Born on this day 19 August in 1921, Gene Roddenberry led a life as colourful and exciting as almost any high-adventure fiction. A decorated B-17 pilot who later flew for Pan American Airways, he possessed a passion for literature and futurology – which laid the foundations for his greatest achievement, the legendary science-fiction series, Star Trek. [See the extensive Star Trek coin program.]
Born in El Paso, Texas, Roddenberry spent his boyhood in Los Angeles, studied three years to become a policeman and then transferred his academic interest to aeronautical engineering and qualified for a pilot’s license. He volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Corps in the autumn of 1941 and was ordered into training as a flying cadet when the United States entered World War II.
Emerging from Kelly Field, Texas, as a Second Lieutenant, Roddenberry was sent to the South Pacific where he entered combat at Guadalcanal, flying B-17 bombers out of the newly-captured Japanese airstrip, which became Henderson Field. He flew missions against enemy strongholds at Bougainville and participated in the Munda invasion. In all, he took part in approximately 89 missions and sorties. He was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.
While in the South Pacific, he also began to write. He sold stories to flying magazines, and later poetry to publications, including The New York Times. Upon his return from combat, he became a trouble-shooter for the Air Force working out of Washington, D.C., investigating the causes of air crashes. At war’s end, he joined Pan American World Airways. During this time, he also studied literature at Columbia University.
It was on a flight from Calcutta that his plane lost two engines and caught fire in mid-air, crashing at night in the Syrian desert. As the senior surviving officer, Roddenberry sent two Englishmen swimming across the Euphrates River in quest of the source of a light he had observed just prior to the crash. Meanwhile, he parleyed with nomads who had come to loot the dead. The Englishmen reached a Syrian military outpost, which sent a small plane to investigate. Roddenberry returned with the small plane to the outpost, where he broadcast a message that was relayed to Pan Am, which sent a stretcher plane to the rescue. Roddenberry later received a Civil Aeronautics commendation for his efforts during and after the crash.
Back in the States, Roddenberry continued flying until he saw television for the first time. Correctly estimating television’s future, he realized that the new medium would need writers and decided that Hollywood’s film studios would soon dominate the new industry. He acted immediately, left his flying career behind and went to Hollywood, only to find the television industry still in its infancy, with few openings for inexperienced writers. At a friend’s suggestion, he joined the Los Angeles Police Department, following in his father’s footsteps and gaining experiences which would be valuable to a writer.
By the time he had become a sergeant, Roddenberry was selling scripts to such shows as Goodyear Theatre, The Kaiser Aluminum Hour, Four Star Theater, Dragnet, The Jane Wyman Theater and Naked City. Established as a writer, he turned in his badge and became a freelancer. Later, he served as head writer for the highly popular series Have Gun, Will Travel. His episode “Helen of Abiginian” won the Writers Guild Award and was distributed to other writers as a model script for the series. Next, he created and produced The Lieutenant series, starring Gary Lockwood and Robert Vaughn; it told the story of a young man learning the lessons of life while in the United States Marine Corps.
In 1964, Roddenberry unveiled his concept for a science fiction series – a show about a group of characters who would travel each week to worlds similar to our own. He set the show “somewhere in the future”— close enough to our time for the audience to be able to identify with the continuing characters, but far enough into the future for galaxy travel to be thoroughly established. Star Trek followed in 1966 – and the rest, as they say, is history.
As creator of the Starship Enterprise and its crew, which included the heroic Captain Kirk and the logical Vulcan, Mr. Spock, Roddenberry unwittingly unleashed a phenomenon in which Star Trek enthusiasts became a veritable cult, numbering physicists, aerospace engineers, housewives, senators, children, teachers and intellectuals among its devotees (affectionately known as “Trekkies,” and later, “Trekkers”).
The show went outside television to win science fiction’s coveted Hugo Award. When NASA announced its space shuttle program, fans wrote hundreds of thousands of letters demanding the first orbiter be named in honour of the beloved Starship. On 4 September 1986, fans presented Roddenberry with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the first writer/producer to be so honoured.
Gene Roddenberry passed away on 24 October 1991 – his legacy never to be forgotten. No one could have imagined the cultural impact that this weekly “space opera” would have on multiple generations of viewers. Interest has never waned as demonstrated by twelve Star Trek motion pictures, five additional television series and now the official coin program.
Credit: startrek.com (edits by The Perth Mint).
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