Susan Sackett worked as the personal executive assistant to Gene Roddenberry, creator of the television legend Star Trek, for more than seventeen years. She was also 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. Sackett has been president of the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix for almost a decade and on the board of directors of the American Humanist Association since 2005. She recently discussed the humanism of Star Trek with D.J. Grothe, associate editor of Free Inquiry. —Eds.
Free Inquiry: You were introduced to secular humanism by Gene Roddenberry.
Susan Sackett: That is true. He and Isaac Asimov were friends, and Asimov sent him a copy of Asimov’s Guide to the Bible. I started reading it. I discovered that I was in line with this way of thinking without knowing there was a name for it. Gene and I started going to humanist conventions together, where I met people like James Randi and Ted Turner.
FI: You saw, over the years, humanism play out in his life.
Sackett: Absolutely. Gene walked the walk and talked the talk, as they say. He absolutely believed in the future of humanity. That’s one of the things people take away from Star Trek—there is this optimistic view of the future, and that is inherent in secular humanism. He was always talking about that in his lectures, as well as frequently working that into the episodes on television.
FI: That optimism wasn’t ever based in a supernatural faith but in humanity’s potential.
Sackett: Right. Gene said that he could never believe in any of the religious teachings of his upbringing, even though his mother tried to instill it in him. He would tell people how as a young man he was told to eat a wafer, and it would turn into the body of Jesus. He thought to himself, “I am living among cannibals.” He didn’t believe in any supernatural help for our problems. Humanity had to take care of itself, and he showed that in many episodes.
FI: In the Star Trek universe, humanity has outgrown religion; there is no longer the strife that came from those outmoded creeds. Let’s talk about how Gene emphasized that optimism in the original 1960s series. It was groundbreaking because they were the first storylines on television against gender inequality and for racial equality and even skepticism of religion, of a sort. Do you think the network knew he had an agenda?
Sackett: I wasn’t involved with the original series, but I think the executives were oblivious, because the shows were talking about far-off distant worlds, not the earth of the 1960s. The first interracial kiss on television happened on the original Star Trek series, but it was couched in a sci-fi plot, so the networks didn’t care, even though the kiss didn’t air in some parts of the South at that time. Even though the show was on the air in the mid- to late sixties, I think it is still very relevant to issues today.
FI: Almost every episode of the later series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, strikes me as a sermon for some aspect of secular humanism. Technology solving human problems; big philosophy questions explored—stuff secular humanists like. You were involved with this more overtly secular humanist series. Was it that way only from the top down, or did all the writers and producers and actors know that this was the stance of the show?
Sackett: I didn’t ever hear any big objections from anyone. They seemed to be aware of it. One of the best episodes in my opinion was called “Who Watches the Watchers.” It was written by Richard Manning and Hans Beimler, and I think they had to have believed the episode’s message in order to have written it. Captain Picard, played by Patrick Stewart, had this great speech in that episode where he says that people on this certain planet were starting to revert back to how they had been thousands of years before when they erroneously believed in supernatural beings, and he doesn’t want them to. I don’t think anyone objected to the message. If the story was good—first you have to have a good story, and that’s what we had—you could work in these philosophical points.
FI: It just so happens in Roddenberry’s Star Trek that no one has any major possessions; everyone’s needs are met. Isn’t it all kind of Marxist? At least that’s what some far-Right cultural critics who have written about the show have argued.
Sackett: I wouldn’t say Marxist. Maybe Lennonist—and I mean that Lennon. Everyone is doing something other, more productive than worrying about possessions. They’ve solved the population problem, poverty, and religious, nationalistic, and political conflicts. In the Star Trek universe, people have moved beyond the major problems facing our real world today. When you look around the world, you can’t help but to think there has to be a better way. And I think much of that better way has been promoted through this show.