On August 19, on what would have been Gene Roddenberry’s centenary, Deadline announced a new movie in the works about the Star Trek the life of the creator. There is certainly a lot to cover there. Roddenberry belonged to that incredibly ambitious generation – in the days before we all grew up and kept looking inside Star Trek-when apparently everyone had led multiple, adventurous lives by the age of thirty. Before creating one of the most enduring works of popular fiction of all time, Roddenberry had already served as a decorated World War II pilot; flown around the world as a Pan Am pilot; survived a fiery crash in the Syrian desert, where he heroically rescued his passengers; and even worked as a police officer in Los Angeles, all before he started writing for TV. He’s an epic story that will no doubt lead to a fascinating biopic – and that’s not even the point Roddenberry’s unabashed womanizer.
The film will also force us to face a long-standing and surprisingly complicated question: Was Gene Roddenberry a Texan?
To apply some sort of dry, relentless Vulcan logic to it, yes. Roddenberry came from Texas. He was born in El Paso in 1921, which makes him a “Texas native” by dictionary definition. According to genealogical recordsHis father, Eugene Edward Roddenberry, was from Georgia, but his mother, Caroline Glen Roddenberry, was born and raised in El Paso, where she married Gene’s father in 1920, after he returned from World War I. Caroline was just sixteen at her wedding, barely seventeen when Gene was born, and the two crazy children lived modestly on Eugene’s salary as a lineman for the local electric utility. According to David Alexander’s Star Trek Creator: The Authorized Biography of Gene Roddenberry, the family fortune shifted once Eugene passed the civil service test and got a Los Angeles police commission. The Roddenberrys packed up and moved there in 1923.
So Gene Roddenberry was just a baby, barely two years old, when his family moved from Texas. Any movie about his life would surely blend in LA, omitting his time in El Paso entirely. After all, it’s not like Roddenberry would have remembered many of his days there. For example, I was born in Virginia, where my father was stationed at Marine Corps Base Quantico. Like Gene Roddenberry, I was still wearing the diapers when we went back to my parents’ hometown of Fort Worth. I have no memory of my time in Virginia other than a few old photos of me waddling into the Atlantic. But despite having spent my entire waking life here raised by a family whose Texan roots go back generations, I’m a Virginian, according to our state most uncompromising bumper stickers. As we learned from native New Yorker Hank Hillthose are just the rules.
But while I’m technically as much a Virginian as Roddenberry is a Texan, there’s almost no chance that, when I die, Virginia will put a plaque on the floors I once drooled on, like El Paso did for Gene Roddenberry in 2002. The sign at 1907 E. Yandell Drive marks where the Roddenberry family’s rented home once stood—a “tiny house, two bedroom, red brick,” according to Jose Dyoub, who named the El Paso Times that he bought it in 1969 and broke it down the same year. Over the decades the property has been a car park, office space and – most recently – a machinery and supply company.
This inconspicuous strip still comes on the market as: “The Birthplace of Gene Roddenberry,” with at least one savvy broker suggesting it could be the ultimate souvenir”for serious Trekkie collectors.” That same pitch suggests that someone could even transform the property into a Roddenberry museum and “Trekkie cafe,” claiming that “the long-term historic value may be comparable to Ernest Hemingway’s property in Key West Florida.” .
Maybe not, although that certainly didn’t stop El Paso from trying to drum up Star Trek tourism over the years. The birthplace plaque was laid by former El Paso city councilor Anthony Cobos, who paid for it from his own campaign money in the hopes that, as he El Paso Times in 2002, “we can become a big Trekkie town.” The year before, the El Paso Independent School District had already renamed its planetarium Gene Roddenberry Planetarium (or “the Roddenberry”). As the then principal, John Peterson, recalled for: El Paso Inc., when he found out that Roddenberry was born in El Paso, it came as a total surprise to him, although thematically at least, the renaming seemed to fit the bill perfectly.
Then came a few Star Trek conventions, including: 2003’s Big Bird of the Milky Way Star Trek Celebration, named after Star Trek associate producer Robert Justman’s affectionate nickname for Roddenberry. That year, El Paso played host to thousands of Trekkers, as well as nearly all of the original series’ cast members, including William Shatner, George Takei, and Nichelle Nichols.
Unfortunately, Great Bird of the Galaxy “got a little too big for El Paso and went into the red,” as Peterson recalled. It turned out to be the last of El Paso Star Trek convention—or Star Trek everything actually. In 2019, the Gene Roddenberry Planetarium announced it would move to a new location for a modern overhaul (thanks in part to a $951,000 grant from the city). But the Roddenberry has remained closed ever since, the reopening has been postponed indefinitely by the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, Cobos has never been able to realize his dream of turning El Paso into a “Trekkie Town”; in 2013 he pleaded guilty to participate in a bribery scheme that landed him in federal prison, and in 2016 he was found guilty on embezzlement costs. From now on, any Trekker who visits El Paso will find only that old, lonely plaque, which declares with bravado in capital letters, “It must be remembered that this phenomenal man and his great vision was a NATIVE EL PASOAN.”
If very little of Gene Roddenberry is left in Texas, the truth is that there was very little of Texas in Gene Roddenberry. He returned briefly in 1942, and then only on military command: Roddenberry married his first wife while stationed at San Antonio’s Kelly Field, but he shipped to the South Pacific shortly after. Whenever Roddenberry spoke of his hometown, which rarely happened, it was usually to express his own views. His father Eugene was a “big Texan,” Roddenberry said in 1997 Inside Star Trek: The Real Story. At home, Eugene tended to spout racial swear words, Roddenberry told his biographer David Alexander, prompting Alexander to introduce that “a lot of” Star Trek philosophy [Roddenberry] developed later in life was in response to his father’s prejudices.” Star Trek offered a vision of a progressive utopia, one that had evolved beyond racial divisions. Diversity and inclusivity became the pillars of the franchise – a complete rejection of Eugene’s “big Texan” worldview.
Roddenberry’s mother Caroline had been raised as a strict Southern Baptist. She insisted on dragging Gene and his siblings to church and holding weekly prayer meetings, experiences Roddenberry rebelled against in his teens. As he remembered in an interview from 1991, it was all that obligatory religion that confirmed his atheistic, humanistic worldview as an adult, something that repeatedly found its expression in Star Trek. The Enterprise’s crewmen trusted only science and each other, and their missions were guided by skepticism toward self-confessed gods who inevitably turned out to be swindlers and tricksters. Religion and superstition were the refuges of the fearful, the show repeatedly suggested. They were, to quote Mr. Spock, illogical.
Unfortunately, if anything about Gene Roddenberry or… Star Trek can really be connected to Texas, it’s that he rejected everything he thought represented Texas in relation to his parents’ personal values. Although Roddenberry never expressed any specific enmity toward Texas, he was vehemently against the general attitude of the South. His son, Rod, fondly recalled his father’s reaction to all the Southern TV affiliates who were hesitant to carry the show about its racial diversity: “F— off then.” In the 2012 documentary Star Trek: The True Story, Rod also told that Eugene Roddenberry’s main reaction to the series was embarrassment, urging him to “go up and down the block, knock on everyone’s door and apologize for his crazy son, who was going to put on that ridiculous show.”
Knowing this about Roddenberry makes Texas’s absence in Star Trek feel almost striking. After all, the original Enterprise crew has American heartlanders from all over the world – Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy is from Georgia; Captain Kirk is from Iowa, but somehow not Texans. Outside the screen we can claim: Star Trek: The Next Generation cast members Michael Dorn (Worf), a native of Luling, and Brent Spiner (Data), who grew up in Houston. But on screen it lasted until a 1997 one-off episode Star Trek: Journeyr before we met a real Texan named Riley Frazier, who becomes nostalgic about a childhood she spent eating barbecue and picking bluebonnets before being assimilated by the Borg. There was also “Texasa bolo-tie-wearing simulation that was brought to life by an alien and spent most of its time playing craps with Data. None of these characters were particularly memorable — or particularly well thought out. In fact, Texas appears largely as an abstract in Star Trek, such as in the Battle of the Alamo that several Deep Space Nine crew members spend several episodes acting on the holosuite, leading Worf to muse on the importance of myth.
But to use Worf’s greater point, when considering whether Gene Roddenberry can be called a true Texan, it may only matter that we believe in the legend – to see how Roddenberry’s creation some of the greater, more symbolic qualities reflects that we find to be innate in Texans, even if they didn’t actually, you know, grew up here. After all, Roddenberry was a dreamer, a lover of bizarre folktales and pulp fiction like Texas’s own Robert E. Howard. It could be argued that there is something going on with that quality in the people who were born here. In interviews, Roddenberry also spoke highly of his grandmother, who told him to always stay true to his beliefs and nurture an independent streak that guided his career — which, as we like to believe, is inherently Texan as well.
But more than anything, Star Trek has an old-fashioned cowboy spirit, a tale of intrepid benefactors who traverse “space, the last frontier” while selflessly coming to the rescue of others. Gene Roddenberry may not have been a Texan in the truest sense of the word, but deep down there seems to be something of the state in his DNA. If nothing else, there was the quintessential Texas belief that we alone map out the journey of a lifetime, defined not by the trivial circumstances of who we are or where we come from, but by who we choose to be.