct was manifested in his writer’s ”bible” for Star Trek: The Next Generation, which premiered in 1987 with Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard at the helm. Among the commandments: Trek characters’ flaws ”do not include falsehood, petty jealousies and the banal hypocrisies common in the 20th century.”
These strictures proved too confining for some writers: ”The show was unbelievably static,” complained Tracy Torme, a Next Generation writer whose tenure did not last much past the first season. ”All of these characters like each other all the time.” Indeed, there are those who suggest that The Next Generation — which lasted for seven seasons and spawned the sister series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager — didn’t hit its stride until Roddenberry and his vision of character and drama were no longer around. ”After Gene’s death, [the producers] were liberated to play around with the concepts and structures,” says Anna L. Kaplan, who covers Star Trek for the sci-fi bimonthly Cinefantastique. ”And with Deep Space Nine they…created a world that many people consider to be the best of the shows.”
NASA, having already paid tribute to Trek by naming one of its space shuttle prototypes Enterprise, launched Roddenberry’s ashes into the heavens via the Columbia — a fitting end for a man who reached for the stars.