I will admit that after I had the chance to speak with William Shatner yesterday, I hurriedly thumb-typed out the words “Captain Kirk said my name!” to my father, the man who had first introduced me to Star Trek when I was a 7 year old sitting in a theater watching Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
Star Trek was and is one of those things, those shared interests that remain strong as they reach across the years and the distance. Like baseball, it is an institution and an heirloom to be loved and one day passed on.
For almost 50 years, William Shatner has served as Star Trek‘s greatest ambassador. It is, despite notable roles as TJ Hooker and Denny Crane, his life’s work and something he has taken a magnifying glass too over these last few years as an underrated documentary filmmaker and interviewer.
In this one on one interview with Mr. Shatner, we touch on his affinity for intimate interviews and how it shines in his new DVD The Captains: Close Up, inspiring young minds with Star Trek‘s thirst for exploration, JJ Abrams, the need for a Star Trek TV show, the recent fan ranking of Star Trek films, and whether Star Trek V got a raw deal.
What does The Captains: Close Up offer to fans of the original [Captains] documentary? What additional content can we expect?
William Shatner: It’s a loving and intimate look at the human beings who also played the part of the Captain. It’s material that’s never been seen. It’s material that they spoke about themselves, intimately, because I was asking the questions and they trusted me. And I know them and love them. So they revealed aspects of themselves that they never have before.
From family struggles due to work and the shared theatrical background that you all have — were you surprised that you had so much in common with the other Captains?
Shatner: In a way, yes. But in a way, not. [These] actors have been around a while, have been around because — first of all — they’re talented. And secondly, or maybe primarily, there is a force in them that won’t allow them to give up, because giving up is always dangling in front of you. And because we’ve shared these experiences, there is this intimacy that those actors and I have.
I re-watched the original Captains documentary last night, and as an interviewer, you’re a bit fearless, a bit charming, and very curious. What inspired this whole project and your interest in examining and interviewing people — from the ones done in Captains to Get a Life, to Chris Hadfield, the astronaut?
Shatner: Well, you know, I had a show on the Bio Channel for three years called Raw Nerve. And I did 39 half hours, interviews with various people and it was very well received and I had the best time.
One day, because we were shooting two a day, I had Rush Limbaugh in the morning and Larry Flynt in the afternoon and they both ended up weeping on camera because of the questions that evoked some memory, and I look back on that day thinking, these two men of opposite opinions had the commonality of their humanity. And that is something that I love to explore.
In the same way that you must uncover something in your interviews and you think, “God, I just struck a nugget here” because of a question or the mood, or whatever reason that someone is revealing something intimate to you. I love that kind of thing, and having done Raw Nerve, I’ve struck out on other paths seeking to employ this knack of talking to people and getting them to open up about themselves.
The Captains seemed [like] a way of going. I’ve done it on several documentaries now, I think I’ve got nine documentaries out there. One I’m editing right now, which is called Wacky Doodle, which is the story of the first two years of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was chaotic. So chaotic, that somebody termed that it was “Wacky doodle time”. I’m calling the documentary Wacky Doodle. So, I love to talk to people. I love to get them to reveal themselves and that’s the reason behind The Captains: Close Up.
Karl Urban, from the new Star Trek films said that “Star Trek, as envisioned, was about space exploration. And it would be really wonderful to harness the spirit of that and apply it to the next film”. Is that something that you would like to see? A greater focus on discovery in these films.
Shatner: I’m not goona second guess JJ Abrams, he’s a great director and he’s so talented. But I’ll tell you that I am going to the Lowell Observatory in a couple of weeks to deliver a speech that I wrote about Star Trek and its capacity to stir the imaginations of young people.
The idea is, that so many people’s lives have been touched by the imagination of Star Trek and children’s imaginations are so vital to the rest of their lives that… this is an aspect of Star Trek that I’m focused on.
Now let me ask you, trying to bring in new viewers, new younger viewers to expose that world to young kids and teenagers alike and really spur that imagination — is a TV show a more viable vehicle for that? Is it sad that we don’t have something like that right now, a Star Trek TV show that could really seize on the exploration part of the thing that the original series and Next Generation, that those things did?
Shatner: You know, I think you’re right. Because, JJ Abrams has found the key to getting a large audience into the movie theater, and that’s the ride. So you get a lot of the CGI effects, which is the epic movie making aspect of today, whereas in Cecile B. Demille’s time, you had to use real people. Now you don’t need to use real people and you can have infinity for God’s sake.
That’s in order to get you into the theater, because the majesty of the movie is shown by the large screen. But when you get into the small screen, you need stories… entertaining, interesting, vital stories that have a philosophy and also have an excitement about them, so that the viewer stays with it, but recieves the philosophy as a byproduct. Those were the best of Star Trek, those kinds of stories. And that kind of thing, there is always room for that. That kind of imaginative approach that stirs young people into wanting to be connected with science.
So many fans are so passionate in their desire to resurrect cancelled shows as movies, but of course, Star Trek was the forerunner for this. Can you take me back to what went through your head when you found out that you were going to get to play Captain Kirk again, first with the aborted Phase 2 and then with the Motion Picture?
Shatner: Well, I was astounded. And, then you know, seven, eight years had gone by and I had to whip myself into shape. So there was a sense of excitement and determination to try and be what I had been several years before.
You recently said that you are working on a sci-fi comic, is this Tek War related, or something totally different? What can you tell me about that project?
Shatner: Well, I’m working on several things. I’ve got a new album coming out in early October called Ponder the Mystery. It’s progressive rock and I’m of the opinion that progressive rock is to music what science fiction is to literature. It’s out there, it’s moving the boundaries musically, as does science fiction. So that drops in October, Billy Sherwood wrote the music, I wrote the lyrics, and I think it may be spectacular.We’re even fantasizing about playing Las Vegas and making moves in that direction with a group. Billy Sherwood is from YES and he’s putting together a remarkable group of musicians.
I’m writing a book that will go out in the fall, you should take a look at my website, WilliamShatner.com. I’m doing a podcast, I’ve got 36 of them done now, 5-10 minutes [long], called Brown Bag Wine Tasting in which I interview somebody on the street with a brown bag of wine under my arm in which we taste the wine and then talk about other things.
I mean, I’m working on all kinds of things, reality shows, other documentaries, so my life is filled with new and out of the box things. As well as looking at movies and other series’.
Do you think you’ll ever slow down, or are you just going to keep on going?
Shatner: I’ll peter out is what I’ll do, you know like the old Model A “Putt, putt, putt” and then die. (Laughs)
I hope that’s a long way away.
My last question is, there was a very large Star Trek convention in Las Vegas this past weekend and there were fans in a room that voted on what they thought the order was for Star Trek movies in terms of best to worst, they unfortunately voted Star Trek V as the 12th best movie, second to last…
Shatner: Who was last?
Actually, the new one. Star Trek Into Darkness.
Shatner: (Laughs) What do they know? (Laughs)
You know what, I just re-watched Star Trek V for the first time in a decade the other night, actually, and I kinda feel like it got a raw deal, do you feel like it got a raw deal?
Shatner: Oh yeah, you know once they get onto that bone, they shake it around. Uh, I needed more guidance than I got. I had 30 million dollars and I needed 32, I didn’t have an ending, but there were parts of Star Trek V that were wonderful.
I mean, Kirk asking God for his ID is to me one of the greatest…
Shatner: I’m telling you, I give a whole lecture on what I had to do on Star Trek… the compromises I had to make on Star Trek V and learning to compromise, when do you compromise, when do you stand on principle? But that’s another whole subject.
The Captains: Close Up with William Shatner is now available on DVD