Full Speed Ahead
From Captain Kirk on "Star Trek" to Denny Crane on "Boston Legal," William Shatner has played the macho man role with no regrets.
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During this same period, he'd landed the lead role in the television series "TJ Hooker" and, while continuing to make four more Star Trek movies for Paramount—and ultimately seeing the now-retired James T. Kirk killed off in the 1994 sequel Star Trek: Generations—he became the host of the reality show "Rescue 911," which aired for seven seasons.
By the late 1990s—almost 30 years after the introduction of James T. Kirk—Shatner still couldn't seem to escape the reminder of the swaggering captain; the fans wouldn't let him. For decades, Trekkie conventions had allowed devotees to convene, swap dialogue (sometimes in Klingon) with other fans and purchase merchandise, meeting a demand that hadn't been there during the show's original airings.
The original cast for the television series—as well as the cast members of the many television spin-offs, including "Star Trek: The Next Generation," "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and "Star Trek: Voyager"—were in big demand as speaking guests and, whether for the money or the glory, most of them went quite willingly. Shatner had his reservations and, although he attended events and collected substantial fees for autographs, speeches and participation in question-and-answer panels for many years, his apparent disdain for the events and the fans themselves became so well known that, years later, he actually did a now-infamous skit on "Saturday Night Live," in which he told a roomful of adoring Trekkies to "get a life!"
The phrase, and the sentiment behind it, caused immediate outrage from the fans and former cast mates, not to mention a movie studio that was investing tens of millions of dollars into each Star Trek movie installment.
Shatner issued a mea culpa, saying that he'd simply not understood the complexity of the fans' devotion. He also claimed to be confused and perplexed by all the commotion around what was meant, in large part, to be a joke and, in 1999, put the experience down for (financially rewarding) posterity by penning Get a Life, yet another book in the Shatner library of more than 20 fiction and nonfiction titles that are either about or at least inspired by "Star Trek."
Shatner, who has often commented about the rumored $2 billion that's been generated from the merchandising and selling of the "Star Trek" franchise, has himself done quite well from his association with Starfleet; besides the television show, the movies and the royalties that, at least in theory, continue to pay out, Shatner himself has produced more than a dozen films and documentaries related to either "Star Trek" or the exploration of science and space. He has also seen his Tek War book series become a Sci-Fi Channel television series, and introduced a monthly sci-fi/fantasy/horror DVD club that bears his name, if not exclusively his movies.
When questioned over the years about his take on the secret of the enduring popularity of "Star Trek," Shatner has alternately claimed not to understand it at all, or not to understand it fully. Today, he chooses the neutral zone.
"Well, nobody knows. You have to accept the fact that nobody knows what the chemistry is...it's like Coca-Cola; they aren't going to tell you. Or they don't know themselves. It might have been the times. It might have been the characters. It might have been the stories. It might have been the philosophy. It might have been the actors.
"You know," Shatner concludes, "one would tend to think that it was all those things. But what it was, was that it caught the imagination of the American public, and NASA was at its height then. NASA says to this day, when they had the moon shots, that the ratings would go up on our show and our show helped them get a larger budget, and it was a whole thing that was happening at NASA and [with] the romance of space."
The romance of space exploration, however, seems to have its limits when it comes down to Shatner's personal interest. Contrary to media reports that Shatner had signed on with Virgin Galactic—British entrepreneur Richard Branson's space travel company—to be one of its first adventure tourists into space at a ticket price of $250,000, Shatner says it's not only untrue, it all comes down to money and that vomit thing again.
"Virgin used me as a publicity thing [and] without my permission. And they came to me later and said, 'We'll let you go on free.' And I said, "You've got the wrong idea, you've got to pay me to go!' Well, my interest in the theory of space and the theme of man's march into the unknown and the necessity of her grand goals...that's all there, but to vomit in space is not my, you know, [idea of a good time]. And the fiery crash with the vomit hovering over you?" asks Shatner. "No. So I need guarantees like, 'You will definitely come back. You're going up, but you'll definitely come back down.' I'm not saying I don't want to go—I do want to go, but I'm not going to pay $250,000 to go."
That doesn't mean, however, that Shatner wouldn't mind having a visitor from space come visit him, instead. Mi planeta, su planeta. Again.
According to Dennis William Hauck, an author and lecturer on the paranormal, Shatner has more than boldly gone where no man—or few men—has gone before; he got them to come to him.
According to Hauck, who penned the unauthorized biography Captain Quirk following a documentary project on which he consulted with Shatner entitled Mysteries of the Gods, Shatner witnessed a UFO while motorcycling with friends in the Mojave Desert in California.
It was 1967, during the filming years of "Star Trek," and Shatner and four friends had decided to take their bikes out for a spin near Edwards Air Force Base. Shatner became separated from his friends during a spill from the bike and has since recounted a story that had both him and his Suzuki Titan 500 experiencing functional changes following his sighting. There was even some modest speculation as to whether Shatner had had psychic communication with the extraterrestrials or even been abducted.
In fact, says Hauck, Shatner's infamous spoken-word album entitled The Transformed Man—dubbed the "Transformed Ham" by less than enthusiastic music critics and which became a staple on the "Dr. Demento Show"—was recorded in direct response to his experience in the desert. Hauck elaborates on how each song (or song rendering) on the album had specific meaning as to how Shatner remembered the encounter, and specifically points to "the magic swirling ship" lyrics of "Mr. Tambourine Man" and some of the potentially otherworldly lyrics of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" as being messages back to his visitors that he had, in fact, paid attention to the experience.
The self-penned lyrics of Shatner's latest musical offering, Has Been, are a bit less oblique and perhaps a bit more revealing than the ones he borrowed for Transformed Man. Although still mocked a bit by critics, the effort wasn't savaged nearly as badly as his previous attempt at musical expression. Shatner's lyrics—which take on everything from politics to the grief he experienced at his third wife's sudden death—are accompanied by the music and background vocals of everyone from Joe Jackson to Brad Paisley.
While a couple of the cuts on Has Been deal with the inevitability of death and the resulting loneliness—a topic that has been at the top of Bill Shatner's "to muse, ponder and pontificate on" list for decades—the title track lays down more than a snappy little beat; it lays down Shatner's take on himself, his future and his detractors.
In the final refrain of "Has Been," Shatner offers up "What are you afraid of?/Failure?/So am I/Has Been implies failure/Not so/Has Been is history/Has Been was/Has Been might again." Aye, Aye, Captain.
Betsy Model is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.
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