Joel Engel is the Salman Rushdie of Trekkies. An entertainment writer for The New York Times, this infidel has dared to defile the memory of worshiped Trek creator Gene Roddenberry — who died of a stroke more than two years ago — with a tell-all biography, Gene Roddenberry: The Myth and the Man Behind Star Trek, that is supposed to rip the lid off the legendary producer’s untold private life. Already, hard-core fans are on red alert: One outraged Trekker has even been faxing protest letters to the press, presumably trying to drum up an Engel boycott.
So what blasphemy does Engel commit? Has he caught the Great Bird of the Galaxy (as Roddenberry was known on the Trek sets) fondling underage Klingons? Embezzling Federation funds? Transporting Tribbles across state lines for immoral purposes? No such luck. The closest thing to a shocking revelation these pages have to offer is that the man who made the Enterprise fly could sometimes be a starship-size schmuck.
Roddenberry, according to Engel, claimed writing credits he didn’t deserve, dressed like a slob, smoked mass quantities of marijuana, cheated on his wife, padded his resume, held nude pool parties in the backyard of his Beverly Hills home, and concocted sleazy business schemes to exploit Star Trek’s success (including photocopying and selling old scripts).
Toward the end of Roddenberry’s life, Engel contends, the producer became such a bullheaded buttinsky that he was effectively frozen out of the Star Trek movies and reduced to a shadowy presence on the set of his last great creation, Star Trek: The Next Generation.
”One of the most obvious facts of Roddenberry’s life,” the biographer observes in his flat-as-a-pancake prose, ”was that nearly everyone who worked with him regularly in a creative capacity on any incarnation of Star Trek eventually disliked or distrusted him.”
That obvious fact may help explain why so many of Roddenberry’s acquaintances apparently declined to be interviewed for this book. In fact, of all the Trek actors, only Leonard Nimoy, who played the pointy-eared Mr. Spock, spoke to Engel on the record. ”Gene always had an agenda — his own,” he’s quoted as saying. ”I didn’t see him step up to bat and be the decent, honorable humanist that he portrayed himself to be.” That so many crucial voices are missing from this account — from William Shatner to Roddenberry’s wife, Majel Barrett — is one of the biography’s major weaknesses. It never builds the heft of a truly authoritative portrait.
Another weakness: Roddenberry’s life, frankly, doesn’t sound all that interesting. If there’s a gripping tale behind his transformation from airline pilot to Los Angeles cop to television writer to sci-fi guru, Engel keeps it well concealed. For the most part, he draws the Great Bird as the sort of boresville blowhard you’d least want to find yourself sitting next to on a long bus trip — or reading about in a medium-size book.
Happily, Engel does dig up some valuable nuggets for the national Trek trivia archives. His coolest find: Roddenberry’s first draft of Captain Kirk’s famous ”These are the voyages ” speech that opens most episodes of the original series (”This is the story of the United Space Ship Enterprise,” it goes. ”Assigned a five-year patrol of our galaxy, the giant starship visits Earth colonies, regulates commerce, and explores strange new worlds and civilizations ”). The ”five-year” figure, Engel reports, was Roddenberry’s agent’s idea. That’s how long they figured it would take to get enough episodes for syndication.
This biography, by the way, isn’t the only Roddenberry volume on the horizon. An authorized book is due in June from Penguin (written by David Alexander, who was hand-picked for the job by Roddenberry shortly before his death). Trekkies concerned about preserving their beloved spiritual leader’s public image will undoubtedly give that bio a much warmer reception.
Engel, meanwhile, should probably lay low for a while. Take it from one who knows, hell hath no fury like a Trekkie scorned. C