What’s it like to reconnect with your past? What’s it like to have a famous parent and try to understand why so many people loved them? How much do you really want to know about your family? Trek Nation jumps right into those questions.
Eugene “Rod” Roddenberry is the only son of Gene Roddenberry, creator of that pop-culture mainstay, Star Trek. Early on, you learn that Eugene’s never watched any entry in the famed franchise. Now, in his thirties, Eugene got the idea to learn more about the enduring popularity of the show, and, (most importantly, the man behind it all. Eugene hooked up with director Scott Colthorp to capture this – and I think Rod got more than he wished for.
Trek Nation aired on TV in Fall 2011, and it is two films. At one time, it’s a documentary that tells Rod (and the audience) why Star Trek was different and appealed to a huge fan-base. At the same time, we have a documentary about someone trying to glean the truth about his father’s life. These don’t combine terribly well, but both movies are a journey, and each part is interesting.
In a non-linear fashion, TN charts the development and creation of the original 1960′s Star Trek TV series. Gene Roddenberry had a vision – a future where humankind was technologically powerful, people from all walks of life work together, and humanity explores the universe. After years in the industry, Roddenberry had a gem of an idea, and he wanted to get it produced. The struggle nearly cost him everything.
If you don’t know much about recent American culture, it’s hard to understand why Star Trek was so unique. Women served on what was, basically, a Navy vessel in space. Black people worked alongside white folks, Asians, Russians, and aliens. Of all those, the alien was the least unlikely back in 1965. The ideals of the series were to show humanity cooperating and indulging in benevolent, scientific curiosity. This premise could have been very dry, but it started a firestorm.
Eugene finds out how ST was important to race relations, sci-fi fans, and people who, for one reason or another, loved a show that made them feel like they were exploring the galaxy. The social importance of Trek is unraveled and analyzed by both insiders and outsiders, with footage from before the original series, as well as the present day.
With this, of course, comes a price: Eugene has to sit in a chair and watch someone explain that ST was such a failure that, after cancellation, his father could barely find a new job. Eugene also learns how deep his father’s womanizing went. The guy already knew that his pop strayed - but one person tells Eugene that his dad bragged about cheating on the week of his wedding.
It’s one thing to watch an old series and think “Majel Barrett is a perfectly-lovely woman. Who the hell cheats on her?” It’s another thing to have stories recounted for you, and they’re talking about your moms. Or to hear that the tv series’ writers felt a certain freedom when Gene died.
To that extent, Rod boldly sticks to his dual themes. He interviews people, (and himself a lot), in an effort to unravel the subject. Gene was a fighter pilot, the sort of big strong guy who can hold a room with his physical presence alone. He was also a hopeful idealist, who fervently wanted a better, peaceful future. And he was also a man who, wedding ring or not, looked at woman and felt, apparently, like a little kid with a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s factory…
Trek Nation is a good-to-decent documentary. Although I didn’t much like the TV-ad style breaks between segments (it’s just a quick fade out and fade in), it was put together well, with fine cinematography. The research was pretty great- I never in my life expected to see footage from a Trek convention in 1970′s New York City. Hell, I never expected that Eugene could get an interview with George Lucas, and an opportunity to ask how much Trek influenced Star Wars itself.
I’m not certain whether this documentary is messing up or staying sharp by putting so much focus on the original series. Surely, that’s the main source of the franchise and its ongoing appeal. But interviews with JJ Abrams and Lucas don’t add as much as they could to the conversation. And comments from Patrick Stewart and Scott Bakula don’t really blow you away. All those sections are so short, you feel that they were formally included because they are part of the subject – they’re not explored.
I think that TN works just fine for fans of the franchise, as well as people who only know that Spock has pointy ears, or “Beam me up, Scotty.” I think that it’s got a solid subject (or, rather, a pair of them), and I appreciate Eugene’s candor in showing how he used to look, as well as the ups and downs of his quest. I wish he had spent more time talking about how much he needed some kind of self-discovery.
Trek Nation received mixed reviews, but it has an 8.3 on IMDb. I can understand the problems some people had with it, but I can see why it’s well-received, also. I had three big issues with this picture and none of them derailed my experience:
- no time is given to Star Trek‘s detractors, or people who are neutral (aside from Eugene himself)
- so many interesting ideas come up, and the documentary should have been longer to expound on those, and
- there should’ve been more overt exploration of the theme tying the doc to the actual sci-fi series – that seeking knowledge can be dangerous or painful.