Rethinking Hollywood: Catholic principles in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek?

“In the 24th century there will be no hunger, there will be no greed, and all the children will know how to read.” – Gene Roddenberry

As we just passed the 50th Anniversary of Star Trek’s founding, it may be worth mentioning a few words about its impact on the film industry, especially from a Catholic perspective.

Many faithful Catholics might not consider Star Trek all that Catholic on the surface. And indeed it’s not—at least in the traditional meaning of the word. It is pure science fiction, and Gene Roddenberry himself (the author of Star Trek) made a special effort not to broach the subject of religion directly.

But what many people do not realize—and what I would like to draw attention to in this article—is how Gene Roddenberry’s ethos, his vision of the future, helped to redefine the meaning of TV drama, and in so doing, he in fact brought a kind of Catholic ethos to TV.

You see, when people think of drama, many think of conflict, of arguments, and discord, perhaps leading to development of character in the end. And indeed, most films in Hollywood today resemble, nay, go out of their way to make this overtly apparent. Most characters are intentionally created with flaws, which (so the argument goes) make them seem more human and relateable. When characters seem more common and imperfect, they are thus more accessible to the viewer, so they say. Thus movies today are often peppered with petty bickering, banter, and elements of selfishness, even in the main protagonist. And back in 1966, most conflicts were resolved with brawls and fist fights. It was the status quo in Hollywood back then.

But Gene Roddenberry rejected this entirely. Rather than making yet another series showing viewers what they already see in everyday life, he wanted to show a different vision of the human person. He wanted to show man not as he is today, but what he could be. Gene wanted to show his potential realized. And so he set out to do exactly that, using the backdrop of 24th century space travel.  Thus was born Star Trek, a drama without “all the drama”—a drama where conflict originated not between the main characters, but from outside forces.

In the beginning, in 1966, Gene had an uphill battle ahead of him. Many producers did not think it would be popular. They insisted (and continue to insist to this day), that protagonists must show weaknesses and flaws, that there must be inner conflict, in order for it to be convincing and watchable. Gene had to make many compromises in the beginning, but he eventually proved them wrong.

Celebrity CityIt wasn’t until the 1987 TV series “The Next Generation,” when Gene was given unilateral control over the entire series. Everything had to pass his desk before it made it to the screen. And thus we see Gene’s vision more fully realized, I believe, in this series (And it would be the last series he was alive to control, as he passed away in 1991). Granted, it is not perfect, and Gene let a lot slip past his desk. But overall, many of the episodes are timeless, some even masterpieces.

I believe this is important for us to reflect on as Catholics, because it is precisely this kind of ethos that ought to be the norm in Hollywood, as in any form of art. Rather than showing us the current state of man—which is often not very desirable—art ought to lift one’s gaze above the earth, above the common and everyday, to show him a vision of something larger than himself, a vision of hope and possibility, of all the greatest parts of man realized. And when a film succeeds in showing elements of this, even if only imperfectly, then I believe we see something closer to true art. When they, for example, show people working together without bickering, without greed, without envy or lust (although I should note, elements of lust still found their way into the series), it in some sense becomes a guide for man, a spiritual director of sorts, pointing him in the direction of virtue.

Thus films can be Catholic, without being Catholic—without being overt or preachy. This is what it means to have a Catholic ethos. A movie can have priests and nuns, but is it really Catholic? A movie can have great cathedrals and beautiful chant, but is it really Catholic? The whole purpose of this website is to show that being Catholic is something deeper than externals, deeper than merely a timeline of dates and facts (which has been the failure of Catholic films to this day). It is a vision of the human person, the truest and purest vision there is. It communicates holiness, not so much in the church on one’s knees, but in the smaller nuances of everyday life, in the modest glance of the eyes or motion of the hand; in unpretentious and sincere interactions. When films try to aim in this direction as did Gene Roddenberry—albeit imperfectly—I believe they deserve some credit for this.

Although Star Trek was not perfect, and it had its moral and theological flaws, it was nonetheless ahead of its time in certain way. As LeVar Burton once said (the actor who played Geordi La Forge), it was “lightning in a bottle.” There was something unique about the TNG series that all came together perfect; it was able to capture a certain nobility and dignity of the human person that was lost in later iterations. This was most evident, I believe, in the person of Patrick Stewart, who was respected and looked up to almost like a father by the rest of the crew (and indeed, seminarians can take notes on his pastoral abilities alone).

Going forward from here, I believe Catholics can improve on this vision of the future significantly. But it will require that Catholics learn to think Catholic again. As I have always said, it takes a saint to make a movie about saints. You can’t expect to pull some quotes, piece together a timeline of events, and expect it to move the hearts of viewers. Holiness is required in order to capture holiness in film. It is an undertaking that requires many months of prayer and fasting in preparation.

“It has become a crusade of mine to demonstrate that TV need not be violent to be exciting.” — Gene Roddenberry

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