James T. Kirk has been voyaging through my head since I was about ten years old, ambassador for a Technicolor, offbeat, promising, and very American future that caught my very British imagination in about 1968 and has never quite let go. But the only time I had ever seen William Shatner — the real McCoy, so not to speak — in the flesh was in a New York City steakhouse a few years back. It was a brush with nostalgia and a certain askew greatness, and it was not enough.
Under the circumstances, the hundred-minute one-man show that Shatner launched on Broadway this February (his first appearance there for half a century), and which traveled the country for the next couple of months, was not to be missed. An Away Team was assembled in midtown Manhattan. Only one of its members (no, not this writer) was wearing a Starfleet shirt. We headed to 45th Street and found the entrance of a theater festooned with Shatnerabilia and filled with carbon-based life forms who had probably made their first contact with Star Trek in the dark era somewhere between the last of the original series and the first of the movies (and no, the cartoons don’t count). For an extra couple of hundred dollars, it would have been possible to meet Shatner in person. But these are hard times, and we were not Ferengi.
The successor to the 2011 Canadian How Time Flies: An Evening with William Shatner (Winnipeg! Edmonton! Regina!) and another Commonwealth treat, Australia’s Kirk, Crane, and Beyond: Shatner Live, that preceded it, Shatner’s World: We Just Live in It was promoted in ways that included splendidly arch commercials and a poster. The latter featured a photo of a smiling Shatner, complete with heroic hairline (how, Jim, how?) and a model of the planet we had previously thought was ours. That image was capped by the show’s logo, which had room for another picture of Shatner, a drawing this time, with his smile just that bit more knowing.
But if the joke was on us, it was gentle and hardly a secret. The banner that decorates Shatnersworld.com wraps bragging (“iconic,” “handsome,” and “smooth”) in self-parody and adds the invitation to play along: “Who doesn’t want to be a part of William Shatner’s world?”
Not me. And. Not. William. Shatner. There is something both endearing and impressive about the way this veteran trouper (81 on March 22, Kirk’s birthday too), chunkier now than in that future when he had wrestled with Gorn and liberated Triskelion, tips his toupee at age, flips his finger at the critics, and just carries right on. On a stage backlit with stars (of course), he was clad in weekend CEO casual, suit jacket and jeans, and was creaky but kinetic, pacing around, sitting down in his chair, getting up from his chair (not that chair, incidentally), sometimes almost breaking into a trot as he reminisced about the early days, about growing up Jewish in Montreal, about Broadway back when, about television back when, about hitchhiking across America, about playing Shakespeare at Canada’s Stratford, about half-celebrities of once upon a time, about family and horses, about a tricky encounter with Koko the clever gorilla, about more than half a lifetime on big screen and small. Alexander the Great? Really? A film in Esperanto? Jes, that too.
Some stories slid lightly and slightly by, late-night-talk-show confidences; others were given a fuller shtick, as this venerable spieler gamely, if not always effectively, tried to take us up and down an emotional range that he could not quite — never could quite — convey. There was some embarrassing philosophizing — oh well — and there were some good jokes, deftly told; the best involved George Takei, the next best, another seasoned antagonist, the parvenu Star Wars. His voice is still strong, more gravelly these days, more dinner theater maybe than Captain Picard’s rich Royal Shakespeare Company baritone (Patrick Stewart’s flair for the Bard must hurt, just a bit) but — even now — fully flavored with that evocative and familiar ham. And, as always, there was the leavening of the likable, if not always convincing, self-deprecation that has become his trademark.
Sporadic twilights darkened Shatner’s World, and not just those of that zone, which he twice visited. There was quite a bit of talk, occasionally maudlin, about death — of his father’s passing (touching), of Steve Jobs’s closing moments (strange), of the debate over the moment (“Oh my”) when Captain Kirk met his end, an event that Shatner had fretted was not going to be treated with the seriousness it deserved.