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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
Everyone knows about Roots. It is probably the biggest television event of the 1970s. It starred a young LeVar Burton (TNG’s Geordi LaForge) among other celebrated actors. But did you know that there was a sequel titled Roots: The Next Generations in 1979? It chronicled the latter half of Alex Haley’s novel (the original mini-series covered the first). The Next Generation wasn’t as popular as the first, but was still a ratings winner.
But, of course television producers couldn’t leave well enough alone and in 1988 (During Star Trek: The Next Generation second season), a spin-off TV movie of sorts titled Roots: The Gift aired. It starred Burton again with other original Roots cast member Louis Gossett Jr. The Gift takes place during the events of the original mini-series.
You might be asking, “Nick, where is this all going? And what does it have to do with Star Trek?” Good question. Here’s the answer. Roots: The Gift had an enormous Star Trek connection. Yes, it had LeVar Burton, but it also starred Avery Brooks (DS9’s Captain Sisko), Kate Mulgrew (Voyager’s Captain Janeway), and Tim Russ (Voyager’s Tuvok). In the case of Brooks, Mulgrew, and Russ, this was years before they landed their respective Star Trek roles. The likely didn’t even think being on Star Trek was a possibility since in 1988. Star Trek: The Next Generation was still an unknown commodity.
Oddly enough, Loius Gossett Jr. never appeared on Star Trek in any capacity which strikes me as strange as an actor like him would be big enough for name recognition, but not too big where he would be priced out of Trek’s budget. Maybe the producers tried, and he turned them down. Who knows? He eventually appeared on Stargate SG-1, but that’s another story.
With The Gift, we see Kunta Kinte (Burton) and Fiddler (Gossett Jr.) come across a Moyer (Brooks) who is a free man from the north working with the Underground Railroad. Moyer is soon captured by a bounty hunter (Mulgrew) and thrown into slavery. After some reservations, Kunta and Fiddler help Moyer and other runaway slaves (who Moyer was aiding) escape. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough room on the boat to freedom, so Kunta and Fiddler are forced to remain on their plantation, but happy with what they have done. This all takes place on Christmas.
While the original Roots is a television classic, The Gift is a bit strange. It tries to be a Christmas special, but it doesn’t really work on that level. The holiday element is forced and, to be honest, almost has a negative aspect to it (especially when Kunta and others are forced to play animals during a Christmas pageant). Plus, coming from Africa, why would Kunta really care at all about Christmas?
Also, for a series that tried (within 1970s broadcast standards’ reason) tried to be authenic when it came to the time period, why is Kate Mulgrew (33 at the time) in charge of a group of bounty hunters? Given the time period, there is no way that her age and gender would allow her to be in such a position (even if she did come from a well-off family).
The best part of this special is really the Star Trek connections before most of these people were on Star Trek. This really isn’t the strongest of all Christmas specials, and it is a bit of a black eye to the Roots saga. The performances are strong, particularly Brooks (which doesn’t surprise me at all). But it just tries too hard. It is the nerd-cred-in-hindsight that really makes this movie memorable.
Fun Fact: Tim Russ was almost cast as Geordi. LeVar Burton, obviously, won the role. Russ then did a guest appearance on TNG before starting his run as Tuvok on Star Trek: Voyager (which also included a guest stint on DS9).