Had he not passed away from heart failure in 1991, today would be Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s 88th birthday.

According to Joel Engel, author of Gene Roddenberry: The Myth and the Man Behind Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry is a seminal figure of our time (“His indirect impact on aspects of popular culture … has been eclipsed, arguably, only by Elvis Presley”), creator of one of the most enduring of TV and film series and a figure of adulation to countless “Trekkies.” Yet in this well-researched biography, the author offers a critical view of a man who, he claims, was a mediocre writer who bullied as well as charmed top science-fiction authors into working for him while never publicly acknowledging his debt to them.

Roddenberry led a rough-and-tumble early life, flying a B-17 bomber during WW II and serving with the Los Angeles Police Department for five years before turning to TV-writing for series like Have Gun, Will Travel. In 1964, he wrote a treatment for what he called “Wagon Train in the Sky,” with Star Trek debuting in the fall of 1966. The series lost money for its entire three-year run.

Granted new life through syndication, however, Star Trek grew into a cult phenomenon, inspiring sequels and spin-offs.

Patrick Stewart once said in an interview on Michael Parkinson’s TV program that a reporter talked to Roddenberry about the choice of Stewart for the captain’s role; the reporter said, “Look, it doesn’t make sense. You got a bald actor playing this part. Surely, by the 24th century, they have found the cure for baldness.” Roddenberry replied, “By the 24th century, no one will care.” [via Wikipedia]

Whatever Roddenberry’s imperfections as a human being, he imagined a future where humanity had overcome many of its shortcomings and explored — not conquered — the stars. The very idea has inspired (and continues to inspire) those among us who hope for a bright future in spite of how gloomy the horizon may look at times.