Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Trek Nation

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Trek Nation debuts tonight on Science Channel at 8 p.m. Eastern.

So full confession up front: I am not a die-hard Trekkie. A fan? Certainly. Can I tell a Klingon from a Romulan? Yes. Can I tell either apart from a Kardashian? On my better days, you betcha. I feel the need to state this up front to properly contextualize what will follow. For those that know every episode in and out, and have attended their fair share of conventions, Trek Nation may play quite differently. It’s possible they will make up the majority of people that watch this documentary on the Science Channel tonight. But perhaps it’s appropriate that a relative outsider such as myself is writing up this review, since so much of it concerns the outsider status of the filmmaker, Eugene "Rod" Roddenberry, the only son of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.

The biggest problem with Trek Nation is that it can’t quite decide what kind of documentary it wants to be. The title itself suggests a wide swath of possibilities, as vast as the cosmos explored in Star Trek. But Roddenberry’s approach includes everything while focusing on nothing, which makes for a scattershot approach throughout the feature-length running time. There are plenty of positives to be found in the documentary, but the lack of singular direction doesn’t allow for a coherent through line.

On one level, Trek Nation is a cursory look at the history of the franchise, detailing Gene Roddenberry’s life as a WWII pilot through his spec scripts for shows such as Have Gun – Will Travel onto the abandoned initial pilot all the way through to J.J. Abrams’ reboot in 2009. The strengths in this section are the juicy behind-the-scenes home movies taken on-set, some rarely seen scenes, and interviews with off-screen figures such as Dorothy “DC” Fontana, Rick Berman, Ron Moore, and a host of others. While the praise of Rodenberry is expected, Trek Nation really gets some traction when he comes under the gun for both his personal and professional shortcomings. (Most of these seemingly stem from the same God complex that came when he started to buy into the praise from the show’s devoted fans.)

On another level, the personal aspects of this documentary detail just how much Rod felt outside of the titular nation while growing up. Trek Nation is both an examination of the culture surrounding the show as well as Rod’s attempt to at least understand, if not fully enter, that culture. It makes sense that Abrams articulate’s Rod’s problem near the end of the documentary as someone who would probably have loved Star Trek had he had a different last name. This insight gives everything before it a type of retroactive continuity, all thanks to a man who created the mother of all daddy issue shows in the form of Lost. A short segment with Wil Wheaton plays this element up the strongest, with Wheaton sharing an anecdote that nearly breaks Rod’s spirit onscreen. All of this will potentially play as more than slightly self-indulgent to those looking for a straightforward Trek documentary. But the primarily failing here is that all of this would have played stronger had this been more of a central focus to the proceedings.

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Instead, it’s lopped in with analysis of the show, its creator, and the fandom he created. While there are complex sides to Roddenberry’s role as a father and creator of a sci-fi franchise, Trek Nation shows nothing but love for the fan base that has been inspired by Kirk, Spock, Picard, and everyone else in that universe. Even if Roddenberry himself couldn’t live up to the ideals laid out in his future vision of humanity, Trek Nation is littered with people that either became scientists, astrophysicists, astronauts, or simply more tolerant people thanks to the worldview onscreen. Cheesy? Sure. But Trek Nation emphasizes the moral compass of the show as subtly fashioning similar ones for its audience. There are times in which Roddenberry’s vision for Star Trek clashed with basic storytelling principles, especially in terms of forbidding the writers on The Next Generation to show intra-ship squabbles between crewmates. But its inherent optimism is also what gives the show such potency, one that increases as the world itself eschews such sentiment.

Still, it’s unclear what Rod Roddenberry was trying to truly accomplish here. Interview footage takes place over nearly a decade, with archival footage pre-dating the original Trek itself. There’s a lot of material here, but it’s not truly shaped into a clear, linear narrative. Trek Nation has something for everyone, but just like Trek, this would have more powerful if it were directed at a specific audience. Those looking for a comprehensive history of Star Trek won’t find it: there’s a lot on the original series, and some on The Next Generation, but Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise barely get any mention. Those looking for a deep look at the impact of the show on its fandom won’t find it: there are plenty of anecdotes from people of all walks of life that swear by the show, but no one really gets enough screen time to make an impact. Those looking for a deep biographical journey as a son tries to get to know a father won’t find it, since Rod wrestles with how personal he wants to make this documentary throughout its running time.

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All three facets are fine. But all of them are full-length documentaries in and of themselves, and as such get slightly lost in translation when combined. Most people tuning in will find something fascinating (Nichelle Nichols steals the show with her anecdote about an unlikely Trekkie), but will have to wade through a lot of material they may not find as gripping. Trek Nation is as inclusive, which fits the Star Trek worldview. But it could have done with some excision in order to differentiate itself. Exclusion is a sin for those aboard the Enterprise, but would have done this documentary a universe of good.

Random observations…

  • Signs That Things Never Change, TV Edition: 1) NBC refused to air “The Cage,” the original pilot featuring Captain Pike, favoring a “Western in space” approach for the pilot that actually aired. 2) One superfan talks about her reticence in getting too hooked on the show, stating to friends at the time, “Let’s see what Episode Six looks like.” I imagine this friend currently has a registered name here at The A.V. Club.
  • There’s a brief interview with George Lucas, but there’s little of substance to the chat. Rod is not a skilled interviewer, and Lucas isn’t up for really giving anything past pat answers to the questions before him. Again: there’s probably a fine documentary about the way nerds attack each other over favored franchises. But this isn’t the one.
  • The best archival footage consists of those detailing the first Star Trek convention, as people were trying to figure out what such cons were supposed to entail. It’s both foreign and familiar at the same time.
  • Wesley Crusher haters: you’ll learn why Gene Roddenberry had little time for your griping before this documentary is over.
  • Rod shows J.J. Abrams a particular sound bite from Gene that would have gone a long way to calm the nerves of fans before the reboot.
  • "Rodenberry saw the world as it was. And he didn't like it."