Sunday, July 15, 2007

Exclusive Interview: Trek Insider Susan Sackett Remembers Gene Roddenberry

Susan Sackett worked as Gene Roddenberry’s executive assistant for 17 years. She also served as his assistant for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and as Production Associate for the first five seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, as well as co-writing (with Fred Bronson) several TNG episodes. Additionally, she has written a number of books about the entertainment industry and Star Trek, including her autobiography Inside Trek, a tell-all book that reveals her “secret life” as Roddenberry’s lover and close friend.

She kindly agreed to an interview with Trekdom.

: Your autobiography, Inside Trek: My Secret Life with Star Trek Creator Gene Roddenberry, is quite touching, and it gives readers a fascinating look into your career as a writer and Trek insider, as well as your professional and intimate relationship with Gene Roddenberry. Can you tell us what motivated you to write this book? Was there a central message about Roddenberry or Trek that you wanted to convey?

Susan Sackett: After Gene died, I was naturally devastated. He had been the center of my world. I never considered my working with him a “job.” It was who I was and what I did in life. I felt a need to work out my thoughts. For years, I had kept a notebook of my feelings and experiences. But there was still more in my head that I needed to put down on paper, so I began by simply writing something for myself, so I would never forget our conversations, my feelings and my personal experiences. Many pages later, I had the germ of a book. It was then that I decided to create a complete book, still for myself. I put it away for many years while I completed other writing assignments.

In 1999, I had a friend with whom I wanted to share my private thoughts, and so I showed him the manuscript. Being a web designer, he thought we could perhaps serialize the chapters on a web site we ended up calling “Inside Trek.” I also posted a quotation from Gene Roddenberry each week for 52 weeks -- many from interviews I had done with him for a 25th anniversary book that was never published, many from memory, or other interviews over the years, and some from public sources. Also on the site were photos from my private collection, as well as a few one-of-a-kind personal souvenirs I hoped to sell in order to maintain the upkeep costs of the site.

We sold low-cost “memberships” for people who wanted to read the chapters online. One member was William Bernhardt, a mystery writer who had just launched his own publishing company in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He contacted me and asked if he could publish a printed version of the book. I knew of his work and was very flattered! I worked with him for many months polishing the manuscript, and in 2002 the trade paperback was released by Hawk Publishing. I have copies for sale on my web site, and it can also be ordered online through Amazon, B&N, and other stores.

Long story short, writing it was therapy for me!

Part two of the question – was there a central message about Gene that I wanted to convey? Well, yes, every piece of writing should have a message. Mine was that Gene Roddenberry was one of the most gifted people of our time, but he also had demons that haunted him. He was, after all, human. I see him as an Ernest Hemingway type of creative writer – brilliant in his work, but also plagued by doubts, depression and addictions. Sometimes these things drive genius. I also wanted people to see more than just the legend or the public persona. As a writer myself and one of the people closest to him, I felt I was qualified and had an obligation to do that.

: He was such a complex and complicated man. Since his death, several books, yours notably, have exposed his “darker side,” especially his drug and alcohol abuse and his less than progressive views toward women. Having known Roddenberry so well, were there times when you saw him as a walking contradiction, meaning that his voiced philosophy clashed with his lifestyle and personal beliefs? Or, would that characterization be unfair?

Sackett: In some ways, that would be a fair characterization. You have to remember that he was a product of his time. He had a healthy libido. He was a man who was passionate about everything he did – his writing and producing, eating, drinking, and yes, enjoying women. He saw nothing wrong with acting on his passions while writing about equality or temperance. These were ideals and goals, and he was a human, not a robot or god who was some sort of perfect icon.

And I wouldn’t use the term “darker side.” I think he had some of those Hemingwayan demons that drove him to “self-medicate.” He might have benefited from prescribed drugs such as anti-depressants, but at what cost? Would it have dulled his mind? Was he an addictive type personality? I leave that to the psychologists to decide (although I do offer some of his doctors’ commentary in my book, for the record, to show that he was chemically challenged). He had that kind of genius that people of his generation dealt with by turning to drug use such as alcohol and cocaine (oddly, for a long time in this country, cocaine was legal and alcohol wasn’t!). It had to have been maddening to be so creative and to have the product of your blood, sweat and tears hung out there for the world to love and the critics to tear apart… to have to defend yourself against the inevitable onslaught of nay-sayers. I’m not defending what he did, just trying to realize what might have driven him to do things the way he did.

: Some fans believe that Roddenberry’s vision was also contradictory. Star Trek represents a future in which cultural diversity and tolerance are celebrated. Yet, at the same time, Roddenberry’s personal intolerance for “superstitious” and “backwards” religious beliefs finds expression in Star Trek. To the best of your knowledge, did he ever see any tension between his respect for diversity and his anti-religious iconoclasm?

Sackett: Diversity and religious belief are entirely different areas when it comes to tolerance. One cannot adhere to two contradictory ideas at the same time. His non-belief in religious illogic was true to his own philosophy. That does not mean he did not grant others the right to their beliefs. He merely commented upon them from his own standpoint. In fact, when his son was given a “Welcome to the World” party (shortly before I began working for him), Gene proudly invited a rabbi, and Christian minister and a Catholic priest, all personal friends of his, to participate in the festivities. I think because of his high hopes for humanity, he was impatient with the superstitious beliefs that religions do sell. He wanted to see humanity progress, and, as many people today such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens will point out, being bogged down in these petty beliefs (my god can beat up your god and we have the only true way) holds humanity back from greatness. It is too bad he didn’t live to see the beginning of this new enlightenment, this new humanistic movement that is beginning to awaken in this country.

So yes, he valued cultural diversity, racial diversity, even galactic diversity if you will – but had his opinions on what he felt would hold us back as an enlightened species. And I very much agree with him here.

: Interesting... It was unfortunate that his professional relationships with several Trek insiders deteriorated, especially during the first season of The Next Generation. Would it be fair to say that, after losing control of Trek in the early 80s (while disliking many aspects of Harve Bennett’s films), Roddenberry became so overly protective of TNG that he unintentionally alienated others?

Sackett: It is quite possible. He became very protective of the “new” spin-off, because his name was out there as the creator of the series. No matter who got the writing credit week after week, it was his name, “Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek,” that was on the line. As Donald Trump says, “It’s nothing personal, it’s just business.”

It was his reputation and his legacy that were at stake, whereas the writers could always find other jobs. Not that I’m condoning what he did. In the prior years that I had known him, he had always spoken extremely highly of the many writers whose friendships he lost during that first year of TNG. But when forced to chose between what he saw as substandard (i.e., sub-Gene-standard) writing and friendship, he opted for protecting his baby, TNG. So he rewrote their work, and this displeased the writers, who naturally banded together against what they saw as an injustice. Don’t forget, everyone had challenged Gene to do this new version of Trek, and everyone said it couldn’t be done: “Roddenberry can’t catch lightning in a bottle twice” was one of the phrases that was tossed about quite frequently. The gauntlet had been thrown down. So he had a lot of pressure on him, and this fed into his insecurities.

The Harve Bennett part of the question is one that is too complex to delve into here. Many things in the Bennett-era films worked quite well. But in a creative business like writing and producing, you are always going to have a lot of people with egos, and sometimes there are going to be clashes. Gene admired some things in the films and was unhappy about others. So yes, this might have led to his being insecure and overly protective of his creation, his legacy and his Star Trek ideals.

TD: “Everybody’s human,” Kirk said in Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country. Despite Gene's character flaws, he was a great man, and he inspired so many of us. Readers of your book will also realize how special he was to you as a companion and a lover. Can you leave us with a few thoughts about how he and Star Trek have inspired you and enriched your life?

Sackett: It is so much easier to talk about others than oneself! I’ll try, though. Gene totally changed my life! I had admired his work before meeting him, as a fan of the genre and Star Trek in particular. What amazed me after working with him for so many years is that he came to respect me and my ideas, and this did wonders for my own self-confidence. To be able to dialogue with a person of his intellect, and to be taken seriously – this opened up a world of discovery to me that I had never known. It has led me to explore a life of reason and understanding, to question everything, and to take the path I have chosen to be on today. Gene introduced me to Humanism, and this has become my lifelong passion. In the years since Gene’s death, I have done much volunteer work for the promotion of this cause, including being president of our local 250-member chapter, the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix, and being on the board of directors of the American Humanist Association. I often give talks about “Humanism in Star Trek,” so Star Trek is never far from my thoughts. Gene set me on that path, so he is never far from my thoughts either.

TD: Thank you so much for your time!

Sackett: My pleasure!

*An autographed copy of Inside Trek can be purchased at Sackett’s website ( Trekdom highly recommends this book.
** This interview may not be reproduced without Trekdom's consent.