Common Thread: Wells and Roddenberry

MarkClark in ColorGuest Blogger: Mark Clark, author of Star Trek FAQ and Star Trek FAQ 2.0talks about the eerie similarities between H.G. Wells and Gene Roddenberry.

Common Thread: H.G. Wells and Gene Roddenberry

By Mark Clark

His fiction is inspired by vast views of a universe better conceived and better executed than the one we live in. Consequently, his stories are highly imaginative. Supposedly based upon science, they portray an evolution of mankind onward and upward into a social order than is only a dream.

Astonishingly, those words were not written about Gene Roddenberry. Although these lines seem to echo criticisms frequently lobbed at the man nicknamed “the Great Bird of the Galaxy,” they derive from the 1940 edition of Prose and Poetry of England, a high school textbook originally copyrighted in 1934. The object of the editors’ derision is author H.G. Wells, who they dismiss as a literary lightweight. “In spite of Mr. Wells’ contemporary popularity, his works will not interest the future,” they write. “His science is too unscientific, his fiction too unreal.” Time and again over the past forty-plus years, Star Trek has been written off in much the same manner, but it refuses to die…

That’s how I began my introduction to Star Trek FAQ 2.0: Everything Left to Know About the Next Generation, the Movies and Beyond. However, with a wealth of other fascinating material to cover, I didn’t have room in the book to elaborate on the parallels between Wells and Roddenberry. This week, while writing a review of the Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray of Wells’ Things to Come (1936), I was struck again by the similarities between the esteemed novelist and Star Trek’s creator.

For the uninitiated, a brief recap of Things to Come will be necessary.

Although it was produced by the great British filmmaker Alexander Korda and directed by William Cameron Mezies, Wells had near-total creative control over Things to Come, which he adapted from his 1933 book The Shape of Things to Come. Although categorized as science fiction the movie, like the book, is more a polemic — a manifesto demanding the radical re-ordering of human civilization, foisted by a deeply imaginative and profoundly compassionate futurist who foresaw the coming World War and wanted to rescue his species from imminent destruction. While Wells’ proposed solution was misguided, no film ever had greater ambition or a more noble sense of purpose. This was H.G. Wells’ attempt to save the world. Literally.

Things to Come is a “future history” of “Everytown” from 1940 to 2036. A decades-long World War begins in 1940 and is followed by a horrifying plague known as the Walking Sickness. By 1976, human civilization has regressed to the dark ages, the world ruled by bickering regional warlords and struggling for mere subsistence. But then the Airmen arrive. They are a society of scientists and engineers who, hidden away from the rest of the world, have made great scientific advances and are now prepared to lead humanity to a brighter future – so long as it submits to their benevolent rule. Under the regime of the Airmen, by 2036, war, poverty and hunger have been eradicated and humanity is on the brink of its first explorations into space. The story contains some harrowing sequences — when the healthy people begin shooting the lumbering victims of the Walking Sickness, the picture suddenly becomes a forerunner of Night of the Living Dead (1968) – but, ultimately, Things to Come is uplifting. It assures us that, no matter how corrupt or cruel human civilization may seem, we contain within us the potential to build a peaceful, shining world.

The parallels between this scenario and Roddenberry’s Star Trek “future history” should be obvious to any Trek fan. Like Wells, Roddenberry postulated that a coming World War (a third one, fought with nuclear weapons) would nearly extinguish our species, but would also obliterate the national, cultural and religious barriers that separate us, enabling humanity to rise from the ashes and build a far better world.  It’s easy to imagine Roddenberry’s Zefram Cochrane as one of Wells’ Airmen, inventing warp drive and helping extend Earth’s near-Utopia to all corners of the galaxy. Roddenberry, a well-read science fiction fan, may have been influenced by Wells’ ideas; both men envision a brave new meritocracy free of national and religion identities, where people seek self-improvement rather than wealth, and everyone is treated equally regardless of race and gender.

Things to Come possesses extraordinary strengths. It was the most expensive film made in England as of 1936, and Korda brought the full measure of his legendary production polish to bear on the project, hiring prestigious collaborators such as Menzies, Oscar-winning cinematographer Georges Perinal, esteemed composer Arthur Bliss, and Hungarian abstract artist László Moholy-Nagy, among others. The result is a science fiction epic that would remain unmatched in its interplay of unforgettable visuals and stirring music until Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

However, Things to Come also has glaring weaknesses. It is tediously paced, insufferably preachy, and completely devoid of believable characters or human drama. Wells was so intent on getting his message across that most of the story’s characters simply function as bullhorns spouting the author’s socio-political theories.  On the whole, Wells’ effort to save the world might have proven more successful had he been willing to emulate the approach of his early, most famous novels, which contained both big ideas and believable characters. As it stands, World War II arrived two years sooner than Wells anticipated (but mercifully ended 19 years earlier than Wells’ predicted 1966 resolution). And Things to Come was a critical and box office flop.

The flaws in Things to Come also present remarkable parallels with Roddenberry and his work. Both men looked back on their wildly successful early work (Wells on his classic SF novels, Roddenberry on the original Star Trek series) with some embarrassment. Both privately considered their early efforts immature and inadequate, especially as expressions of their Utopian aspirations for humankind. Consequently, their later works grew more overt and emphatic in their social messaging.

In a sense, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) was Roddenberry’s Things to Come. It was a tremendously ambitious and expensive project (the costliest single film ever made in Hollywood at the time) that brought together enormously talented collaborators (including Oscar winners director Robert Wise, composer Jerry Goldsmith and visual effects genius Douglas Trumbull, plus science fiction legend Isaac Asimov), but it met with critical and commercial disappointment. Both films suffered because their guiding force (which in the case of ST: TMP remained Roddenberry, even though Harold Livingston received sole screenwriting credit) placed far greater emphasis on ideas than on characters, resulting in slow-moving, emotionless pictures that left audiences cold.

Both men suffered as a result of their failures. Two of three other planned Korda-Wells collaborations were scrapped. (The other finished picture, The Man Who Could World Miracles, was far less ambitious than Things to Come.) Roddenberry lost control of Star Trek, reduced to a figurehead “executive consultant” with no real power while Harve Bennett took the reins of the film franchise. When, with the creation of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Roddenberry gained a new fiefdom, her persisted in his insistence that Star Trek’s first priority was not to present compelling dramatic situations, but to promote his progressive philosophy, including his belief in the perfectibility of the human race.

Roddenberry believed that the Bennett’s Trek feature films had strayed from this mission and tried to put the franchise back on course with The Next Generation with a series of decrees to his writing staff. Since the new series was set a century later than the original, he believed it should reflect the ongoing maturation of both future technology and our species. Starships of the 24th century would be more sophisticated and more reliable, so he also banned plots based on mechanical malfunctions. More problematically, Next Gen Starfleet officers, he reasoned, would be of higher moral caliber than their twenty-third century counterparts; therefore, Roddenberry forbade the depiction of interpersonal conflicts among the crew. No personality clashes, petty jealousies, competing personal ambitions, romantic triangles or other such story elements would be tolerated, even though because such conflicts have been essential building blocks of drama as far back as Sophocles. A revolving roster of writers struggled to devise compelling plots and flesh out the show’s ensemble of characters, without recourse to forbidden plot devices.  As a result, during Next Gen’s first two seasons, Captain Picard and his crew went underdeveloped, their personalities, relationships and backgrounds largely unexplored. Next Generation never consistently hit its stride until Season Three, when Roddenberry’s grip began to loosen, as a result of health problems. Eventually new executive producer Rick Berman lifted most of Roddenberry’s most restrictive screenwriting prohibitions.

I could go on, but this is already pretty long for a blog entry. Suffice to say that in many respects Wells and Roddenberry seem to have been cut from the same bolt of cloth. It was fine silk, but eventually gathered a few moth holes.

Star Trek FAQ 2.0

This book is not endorsed, sponsored, or affiliated with CBS Studios Inc., Paramount Pictures, or the “Star Trek” franchise. In the 1980s and ’90s, Star Trek rose from the ash heap of network cancellation and soared to the peak of its popularity with a series of blockbuster feature films and the smash sequel series Star Trek: The Next GenerationStar Trek FAQ 2.0 picks up where the original Star Trek FAQ left off, chronicling the historic comeback of the “failed” series and its emergence as a pop culture touchstone. The book provides accounts of the production of every Star Trek movie (including creator Gene Roddenberry’s struggle to retain control of the franchise) and every episode of The Next Generation (and the conflicts that roiled its writing staff). It also offers profiles of the actors, directors, writers, producers, and technicians whose excellence fueled the franchise’s success, and explores often overlooked aspects of the Star Trek phenomenon, including unofficial, fan-made productions. Star Trek FAQ 2.0represents the final frontier of Trek scholarship.

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About HLPAPG

Hal Leonard Performing Arts Publishing Group, the trade book division of Hal Leonard Corporations, publishes books on the performing arts under the imprints Hal Leonard Books, Backbeat Books, Amadeus Press, and Applause Theatre and Cinema Books.

Posted on July 29, 2013, in Film & TV and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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