Gene Roddenberry and the Gods

On this day in 1991, Gene Roddenberry passed away. I didn’t even realize that when I talked about Star Trek today in my class on religion and science fiction. Roddenberry’s own life story is fascinating, and the Star Trek phenomenon that he created is something to marvel at. Today’s theme in class was “ancient aliens” and so we looked at clips from “Who Mourns for Adonais?”, “Bread and Circuses,” and (from The Next Generation) “Who Watches the Watchers?” It is interesting that so many stories on Star Trek and other science fiction shows explore the scenario that advanced aliens are mistaken for gods and advanced technology for magic or miracle. It allows the exploration of longstanding traditions of storytelling to continue in the framework of our modern scientific worldview. But it also allows the gods to be challenged, rejected, taken on, beaten, and brought down to size. And so if, on one level, doing that posits that such beings as Apollo really exist, on another it allows human beings to outgrow them and treat them as beings like us, and not infallible sources of truth worthy of worship. All of us who explore religious topics and/or science fiction in the present day owe Gene Roddenberry a debt of gratitude.

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  • Beau Quilter

    Roddenberry was a truly great creative force in television, as was the original Star Trek producer – Lucille Ball via the Desilu company.

  • fullmetalninja

    Star Trek and Religion was one of the classes I truly enjoyed at Indiana Bloomington in the 90s. I think you would have loved the class James.

  • Jack Collins

    This is something (by way of “The Daemons” and “Pyramids of Mars,” and subverted in “Battlefield”) that I’ll be touching on in my presentation at the Religion and Doctor Who conference in Manchester next Saturday.

    I think you’re on the right track. The whole von Däniken/ancient astronauts trope emerged on the tail end of the “Aquarian” revival, and I think its popularity reflected a desire to maintain a sense of awe and wonder alongside skepticism of both traditional religion and countercultural spiritual alternatives. It keeps things in a comfortably naturalistic and humanistic framework.
    One point I find interesting (and can’t find room for in my paper) is the way they invoked and then subverted the trope in the Stargate franchise. They spent seasons defeating the Goa’uld, parasitic aliens who posed as the gods of ancient humanity, only then to be faced by the Ori, who were, by any reasonable definition, really gods. But the Ori were rejected, not because their power was false or their identities assumed, but because they punished those who refused to worship them. That’s a remarkably humanistic, post-modern take on gods–a sort of anti-Job–where legitimate divinity is determined based on human moral judgments.

    • James F. McGrath

      I showed that meme towards the start of the class! Also, glad to hear you’re going to and presenting at the Doctor Who day conference. I wish I could be there! It is certain to be a wonderful event. Please do blog about your talk! :-)

  • Scott

    Even the post Roddenberry Trek did a nice jib of looking at religion. DS9 had the Bajoran religion with the wormhole aliens as well as the Jem Hadar programmed genetically to worship the founders.

    Voyager also had the marvoulous episode “Deathwish” in which one of the immortal “Q’s” wants to commit suicide.

    Roddenberry enjoyed talking about authority figures a godlike beings were perfect targets.