Tonight: Trek Nation on Science Channel

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Set your DRVs for "Trek Nation" tonight (November 30, 2011) at 8pm ET/PT on the Science Channel.

If you're going to watch one documentary about Star Trek, it should be Trekkies. But if you're going to watch two, the second should be Trek Nation, premiering tonight on the Science Channel. Trek Nation puts Star Trek in context, chronicling the journey of Eugene Wesley "Rod" Roddenberry (Gene's son) to understand his father, and the show(s) Gene created.

As a documentary film, Trek Nation is a curious blend of well-executed interviews and explanation of the Star Trek phenomenon, mixed with slightly weird monologues and interviews by Rod Roddenberry, who admits he lived most of his life with only the vaguest notion that Star Trek was important. As TV, it's wonderful -- it's truly well-made, and it manages not to talk down to the viewer (which is exceedingly rare, especially with a topic that could easily be dismissed solely as wacky fan culture). As a longtime Trek fan, I saw lots of new footage here (including footage of the legendary first Trek convention which apparently has never been seen before), and lots of significant interviews with members of the Trek universe. If you like Star Trek and you have cable, this is a no-brainer.

Trek Nation has actually been in production for a long time; the principal photography appears to have been done mostly from 2003-2006, with some new material added in later (including an excellent interview with J.J. Abrams). Because much of it was done so long ago, it's often confusing -- why are we just seeing a premiere now? See, for example, Wil Wheaton's blog post from 2004 in which he discusses his interview. It's a good interview, and it's a good piece of TV, but the film nor the related PR never explains the elephant in the room: why release it so many years after it was shot? Fortunately, Airlock Alpha fills in more of that story, though only hints at the actual reasons it has taken so long for the film to come out. But that aside, let's talk about what's in the film: lots and lots of interviews about Star Trek, revelations about Gene Roddenberry, and lots of monologue by Rod Roddenberry.

Interviews About Star Trek

Trek Nation frequently shows Rod Roddenberry interviewing major figures in the science fiction or Star Trek world -- he sits down with George Lucas and J.J. Abrams, as well as his own mother, Majel Barrett (she voiced the computer on the Enterprise, and played Nurse Chapel and Lwaxana Troi), and a surprisingly comprehensive roster of Trek writing and acting talent. There are also many interviews apparently conducted by the film's director, Scott Colthorp. Frankly, Colthorp does a better job. Roddenberry repeatedly admits that he's not particularly knowledgeable about Star Trek (his story is basically that of wasted youth, at least in part due to an absent celebrity father), and fails to ask substantive questions. In many of the Rod interviews, you can see the interview subject squirm, as if asking, "Is this guy for real? How can he be asking me this?" In the Colthorp interviews, we actually see a detailed understanding of the show and nuanced questions (most notably about how the writing staff was able to deal with Gene's dictates that in the future, basic elements of the current human condition -- like greed -- should be absent); Colthorp does a set of terrific interviews with Michael Piller and Ron Moore (both TNG writers; Moore later headed BSG), and they're worth the price of admission alone.

The J.J. Abrams interview (conducted by Rod) is the capper on the film -- it comes at the end, and Abrams gives the whole production a level of perspective that's crucial. Abrams admits that he wasn't particularly a Trek fan either (like Rod) but then proceeds to explain how he worked around that, and how he managed to work on a franchise that's so beloved, despite not being a superfan. You also get to see a rather surprising interview clip from Gene Roddenberry during the Abrams interview -- I won't spoil it; it's a great reason to tune in and stick around until the end.

Revelations About Gene Roddenberry

Without spoiling it, let's just say that this film is quite honest about Gene Roddenberry's personal failings. I actually didn't know anything about him as a person before this film, and Trek Nation filled in the blanks for me. Again, this is very valuable stuff -- and to many, should be pretty surprising. Because Roddenberry died long before production began, the examination of his life comes from older interview clips, home movies (!), interviews with colleagues, and his immediate family. It even shows his last public appearance at a convention, with Rod and Barrett wheeling Gene onstage to give brief remarks, in which Gene clearly struggles to be understood after suffering a series of strokes -- it's heartbreaking stuff.

Monologue By Rod Roddenberry

The weird part of this documentary is the through-line provided by Rod Roddenberry, who sits in a planetarium and very frankly discusses his youth (think long-haired late-80's snowboarder dude), his relationship with his father (it wasn't great), his relationship with Trek (virtually nonexistent), and some work he has done in TV (also not particularly notable).

Rod frequently says that he learns things from fans that seem incredibly basic -- notably that the show is important to people, and indeed a pretty significant cultural touchstone. Of course, this makes sense when you consider Rod's position and how he grew up; he genuinely didn't know that Trek was a big deal until his father's funeral. But to a fan, it can be brutally odd -- there's a fair amount of face-palming happening in the audience as you, for example, ask yourself: how could Gene Roddenberry's son not know that Star Wars and Star Trek are considered competing franchises? And further, how could he fail to ask George Lucas anything meaningful, aside from an awkward question about whether Luke Skywalker's journey was a father/son thing. (To his credit, Lucas sizes up Rod with a quick, intense look, then settles into answering the questions he wishes had been asked.)

In Conclusion

This is an interesting, well-made documentary, both for its treatment of Gene Roddenberry and his work, and for its treatment of Rod Roddenberry. While most will tune in specifically for Trek info, there's a human angle here, a father/son narrative that rings true, and an examination of the complicated character of Gene Roddenberry. Tune in tonight at 8pm ET/PT for more.

For lots of info on Trek Nation, check out director Scott Colthorp's YouTube Channel. Here's a sample:

You may also enjoy this early trailer from 2010, apparently before it was picked up by the Science Channel.

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November 30, 2011 - 7:35am
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