Susan Sackett – The Secular Humanism of Star Trek

May 29, 2009

Susan Sackett began an association with Gene Roddenberry, creator of the television legend Star Trek, serving as his personal executive assistant for over 17 years until his death in October 1991. She also served as his production assistant on the first Star Trek film and worked closely with him on the next five Star Trek movies. In addition, she served as Production Associate during the first five seasons of the television series, Star Trek: The Next Generation. She is the author of 10 books about the film and television industry. In 1994, Susan left California and relocated to Arizona, where she got involved with the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix, for which she has been president since 2000. Since 2005, she has been on the Board of Directors of the American Humanist Association, and currently serves on the Executive Committee as Secretary.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Susan Sackett recounts her history with Gene Roddenberry, and the influence he had on her, especially regarding the development of her secular humanist worldview. She talks about Roddenberry’s unshakable optimism about humanity’s future, and how that was expressed in his creative efforts. She discusses social justice and political messages written into the original 1960’s Star Trek series, such as racial and gender equality, and allegories about the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. She talks about explicitly secular humanist themes throughout Star Trek: The Next Generation, specifically in episodes like “Who Watches the Watchers”. She debates other topics addressed within the various Star Trek series, such as distribution of wealth, overpopulation, and the end of the nation-state, and whether or not there was a Marxist bias in the shows. And she reveals her favorite Star Trek episode, and why it is her favorite.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, May twenty ninth, 2009. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, I’m D.J. Growthy Point of Inquiries, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. And at the grass roots. 

My guest this week is Susan Sacket. She’s been president of the Humanist Society of Greater Phenix since 2000 and has been a certified humanist celebrant since 2001. Since 2005, she’s been on the board of directors of the American Humanist Association and currently serves on the executive committee of AHJ as secretary. She’s on the show to talk with me about her longtime association with Gene Roddenberry, creator of the television legend Star Trek. She served as his personal executive assistant for over 17 years until his death in 1991. She also served as his production assistant on the first Star Trek film and worked closely with him on the next five Star Trek movies. In addition, she was a production associate during the first five seasons of the television series Star Trek The Next Generation, and she’s also author of 10 books about the film and television industry. Welcome to A Point of Inquiry, Susan Sacket. 

Thank you, T.J.. Nice to be here, Susan. 

Years ago, you related to me this fascinating connection you have with Gene Roddenberry, with Star Trek. Let’s start off our discussion by you are reviewing some of that for me. 

Well, I’ve I’ve worked with Gene Roddenberry for 17 years. At the time I started working with him. He had left Paramount Studios, where he did Star Trek and had worked at Warner Brothers, doing a couple of TV movies that didn’t go anywhere. They were pilots and he was working out of his home looking for someone to type of book that he was writing. And I had a friend who knew him and set me up on the interview. And I got the job. And I was with him 17 years after that. 

Wow. And when you say with him you were an assistant and you worked on Star Trek The Next Generation, you were kind of by his side for 17 years, pretty much. 

We were together almost every day for 17 years. We worked on bringing back the first movie Star Trek, the motion picture that took almost four years to get off the ground. And after that, we worked on some of the other films, although he was a consultant rather than a writer. And then the next generation began in nineteen eighty eight. And I stayed with him until he died in 1991. 

Right. I love that you mentioned Star Trek, The Next Generation. It’s my favorite of all the series. And I just got the whole collection on on DVD as a gift. So I’ve been going through it again and I love it. I find myself telling people engage and make it so. So I have some questions about that in a bit. But get back to Gene Roddenberry, your relationship with him. I invited you on the show to talk about science and secular humanism and how it relates to Star Trek. And you kind of got introduced to secular humanism, the scientific and ethical outlook by Gene Roddenberry. 

That is that is true. He and Isaac Asimov, the science fiction writer, were friends. And Isaac sent him a copy of his book, Isaac Asimov Guide to the Bible. And I started reading this. It was sitting on Gene’s desk and I thought, wow, this is very interesting. This is sort of, you know, make me want to find out more. And I discovered that I was in line with this way of thinking without knowing that there was a name for it. And I don’t think Gene knew that either. I did. This was just something he’d always talked about. And so we discovered that when we started, we went to a few conventions together and got to meet some of the people like James Randi with that one. I remember Ted, Ted Turner was at another one. And so I discovered that I was a bigger humanist than able. 

And when you say you went to conventions, he was actually named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association at one point. 

It wasn’t actually Humanist of the Year. Was he one, the Humanist Arts Award. 

And that was probably about three or four months before he died. It was in Chicago. And I did get to go to that. 

You said that earlier on. He didn’t really have a name for this worldview himself. It’s just something he believed. But you together with him, you got connected to the larger humanist movement you saw over the years, humanism play out in his life. 

Absolutely. I mean, he, too. He lived. He walked the walk. He talked the talk, as they say. He absolutely believed in the future of humanity. That’s that’s one of the things that people take away from Star Trek. The fact that there is this often. That view of the future. 

And he was he was always talking about that in his lectures as well as in episodes when he was able to work that in. He believed that we were sort of an instant race, but we were struggling and that we would survive and rise above our what he called petty nationalism and that that optimism. 

It’s not an optimism based in kind of a supernatural faith, but optimism in in humanity as it is not in humanity being saved by some supernatural savior. 

Right. Right. He talks about how he just couldn’t believe any any of the religious teachings of his upbringing. His mother tried to instill it in him, but he he remembered when he was a young man, a teenager, just finally rebelling and saying that, you know, he was told to eat this and it’ll turn into the body of Jesus or something. And he thought, wow, I’ve been set down here among cannibals. 

And he tried to carry that through. 

He did not believe in any supernatural help from our side or above or whatever that was going to save us, that humanity had to take responsibility for its own destiny. And that was what he tried to to show in as many Star Trek episodes as he could. You know, he can preach every single week or the network would get actually the network never caught on. So you just have to be careful not to become too preachy or it’s not entertaining, right? 

Yeah. I want to I want to get to that in just a second. But I’m really interested in kind of humanism in his life, not only in his science fiction. Yes. He introduced you to humanism and you’ve gone on to be one of the most successful grassroots secular humanist activists out there. Do you think he saw that coming? 

Oh, probably not. 

I didn’t even have a chance to get into as much of my activism as I would have liked to, because when when you’re working full time, jobs just can’t do it. So in my retirement, I’ve been able to do this. But aside from attending conferences and sharing many meaningful conversations with him and and just delightful ways of living and discussing things which which I treasure, I never really thought that this was going to end up being something I would get into this much. 

And I have to thank him for putting me on that path, so to speak. 

I want to get back to his optimism. Is faith in humanity’s future course. That’s kind of an underlying theme in Star Trek, especially Star Trek, The Next Generation. You know that the federation kind of solved all the petty problems in in Earth’s previous history. And now there’s, you know, kind of not a world federalism, but a intergalactic federalism. Right. Where there’s there’s not the strife that used to come from religion or nation states and all that stuff. You share that optimism that he had, I take it, about humanity’s future, even though you look around now and see things like global warming and pollution, religious political strife, you know, 9/11, that sort of stuff, you’re still optimistic? 

Yeah. I mean, what choice do you feel is if if humanity is going to survive at all? 

We’ve we’ve got to get over all of these squabbles that we’re having and fights over religion. And, you know, my my God can beat up your God and all is better than your way or vice versa. I mean, it’s just it’s just so, so ridiculous that you just can’t help but think that there’s got to be a better way. And I know that that was something that he seriously believed in. And, you know, you have to look. I mean, look what’s happening at any given moment in the world. People are fighting over, you know, their religious backgrounds and beliefs. And it’s everywhere. It’s not just in Iran. It’s it’s the Shiites and the whatever’s in Iraq. I mean, the Taliban and the something in Afghanistan. And someday people are going to come to their senses. This is the philosophy that Gene had and they’re going to realize that this is not going to work. 

Let’s talk about how how he emphasized that kind of optimism, almost that kind of secular in a sermon in Star Trek. Well, actually, let’s go back to the original series when Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner. You know, they were on in the original series that was groundbreaking. Not necessarily about criticism of religion in that overt secular humanism, but it was groundbreaking in terms of social justice issues. There were storylines back then about gender equality. There were love affairs between black people and white people. So there was this big message against, you know, kind of the status quo. You know, a big message against xenophobia. Do you think that people involved in the series back then, Gene Roddenberry excepted, do you think they saw this site? By TV series in terms of his social justice issues, or was it just a TV show? 

Well, if you’re talking about the network, NBC, I believe that they know why wasn’t involved in the show back then, but they were pretty open to anything that he did because they were not talking about Earth. They were talking about some far off distant world. So this really didn’t affect us. Sure, it’s OK to have a person that was half black on one side and half white on the other. And then they could be fighting with the people that were half white on one side, half black on the other. And they didn’t see this as racial strife. They just thought it’s strange people on another planet or the first interracial kiss that took place between her and Kirk, which I think they actually didn’t air that in the south somewhere. And when they got a hold of the storyline, the fact is that they weren’t lovers. It was it was a forced kiss controlled by aliens. 

And so the network didn’t care about that either. 

But nonetheless, there were real civil rights allegories throughout a number of those episodes that James really talked the noninterference directive, which says that this is the prime directive of the enterprise and its five year mission is to to. Go out and seek out and, you know, talk to these people and try to get them into the federation and whatnot. But don’t interfere with the way their culture is evolving. And, of course, they they violated that every week or there’d be no show. 

However, he was really referring to our interference in Vietnam at the time that show was on the air in the mid 60s, mid to late 60s. And the noninterference directive is really something that is still applicable today with, you know, people are saying United States should get involved in in this country, in that country. And he was saying no other countries have their own right to self-determination. Right. 

I grant that there was kind of an isolationist thread in a number of the episodes, but there was also civil rights issues that were addressed and these other social justice things. And you’re saying that the network really didn’t mind because it wasn’t so overt. And Gene Roddenberry back then wasn’t very heavy handed about it factly. 

You know, as he used to say in his talks, if you talk about purple people on a far off planet or poque adopted people, they didn’t get it. They didn’t understand that. They really I mean, you have to write about us or that people are going to watch or want to watch the show or tune in. You can’t make it so esoteric that people can’t relate to it. And yet they never really caught on. And the network, they they were they were more concerned about cleavage. They actually would send a censor down to the to the set to measure a woman’s cleavage to make sure that they know too much of her breasts were showing this was more important to them. 

Now, I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of Inside Track My Secret Life with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry through our Web site Points of Inquiry Dork. 

Susan, let’s move on to Star Trek. The next generation mentioned that it was my favorite. I can imagine it’s your favorite, too, since you worked on the show. He almost every episode of that series to me. And maybe it’s just not my brain because I’ve been watching a lot lately. It’s like it’s always a sermon for some aspect of secular humanism or some, you know, it’s something I can sink my teeth into as a non-religious person. The show covers all my interests. So technology solving problems, you know, there’s kind of a transhumanist thing in there. There’s big philosophy questions, philosophy of mind, like is data a person? The endless quest of scientific discovery. You know, all the stuff we can really dig. So you were involved with this whole series when it was more overtly secular humanist. Was it that way from the top down or was it like the previous series where Gene Roddenberry might have known some of this was intended, but it didn’t really trickle down? In other words, did all the producers and writers and actors know that what this show was about is pitching this non-religious ethical life stance? 

Well, I don’t know, because I didn’t really survey them, but I didn’t hear any big objections coming from anybody. They seemed to be aware of it. And, you know, they happily the writing staff happily went along and promoted this. One of the best episodes is called Who Watches the Watcher? It was written by Richard Manning and Hans Bandler. And I don’t know that they had to have believed this to have written it. People that acted it. Captain Picard has a great speech in there where he says that these people are starting to revert to the way they were in their dark ages when they believed in supernatural beings. Right. And they say they’ve sort of made the card into a God because they see him as magical. He helped peel somebody and they can beam them up to the ship. They were trying to erase their memories. And instead, they they kind of the more they they tried to undo it, the worse it got until they finally called the card, the card. And he was he was like a deity. And he makes a big speech about how he’s not going to let this happen. And I mean, he doesn’t want them to revert to the way they were thousands of years ago. They’re on the right path. They speak. They don’t believe in supernatural things. And I don’t think anybody objected to it. The card, you know, as an actor, I’ll do anything you put in front of them. So I really don’t know their feelings. And most of them will do something. 

I mean, a devout religious people, they might occasionally do object to lines like that. I think that one of the reasons that we could do more of this was because the show was syndicated. It did not have network censors breathing down the necks of the writers. 

Paramount was syndicating it, you know, on any station that. 

Right. Anybody could pick it up and buy it for their station if they didn’t like it. They didn’t have to buy it. But we were free to. Anything we wanted can say whatever we felt like and put a crock, any point of view. 

I’m talking about the religious skepticism. I saw an episode recently where an alien species has kind of become the God and is feeling very paternal over a humanoid race on a certain planet and didn’t like the interference of the enterprise. The people on the enterprise was very protective and godlike, but obviously not supernatural. And Picard says something about, you know, mankind has evolved not to believe in ancient superstitions, you know, something like you just said, but it’s in a number of episodes. Did DeJean ever get flack for his religious skepticism? I mean, after all, all of that’s well before the new atheist. 

No, no, no one. No one ever that I’m aware of. I mean, I didn’t sit in all the writers meetings or the production meetings or table readings, that sort of thing. That was the higher level people that I never you know, I saw notes, script notes and things. 

I never saw any criticism of any of this. It was pretty well accepted. And that was Gene’s philosophy. And nobody seemed to object to it. And, you know, because if the story was good, right, you could work in these these things philosophically. You had first you had to have a big story. Didn’t just get up there and spout off philosophy. 

So so the story never really suffered, even if it got a little preachy. You know, if if art and storytelling gets too preachy, then the art suffers. That never really happened in Star Trek. 

Yours. Not that I’m aware of. And even in the original series, there were what was once described as little morality tale run, which each one of them made at a point of view, and his statement to make about the human condition. One of the books that I wrote way back in the 70s was called Star Trek Speak, and we went through script, a script. The two writers that I worked with and pulled out all the quotations that could sort of stand alone in there, that we categorized them on on humanity and on on social justice and on various different topics. And it was that amazing body of work, of commentary. 

It’s it’s kind of how to live in a godless universe, but be a good guy. 

Yeah, absolutely. And Gene, whenever he could, would we would want to put that point across. And the writers seemed to go along with it. 

And and maybe we were just blessed with that left. Maybe we were just lucky when good writers. 

And that they were able to put in Gene’s philosophy. 

And he did have a lot of input on especially on the first season of next generation because, you know, the kick off were here and he wanted it to be especially good. 

I want to tie his philosophy that you’re talking about, too. I guess what it what it really boils down to, at least according to some cultural critics on the far right, you just Google, Star Trek and humanism. You get all kinds of really interesting things pop up. There are people who argue that when it gets down to it, Gene Roddenberry’s 24th century, it’s all kind of a Marxist, you know, the Star Trek that I love. It just so happens that there are no possessions. Everyone in the federation has what they need. There’s no poverty. It’s like Marx’s dream of fair distribution of wealth. And in, you know, goods. Or do you think that’s going too far? 

Well, I don’t I wouldn’t use the term Marxist. 

Maybe maybe when is not battling John Lennon, as you imagine. No possessions. I love it. 

The you know, everything is conceivable provided for because they can synthesize anything. So you don’t really have to squabble over possessions. 

So technology solved in that universe. Technology solved the problem of scarcity. 

I would imagine that everyone is busy doing other, more productive things than worrying about having enough food to eat. For example, we’re having shoes to wear and these things will be taken care of. And they’re there. Perhaps they’ve solved the population of Earth, which I just read is going up to a billion in another 10 years or so, that these things are hard and people can move beyond that. And I don’t know that that’s that’s Marxist or just makes good sense. 

I want to talk about the new Star Trek quickly. Can’t have you on the show without getting your your take on that. Susan, do you think it succeeded at furthering this. Star Trek that Gene Roddenberry envisioned? Or is it a is it kind of a revision of Star Trek? 

You’re talking up a new film, right? Yeah. OK. I, I saw it. I enjoyed it. It is not Gene Roddenberry. Star Trek. It is. It has the characters. It has a lot of the the buzz words. 

It’s got the look. It’s the. The ship. It’s got some of the the canon from earlier Star Trek, Spock’s mother, that sort of thing. But as they they say, it’s a reboot. It’s I don’t know where it’s going to go from here. It’s a story. It doesn’t have. I didn’t find it had a lot of philosophical weight to it. Mm hmm. It was what it had to do was to reestablish the new version of Star Trek that J.J. Abrams wants. And I’m hoping for I’m ever optimistic. 

I enjoyed the film for what it was. 

I love to sit there and try to tear it apart. I just looked at it as an alternate Star Trek in an alternate universe. And I’m hoping that each story and I’m sure there will be more because it’s made a pile of money will continue to evolve and improve. We won’t have to spend, you know, three quarters of the movie finding out who these people are and getting them back together and whatnot. 

So you think there’s some chance that it may continue in the secular humanist vein, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek? 

Well, I. I hope so, but I don’t know if that’s a priority. I don’t know. J.J. Abrams is philosophy that well, and I don’t even know if he’s going to be involved in the next film. I’m totally out of the loop. 

I haven’t been at Paramount since 1991 when Gene died. So I do try to follow it. I did not care for the second series, Deep Space Nine. 

It’s been off because. That’s right. With the Bighorns and the religion and the prophets. 

Yeah, and that definitely was something Gene would not have liked. 

He once said that he knew that in the future other people would come along and we would make Star Trek and would recast it. And he knew that it would not be his. I mean, he understood that, you know, you give birth to the baby, you set it out on its own. And hopefully they won’t put it too close to a religious series. 

And I don’t think they will. I mean, it’s totally. But didn’t I. It didn’t seem to go anywhere in either direction that I could tell. 

You mean the new movie? Yeah. It wasn’t critical of religion, but there was no religious content. Right. Right. It was just sort of neutral and it was just a good kind of action flick. Yeah, exactly. 

Good science fiction action movie. Susan, last question then. What’s your favorite series? I guess that’s obvious. Star Trek, The Next Generation. So what’s your favorite episode? And tell me why. 

Well, you know, I could I could choose one that I wrote that I want. 

Well, two for the record. What are some that you wrote? 

Oh, I just I wrote I co-wrote a couple of them with Fred Bronson. One is called me Nawzad Troy, and the other one is called The Game. 

But actually my favorite one and I don’t know the name of it, it’s called Inner Life. It’s it’s the one where Picard lives a complete lifetime in a span of about 20 minutes. 

Oh, right. Right. And kind of has a domestic life, a family life and lives on a farm and all. 

That’s all right. He’s in France and he he has children. And whenever. I mean, I’ve only seen it once, but I do remember after Jean died, I didn’t watch the show that much. It was card. 

It was very difficult, just emotionally hard because you were very close. 

Right. And so I don’t have that the entire series to draw from as far as my favorite. But I did catch that one and I did like it a lot. 

Well, when I’m done with the whole series, I’ll send you the DVD. You can see if you enjoy them now. So just tell me tell me why that card episode, The Inner Light one was your favorite. I mean, it’s a great story. I’ve seen the episode, but what about it makes it your favorite? 

Just the fact that it boggles the mind. I like stories that make you think and it makes you think about what is reality and what is what is. You know, we we think therefore we are. Or are we thinking in real time? What is time? I mean, it just it just makes you think of all these different concepts of of all the big philosophical questions who were in that episode. 

Yeah, yeah. 

I just I just loved it. And and it was a wonderful story. It really was. 

Thank you very much for joining me on Point of Inquiry, Susan Sacket. 

Thanks, T.J.. It’s fun. 

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Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry for updates throughout the week about the kinds of topics we care about on this show. Find me on Facebook and on Twitter to get involved with an online conversation about today’s show. Join us on the discussion forums at point of inquiry dot org. Views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily CFI views, nor the views of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for Spight Emmy Award winning Michael Quailed. Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.