FIRST LADY OF STAR TREK:
Majel Barrett Roddenberry's Life Among the Aliens
by Michelle Erica Green
It is difficult to come up with an introduction for Majel Barrett Roddenberry that does not contain a cliche about her being the First Lady of Science Fiction. The dynamic woman who goes by Barrett as an actress, Barrett-Roddenberry as a speaker, and Roddenberry as an executive producer is visible right now playing Julianne Belman on Earth: Final Conflict - one of the projects left unfinished by her late husband, Gene Roddenberry, which she has brought to fruition.
Best remembered as Christine Chapel from the original Star Trek series and Lwaxana Troi on The Next Generation, her voice is instantly recognizable as that of the Enterprise...and the Defiant, and Voyager, and virtually every other Federation starship. Earth: Final Conflict represents her first outing as executive producer. While she's finding the task daunting, she's also very proud of the show, which was recently renewed for a second season.
Earth: Final Conflict has a premise that's one step beyond the conspiracy arc on The X Files: aliens called Taelons, known as "the Companions," have made contact with Earth and established peaceful relations with most official human organizations. But nobody knows their real agenda, and a resistance group has sprung up to discover and expose whatever the Taelons and their human allies have in mind for humanity.
The series had its genesis more than two decades ago, when Majel and Gene Roddenberry were in England where he was producing Spectre for 20th Century Fox. CBS contacted him about a possible new science fiction series, and he hatched the idea for Earth: Final Conflict, which went through several names. As Majel Roddenberry recalls, Gene was committed to finishing Spectre, but "they started to send a lot of notes back and forth, and the script was written, he made notes on that and...by the time he got back, and he was really ready to go on it, Paramount called him and said, it's time to do the [Star Trek] movie!"
The series got put on the back burner, and Gene died without any further work on the development of the project. "But this was such a good idea in the first place, and I just happened to remember it," says Majel, who adds that she realized the idea might work even better now, given the resurgent popularity of alien-conspiracy theories. "I dug it up and pulled it out and took it over to CAA, and they introduced me to David Kirshner. The one really smart thing I've ever done in my life is to be able to talk David into coming with the project."
Surprisingly, Majel Roddenberry says the series did not undergo substantial changes since it was dreamed up two decades ago. Gene Roddenberry set it "in the immediate future," which his wife then took to mean the first decade of the new millennium. "But if this thing really takes off, we're going to be in the first decade of the new millennium! So we have gone to six to eight years in the future, and developed it from there. The characters are the same. William Boone and his sidekick and the Taelons are there."
The part of Dr. Julianne Bellman was written for Roddenberry, who says that it was created at the last minute and it hasn't been totally developed yet because of the need to emphasize the association between several of the other characters. The fact that the actress was ill for over a month of shooting further complicated matters, and she had herself written out of several scripts. Her dual role as executive producer as well as a performer has been a new challenge.
"I've never produced anything before, period, so everything is a brand new experience for me," she admits. "I basically did what David told me to, and I'm running from place to place trying to learn as I'm doign it. The performance part I've been doing for for 33 years; that just comes sort of as a second nature."
While the series this season had a very 1990s paranoid feel, Roddenberry says that the negativitiy is something she wants to work on diminishing. "When you sit down to write Gene Roddenberry, it was his positive attitude toward everything that made Star Trek a success. Although I love the mystery and intrigue that's there now, if we can keep the mayhem and violence down to an absolute minimum, there are areas where it's going to get more positive."
While she cannot discuss the specifics of next season, Roddenberry said to expect more stand-alone episodes, fewer arcs. She answers all the series' e-mail, and when she realized that there were questions even she did not know the answers to, she knew that the audience must be missing things as well. "Like I've told the audience so many times, if you talk, we'll listen!" she promises. The people working on Earth: Final Conflict are "so full of passion," she believes that the dramatic tension will escalate as the violence diminishes.
While she still can be heard as the voice of the Trek computers, Roddenberry says she suspects she will not appear again as Lwaxana Troi, the unconvential Betazoid whose passion for life often gets her into complicated situations. "I loved Lwaxana - I would have loved the chance to have continued on in that role, a role model for middle-aged, or past-middle-aged, women!" she exclaims. While the actress says she did not care for "Fascination," the Deep Space Nine episode in which Lwaxana's hormones played havoc with the crew, she loved her developing relationship with Odo, to whom "I guess as things stand now, technically, she's still married!"
Roddenberry had ideas for the character's development in her last episode, where a pregnant Lwaxana took refuge on the station. "I gave them an outline, but those things didn't happen," she says. Still, she was delighted with her final few Next Generation scripts, particularly "Half a Life," in which she fell in love with a character whose culture demanded that he commit ritual suicide.
"I thought Lwaxana was wonderful, but since she started as such a light-head, she was one-dimensional," Roddenberry recalls. Then Peter Allan Fields came in with "Half a Life," and the producers came up with the idea of giving it to Roddenberry and "a good actor" - in this case, David Ogden Stiers - since the material was not appropriate for any of the regular castmembers. "It was a beautiful idea, and wouldn't be as dark with a comic character in it, which lightened up the proceedings. At the same time, it gave her another dimension."
With "Dark Page," in which Lwaxana was forced to relive the death of her first child, and "Cost of Living," in which she arrived naked at her wedding to a stuffy old diplomat, the character became much more interesting, developing a friendship with Worf's son Alexander and mending fences with her daughter Deanna. "I've had so much fun with the character - it's sort of disastrous to me to see her just sort of sit there, bobbing in the water, doing nothing. I have a feeling they have just written her off," Roddenberry laments.
Though she's now a producer in her own right, Roddenberry says she doesn't pitch Star Trek story ideas and has not been on the sets for two years. "I don't go into the office, they don't ask me about anything, I've never volunteered it, and I don't know that anybody would listen to me if I did - they've got their own direction and their own force going for them now, and I don't think they would particularly want to look back even if they had the idea to." She calls Deep Space Nine and Voyager "two of the best-produced shows on television," and particularly enjoys seeing Kira and Janeway - after being fired herself thirty years ago as Number One because the network wouldn't let her late husband have a female second-in-command.
How does she feel about the evolution of her late husband's franchise? "I've talked with so many people, and when I use the word 'passion' they say, "that's what [Trek] misses: passion. I guess maybe it's gotten to be commonplace." She recalls that Gene Roddenberry wanted to write stories about people, and would "throw some science and technology in the background that he would have to get from research anyway, because he didn't know anything about it - he was the first to admit it. But he did know people, and he knew that good drama always comes from humanity." She calls this "the simplest form of drama in the world," adding, "If you take most of our episodes from the first go-around, and take us out of the funny costumes and off the spaceship, put us on a wagon train going west, we could play the same script."
TNG, which expanded the format of the original series, "should never have gone off the air - it was so well-conceived and so well-done," Roddenberry believes, blaming Paramount for "wanting its UPN," and yanking the successful series from the air. Though the new shows strike her as more "slick" and less invested in the characters than the production values, Roddenberry says that in general that they are "extremely well-done," with "a sizable amount of money to work with and the know-how, the technique."
On the emergence of "tell-all" biographies by members of the original series cast and crew, Roddenberry states, "I think they're awful." She points out that they contradict one another, and adds, "I was there! I know that Shatner's stories didn't happen." While she doesn't believe that any of the books have tarnished Gene Roddenberry's reputation, she wants to know why the actors didn't voice any complaints while he was alive.
"I just despise actors who think they've done it all themselves," she notes. "I don't have any bad experiences with any of them, but I really despise the way some of them have taken out after Gene. I'm not going to be doing that kind of thing - I think our private lives in the first place are our private lives, and I don't want to slam into anybody else because while I can refute things, I don't like to be negative. The accolades have already been there, and I'm busy going into the future myself right now with this project of Gene's."
While she has been too busy this year to attend many conventions, though she likes to keep in touch with fans, she is thrilled with how complimentary the feedback about Earth: Final Conflict has been. "I was quite flattered and quite pleased and very gratified. It's been a great year - I kind of wake up in the morning feeling sorry for anybody who's not me!" she laughs. Delighted not only by her own show's success, but by the general explosion of science fiction on television, Roddenberry praises Babylon Five (on which she appeared in "Point of No Return" during the third season), and inquires about recent developments on The X Files, which she hasn't been able to keep up with.
To what does she attribute the success of the genre? "I think the problem had been that it talked down to people, like Lost In Space - it was almost done tongue-in-cheek. The first Star Trek was tongue-in-cheek, but it got across subject matter nobody else could talk about." Citing network censorship and conservative values, Roddenberry believes that science fiction "was the only way Gene could find someone intelligent to converse with - he wasn't finding it among the personnel of network TV! He went where the smart people are, which is in the audience."
"I'd like to do something like that, to talk about problems as they stand today," she concludes. "We have such a perfect opportunity to do that in Earth: Final Conflict, which is what Gene's original idea was: to look at the world today through the eyes of an alien. This is how the violent, vicious people down here called humans, this is how they act! I guess we all live and learn."