Sunday, July 17, 2016

Trek50: When It All Began

Beginning 50 years ago, many if not most viewers first encountered Star Trek when they were young. This was as true in the first run of the original series as it has been for subsequent series and movies. Even today, many children and adolescents are introduced to Star Trek by parents and grandparents who became fans when they were children, adolescents or young adults.

Impressions that influence a lifetime are often made in these early years, and there are countless examples of career, personal and even ethical decisions made in response to Star Trek. These influences can also be unconscious, contributing to attitudes and aspirations that guide subsequent years.

 But what about the people who created Star Trek in the first place? What was going on when they were young that may have deeply influenced them, and helped to inform the soul of Star Trek? In all the words written about Star Trek over the years, this seems to be rarely considered.

Gene Roddenberry undated; publicity for Trek Nation
 Born in 1921, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry grew from childhood through his teenage years into early adulthood in the 1930s. Many others who helped create Star Trek and its stories also experienced their formative years in the 1930s.

 While GR was growing up in Los Angeles, so was Robert Justman in New York, Gene Coon in Nebraska, Matt Jeffries in Virginia, Alexander Courage in Philadelphia, Harve Bennett in Chicago, DeForest Kelley in Georgia and James Doohan in Canada.

 Even the slightly younger generation that was crucial to Star Trek were children in the 1930s, including Leonard Nimoy in Boston, William Shatner in Montreal, Nichelle Nichols in Chicago, Walter Koenig in New York, Majel Barrett in Ohio, John D.F. Black in Pittsburgh, among many others who were involved in Star Trek’s first decades.

So what was happening in the 1930s that might attract and influence the young?  Especially those who would some day create Star Trek in the 1960s and after?
In this and three posts to follow, I engage in some informed speculation on those questions.

 The 1930s are remembered as the decade of the Great Depression and the beginnings of World War II. So it was in some respects a grim and even terrifying time to grow up. But there was more to the textures of those years.

 It was a time of great trauma and turmoil, but also of high hopes and new visions of a bright tomorrow. It was a decade of idealism in the midst of harsh realities, of urgent questions that went to the heart of how human societies might survive and flourish, and what it meant to be human.

 It was also the decade when such words as “science fiction” and “television” were first heard. For Gene Roddenberry and for Star Trek, the 1930s were when the future was born.

 1. Fear Itself 

Beginning with the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression gripped America for most of the 1930s. To different extents and in various ways, it touched every life, while also being a widely and deeply shared common experience.

“It wasn’t just the very poor—it was everyone who was affected,” recalled historian Julie Willenz. “I think the fact that one grew up in that environment changed your perspective for the rest of your life.”

The Depression brought poverty and hardship to millions, so those families that didn’t experience great deprivations always could see others who did. The discouragement and despair of suddenly unemployable fathers and husbands, the fear that spread through families that was echoed on the radio and in the newspapers—even children could feel aspects of all this.

 For example, according to David Alexander’s biography, Gene Roddenberry’s father was steadily employed throughout the Depression, as a policeman in the growing city of Los Angeles. His job was secure, so his son Gene’s life was outwardly stable.

 But Gene went to school with children who didn’t have shoes, and he could see the travails of neighbors or hear them discussed by his parents. He could also glimpse the haunted strangers, the poor and displaced families that poured into California from Oklahoma and nearby states, after black walls of wind turned farmland into sand in the Dust Bowl storms.

But as Gene got older he had other ways of becoming aware of the ongoing Depression. He was a reader. He often caught the trolley outside his house to return an armful of books to the public library, where he would borrow more.

Later he would remember it as a kind of compulsion. “In my youth, I realized I had this terrible hunger for knowledge,” he recalled. ”Like an addict for knowledge. I remember that I just couldn't sit down without my mind working, without reading something, some experience. It seemed that this was more of a flaw, this terrible hunger."

 In high school he was part of an advanced education program that included a two-hour class in social studies. In addition to a creative writing group with an inspiring English teacher, he was active in a club that sponsored public speaking opportunities (he was its president one semester) and was on the debate team.

These would increase his interest in newspapers, magazines and radio programs about current events and history. The Great Depression was an inevitable topic. Why was it happening? Who was responsible? What should be done about it? These were all-consuming questions that involved politics, economics, science and ethics.

 These were not abstract questions. Gene visited homes of fellow students that had visible signs of poverty. Earlier in his childhood, his grandparents escaped hard times in Texas by moving in with his family (which consisted of Gene, his parents, his brother and sister) in their small three-bedroom house.

The official unemployment rate had hit nearly 25% in 1933. President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke of “a third of a nation, ill-housed, ill-fed and ill-clothed.” Even in the late 30s, unemployment was above 17% and more than 1 in 6 Americans depended on government relief.

 Middle class families sacrificed everything else to keep their homes. Poverty meant hunger, or an early death from untreated illness. While cities teemed with overcrowded slums, the vast rural reaches of the country hid unheated shacks which might house a family of several generations, including malnourished children and old people who might not live long enough to benefit from a new government program of the late 30s called Social Security.

Something like a million men rode railroad boxcars from one end of the country to the other, looking for work or just drifting, month after month.

 The Great Depression was the focus of the race for California governor in 1934, particularly due to writer Upton Sinclair, leader of a popular movement to end poverty through massive public works and other state government programs. Sinclair seemed likely to win until close to the election. He was defeated partly due to a concerted negative campaign against him financed by big business interests, including Hollywood studios. But many supporters of Sinclair’s programs were elected to the state legislature.

 Students in Gene's high school debate club would have also observed all the political turmoil in the U.S. There were riots and talk of revolution. Socialism and the Communist party were on the rise in some parts of the country. At the same time, Senator Huey Long of Louisiana and a radio preacher named Father Couglin were agitating for their versions of American fascism.

In part such turmoil was propelled by fear, fed daily by remorseless realities. At the very beginning of his Inaugural Address in 1933, President Roosevelt recognized and addressed this danger. “So first of all let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

 He spoke also of positive alternatives. “Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money,” he said. “It lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.” 

 He spoke of the responsibility to help others, and the society as a whole. “If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we cannot merely take but we must give as well.” 

Compassion, fairness, effort and optimism--FDR spoke of them and symbolized them.  They were the antidote to fear.

 Playwright Arthur Miller was six years older than Gene, so he experienced the 1930s as an adolescent and young man. It wasn’t all kindness and working together, as some would like to remember it, he noted. People were often selfish and even cruel. But the feeling for others, of all being in it together was also real.

 Gene saw his father help relatives, neighbors and even strangers. His father made up boxes of food for people he knew who were down on their luck, and strangers were invited to big Sunday dinners. Gene saw courage and dignity in the midst of want.

TVA hydroelectric project
 Yet even with all the travail and confusion, there was excitement and action. Federal programs—many of them instituted by FDR’s New Deal—employed millions in projects that visibly changed the landscape in all parts of the country, from cities to the rivers and forests.

When judging statistics of the 1930s, it’s useful to begin with the fact that the total U.S. population was 123 million at the start of the decade—the current population (323 million) is two and a half times larger.

At the height of the Depression in 1933, some 18 million Americans were unemployed. Starting that same year, the Civil Conservation Corps put two million (some sources say three million) young men to work in state parks and wilderness from coast to coast. The Civil Works Administration employed another four million during the winter of 1933-34, including thousands of women. In only five months, its workers built or improved 255,000 miles of roads and 40,000 schools, among other infrastructure.
 The Works Progress Administration that followed the short-term CWA eventually employed a total of more than eight million Americans to build and repair thousands of roads, bridges, parks, schools, libraries and other public buildings, and infrastructure all over America that became the physical foundation for the future. The Public Works Administration accomplished large projects.

The Federal Writers and Artists Projects lifted spirits and left a legacy of documentation (such as the state American Guide series) and creativity.  The Federal Theatre project provided entertainment affordably and spread live theatre throughout the country.

All three projects employed many who would be leaders in the arts, and icons of entertainment, for future decades (including Arthur Miller.)  Later in Hollywood, GR would know and work with people who managed to survive and even start a career with the help of these programs.

Golden Gate Bridge
Largely with federal help, huge and enduring projects were built in the 1930s, marked by grand openings (often featuring President Roosevelt) that became subjects of newspaper accounts and glossy photo layouts in weekly magazines like Life and Colliers.

 The massive Hoover Dam on the Colorado River opened in 1936, one of many hydroelectric projects in the West and South built or begun in the 1930s. The Triborough Bridge complex in New York—later called (by author Robert Caro) “the biggest traffic machine ever built,” also opened in 1936.

 In 1937, New York’s Lincoln Tunnel opened, and construction began on the La Guardia Airport (which opened two years later.) Also in 1937, the Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh (the tallest university building in the western hemisphere) was completed, as was the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Not far from where Gene Roddenberry was growing up, the Griffith Observatory opened in 1935, which became a Hollywood icon in Rebel Without A Cause and many other movies. And throughout the 1930s, a number of roadways, tunnels and bridges were built in the Los Angeles area-- some by the WPA-- for what would become the first California freeway.

Against the continuing uncertainties, the fits and starts of the economy, the weary years of hardship and frustration, there was unmistakable idealism and optimism in these efforts, and an enduring magnificence in their quality and purpose. This was true not only of the largest projects, but the parks and infrastructure that added to daily life.

Those who lived through this time, especially if they were young, might see a possibility: People could work together to create a better future. For in this tumultuous present of the Great Depression, some eyes turned towards things to come.

 “Then and now, you have to wonder what really held it all together,” said a character in Arthur Miller’s play about the Great Depression, The American Clock, “and maybe it was simply the Future: the people were still not ready to give it up.”

 Historian William Manchester agreed. In contrast to their elders, he wrote, the 1930s young had a different look. “There is an intensity to their expressions. They are leaning slightly forward, as though trying to see the future. And they are smiling.” 

 The Great Depression was sometimes at the forefront but always at least in the background of the 1930s. Yet there was much more in this decade, good and bad, to make deep impressions on impressionable youth. So there’s more to come on Trek 50: When It All Began.

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