If Not Now, When? If Not Here, Where?: Roddenberry’s Broken Promise

In my recap of season 1 of Star Trek: The Next Generation, there was so much to talk about that I didn’t really talk about the chaos going on behind the scenes that made common descriptors like “troubled production” a massive understatement. And that chaos largely centered on one man: franchise creator and series executive producer Gene Roddenberry.

I wrote about my disillusionment with Roddenberry and the mythology built up around him elsewhere, but there’s plenty to talk about even when we limit the scope to his behavior in his two seasons as TNG’s showrunner. According to various members of the writing staff, Roddenberry was notorious for aggressively rewriting other writers’ scripts multiple times, sometimes right up to and even during the filming of those episodes.1 He had difficulty recruiting writers, and pressured the writers he did have to accept wages below the minimums set by the Writers Guild of America. And we’re not talking about just any writers (not that that should matter), we’re talking about the likes of “The Trouble with Tribbles” scribe David Gerrold and the legendary D.C. Fontana.2

But I think one particular aspect of The Next Generation’s “troubled” season 1 production deserves special attention, and that’s David Gerrold’s rejected script “Blood and Fire.”

For all the whining particularly unobservant Star Trek fans do about how nuTrek “has become so political” and “is SJW propaganda,” Star Trek has had these things in its DNA since its very inception. The original series’ entire concept hinged upon a diverse group of people tackling complex problems. It is the show responsible for the first widely-viewed interracial kiss in television history. It is a show that consistently (imperfectly, but consistently) tackled issues like racism, misogyny, nationalism, and more. True, that critique often came from a reductive, liberal place, but it’s beyond dispute that social consciousness is not something that arrived in the Star Trek franchise in 2017.

But what issues was The Next Generation willing to tackle? Well. Looking back at season 1, unquestionably the most overt issues-based episode was “Symbiosis,” an episode featuring an anti-drug message that Nancy Reagan herself could scarcely have made more heavy-handed. The show also addressed grief and loss in “The Skin of Evil,” the shortcomings of retributive justice in… well, “Justice.” Also arguably in “Angel One,” but that was super sloppy and tangled up in the hopelessly immature and misogynistic depiction of a matriarchal society.

More importantly, what issues was the show unwilling to tackle?

It’s a fairly uncontroversial bit of fandom history that the explosion of Kirk/Spock zines in the 70s and 80s is largely responsible for the popularity of “slash” pairings in fanfiction, and pretty influential in fanfiction itself being as popular as it is today. The 70s and 80s also saw a rapidly-intensifying struggle for queer liberation that in many ways mirrored the movement for black liberation that was contemporaneous to TOS, and which TOS was occasionally willing to strategically align itself with.

This incongruity did not escape queer fans of Star Trek. You have an “issues-based” show whose entire concept is that diversity is good that has never once represented you on the screen. You have a fanbase that is self-evidently not only comfortable with depictions of queerness, they’re so frustrated by its absence that they’re making it themselves.

So. It’s November of 1986. Star Trek is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a massive fan convention in Boston, Massachusetts. Star Trek: The Next Generation is in preproduction, having been publicly announced just over a month ago. Excitement is high. Gene Roddenberry has just given a speech and is taking questions. In the audience is TNG writer David Gerrold. Also in the audience is Franklin Hummel.3

“Who?” you might be asking. Hummel is not exactly a household name, but some queer Star Trek fans may know who he is. He’s the founder of the Gaylaxians, an organization that today has affiliates all over the U.S. and Canada, but at the time it was a small group of New England queer science fiction fans.

So. You’re a gay Star Trek fan. In fact, you’re effectively the president of gay Star Trek fans in your area. It’s your turn to ask Gene Roddenberry a question. What do you think you ask him?

Roddenberry’s response? According to David Gerrold: “Sooner or later, we’ll have to address the issue. We should probably have a gay character.”

Broken promises by Gene Roddenberry were not news to the cast and crew of Star Trek, but given the almost mythical narrative surrounding the man by this point, they were certainly not the expectation from fans. So everyone used to get a little uncomfortable when you bring up David Gerrold’s infamously-unproduced “Blood and Fire.”

To hear Gerrold and Fontana tell it, in Fontana’s introduction to the novel version of Blood and Fire and elsewhere, Roddenberry was initially supportive of the script but did a 180 over time. Gerrold also recalls Rick Berman being particularly against the notion of having a gay character. Roddenberry’s personal lawyer got involved, and it got messy. Extremely messy. I’m not going to repeat what was said, but in the Salon interview cited elsewhere in this post, Gerrold recounted some extremely explicit homophobic language directed at him from the aforementioned lawyer. Gerrold isn’t even gay, he just wanted to put gay characters in an episode of a TV show.

The script they were fighting over featured an AIDS allegory and literally a line of dialogue where Commander Riker asks one half of a gay couple how long he’s been with his partner. That’s it. For 1987 or 1988 (when it would have aired), it would have been something I guess. Not really enough, but something. More inspiring, though, is Gerrold’s last argument for featuring gay characters before Roddenberry ultimately vetoed his script, as related by D.C. Fontana in her introduction to the novel Gerrold reworked the script into: “If not now, when? If not here, where?” Those words reach out through time like a fist planted right in my gut. The answers? Not now. Somewhere else. 

It’s really sad when Star Trek doesn’t have the courage to be Star Trek.

I tried to find a copy of the script online somewhere to read, but it doesn’t seem to be easily available. I did read the novel it eventually became, and watched the fanfilm adaptation. In the novel, Gerrold made the gay characters a more vital part of the story. He also makes several cutting references to the behind the scenes fight over his unproduced script. The most blatant of these was a reference to “colonies of ants, bees, termites, lawyers–not the human kind; I mean the parasites from Maizlish.” (Three guesses as to the surname of Roddenberry’s lawyer.)

I read it. It’s… fine? I wouldn’t call it daring, not even in 2004. But I enjoyed the writing well enough, and quite frankly my favorite aspects of it weren’t even related to the AIDS metaphor or the gay characters.

I’m not sure if this was in the original TNG script (but it seems pretty integral to the other two versions), but this story does have a very straightforward use of the Bury Your Gays trope, which is disappointing but still would’ve been a step forward in 1988. Less so in 2004, but not exactly widely-critiqued in the popular consciousness by that point. Long story short, one of the two gay characters dies in a fairly heroic sacrifice that saves the life of both his partner and the first officer. His partner is, unsurprisingly, extremely distraught.

Enter Brian Armstrong.

Brian Armstrong is a hunky himbo. Yeah, ok, he predates himbo discourse, but everyone on the ship goes out of their way to talk about how pretty and muscular and dumb and sweet he is. Everyone. Even the narrator gets in on the action. (“Brian Armstrong was beefy and good-natured and at a loss.”) Armstrong ends up comforting the survivor of the couple. And it’s just an incredibly wholesome scene, and I really want to read more about this character. He’s such a good boy.

Anyway, apparently in one of the previous novels (the novel version of Blood and Fire was worked into Gerrold’s preexisting Star Wolf series), Armstrong had fallen pretty hard for a fellow crewmember who died tragically. That crewmember was a Quilla, a human religion whose members ultimately choose to undergo a transformation into another humanoid species and from that point on become sort of perfect servants. In one Quilla’s words: “Being a Quilla is a commitment to others. So much so, that you give up your own ego, your own goals, your own identity. You give up your own thing-ness, so you can be part of a larger domain. The highest state of being […] is service to others. There is nothing higher.” It’s heavily implied that Armstrong is eventually going to decide to become a Quilla himself, and I found myself more invested in his journey than basically anything else in the book. I want more of him.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the captain’s characterization, and especially her relationship with her first officer who we’re catching at the tail end of a redemption arc. And the way she handles all the competing interests she has to juggle throughout the story. I also really enjoy all the interactions and relationships between the crew members, they all feel very lived in.

Oh and, this probably goes without saying from the guy who wrote “The Trouble with Tribbles” (though this is very intentionally much more serious in tone), but I enjoy the book’s sense of humor. And not just because there are one or two jokes that are aimed directly at me.

… yeah, ok, I should probably tell you about those, though. In one, one officer takes off his spacesuit and says he feels naked without it, the other quips, “You like being bound up?” and he responds, “Only by redheads.” Which, yuck? But, yay bondage! Later, a crewmember asks the medic if a procedure will hurt, and he says, “No. It won’t hurt. But I can arrange it if you want,” and waggles his eyebrows at her, making her crack up.

The fanfilm version was part of a production called Star Trek: New Voyages. The overall idea of New Voyages is to show the adventures from the fifth and final year of the Enterprise’s five-year mission. The show originally merely sought Gerrold’s permission to adapt the TNG script into a TOS script, but eventually he started pitching in with the rewrites and when all was said and done he ended up directing it.

It’s… honestly? It’s damn good. Like, better than quite a few actual TOS episodes. One major change from both the TNG script and the novel it grew into is that one half of the gay couple was Peter Kirk, Captain Kirk’s nephew. The actor they got to play him is, uh, honestly super cute, and he has a prolonged makeout scene with his boyfriend towards the beginning of the episode. That wasn’t in the novel, and certainly wouldn’t have been in the TNG episode, but uh yeah yes please.

What surprised me watching the episode was how much I missed the whole Brian Armstrong and the Quillas aspect of the novel. It ends up being Kirk who comforts his nephew, which makes sense, but actually isn’t as emotionally resonant for me as when it was Armstrong. I guess the main things we have to make up for that is the gay makeout scene and Peter Kirk just being constant eyecandy.

… okay, that’s actually kinda almost fair. He is exceptionally good eyecandy.

But, yeah. Both versions of the story that we have today are quite good, and probably better than the TNG episode would’ve been. But in 1988 we didn’t need perfect, we needed… anything. Anything at all.

Famously broken promise aside, Star Trek’s gay problem was not remotely limited to Roddenberry. When Roddenberry’s health failed, the man who picked up the torch as executive producer and showrunner was Rick Berman. The same Rick Berman that Gerrold recalled as having a negative reaction to the idea of depicting a gay couple in TNG. The same Rick Berman that Gerrold and others have described as “a raging homophobe.”4 The same Rick Berman who, regardless of what happened with the infamously-unproduced “Blood and Fire,” had 5 more seasons of TNG, and three full series totalling 18 seasons of television, not to mention four feature films, as the primary decisionmaker on Star Trek. That’s a full 16 years of Star Trek under his watch, and not a single gay character to be seen in that entire time.

There were half-measures, and near-misses. In season 4 of TNG, Dr. Crusher falls pretty hard for a Trill ambassador named Odan. When Odan’s host is seriously injured, Crusher is able to successfully temporarily transplant the symbiote into her colleague Commander Riker. She’s hesitant to continue their romantic liaison with Riker as Odan’s host because of the potential ethical issues involved, but ultimately succumbs. But when Odan’s next host is a woman, she flat out drops the affair and says humanity “isn’t ready.” Some defend this depiction as being more about all the rapid changes from host to host, but Crusher was ultimately willing to to go forward with the affair even when she had to deal with the strangeness of having one of her closest colleagues as Odan’s host. In spite of what others have said, the implied homophobia seems super clear to me.

Our next close brush with actually taking a stand comes in the season 5 episode “The Outcast.” In this one, Commander Riker falls hard for Soren, a member of a species that has no concept of gender. Jonathan Frakes himself criticized the episode’s gutlessness and openly lobbied for the casting of a male, rather than female, actor to play Soren. His arguments fell on deaf ears.5

DS9 is noted for having virtually everyone from the Mirror Universe implied to have been bisexual, but this is such a straightforward use of the Depraved Bisexual trope that I don’t think it’s even worth getting into. I mean, I’m into it, but I’m kinky af. And it was clearly not the producers’ intention for me to feel seen by this. It’s just a happy accident. The other was Dax’s lesbian kiss in the season 4 episode “Rejoined,” which was hot as hell but had absolutely no longterm ramifications. I certainly headcanon Dax as trans and queer, but it comes up exactly once. Oh and I freaking love Garak, and Andrew J. Robinson for playing him the way he did, but again the show just wasn’t willing to make the subtext text. And I bet there’s a Rick Berman-shaped reason for that.

Voyager did not even broach the subject. Enterprise did so in a way that was arguably even more gutless than previous attempts. Star Trek did finally get its AIDS metaphor, but in the aggressively heterosexual episode “Stigma.”

After nearly becoming one of the first major franchises to feature an openly gay character, Star Trek would very belatedly  break that barrier only when it was hardly fair to even call it a barrier anymore. The long overdue fulfillment of Roddenberry’s broken promise would come in season one of Star Trek: Discovery. Just two months shy of a full 31 years after Roddenberry’s promise.

Better late than never?

Actually, yeah. It’s worth noting that Discovery didn’t stop there. Season 2 introduced a character who is a widow mourning the loss of her wife. Season 3 featured the franchise’s first transgender and nonbinary characters, and both of them are main characters with quite a bit of screentime. And that is not something that is remotely commonplace in mainstream media today.

Beyond that, the gay couple ends up effectively adopting the much younger enby leading to the most wonderfully wholesome queer family, and that is just so much more like my real, lived experience as a queer person than I ever expected to see depicted on screen. The way we gravitate to each other. The way we become chosen family. I have never before felt so represented by a television show. I have never before felt so seen.

Discovery is also notably not the only nuTrek series to depict queerness. Two female characters start exploring a romantic relationship at the end of season 1 of Picard. And last because it’s most recent but certainly not least the main character of Lower Decks is pansexual, or to put it in her words, always dating “bad boys, bad girls, bad gender nonbinary babes.”

It is frustrating that it took so long to get here, but it’s also exciting that we’re here now. Less exciting is how badly this is needed right now. At a moment in time when Florida is passing a Don’t Say Gay law. At a moment in time when Texas is trying to legislate transgender kids out of existence, and other states are poised to do the same. And none of this is going to go away just because my favorite show finally has our backs… but at least they have our backs.

If not now, when? If not here, where?

Notes

1. Engel, Joel. Gene Roddenberry: The Myth and the Man Behind Star Trek (Hyperion, 1994), 244.

2. Engel, 232.

3. Kay, Jonathan. “Gay ‘Trek.’” Salon. 30 Jun. 2001, https://www.salon.com/2001/06/30/gay_trek/

4. Drew, Brian. “Exclusive: David Gerrold Talks Frankly About TNG Conflicts With Roddenberry & Berman + JJ-Trek & more.” TrekMovie.com. 12 Sep. 2014, https://trekmovie.com/2014/09/12/exclusive-david-gerrold-talks-frankly-about-tng-conflicts-with-roddenberry-berman-jj-trek-more/

5. Kay, Jonathan. Ibid.

***

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