Rod Roddenberry, CEO of Roddenberry Productions and son of sci-fi legend Gene Roddenberry announced that they've entered into a deal with Brian Grazer and Ron Howard's Imagine Television to produce Gene Roddenberry's pilot The Questor Tapes. Originally developed as a television series by Gene Roddenberry, the pilot didn’t move forward, and was finally produced as a television movie in 1974. The titular character of Questor was the original model in many ways for later Star Trek: The Next Generation character Data.
The story features an android whose memory tapes are incomplete, and like emotion-deficient Trek mainstays Data, Spock and Q, is searching for his humanity. We got a chance to talk to Roddenberry about what's in store for the show, getting Tim Minear on board and what it is about the story that will appeal to Roddenberry fans.
Before we finished the interview, Roddenberry asked if we would mention something that is near and dear to his heart, a special program for Haiti Relief:
“The short of it is, I'm moving out of my parents house. I can't take everything with me. So I've had this private, small auction on Facebook that's still going on right now. All the proceeds are going to Haitian relief. I've been communicating with Greg Grunberg, who plays Matt Parker on Heroes and Jimmy Jean-Louis who plays the Haitian. He's really from Haiti and he's got this thing called “Haitian Hero” and we've teamed up with them. All the money brought in from this auction will be going to his organization to help everyone over there. The information is on my Facebook page and HaitianHero.com is the one that people should go to if people want to donate money.”
Newsarama: So how did this all come about? You've got some huge people attached to this.
Rod Roddenberry: Well, to be honest, we kind of decided it was about time to shop some of my father's old stories. There's a lot of them. Every writer has an archive of stories that never made it. And my father was no different. And for whatever reason, it didn't pull in the audience it needed at the time. So we decided to start shopping this stuff around. Imagine thought it was interesting. We met with them. They seemed to really kind of get it as far as the story and what it was to be a Roddenberry show. And I've got to say, it wasn't easy. Because the way deals are done these days compared tot he way they were done even ten years ago...you basically give up all creative control for very little money and hope for the best. I called a lot of people in the industry and a lot of people who are my friends and a lot of people who know what it is to have a Roddenberry project. And they all kind of agreed that it's a good company. It's a good opportunity. And to be completely honest, I agree with them. My father would not have wanted this to sit on the shelf for the next ten, twenty, thirty, forty years. If it was anyone else by Imagine, I probably wouldn't have taken the deal.
Nrama: Well I also saw that you were in negotiations with writer Tim Minear, which for Buffy: The Vampire Slayer fans is huge!
Roddenberry: Yeah, well, they brought Tim in. In fact, they brought a number of people in. What I say about Imagine is, even though they've taken creative control on this, their door has been wide open on this, and they said, 'We value your input, we'd love your input, we'd love to hear what you have to say.' So this isn't something where we've handed it off and we're walking away and they're going to do it. They told us, well, these are the writers we're thinking about. We gave our input. It ended up working with Tim Minear, and he, right now, is sort of giving it a once over, and a pass to see what he can come up with. The trick right now is deciding how much to change and how much to keep the same. I'm one of the people who hates it when they 'reinvent' a project and change it entirely. I'm very much against that, especially when it has to do with my father's work. Imagine gets that and Tim gets that. And Tim is a fan of my father's. He's a fan of Questor. It's sort of a struggle right now to figure out, if it doesn't work today for this reason, how can we change it to work? And what are the important parts? What is it that makes it Roddenberry? If we change too much, are we going to lose the full?
Nrama: What do you think would need to be updated?
Roddenberry: Well, you know, I have to be completely honest. I'm very traditional. I would almost want it to come out almost exactly the way it was. Either from a lack of creativity on my part, but more likely the fact that I love the original. I love the original, I love the character. I can tell you for sure the last thing that should be changed that I think would kill it, is to drastically change the character Questor in any way. And by that I mean, what he is, his personality, the way he behaves, his motivational imperatives, so to speak. That would be the last thing I would change. I don't think anyone else needs to be, but I'm not coming at this from an objective point of view. It's been almost forty years of television, you know? Audiences have changed. The way television is done has changed. I can't say for sure reproducing Questor in its exact form all over again would work. I don't know. I simply don't know.
Nrama: I had read that he was the inspiration for Data. Is that true?
Roddenberry: Absolutely. In fact, if you look back at all of my father's works, pretty much all of them, for the most part, have a particular character, and I call it the Roddenberry character, which is, whether it's Spock, Data, the Hologram Doctor, Seven of Nine, whatever these characters are, they are always aliens. They come to us as the aliens, but they end up being the most human. Because they're always questioning humanity and what it's about. And searching for that humanity inside of them. And Q is another example. All of those characters are the Roddenberry characters, because they are the ones who sort of point it out to us, or the other characters on the show, what we take for granted and how beautiful it is to be a human. And that our mistakes are what make life worth living. That's how we learn and how we grow. Those are the characters that are so important. But Questor is essentially the first of those characters.
Nrama: Your dad is quoted as saying that this was the one that got away and that he thought it would have been bigger than Star Trek. What is it about this project that made him say that?
Roddenberry: He loved Spock and he loved Questor. He loved these characters. I think he just poured his heart into it, and that's why I think Data is in Next Generation. I know my father really identified with that. And in some of his notes, he talks about how great it would be to sometimes be an android or be a Vulcan, and be void of emotions and be logical decisions only. Of course, he understood the value and importance of emotions, but he would just kind of chuckle about it. As far as the most important reason, I can't tell you. I don't know. I wish I did.
Nrama: I'm curious who you'd like to see play the role.
Roddenberry: Oh, god, I don't want to throw out any names. Brent Spiner always...I've always loved Data. He's one of my favorites.
Nrama: Mine too!
Roddenberry: Yeah! This is not really a serious answer, but Brent Spiner would be the actor that comes to mind, because again, being an android, he played it off so perfectly where he could be an android, yet there was such a human quality to him. He wasn't robotic, but he wasn't overly human. It was just a perfect balance, believe, of what the character should be.
Nrama: It's hard to imagine someone who isn't Brent Spiner.
Roddenberry: One of the arguments I've gotten is actually, you don't want to play this character too robotic. No one is going to follow the lead...if Data were the lead, no one would...I think that's a load of you know what. I think anyone who tells me that is not thinking about what Data was. There would be, I think, legions of fans following a lead that behaved like Data.
Nrama: Do you have any idea of the timing of this? When things might start moving along?
Roddenberry: Well, I mean, anything can happen. I don't mean to repeat anything you don't already know, but this business is hard. The floor can fall out from beneath him at any point. It's not just Imagine and Roddenberry that are making all the decisions. Once we've gotten through the creative parts of this, we bring it to other people, and they need to decide, and then they need it to bring it to other people, etc. You'll probably hear more news towards the end of February. At least some sort of news...as far as when production will begin. I think the end of February is when I'm hoping to hear that we've taken the next step and we're still doing well. [laughs]