How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Roddenberry's Box
This post contains EVER SO SLIGHT spoilers for season one of STAR TREK: PICARD, season one of STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. I will try to mark them beforehand.
It may also contain spoilers for past Trek shows and movies, but those will remain unmarked. I mean... they've been out for a while... where do we even draw the line?
So let's talk about Gene Roddenberry.
His steadfast vision.
And does it continue today?
When creating STAR TREK and STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, Gene Roddenberry had a vision of humanity's future: one where humans have put aside their conflicts and differences and work towards the betterment of one another.
In Roddenberry's 23rd and 24th centuries, humans were not jealous towards one another, did not hate, did not quarrel. The crew was a unit of individuals who respected each other and had no interpersonal conflicts.
Well... at least on screen:
But regardless of how the actors felt about one another, Gene's unique vision guided the episodes and movies that we love into hopeful guideposts for what we can one day be as a species.
Yet his vision also became an unintended source of interpersonal conflict in the present day. And I don't mean those little arguments I see on Facebook over why they keep changing the Klingon makeup design or whether "new" Trek is too woke (you know who you are).
I'm talking to what Michael Piller coins in his book FADE IN: THE MAKING OF STAR TREK INSURRECTION as "Roddenberry's Box."
When Piller began writing on STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION Season 3, he found out that Gene's vision of no interpersonal conflict naturally extended to the main characters and crew of the Enterprise-D.
Which fits in with a 24th Century society, but as any writer will tell you, conflict between characters is one of the main tenets of dramatic writing. Without the crew having any conflict or troubles with one another, how can one write a compelling television show?
"Roddenberry's box", therefore, was around the writers and how they conceived the stories from week to week. This box trapped the writers into writing episodes only using external conflict (such as aliens or anomalies) for the characters. The issues and problems the crew faced should come from "outside" the Enterprise. Not with each other.
Gene's restrictive hold on the writers caused many to quit in frustration, contributing much to the disarray of those early years behind the scenes. How can a science fiction show explore the human condition and frailties of humanity when none of the crew can be written with those negative qualities?
Yet as Piller points out, Gene's box had been part of the core of this beloved franchise from the beginning:
"And yet, I couldn’t escape one huge reality. Star Trek worked. Or it had for thirty years. Gene must be doing something right.
I accepted it as a challenge. Okay, I told the writers, I’m here to execute Roddenberry’s vision of the future, not mine. Let’s stop fighting what we can’t change. These are his rules. How do we do this story without breaking those rules?" (PILLER, )
In his book, Piller goes on to explain how he eventually found a way to respect Roddenberry's rules as well as explore the human condition.
Piller used the box to weigh the episodes he and the other writers would formulate, which led to the classic feel of this crew/family working together to explore strange new worlds.
But, as time went along, there began to be little cracks in this "perfect" world. The shining beacon of the Federation dimmed ever so slightly as shows began to explore a darker side of paradise. Characters began to have conflicts with one another, and others in this utopian world.
Even STAR TREK INSURRECTION pitted Jean-Luc Picard against the Federation, which definitely became a sticking point for several Paramount executives when they first read about it in the script. In fact, you'd be surprised at who Piller initially wanted Picard to verbally face down with in the finale. Definitely some discord amongst the normally peaceful Federation members.
And now Star Trek television has found a new life on PARAMOUNT+, with (as of this posting) five shows currently airing. And with each show displaying such a different take on themes, storytelling, and characters, it has been said there is a "show for everyone."
When STAR TREK: DISCOVERY was about to air its first episodes, showrunner Aaron Harberts noted they were doing away with the box, so to speak. The crew would have disagreements and conflicts with one another. "We're still going to argue in the future." he opined.
Despite the irony of Harberts leaving ST:DIS due to infighting/shouting at the writer's room, Trek as a whole notably turned to new stories with crews that have conflict with one another:
In STAR TREK: DISCOVERY, Michael Burnham openly mutinies against her captain in the pilot episode.
In STAR TREK: PICARD, Picard himself is seen as an outcast from Starfleet for his views, and assembles a crew of assertive drunks, misfits, and rogues.
STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS has more crew infighting than any other Star Trek show.
Not to say that Star Trek isn't about a bright future now, but has the franchise strayed from Gene's vision of a conflict-less humanity? Have we strayed too far outside the box, that was a core of Star Trek storytelling from the beginning?
This didn't start with Paramount+, Michael Piller wrote STAR TREK: INSURRECTION as he wrote STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION: a sense that this crew was a family. His adherence to Gene's vision of paradise eventually became one of the reasons he was asked by Rick Berman to step away from the writers room on STAR TREK VOYAGER. The writers had begun to feel too restricted by Piller's non conflict rule (which was really Gene's).
So... does Star Trek still need to avoid conflict to champion a world in which we have supposedly moved past it? I guess time will tell...
A parting thought to you, that perhaps it is not just the writers who have changed, but the fans as well. We no longer need our crews to be perfect - but imperfect as we are. Star Trek has a tradition of evolving and changing. Leonard Nimoy once said "...Be a 'Star Trek' fan and open your mind and say, 'Where does Star Trek want to take me now?'"
Perhaps Trek now wants to explore beyond Roddenberry's box. I can't wait to see where it wants to take us next...
Let me know your thoughts on Roddenberry's box and all the new Trek shows below! Please keep your bat'leths at home and be civil.
For more on Roddenberry's Box, check out FADE IN: THE MAKING OF STAR TREK: INSURRECTION by Michael Piller. You can purchase it directly on this site!
Until next time...