In the Mauna Lani Hotel in northern Kona, actors, comic artists, writers, fans and even scientists have gathered for Hawaii Con, a four-day sci-fi convention in mid-September. This is on the same Big Island in the Hawaii archipelago that attracted international attention in 2014 for the controversy surrounding the proposed construction of a 30-meter telescope for deep-space observation atop the Mauna Kea volcanic peak. The same island where NASA tests astronauts by keeping them in isolation for close to a year on the rocky dunes of Mauna Loa (which strongly resembles the barren red terrain of Mars) to study the effects of long-duration space travel. This is the land of Pele, Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanoes, who is said to reside in the summit caldera of Kilauea, the world’s most active volcano.
It’s hard to imagine a better place for a science fiction convention. On this planet, at least.
Among this year’s guests were several Star Trek veterans: Rod Roddenberry Jr, son of show creator Gene Roddenberry; Nichelle Nichols and Walter Koenig, who played Lieutenant Uhura and Chekov in the original series; and Jonathan Frakes, who played Commander Riker in The Next Generation. It’s been a busy time for the franchise, which turned 50 this month, with the release of Star Trek Beyond this past summer and the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery television series set to debut on CBS in 2017, so we decided to catch up with the former crews of the USS Enterprise about their Star Trek experiences, their thoughts on the new installments and their reflections on half a century of going where no one has gone before.
RODDENBERRY: I heard we’re doing an all-nude photo shoot.
Things change. Speaking of, The Washington Post recently asked Star Trek historian Mark A. Altman what Gene Roddenbery might think of life in 2016. Altman said that Roddenberry “envisioned a future of greater unity” and would most likely be concerned about today’s current state of affairs. As Gene’s son, do you agree?
RODDENBERRY: Well, I was 17 when my father passed away; I was really young. We didn’t get to have those long philosophical conversations about life and humanity and where we are. But in the years since he passed away, I’ve talked to every friend, family member and fan I’ve run into and heard every story on my father, from people who loved him to people who hated him. I did a documentary in 2011 called Trek Nation, where I spent 10 years talking to people. So while I can’t speak for him necessarily, I will say he was very optimistic. He loved saying that we’re a very young species, which I agree with. We’re making tons of mistakes, but we’re growing and moving forward. There’s been a lot of progress in the past 50 years, but we still have a long way to go.
In 50 years, what do you think is the greatest thing Star Trek has accomplished?
FRAKES: That we’re having this dialogue. That Gene’s hope and vision is still an ethos that people believe in and embrace. There’s nothing really like it in the world, nothing that’s lasted this long, that’s maintained this level of interest. The most heartening part, to me, is when you’re sitting at these panels and people come up to you and say, “I became an engineer because…” or “I became a doctor because…” or “I became an astronaut because….” Sometimes you hear someone say, “The only time I ever connected with my father was when we sat down to watch Star Trek.” Or maybe they came from an abusive household and the only time [their family] was ever nice to them was during Star Trek, that one hour a week. You hear it from veterans too, a lot from vets; for us, especially Afghan or Iraq vets who told us that having the DVDs of the show helped them through miserable, horrible experiences. It’s very powerful.
KOENIG: The biggest thing… aside from giving me steady employment? [Laughter] What everybody jumps at is the technology, about what Star Trek did and how now we’re doing it and making all these things happen. I have very little intelligence for electronics and gadgets. I have a cell phone and I can do two things on it and then I take a nap.
RODDENBERRY: You didn’t say that on Snapchat yesterday.
KOENIG: The greatest thing is the number of people who have learned about Star Trek through their families and the bonding that has taken place. That’s what we’re all about: the bonding. The idea of being able to share. It’s something that Gene would’ve loved but I don’t think he would’ve anticipated.
RODDENBERRY: The backbone philosophy of Star Trek is IDIC, meaning “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.” Not just an appreciation, but a true craving for all things that are different. A lot of people look at the bridge of the original series and say, “There was a Russian person and a Japanese person and an African American first officer; what a diverse crew.” But the ethnic diversity on the bridge was the tip of the iceberg. The diversity of Star Trek is in its ideas. In the future, we’ve all come together as a species. Not only that, but we’ve bonded and connected with other planets and other life forms out there. We’re out there looking for new ideas—not just to meet a weird-looking alien, but for someone who’s evolved in our galaxy and who has a different perspective on life, because we want to further our own understanding. That’s how you grow as a person: You have experiences and you grow from those experiences. If you interact with other people who have different ideas and you can have a logical, rational, non-argumentative discussion, even if you disagree with them, you will gain perspective. So Star Trek was about bettering humanity, bettering ourselves. And you do that by interacting with people who look at the universe in a different way.
What do you want to see in the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery television show?
NICHOLS: All the things that they wanted to do [in The Original Series] but never got to do, to start getting those done. At this point, it’s the fans who are the spokespeople, the ones who are most excited about it.
FRAKES: I have high hopes. I think it’s a great team. Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, it’s an impressive group. I think CBS has high hopes too.
RODDENBERRY: [Showrunner] Bryan Fuller is a Star Trek fan and I’m happy they brought on a fan because he gets it. Star Trek is more than just messaging and I’m very forgiving in terms of story and sci-fi, but you can’t just have messaging. When I’ve heard Bryan Fuller speak [about the series], he seems to get it.
FRAKES: I want to get the phone call to help!
What do you think of the rebooted JJ Abrams films?
FRAKES: Fabulous. Great storytelling. I particularly love Karl Urban as Bones; he was my favorite of the original cast. I think Urban channeled DeForrest [Kelley] well, physically and vocally. He was mesmerizing. Chris Pine has avoided trying to do “Shatner speak,” but…
RODDENBERRY: In terms of casting, Chris Pine was my least favorite initially when I saw the first one, but the more I look at the three movies, it’s a great evolution of character. [Kirk] goes from this cocky little shit in the first Star Trek to someone who’s been on the Enterprise, busting his ass and dealing with the humdrum of space.
NICHOLS: I think Zoe’s terrific. And I like her very much—I’d like to think we have a mutual admiration for each other! And in general, whatever she does, I wish her the best of luck.
Star Trek takes place in a future that some would call utopian. On Earth, there is no hunger and no illnesses. Money and material needs no longer exist, and lives are spent in the pursuit of improvement and betterment. What would it take to create a perfect world here?
FRAKES: I fear for our world at the moment. Sadly, I think we’re going in the opposite direction.
RODDENBERRY: But we’re going to make America great again!
FRAKES: Oh my god! [Laughter] I feel that we’re going in the opposite direction from Gene’s vision, unfortunately, and it’s very disheartening. The first thing we need to do is to take care of the planet in which we live, and it doesn’t seem to be a priority for many. Good people are worried about it, but they seem to be few and far between. To get to [a perfect world], it’s going to take a lot more than what we’re currently doing.
Star Trek was about bettering humanity, bettering ourselves. And you do that by interacting with people who look at the universe in a different way.
KOENIG: We don’t have to live in pockets. We’re living more disparate lives now. People grow up and move away and become a little more egocentric. Particularly in this society. My god, this is science fiction, Ted Sturgeon science fiction we live in now. People sit in their cubicles, they sit in their houses. No one goes out and plays stickball. Fucking stickball was great! It was my childhood, I loved it. And everywhere you go, everyone’s on their phone, and nobody communicates. Sure, they communicate electronically, but they don’t touch each other, they don’t look into each other’s eyes, they don’t embrace. And it’s scary to me. Everybody is lauding the technology and the advancements we’ve made and we’re making these little things smaller and thinner and easier to handle, but we’re not making each other a part of it. We’re doing it by ourselves. But we can achieve a sense of harmony through humanitarianism, through brotherhood. A perfect world to me would be one in which we retain all of our cultural, ethnic, racial identities and still manage to work together and care for each other. We have great diversity in the world, but we need to bring it into one and make it so that we can all enjoy it and thrive and cooperate. That we can all respect each other and enjoy each other’s society and still maintain our sense of who we are and our heritage, that’s what I think.
What do you think is Star Trek’s greatest weakness?
KOENIG: Besides Mr. Shatner? [Laughter]
RODDENBERRY: Great question. Nothing’s perfect, Star Trek certainly isn’t, and the first thought I had watching Star Trek from the ’60s, now, is the sexism. Take “The Man Trap,” first episode. You’ve got the crewmen as a woman walks by, saying, “Yeah, how’d you like her to be your yeoman?” It was just one of those things where you go, OK, wow. Star Trek is praised with its messaging and it’s deserved 100 percent, but then you’ve got this interesting scene to rewatch, the male crewmen checking out this woman.
KOENIG: I think Star Trek is a great document of the times. Like Mad Men, they were capturing the same time period. It reflected a culture and period, just like all other movies and projects from the ’50s and ’60s and so on, but those didn’t continue. Star Trek has been around long enough to reflect different times, so we have this extraordinary comparison to make. How Star Trek has reflected how life and culture has changed over the past 50 years, because we had the original to compare it to. It’s a very interesting historical document in that regard. RODDENBERRY: Can I ask a question? Over the years, people have always brought in the messaging of Star Trek and I was hearing someone say that Next Generation didn’t really push the social messaging as much as the Original Series. Which on some level makes perfect sense to me, but looking back, did Star Trek ever miss an opportunity or not push enough, do you think?
KOENIG: I think they pushed it as far as they thought it could go. We went as far as the times would allow and we were able to tell stories that were not being told, but we did it still within a certain context that made it permissible. This is a time where the first thing the PR department at NBC did was to erase Spock’s ears because they thought it made him look devilish and the South wouldn’t go for that. So to tell a story about something like gay people and homosexuality would’ve been, at that time, walking on very thin ice. We’ll never know because it wasn’t done. I don’t think the networks would’ve allowed it. If they had allowed it, would the public have accepted it? I don’t know. It took Barack Obama well into his presidency to say that there shouldn’t be any disqualifications in our armed services based on whether someone was homosexual or not. He didn’t say it earlier because he was afraid of the backlash. So for us to have attempted that in the ’60s might well have caused a very premature ending of our series, and I think Gene understood that. I’m sure that, had he felt it was possible, he would’ve done it.
Do you think Star Trek’s mission has changed from when it first debuted to today?
RODDENBERRY: On some level, my father never set out to change the world. He had faith in humanity; he had seen the best and worst of it. He was a World War II pilot, then flew for a commercial airliner and survived an airplane crash. He served on the LAPD, wrote speeches for the Chief of Police. He had an amazing perspective on the world. He saw what we could do when we put our heads together, and he saw how horrible it could be when we live our lives with fear and contempt for each other. And like any artist or creator who’s written stories or taken photos or painted and drawn things, they infuse it with their perspective. I think he did the same with Star Trek.