How ‘Star Trek’ Broke the Franchise’s Cardinal Rule

Screenshot from "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier"

YouTube Screenshot from "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier"

Gene Roddenberry, the “Star Trek” franchise creator, had a very specific vision of how the universe would look in the future. He imagined a post-scarcity world where everyone’s needs were met. He dreamed of a post-capitalist society where money was obsolete. He envisioned a future in which humankind had left behind all the primitive ideas that no longer served them.

One of those left behind ideas was religion. Though Roddenberry grew up in a religious, Southern Baptist home, he didn’t agree with his family’s beliefs. As an adult, Roddenberry identified as a humanist.

In an interview with The Humanist in 1991, Roddenberry explained that he saw religion as a way for people to explain the things they don’t readily understand. He also interpreted religion as a way for people to rely on the “supernatural” rather than their own drive to better themselves. Roddenberry likened religion to an alien culture explaining the existence of life outside their planet by calling that life God.

Roddenberry frequently explored religion and religious concepts in “Star Trek: The Original Series.” However, by the time “Star Trek: The Next Generation” began, the human crew members of his starships weren’t religious. In fact, they were staunchly non-religious. This was one of his cardinal rules about the new world of “Star Trek.”

However, there were some in the “Star Trek” world that didn’t agree. In two major cases, “Star Trek” insiders decided to break Roddenberry’s cardinal rule.

William Shatner and ‘Star Trek V’

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Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” was William Shatner’s brainchild in every way. In his book “Star Trek Movie Memories” he wrote that he came up with the idea while watching televangelists preach. He was furious that these people presenting themselves as religious leaders were making so much money off their congregants in the name of God. So, he decided to make a movie about a God that turned out to be an alien being.

On its face, this concept sounds much like how Roddenberry viewed religion. People who couldn’t explain the presence of an alien being deciding to call it God. However, when Shatner pitched him the idea, Roddenberry was furious.

A series of memos uncovered by the Mission Log podcast documented Roddenberry’s quest to stop Shatner from making a movie about God, even a false god.

In a memo addressed to Shatner, Roddenberry wrote that he “simply cannot support a story which has our intelligent and insightful crew mesmerized by a 23rd-century religious charlatan.” Roddenberry went on, expressing his frustration that Shatner had chosen to pursue a religious storyline in spite of his clear objections.

When Shatner did not relent, Roddenberry began corresponding with two of the most respected writers in the history of science fiction, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. He entreated them to review the proposed script for “Star Trek V” and share their opinions with the studio. Roddenberry emphasized his belief that religion didn’t belong in science fiction. He wrote that if they shared that belief, they should protest the creation of the movie.

The memos discovered by the Mission Log podcast didn’t include a response from Clarke. However, they did include two responses from Asimov. In the first, he expressed his disdain for the proposed religious storyline. In the second, he painstakingly detailed all the ways in which he believed the story didn’t fit with “Star Trek’s” established canon.

Despite Roddenberry’s objections, Shatner went ahead with his false god tale for “Star Trek V.” According to the media ranking site Rotten Tomatoes, the movie was, by far, the worst of the franchise.

Religion in ‘Deep Space Nine’

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” was the only “Star Trek” show that made religion a major part of the storyline. Throughout all seven seasons of the show, one of the main threads was the Bajoran religion and the “Wormhole Aliens.”

In the first episode of the show, “Emissary,” Commander Benjamin Sisko traveled through a stable wormhole and encountered a species of non-corporeal beings. When he returned from the wormhole, the Bajorans told him that he had encountered The Prophets, the gods of their religion. From that point on, Sisko was revered by the Bajorans because, in their eyes, he spoke to the gods.

Throughout the series, the nature of The Prophets and the Wormhole Aliens was explored. Again, the story seemed in line with Roddenberry’s beliefs about religion. The Bajorans had encounters with beings they could not explain, so they called them gods. Initially, all the Starfleet members of the Deep Space Nine crew accepted that the Bajoran gods were simply a new alien species, which they dubbed the Wormhole Aliens. They refused to believe that the Wormhole Aliens were godlike in any way.

However, as the series progressed, many of the Starfleet crew members began to shift their opinions about the Wormhole Aliens. The most notable and prominent shift came from Captain Sisko. At first, he rejected his revered position in Bajoran society because he refused to believe that the beings he’d encountered were gods.

Toward the end of the series, Sisko began to embrace his role as the Emissary. In the episode “Shadows and Symbols,” Sisko used one of the Orbs of the Prophets to speak to his long-dead mother. She revealed that his birth was pre-ordained by the Prophets and that he’d always been the Emissary. Though Sisko struggled with this information, he eventually accepted that the Prophets had played a role in his life and embraced them as godlike beings.

The overt religion in “Deep Space Nine” and the storyline of a human embracing their role as a voice of the gods were definitely major divergences from Roddenberry’s rule about religion in “Star Trek.” Since the series was made after he died, there’s no way to know whether Roddenberry would have approved of the way religion and deities were depicted in “Deep Space Nine.”

In “The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years” showrunner Michael Piller posited that Roddenberry would have approved of the religious elements of the show. He said that Roddenberry was adamant about creating diverse cultures that were different from his view of humanity in the 24th century. Therefore, having an alien species, the Bajorans, be deeply religious would not have bothered Roddenberry. Piller insisted that the humans in the show and the members of the Federation were all still humanist, the way Roddenberry had envisioned.

Piller was no longer part of the show when the new showrunner, Ira Steven Behr, decided to place Sisko on a spiritual path. In “The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years” Behr admitted that the writing team hadn’t always intended to make Sisko a key figure in Bajor’s religion. The initial idea behind Sisko’s tie-in to the Bajoran religion was to highlight the different ways the Bajorans and the Federation viewed the beings in the wormhole — religion versus science.

However, as the show progressed Behr and writer Ronald D. Moore thought it would be interesting to explore Sisko’s own spiritual beliefs and his journey. This eventually led to Sisko fulfilling the Bajoran prophecy that the Emissary would reveal the Celestial Temple to the Bajorans.

Behr also revealed that he faced a ton of criticism for bringing religion into “Star Trek” in such an overt way. He insisted that “Deep Space Nine” was true to the intention of “Star Trek” and that it was an opportunity to explore new things. So, he took those opportunities and explored new territory.

Though Roddenberry envisioned a human society that had outgrown religion, the continual exploration of the spiritual and religion in “Star Trek” suggests that contemporary fascination with these concepts is too pervasive to ignore.

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