“When the legend becomes the fact, print the legend.”
— The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
This famous quote from the iconic John Ford Western could easily apply to Star Trek creator, Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry was a good storyteller, who rarely (at least according to this book) shied away from an opportunity to present himself as the hero of any particular story — whether it was behind-the-scenes battles to maintain the integrity of his vision of the future or being one to take credit for the successes of Star Trek while finding a scapegoat in others for its shortcomings.
In the thirty years since Roddenberry’s death, fandom has been given the opportunity to examine the Roddenberry legacy and to wonder just how much of the success of Star Trek could or should be laid at his feet. Lance Parkin’s The Impossible Has Happened attempts to distill multiple narratives into a single cohesive portrait of the man who created Star Trek and his legacy. Parkin’s assessment is an honest one — probably somewhere in middle between the official Roddenberry biography and the unauthorized one. Parkin throws in details from various other cast and crew members behind-the-scenes looks at the Trek phenomenon to give us his assessment and view of the man and his franchise.
What you come away with most is that while Roddenberry had a distinct vision for humanity’s future, he wasn’t necessarily a saint himself. Whether it’s writing never-used lyrics to the distinctive theme song for the original series so he could get a cut of the royalties each time it’s played or the various ways in which he tried to profit off Star Trek while cutting others associated with its creation off from the same potential piece of the pie (it’s interesting how often the “value” of Star Trek comes up in the course of Parkin’s analysis).
What becomes clear over the course of this book is that, like all of us, Roddenberry is a flawed human being with foibles — just like every other person. And he was enabled by not only his ability to spin a story to flatter himself but also by ensuring that information on the behind-the-scenes creation of Star Trek flowed only from him during the ’70s and ’80s. Parkin points out that the myriad of kiss-and-tell books only started to hit the market after Roddenberry’s death in 1991.
Parkin points out that while we know a lot about Roddenberry and his role in things, the exact nature of the role played by Majel Barrett-Roddenberry isn’t quite as clear. There has been no official biography of the actress and it appears that we may never fully know what role she played in helping Gene establish and maintain his role as the Great Bird of the Galaxy. (I have to admit I would find such a book or examination fascinating).
And while Parkin starts out strong, examining Roddenberry’s early life and work, I feel like his central thesis begins to lose steam in the second half of the book. Parkin seems to hit the same two or three points over and over again in the final chapters, which all end up feeling a bit rushed. I feel like this is a book that doesn’t scratch the surface on Roddenberry’s increasingly negative relationship with Paramount following Star Trek: The Motion Picture and during the first season of The Next Generation. I feel as though the cast and crew from TNG are a wealth of information waiting to be unleashed once Rick Berman ceases to be active in Hollywood.
All in all, Parkin’s examination of Star Trek isn’t nearly as scathing as it can be for another favorite franchise of mine, Doctor Who. But I still can’t help but come away from this one feeling that the early microscope that Parkin puts Roddenberry under isn’t quite as fine-tuned and as focused in the final chapters of this examination of Roddenberry’s life and legacy. Parkin wants this to be a definitive look at the subject, but I still can’t help but feel it’s come up a bit short of that.