The documentary Trek Nation premiered on the Science Channel on November 30th, after more than 7 years of production, detailing the universal journey of a son searching to understand his roots. The film follows Eugene “Rod” Roddenberry, son of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who passed away when Rod was just 17, as he attempts to better understand his father and Star Trek’s influence on society.
Now in his thirties, Rod documents a desire that is at once common to many who lose a parent while young, and also familiar to the themes of Star Trek itself: understanding, through contact.
In essence, Trek Nation is a history lesson about creator and creation.
The film walks a line with both grace and balance devoting enough time to each. Although after watching, it’s difficult not to wish for a little less of the history of Star Trek, which has been mined before by countless documentaries, and more about Gene Roddenberry.
More could have been presented about Gene Roddenberry’s life prior to becoming a writer, and the documentary rather quickly passes through his heroic military service and his extraordinary life before Star Trek. That being said, it is rare that after 45 years, any Star Trek documentary could present surprising information or genuine emotional content considering all that has precede it. Trek Nation achieves both results.
Because it is the personal journey of Gene Roddenberry’s son, there has never really been any documentary like Trek Nation before. The honesty and emotion of it doesn’t stray from revealing unpleasant details about a complicated man. Much of that emotion is represented, for example, in human moments: in how Trek Nation shows Gene Roddenberry’s failing health and the result of his strokes through unedited raw interview footage, or in the son’s spoken desire to be able to ask the questions he asks in the documentary not of his father’s associates, but of his father himself.
For those uninitiated, Trek Nation is a good introduction to the world of Star Trek. While little new ground is covered there in terms of the history of the show’s production, there are genuine and moving discussions by fans of the influence the show has had on them. For those familiar, Trek Nation gives many new nuggets of information.
The home movie footage of Gene Roddenberry provides a refreshing view of the man. The interview with George Lucas reveals that he attended Star Trek conventions in the 1970s and his admiration for Gene Roddenberry as an artist. There is much the Maker has in common with the “Great Bird of the Galaxy,” even if one created a space mythology film franchise and the other a science fiction television enterprise. Both dealt with limited resources, and the simpatico Lucas feels with Roddenberry on that matter is an intriguing revelation.
Also interesting is how the themes of Trek Nation are the themes of Star Wars, of a son who wishes to redeem his father and restore his memory. In that way, Rod Roddenberry has some Luke Skywalker in him.
The documentary also gives fans some new ways to think about classic characters. The discussion of how Wesley Crusher, William Riker, and Jean Luc Picard were created to represented the three phases of Gene Roddenberry (his youth in the military, his vigorous years in his 30s, and as an older philosopher/leader of a young crew) is powerful enough an idea to encourage fans to rewatch the entirety of Next Generation again with this new appreciation.
And what else could be said about the moment when J.J. Abrams watches what is a prophetic message from Gene Roddenberry made in the 1980s about others taking up his work when he is gone?
In summary, Trek Nation is part home movie, part Campbellian monomyth journey. Its strength is that its really a documentary about a son and a father. Personally, my wife Maria Jose and I found ourselves chatting about our parents after watching Trek Nation. Like Rod, my wife lost her father when she was very young and has many of the same feelings. Unlike them both, my parents are alive and I have gotten to know them as an adult and as a parent myself. Yet despite these differences, we both appreciated Rod’s dilemma and desire to know his father better. Trek Nation made us feel and think. It taught us something new about Star Trek, about Gene Roddenberry, about George Lucas, and about ourselves.
If you missed it, Trek Nation will be replayed on the Science Channel Friday, December 2nd at 12am, Saturday, December 3rd at 6 PM, Sunday, December 4th at 9 PM and Monday, December 5th at 1 AM. All times PT.
For more information, visit Trek Nation.
Maria Jose and John Tenuto are both sociology professors at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Illinois, specializing in popular culture and subculture studies. The Tenutos have conducted extensive research on Star Trek’s history, and have been invited to present at venues such as Creation Conventions, ReedPOP’s official Star Trek 50th Anniversary Convention, the St. Louis Science Center, and to the towns of Riverside, Iowa (future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk) and Vulcan, Alberta, Canada. They have appeared in episodes of the Netflix TV show “The Toys that Made Us” and in the Decades Network documentary “Through the Decades: Star Wars 40th Anniversary.” They’ve written for the official Star Trek Magazine and their research has been featured on BBC Radio, WGN News, CBS News, and in the USA Today and WIRED Magazine.