A couple of years ago, my brother invited me to go with him to an event to meet the one and only William Shatner, the legendary Captain Kirk of our childhood. We both grew up with the show, and in the pre-Internet days I’d been to more than my share of Star Trek and sci-fi conventions, seeing Mr. Shatner and other original cast members speak. Getting a VIP tour of the Enterprise set and a chance to meet and speak with the Captain himself was pretty much every kid of our generation’s dream. My childhood self would have been amazed –and probably appalled– by the ambivalence I had about going. I’ll explain.
A lot has been made of the relationship between Mr. Shatner and other cast members, particularly those in what you’d call the “second tier”, that is to say the bridge crew minus Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelly (if I have to tell you who any of these people are, this blog post won’t make much sense to you, so I’m going to assume some understanding of the people and situations described here). There have been many stories re-told by the supporting actors about Shatner’s constant efforts to intensify the spotlight on Kirk, to the extent that screen time (and lines of dialog) were often shifted from characters such as Sulu and Scotty to the Captain. Resentment over their being marginalized was either barely concealed over the years or sometimes not concealed at all. James Doohan was a famous critic of Shatner’s tactics, but at one point or another there’s been an anecdote by everyone of his co-stars*, and even a few writers for the show. Tragically, it seems that Shatner and Nimoy were estranged at the end of the latter man’s life, a very sad thing to consider given that Kirk and Spock modeled the quintessential friendship.
Shatner’s response to this criticism, both in person and in his books, was to feign non-comprehension. “I don’t understand” was the refrain, repeated whenever the topic came up (and it came up a lot). Even before I really had a good sense of how intelligent (and, more importantly, how extraordinarily curious) the man is, it was hard to believe that such a basic cause for resentment was not comprehensible to him. Sure, he didn’t really want to talk about it, but to ask us to believe that his ex-coworker’s grievances were literally incredible would require us to be absurdly naive.
For this reason, I was frankly reluctant to spend the money on a VIP pass to meet William Shatner, despite my life-long love of Captain Kirk and all things Star Trek in general. I have no idea what Mr. Shatner’s net worth is, but I’m pretty sure it’s higher than mine, and something seemed a little strange about me spending money (some of which would find its way into his pockets) to hang out with him. Still, it really was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (well, twice, but I’ll get to that) to spend some time with my brother and relive a bit of our childhood, so I decided to go along with it.
Star Trek Original Series Set
Before I relate my experience actually meeting my childhood hero, let me say a bit about the setting. The undisputed mecca for Star Trek TOS is Ticonderoga, New York, which hosts an incredibly faithful reproduction of the set of the original series. It has to be seen to be believed. I will probably dedicate a separate post to this modern marvel, because it is such an incredible place, but for now let me just say that if you’ve read this post up to this point, you really must go see it. (Just pick a day other than the ones when they are hosting events like a visit from William Shatner … you can’t appreciate all of James Cawley‘s work when there are crowds).
No doubt, the biggest days at the Ticonderoga set are the days that Mr. Shatner visits for the so-called “Captain’s Tour”. Time has sadly thinned the ranks of The Original Series cast and crew, and if there was ever any doubt I think it can safely be said that there is no one who can bring the Trekkies out like William Shatner. It was to one of these events that I first met the Captain.
William Shatner, himself
Before I continue I want to make sure I am clear that in no way did I come to a deep understanding of William Shatner based on a couple of brief encounters (my brother and I repeated our pilgrimage to Ticonderoga and a rendez-vous with Mr. Shatner in 2021) and a couple of very brief exchanges. What motivated me to write this post is that after watching him on TV for pretty much my entire life, having read just about everything that was written by (and about) him, and having seen him speak publicly**, I really went into this feeling like I had a good idea about who he was and what to expect, and my actual experience was so much more thought-provoking that it really did change my outlook on a lot of things. This was a totally unique experience in gathering data for a half-century, building a model in my mind, and then testing that model against reality and learning that reality was so much more complex than I could have imagined. So no, I don’t really know William Shatner, but I have learned that it’s easy to think you know more than you do.
There are a few things I learned about Mr. Shatner that I don’t think are outwardly apparent. One is that the man has extraordinary energy. I don’t even have to add “for his age” to the end of that sentence, because he has extraordinary energy even for someone of my own age, a generation younger. I suppose one’s vitality is just an inherent quality … it’s just something you either have or don’t have. He definitely has it.
Another quality he has that I really hadn’t been aware of is that he is one of the most inquisitive people that I have ever encountered. He asks questions constantly, is well-read, and seems to be interested in a great many topics. There are a couple of easy explanations for this behavior: that he asks questions to buy time and cut down on the amount of talking he himself has to do, or that he asks people questions to make them feel important and thus ingratiate himself with them. While I think his manner happens to accomplish both of these things, he genuinely really does seem to be interested in so many different things, I’d like to think that if he were faking it I’d be able to tell.
One quality that I think isn’t at all a secret is his charisma. Despite a fair amount of negative press he’s received over the years over his treatment of his co-workers (Will Wheaton’s “William F. Shatner” story is a classic), I found him immediately likable. I won’t try to analyze all the reasons for this, but it is an impressive phenomenon.
Captain Kirk vs. The Day Players
Earlier this year my brother and I returned to mecca to spend a little quality time with the Captain. This time the topic of his relationship with the rest of the bridge crew was broached, and much to my surprise he did not put up his non-comprehension defense. I don’t recall the specific question that was asked, but I think it was related to George Takei’s desire during the production of the last few films that more of the Sulu/Excelsior storyline be explored.
At first, Mr. Shatner’s tone was light and, frankly, a bit mocking. “You understand it’s not a real ship,” he said he tried to explain to Takei. This was just a variation on the non-comprehension defense, suggesting that he didn’t understand why something like that could be important. (I believe it is rather plain that Takei was hoping to branch out from TOS with a new series featuring Captain Sulu and the Excelsior, and hoped that the Trek films could provide that launching pad.) At this point Shatner’s host Mr. Cawley interjected, perhaps hoping to prevent our Captain from seeming to be punching down and that the tone of the conversation was turning somewhat less cheerful than it had been.
The explanation that was offered (initiated by Mr. Cawley and supported by Mr. Shatner) was actually fairly plain and in essence it was this: William Shatner was first on the call sheet and many of the other actors were essentially day players. Looking back at The Original Series, only Kirk and Spock had any appreciable character development (even McCoy, who occasionally got some good plot lines, was a far less well-defined character than the other two). It is only in the intervening six decades, after we’ve watched the shows over and over again, that familiarity raised fan’s interest in all of the supporting characters. Even characters such as Lieutenant Riley, who appeared in two episodes, has a lengthy fan-created back story and a devoted fan following. It was the first time it really occurred to me how much time had changed our relationship to the supporting cast, and I have to admit that the argument isn’t entirely invalid. It certainly seems like a reasonable perspective for the headliner of a show to have, even if Mr. Shatner knows that “I was the star, period” would just not be well received after we’ve all come to feel like all the Star Trek characters were members of the family.
It’s not a perfect explanation, of course. For one thing, there’s no reason why the supporting cast couldn’t have been given a bit more to do (even at the marginal expense of the lead) and anyway, by the time the movies came out the names Scotty, Sulu, Uhura and Chekov were indisputably household names, yet some of those actors accuse Mr. Shanter of hogging the spotlight even then.
What I learned, if I learned anything
I would love to close out this blog post announcing that I had somehow reconciled the rift between the actors of The Original Series, or that I had some sort of incredible insight to share. What I did come away with, though, was an appreciation of the complexity and some of the nuances of the situation. I’m not sure that I’m any more sympathetic to Mr. Shatner’s side of the divide between him and his former co-stars, but I do think that this experience had made me just a little slower to decide that I understand someone even if it’s a person that I feel like I have known for many years.
That, and he eats pizza with a knife and fork. Must be a Canadian thing.* One exception might be DeForest Kelly, who I never heard or read about criticizing any of his co-workers. Of course, Kelly was famously private (he is the only Star Trek TOS cast member who did not write a book), by all accounts too polite to publicly air his laundry, and sadly passed away in the pre-Internet days when the sort of commentary that spreads far and wide now often remained among friends.
** Now I’m beginning to sound like a stalker!