Friday, August 5, 2016

Review: 'The Impossible Has Happened: The Life and Work of Gene Roddenberry'

One of the interesting things about Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek was that there were often several things going on at once. It could be a bit campy and a bit intellectual, a bit solemn and a bit adventurous, a bit profound and a bit overly simplistic, a bit progressive and a bit stuck in outdated ideas about gender. Lance Parkin’s The Impossible Has Happened: The Life and Work of Gene Roddenberry has several things going on at once too. It’s a bit of a biography of the series’ creator, a bit of a history of the show, a bit of a making-of account, and a bit of a cultural analysis of the series’ themes and point of view.

Parkin has some trouble tying together all the various strands dangling from his book. It basically begins as a biography, though one that covers the first twenty-five years of Roddenberry’s life in three paragraphs, before settling down to pore over his projects. As it should be, the main focus is the original Star Trek series, but Parkin also gets into Roddenberry’s single-season military drama “The Lieutenant”, the loathsome-sounding feature Pretty Maids All in a Row, the Star Trek animated series, the feature films, “The Next Generation”, and several projects that didn’t get beyond a pilot.

Parkin also spends a lot of time discussing Roddenberry’s tendency to spin myths about his work, philander, and reduce women to mini-skirted sex objects on his show. The chapters on the Star Trek series, which deal with its themes more than its creation, fixate on how often it failed to live up to the progressive/Utopian vision Roddenberry and many fans believed it delivered. They do so at the expense of all else to the point that one suspects the author has an axe to grind even if his analysis is astute. He returns to the series’ mishandling of gender in a chapter ostensibly about Star Trek fans even though it does not have much to do with that particular topic. This tendency to retread ground reaches odd extremes in a couple of instances in which Parkin repeats the same information nearly word-for-word in a single passage. For example, on page 182, Parkin writes, “The animated series was in the works and providing a useful income for very little effort.” Four sentences later, he writes, “The Star Trek animated series was providing a useful income for very little work.”

Parkin gets his Enterprise back on course when he gets to the production of the feature films. The remainder of the book, which also deals with Star Trek: The Next Generation and how the Star Trek universe has continued after Roddenberry’s death, are more like straightforward making of/historical accounts, and they are the most focused and compelling chapters. The Impossible Has Happened would have been better if the entire book had that same focus, though like so much of Star Trek, it is a bit messy yet rarely uninteresting.
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