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How Gene Roddenberry and his Brain Trust Have Boldly Taken 'Star Trek' Where No TV Series Has Gone Before : Trekking to the Top

May 05, 1991|Sheldon Teitelbaum | Sheldon Teitelbaum is a frequent contributor to this magazine.

The carpeted bridge of the starship Enterprise was suddenly invaded by several dozen bald and sandaled beings attired in burnt-orange robes. Intrigued by the Lucite-and-halogen spectacle, they wandered about quietly, gently touching the flashing consoles, pointing to the padded chairs on which the famous starship captain and his officers usually sit and whispering among themselves in what seemed to be an alien language.

But they were a good deal less alien than the outworlders who usually beam up to the set of Paramount's "Star Trek: The Next Generation." This was a delegation of Tibetan monks from the Dalai Lama's monastery in India. And they were transfixed by the sight of actor Brent Spiner, who plays the series' popular Pinocchio-like android, Data.

Studying Spiner's skin, swathed in gold makeup, and his eyes, glinting gold from his contact lenses, the monks were curious: Was he man or machine? Their curiosity seemed satisfied, however, when some of them shook hands with the impish actor, whose makeup rubbed off on their palms.

Spiner quips that smudging has prevented him, until a recent on-screen entanglement with guest star Michele Scarabelli, from being kissed as much as he'd like. "I fear when I die, they'll find traces of this makeup in my blood," he says.

In Spiner's four years on the show, he's gotten tired of inquiries into his humanity. (There are some who, in fits of extreme cognitive dissonance, simply will not accept that Spiner is human, causing great distress for both him and them.) But he schmoozed patiently with the monks. And "when the bells rang out for 'quiet on the set,' " recalls Spiner, "these people did professional quiet."

The monks--who appeared to mesh better with the scenery than did the previous day's visitor, Marilyn Quayle--had been invited to the Paramount lot to attend a taping of "Cheers." But they made it known that as much as they liked Cliff, Norm, Frazier and Lilith, they and their spiritual mentor, the Dalai Lama, were big-league "Star Trek" fans. This cheers series creator Gene Roddenberry, a 69-year-old Texas-born former airline pilot, flack for the Los Angeles Police Department and head writer of the famous '50s TV western "Have Gun Will Travel."

For Roddenberry, "Star Trek" in any of its manifestations--the first, or "classic," TV series, which ran from 1966 through 1969 and survives in daily syndication throughout the world; a short-lived animated series that premiered in 1974; a spate of high-grossing feature movies launched in 1979, and the now 4-year-old TV series "Star Trek: The Next Generation"--has always been more than mere entertainment.

"It has become a crusade of mine," says Roddenberry, "to demonstrate that TV need not be violent to be exciting. I'd often felt that no one was catching on. But if the Dalai Lama likes us, I suppose the message is getting out."

A stocky man with a silver mane and a quick smile, Roddenberry now fancies himself the invisible conscience of a universe of the imagination that has taken on a powerful existence entirely beyond the confines of his mind. "I finally feel I have become a philosopher, junior grade," he says. "There's hardly a subject you could mention I haven't spent time thinking out while writing 'Star Trek' scripts. You spend years dreaming up strange new worlds, and they build up into something quite real."

Roddenberry considers his greatest feat to be that nearly 25 years after the original series inauspiciously debuted on NBC (and after network execs deemed the first pilot too cerebral), "Star Trek" lives on--with a vengeance. Indeed, as "Star Trek: The Next Generation," it has become one of the most widely watched shows on TV, reaching 12.4 million households nationwide--a 13.1 rating--during the February sweeps. ("Cheers," a network show, was seen in 19.9 million households--a 21.8 rating.) Though this is, in fact, a smaller percentage than watched the old series, TV has since become sufficiently fragmented by cable and video to make this a consistently impressive, and eminently profitable, showing.

Winner of seven Emmies and a Peabody Award, "TNG" is even endorsed by the national organization Viewers for Quality TV, which prizes wholesome TV fare. It has become, asserts Paramount, the No. 1 one-hour show for men 18 through 49. Women like it less, though they prefer it to such past and present network powerhouses as "Dallas," "Murder She Wrote" and "Designing Women." In a telephone survey conducted this year for Paramount, 99% of the respondents had heard of "Star Trek," and 53% said they were fans.

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