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.
Shatner has grown protective of the captain he once played. The resentment he once felt for the spaceman who eclipsed the Shakespearean (we were told about his last-minute Henry V) has vanished. It is as Kirk that Shatner will be remembered, and he has come to be proud of that. Naturally the show starts with him walking onto the stage to the cheesy cosmic woo-woo of the Star Trek theme. It’s Kirk’s soundtrack and his too. Then there was the moment when he was standing beneath an image of his much younger self — prime Kirk, immortal — projected onto an enormous circular screen with a hint of some strange new world about it. And yes, yes, to see that was something. A projection of Shatner as a young, half-naked barbarian in a Broadway Tamburlaine the Great was rather less so, and (if I remember correctly) a shot of Jeff Flake from Barbary Coast (oh, look it up) was even more less so, but all these Shatners — and there were plenty to choose from — were reminders that this actor still wants us to know that he contains multitudes.
But back to Shatnersworld.com for a mission statement and eccentric typography: “I haven’t saved the universe countless times (or even once), but a part of me is Captain Kirk. I’m not a hard-bitten, L.A. cop, but a part of me is T. J. Hooker. I’m not an addled (well, maybe), high-powered attorney, but a part of me is Denny Crane. I’ve had many other roles, on-screen and off . . . Husband, father, friend. Horseman, Singer, Philanthropist, NEGOTIATOR. All of the parts contribute to the whole, AND IT MAKES FOR ONE HELL OF A STORY!”
Maybe, but, as entertaining as Shatner tried to make it, it was not the story that many in the audience had come to hear. What they were craving (well, I know I was) was the old campfire tales, and a curated trip back to the yesterdays we had all, one way or another, shared with a starship. They were hoping for Nimoy gossip, Scotty dish, and the frequently told untold truth about Gene Roddenberry. But if their — our — wishes had been fulfilled, Shatner’s World would have been spinning through a very well-traveled orbit indeed, that of the Star Trek convention circuit, more suited to some Sheraton somewhere in nowhere than to Broadway. The tickets would have sold, nonetheless. The fans are like that.
Like Star Trek in all its incarnations, they just keep coming back. And so does Shatner. The man who once would rather have no longer been Kirk now most definitely still is. To have devoted more of his one-man show to exploring his own long relationship with Kirk would not exactly have been to go where, well, you know, but it would have added meat to the meta. Instead we had to make do with an anecdote or two that only hinted at the strangeness of a life dominated by a collective fantasy that would not go away.
Shatner concluded with a song, “Real,” from Has Been, the album with a characteristically canny, self-mocking title that he released a few years back, just one of a series of recordings that have fed off the notoriety of earlier musical catastrophes. No, he cannot carry a tune, but Shatner, self-congratulatory, self-mocking, unstoppable, is not the type to let a technicality like that hold him back, so he sort of sang, sort of seriously:
And while there’s a part of me in that guy you’ve seen
Up there on that screen, I am so much more.
And I wish I knew the things you think I do.
I would change this world for sure.
But I eat and sleep and breathe and bleed and feel.
Sorry to disappoint you, but I’m real.
— Andrew Stuttaford is a contributing editor of National Review Online.