Forever Captain Kirk: William Shatner opens up about "fandom frenzy" and 50 years of "Star Trek"

As "Star Trek" turns a half-century old, Salon talks to icon William Shatner about his career-defining role

Published July 22, 2016 11:00PM (EDT)

William Shatner   (AP/Richard Shotwell/Paramount Television/Salon)
William Shatner (AP/Richard Shotwell/Paramount Television/Salon)

It’s a big year for “Star Trek.” The venerable franchise turns 50. Therefore, by association, it’s a big year for William Shatner, too.

No surprise, but the inimitable actor-performer-icon, now 85, shows no signs of stopping. He never has. Shatner’s life-long, scattershot approach to his career has kept his fans guessing — in both the positive and head-scratching senses of the word — for decades.

The new movie in the reboot series, “Star Trek Beyond,” starring that second-string cast (Chris Pine as Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Commander Spock, et al.), opens today. Shatner's not in the film, technically (look for a tiny nod to him). “Star Trek” is mostly in Shatner’s past. But he's not afraid to capitalize on the franchise's half-century mark.

The Summer of Shatner begins at San Diego Comic-Con 2016 this weekend. Then he’ll stop at more than a dozen other fan conventions through the fall, from Las Vegas to Atlanta, Austin to Birmingham, U.K. In October, he takes his one-man show “Shatner’s World: We Just Live In It” — a performance of stories and songs from the “one man force of nature” — to several venues.

As a writer, Shatner has penned several science fiction novels and memoirs of his experience exploring the strange new worlds of Star Trek fandom. His most recent book, “Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man,” was released earlier this year.

As a (sort of) singer and accidental spoken-word performance artist, he’s both butchered songs — who can forget “Rocket Man?” — and made impressive inroads into indie rock legitimacy after his collaborations with Ben Folds.

His early acting career began with classic Shakespearean training in his home country of Canada, then stints on American TV shows in the 1950s and early 1960s, such as “The Twilight Zone” and “Dr. Kildare” and movies like “The Brothers Karamazov.” During a 1970s post-“Star Trek” dry spell, he seemingly appeared on every show on television, from “Hawaii Five-O” to “The Six Million Dollar Man.” Later, he made a comeback on “T. J. Hooker,” which led to work on “The Practice” and “Boston Legal” that earned him Emmys and a Golden Globe. He’s been a voice talent for video games and cartoons and a Priceline spokesperson. He’s directed features and documentaries, from the exploration of “Trek” fans, “Get a Life!” to 1989’s “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.”

However, to most fans, Shatner remains James Tiberius Kirk, captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise.

Seen as campy and over-dramatic to some, ever since NBC broadcast the first episode on September 8, 1966, “Star Trek” has arguably been eclipsed in the pop-cultural firmament by that other sci-fi juggernaut beginning with the word “Star.” Still, the Trek franchise was groundbreaking when it first appeared, ensnaring our dreams of space exploration and hope for a harmonious universe. Half a century and oodles of TV and movie iterations, conventions, fanzines and merchandise later, each generation continues to renew interest in all things Trek.

I caught up with Shatner as he was poised to begin his cross-country odyssey of comic cons and theaters and baseball parks. In a telephone interview, I successfully resisted the temptation to ask him, “In Episode 47, when the Rigelians steal the dilithium crystals, why didn't the automatic engine sensors pick up the ...”

Rather, what became clear was that Shatner's still not slowing down. He’s still, in the immortal words of chief engineer Montgomery "Scotty" Scott, “givin' her” — er, us — “all she’s got.”

What does the 50th anniversary of “Star Trek” mean to you?

Fifty years sounds like such a gigantic passage of time, and it really is. To give it even more import, it’s a half a century. It’s an extraordinary length of time. A full life could be lived in 50 years, and in fact, up until not so long ago, that was the average age that people dropped off at. So to have an event like “Star Trek,” a moderately successful show on the air 50 years ago, to remain in the public consciousness and for you and I to be talking about it 50 years later, is a phenomenon beyond belief, and I’m in a sort of non-believing state when it comes to “Star Trek.” Fifty years, although it sounds like a long time, from my point of view, is a flicker of an eye.

When you shot the original show back in 1966, did you have any sense “Star Trek” would last?

No more than if you thought that this interview would be quoted 50 years from now.

Some fans talk about how “Star Trek” appealed to them because it embodied hope for interracial, international, even inter-species, peace and cooperation. Others were taken by how the show seemed to address their anxieties or provide moral lessons and thought experiments about human behavior. Others were sucked in by the promise of the blank slate of space exploration. To you, what explains the attraction and longevity of the franchise?

I did a book on it. I called it “Get A Life!” The conclusion I gave was that people going to these conventions were going to see each other. Then I did a documentary with the same name some years later, and my due diligence turned up a more interesting and deeper explanation. And that is: science fiction is mythological. If mythology seeks to give a cohesive understanding of some strange event, like religion, then science fiction in general and “Star Trek” specifically seek to explain some of those weird things that we’re seeing in a microscope and a telescope, [things] so mind-boggling that it puts science fiction in a corner. What is in reality so mysterious and awesome and nobody can make any sense of it, science fiction writers try to make some little sense of it.

A lot of people have talked about the ways in which the original show was groundbreaking, including the first interracial kiss on television and some of the technology the characters used that has come to pass. How else was The Original Series groundbreaking?

It was during the Vietnam War, and there are many references to war and robots and killings by extension and man’s inhumanity. There were many insightful observations dramatized under the guise of alien culture. Although those kinds of stories are not groundbreaking in itself, being on television and being on a popular network was.

Now that you’re thinking about the 50th anniversary, I’m sure you’re also looking back on the great friendship you had with Leonard Nimoy [who died in 2015]. Partly I’m interested in hearing you talk about that because you’ll be coming to Boston Comic Con, in Boston, Nimoy’s hometown, later this summer.

In a way, Boston is my town as well. I married a beautiful Boston girl [Nerine Kidd, his third wife, died in 1999]. My beautiful Irish rose. So I knew Boston a little bit through her, and I’m very fond of Boston for having given me Nerine for the brief while that I was with her. I feel close to Boston.

When you come to Boston Comic Con in August, are you doing anything special with your time?

I’m gonna throw the ball out at a baseball game at Fenway on Friday evening [August 12]. I’m gonna throw a curveball that drops right at the plate.

Talk about your bond with Nimoy.

Leonard, his background and where he lived and how he was brought up and how he got into the business and his subsequent life, filled with life and death and divorce, echoed mine very closely. It brought us very close together, having so much in common. So as a result of being in each other’s company for so long, a vast part of those 50 years, we became very fast friends.

In a way, you’re sort of the elder statesman for the “Star Trek” franchise, especially with Leonard Nimoy no longer being with us…

The word “elder” is anathema. [Laughs]

My apologies.

I’m a statesman. I’m not anything. I’m not connected with “Star Trek” at all. There’s a new series and of course the movies, and I have no input whatsoever.

But do you feel that in some ways you’re still the face of the franchise and that you’ll always be known for your legacy as Captain Kirk, despite all of the other wonderful things you’ve done in your career? Does it feel like that’s how people will remember you?

Well if they do, that’s alright with me. [“Star Trek”] was a show business phenomenon, and why would I disparage that? From your point of view, I’m Captain Kirk and that’s it, but from other people’s, they refer to me in other terms. It’s come to be a conglomerate that comes out “Shatner” most of the time.

How did you get the role of Kirk?

I had done some popular work prior to “Star Trek,” in movies and in stage and even in television, so I was moseying along there pretty good, and I guess that’s why they came to me and tried to ask me to play in this thing. But nobody had any idea of the subsequent fame, and most assuredly as a result of playing Captain Kirk, you and I are talking today.

What was the period like between the end of the original TV series and the launch of the rebooted movie franchise, beginning with “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” in 1979?

The word that one hears is that if you’re popular on a series, it takes about two years to overcome that assignation. So I was in the middle of that two-year period — working gainfully in one thing or another, I’ve never not worked — but I wasn’t in a popular vehicle until the [“Star Trek”] movies came along, and then that began that whole phase [of my career].

You’re at this place in your career where you’ve seen everything, and as you said at the beginning of this interview, you never expected for all of this to have happened. What’s next for William Shatner, after your summer?

I’m doing a number of conventions. I’m also on tour with my one-man show [“Shatner’s World: We Just Live In It”]. I’m also going to shoot another year, I guess, of a series that hasn’t played on television yet called “Better Late Than Never.” It’ll be on NBC after the Olympics, and they’re excited enough to want to shoot another year, so I’ve put aside some time for that. I’ve got to go England and do my one-man show there. I am so busy I’m a little frightened by it.

What’s that experience like for you, travelling across the country meeting thousands of “Star Trek” fans, as well as performing your one-man show?

The original entertainers traveled by horse and buggy and they put up their tent and they were minstrels and they journeyed from one place to another. Now here I am going out and I’ve got a show every night of the week in a different venue for a week. I’ve been doing it for the last few years with my one-man show, and it sort of reminds me of the original intention of all actors, which was to entertain. And here I am, minstrel-like, going from city to city setting up my tent, in a theater this time, and entertaining for an hour-and-a-half with all the bells and whistles that I can get up in the air. I’m sort of hop-scotching all over the country this year because of the 50th anniversary.

What is your response to some of the more extreme forms of fan devotion, relating to “Star Trek” or otherwise — people dressing in costume? Fans who say “Star Trek” changed their lives?

We harness their energy.

You harness their energy? Can you talk more about that?

That’s off the top. Now you want me to [elaborate] on that? Now you want me to make that sound intelligent? [Laughs]

If you care to.

I harness their energy. The extreme end of any project is the spear point. That’s the thing that lands first. That energy, that extreme end of whatever it is, is what has to be dealt with first. That fandom frenzy, harnessed, is great fun.

Do you feel like the writing, directing, singing and other phases of your career were made possible by your success in “Star Trek,” or do you feel that you would have gotten to do those things had the show not happened?

No question. Captain Kirk and “Star Trek” has been the springboard for everything subsequent to that. Of course, one has no idea what would have happened. That’s one of the most formless of questions, “What would have happened?” because you don’t know. What happened is my journal of life, and what happened was I became popular because of the popularity of “Star Trek.” “Star Trek” gave me a chance to direct an expensive movie. I cherish that experience. “Star Trek” has allowed me to explore variations in whatever talent I have so that I’ve been able to produce some music and literature and even stand-up comedy, far more than having been an actor and saying somebody else’s words. “Star Trek” gave me the opportunity to see the world in a way that I wouldn’t have.

[NOTE: For space and clarity, this interview has been edited and condensed.]

By Ethan Gilsdorf

Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.” He can be reached at and onTwitter.

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