Well, I’ve been a bit poorly recently, and – as you would – I took to my bed with Netflix and ended up watching a bunch of William Shatner movies. Not the Trek ones from the 80s and early 90s, as you might expect, but rather more diverse fare. A friend of mine recommended I try to get hold of White Comanche, a 1968 paella western in which the great man plays good-and-evil twins, but for some inexplicable reason Netflix has decided not to lay out on the rights to this movie (and it’s not on YouTube either). But you can’t have everything.
What Netflix does have is a couple of documentaries Shat (as I fondly think of him) wrote and directed, The Captains (from 2011) and Chaos on the Bridge (from 2015). You may be able to discern a bit of a common theme here, for it appears that Shat, like his castmates, has come to terms with the fact that – regardless of his achievements as a singer, novelist, horse breeder, and guest murderer on Columbo – it is Star Trek for which he will inevitably be remembered.
There is perhaps a certain oddity to Chaos on the Bridge, in that it largely concerns an iteration of Star Trek with which Shatner himself was not directly involved: the formative years of Star Trek: The Next Generation (henceforth Next Gen, to save my aching fingers). This was the first of the comeback TV shows, starting in 1987, also known to the general population as ‘the one with that bald English guy’.
As all but Next Gen‘s most rabid fans will admit, the first couple of seasons are tough viewing (‘almost unwatchable’ in the words of Ronald Moore, a later participant in the franchise and also the creator of New BSG and Outlander). I myself stuck with it when it eventually turned up on the BBC in 1990 because, well, it was Star Trek, wasn’t it, and there wasn’t any other new SF being made at the time. (I do think the total lack of any competition was a significant factor in Next Gen‘s survival and eventual success. Given that TV is hardly short of SF and fantasy shows nowadays, expectations for Star Trek: Discovery – coming next year – will obviously be significantly higher, and that show may well be in for a rough ride on all fronts.)
Watching Chaos on the Bridge I was kind of struck by the odd notion that while Star Trek may have been created by Gene Roddenberry, its ultimate success was in many ways despite him. A possibly heretical idea in Trekkie circles, but if you look at the dodgiest, stodgiest, least sexy bits of Trek made in Roddenberry’s lifetime, many of them occurred when the Great Bird was at his most hands-on as a producer. There’s an argument to be made that by the time of the late 80s, Roddenberry was more interested in being recognised as a humanist visionary than in actually making good TV, but there are enough horror stories in circulation about the behind-the-scenes shenanigans on Next Gen to suggest that there was a definitely clay-like texture to the great man’s feet.
In terms of actual Roddenberry-bashing, the documentary’s contributors are relatively circumspect – no sign of the ‘goddamned lying, hypocritical, deceiving, thieving, son of a bitch… bullying bastard’ which was writer David Gerrold’s considered opinion in a recent book on Trek‘s production history. Most of the opprobrium is instead directed at the shadowy figure of one Leonard Maizlish, Roddenberry’s lawyer, who took up residence on the show and actually started rewriting the scripts despite having zero experience (this contributed significantly to Dorothy Fontana’s decision to leave the show). Interviewees fondly recall imagining pushing Maizlish out of second storey windows, and so on.
The decision just to cover the early, troubled years of the production is a curious one, mainly because it deprives the narrative of a proper conclusion. Doing the full seven years, over the course of which Next Gen found its identity as a much more consistent and impressive show, would have made for a rather different (and longer) film. It couldn’t just be that Shat only wanted to shine a light on a troubled version of Star Trek in which he had no personal involvement or responsibility? Surely not. Anyway, the film has enough life and inventiveness about it to make up for the fact that there’s probably not much here its target audience doesn’t already know about.
And so to The Captains, an arguably poorly-titled documentary from 2011 in which Shat tracks down his successors as lead actors on Trek and interviews them mano a mano (or mano a womano in the case of Kate Mulgrew from Voyager) about their lives and experiences. I say ‘poorly-titled’ as it is not really about the captains as a group, or indeed as individuals, but mainly creates a suitable venue for everyone involved to talk about Shat, whether directly or indirectly. Shat himself (note to self: awkward phrasing, think about possible alternative) is clearly in his element, and one is ineluctably reminded of Nick Meyer’s assessment of him as ‘all vanity, no ego’.
Various lesser stars from the Trek constellation make appearances – Nana Visitor, Robert Picardo, Jonathan Frakes – along with a fairly substantial interview with Christopher Plummer, there because a) he was the Shakespeare-loving Klingon villain of Star Trek VI and b) he was a mate of Shat’s way back. But the most arresting stuff is the set-piece interviews with the other actors. (The Netflix version of the film, by the way, appears to have been edited down a bit, removing the unauthorised footage of Leonard Nimoy which was the cause of the final estrangement between him and Shatner.)
Shat buzzes around between the different coasts of the US and even over to Oxford to talk to Sir Patrick (apparently ignoring the Keep Off The Grass signs at Christchurch College in one shocking sequence), and it’s fair to say that some of these discussions are more interesting than others. Patrick Stewart is always good value, but some of the other chats can get a bit earnest and are really memorable only for the little stunts Shat contrives: hiding in a cardboard box while waiting for Kate Mulgrew, singing show-tunes on horseback with Scott Bakula, arm-wrestling Chris Pine on the sidewalk outside Paramount Studios, and so on. Most of them are pretty much as you’d expect, with the real exception being Avery Brooks, whose consciousness still appears to be spending some of its time in the Gamma Quadrant. There’s some singing here, too, and at one point Shat asks Brooks if he’s ever thought about life after death, with the one-time Emissary responding by playing the piano and laughing to himself. It is quite magnetic to watch, somehow.
In a way you can’t help thinking that this would have been a more revealing film if it had been directed by somebody else. Some of the most interesting footage is of Shat appearing at a Trek convention in Vegas and interacting with the fans – ‘a rapturous reception’ and ‘eating out of the palm of his hand’ don’t begin to do justice to how this goes down – and very briefly we see a glimpse of a Shatner who isn’t a tongue-in-cheek self-promoter, but someone rather more thoughtful and human. But then it inevitably occurs to one that we’re just seeing this because Shat let it go past in the editing process, so is it the ‘real’ him?
In the end this is probably more of interest to Shat-watchers than Trekkies generally, but such is its occasional weirdness I can imagine it finding something of an audience amongst people who enjoy watching really, really odd vanity projects, as well. What I suppose it comes down to, ultimately, is that there are two kinds of people in the world – people who can’t get enough of William Shatner and all his works, and the sane ones. The former group at least are well served here.