Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

A Generic Correspondence: Sturgeon-Roddenberry Letters on Sf, Sex, Sales and Star Trek

Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

A Generic Correspondence: Sturgeon-Roddenberry Letters on Sf, Sex, Sales and Star Trek

Article excerpt

Filed away in the Theodore Sturgeon Collection at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library of Kansas University are three pieces of correspondence from 1966 between Theodore Sturgeon, the renowned sf short-story writer and novelist, and Gene Roddenberry, the screenwriter, producer and, most famously, creator of Star Trek (US 1966-9). One document is a two-page memo from Roddenberry dated 8 June 1966, in which he presents some directions to and demands upon Sturgeon, who was then writing the script for Episode 15 of Season 1, 'Shore Leave', which ultimately aired on 29 December 1966. The other documents are both three-page letters from Sturgeon to Roddenberry dated 15 June and 20 October 1966, respectively; the first is a cover letter for a draft of the episode's script, while the second is a response to script revisions made by Roddenberry's production team and witnessed by Sturgeon first-hand when he visited the episode as it was being shot on location. Contained in this correspondence are crystalline insights into sf as two of its great creators navigated their collaboration on Star Trek.

Theodore Sturgeon is renowned for the formidable number of mind-bending short works he published, from 'Microcosmic God' (1941) to 'Killdozer!' (1944) and beyond; for his award-winning and quite amazing 1953 novel More Than Human; for serving as the living model of Kurt Vonnegut Jr's recurring character Kilgore S. Trout; and, most significantly in the context of Star Trek, for writing the episode 'Amok Time' (15 Sep 1967), which introduced the phrase 'live long and prosper' and the iconic V-shape Vulcan hand gesture. By the time he began working with Roddenberry, Sturgeon had already achieved fame and acclaim as a major force in sf. Sturgeon's correspondence with major genre figures such as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein, to name but a few, attests to the consistent and rigorous thought and theorisation he brought to sf as a genre under constant innovation. His letters to Roddenberry articulate Sturgeon's aspirations that sf transcend what he considered the adolescent values of its pulp origins as well as what he worried was the crass commercialisation of sf tropes merely to score television viewer numbers to attract advertisers without offering narratives of substance and sophistication. Fascinatingly, amid this intriguing dialogue, Sturgeon also pens what may well be the first conceptualisation of Star Trek slash fiction.

What follows are glimpses into this correspondence in chronological order. The analysis aims to highlight fundamental elements of their discussion on sex and commercialisation in sf as the genre moves across media. In working with archival materials such as this, it's crucial to bear in mind the context of a collaborative project with budget responsibilities and production objectives and timelines. To put it simply: the extracts selected and scrutinised below represent a creative negotiation within a genre, rather than supposedly 'authentic' truths about the character or beliefs of either correspondent.

Roddenberry's memo opens with the aggressive promise - 'At the close of this you will no longer be a virgin' - before sending Sturgeon two clear and related directives: write the script for all the departments involved to know exactly what to do, shot by shot, and move the plot much faster or you lose the audience, and therefore the advertising dollars too ('Memo' 1). On the first point, Roddenberry deploys a pointedly long list to make his point:

Am also asking Dorothy [presumably Dorothy 'D.C.' Fontana, renowned writer on the series] to enclose here copies of subsequent scripts. Why? Because my rather conservative directors, designers, costume men, optical experts, special effects people, casting department, greensmen, film editors, assistant directors, script boys, gaffers, grips, sound men, carpenters, painters, just to the mention the major departments, need these things broken down shot by shot, description by description, all neatly numbered in the fashion of our Hollywood ancestors. …

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