The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine. Gene Roddenberry. Anniversary Tribute. Star Trek was launched in the US on September 8, 1. Michael Shermer’s birthday, so he remembers it well—hooked on the show and the concept and all that it stood for from the beginning. Shermer penned this essay in 1.
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David Alexander’s biography: Star Trek Creator: The Authorized Biography of Gene Roddenberry. David was a humanist and skeptic and deeply involved in both movements when Roddenberry chose him as his biographer. As such, David was granted access to Roddenberry’s private archives, and he treated his charge with respect, even while revealing the man’s very human flaws. Shermer used the occasion to consider the role of the individual—the hero even—in history, and how one person really can make a difference, which surely Gene Roddenberry did. Read Michael Shermer’s bio at the end of this article. At one end of the spectrum heroes are “great men”—seminal thinkers, brilliant inventors, creative authors. At the other end heroes are historical artifacts of their culture—ordinary people thrust into positions of power and fame that might just as well have gone to others.
The first archetype is represented by Thomas Carlyle in his Heroes, Hero- Worship, and the Heroic in History: “Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the history of the great men who have worked here. Worship of a hero is transcendent admiration of a great man.” The second archetype is seen in such Marxist writers as Friedrich Engels: “That a certain particular man, and no other, emerges at a definite time in a given country is naturally a pure chance, but even if we eliminate him there is always a need for a substitute, and the substitute. History’s heroes may be great individuals, but all individuals, great or not are—indeed must be—culturally bound; where else could they act out the drama of their heroics? For Sidney Hook, in his classic study of The Hero in History, a hero is “the individual to whom we can justifiably attribute preponderant influence in determining an issue or event whose consequences would have been profoundly different if he had not acted as he did.” History is not strictly determined by the forces of the weather or geography, demographic trends or economic shifts, class struggles or military alliances.
The hero has a role in this historical model of interacting forces—between unplanned contingencies and forceful necessities. Necessities are the large and powerful laws of nature, forces of economics, trends of history—for want of 1. Elsewhere I have presented a formal model describing the interaction of these historical variables, summarized in these brief definitions: Contingency is taken to mean a conjuncture of events occurring without perceptible design; Necessity is constraining circumstances compelling a certain course of action. Leaving either contingencies or necessities out of the biographical formula, however, is misleading.
History is composed of both, therefore it is useful to combine the two into one term that expresses this interrelationship—contingent- necessity—taken to mean: a conjuncture of events compelling a certain course of action by constraining prior conditions. The Roman historian Tacitus was uncertain “whether it is fate and unchangeable necessity or chance which governs the revolutions of human affairs,” where we have “the capacity of choosing our life,” but “the choice once made, there is a fixed sequence of events.” Karl Marx offered this brilliantly succinct one- liner (from The Eighteenth Brumaire): “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past.”. A question arises from this: Can we find a repeatable pattern in historical sequences that demonstrates when and where contingencies and necessities will dominate in the life of an individual? Contingency and necessity vary in both influence and sequential position within any given historical sequence according to what is called the model of contingent- necessity, which states: In the development of any historical sequence the role of contingencies in the construction of necessities is accentuated in the early stages and attenuated in the later. The biographer must see which conjunctures of events compelled certain courses of action (contingencies constructing necessities), and which constraining prior conditions determined future actions (necessities creating outcomes). In other words, we must know not only the life and the times of the person, but how this life and those times interacted, when, and in what sequence to produce the outcome in question. As an exemplar of both biography and this particular philosophy of biography, I suggest the life of Gene Roddenberry told by his biographer David Alexander, who has skillfully reconstructed the contingencies and necessities—the life and times—of the creator of Star Trek.
And, as I hope to show, Gene Roddenberry has done the same through his fictional starship voyages in his humanistic vision of humanity’s future. Yet the show resonated across generations to become one of the most remarkable television phenomena in the medium’s history.
The reason is relatively simple: Roddenberry was an enlightened storyteller who baldly addressed the deepest issues in science, religion, philosophy, politics, and current events. He was adept at placating television executives and advertisers, while simultaneously maintaining a commitment to promoting science and humanism.
David Alexander was one of Gene Roddenberry’s closest friends, and was hand- picked by Roddenberry to be his authorized biographer. One might thus expect a dearth of dirt. But no, it is here, warts and all.
Although to be fair, additional warts have been added by others since the original publication of Alexander’s biography in 1.
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