THE CAPTAINS DVD: Sorry Haters, Shatner Still Rules.

William Shatner

The Captains – A Film By William Shatner (2011)

We die-hard Star Trek fans greet every William Shatner/Star Trek-related DVD release with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. One thinks: “Will this one be understated and great like the surprisingly moving Shatner/Nimoy love-a-palooza called Mind Meld: Secrets Behind the Voyage of a Lifetime (2001), or will it be morbidly fascinating and a little embarrassing, like Shatner’s paintball-centric Spplat Attack (2002)?” I happily report with the greatest of satisfaction that The Captains is a marvelous film, directed by my favorite Star Trek captain, the one and only William “The Man” Shatner.

To be honest, the first 15 minutes of the film had me a little worried. While I was settling in, the movie started out being all about exploring “the craft” of acting, something that’s seldom of interest to those with short-attention spans like me. Then, slowly but surely, the personal charm of the five actors that succeeded Captain Kirk as Starfleet captains began to win me over, beginning with Kate Mulgrew, who played Captain Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001). Far from the serious and somewhat dour captain that she portrayed for 7 seasons on television, Mulgrew greeted Shatner in an effervescent and amiable manner, making me like her (and Star Trek: Voyager) more than I ever had before. The same revelation regarding the total coolness of the actor behind the captain was evident when Shatner interviewed Avery Brooks, who played Captain Sisko on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999). In his real life, Brooks is an accomplished jazz musician, a totally cool intellectual with his finger on the pulse of the beatnik inside of everyone, including an apparently enraptured Shatner. Brooks is incredible and more than a little inspiring, and you can’t help but be impressed with how very different his Star Trek character was to how he really is, and the admirable degree of acting that went into the role of the straight-laced Captain Sisko. He wasn’t just sleepwalking through the role, to be sure.

When Shatner visits Scott Bakula, who played Star Trek: Enterprise (2001-2005) Captain Jonathan Archer, the two appear to meet at a horse ranch in California, a hobby that they both apparently enjoy. Bakula’s laid-back charm and personable manner is endearing, even when he tells a rather unbecoming story about how he felt to be asked to play a captain on Star Trek. Such moments are skillfully revealed by Shatner’s well-honed and fascinatingly open interviewing style, where he manages to mildly startle or challenge interviewees by revealing personal things about himself, then posing difficult follow-up questions in exchange. (This compelling technique can be further observed in his cable interview show Shatner’s Raw Nerve (2008-2011)).

Shatner was very gracious to actor Chris Pine, the “new” Captain Kirk who appeared in the successful big-screen reboot of Star Trek in 2009. The two “James Tiberius Kirks” both old and new ostentatiously meet in front of the Paramount Studio gates for the first part of their interview, playfully arm-wrestling each other atop a card table. Astonished and bewildered passerby are satisfyingly agog at the surreal sight. Like Captain Kirk who determinedly finds a solution to the “no-win situation” that is the Kobayashi Maru, Shatner rather deviously finds a way to beat the young and fit Pine at arm wrestling the best out of three tries…he cheats. Shatner seems to have genuine affection for Pine, commenting that he appears to be a younger version of himself, and wishes him well.

William Shatner challenges Chris Pine to an arm-wrestling match outside the Paramount Studio gates in Hollywood.

Ultimately Shatner travels all the way to England to visit Patrick Stewart’s lovely and picturesque home for their one-on-one interview. Stewart is probably the most famous of all of the Starfleet captains next to Shatner, having played Captain Jean Luc Picard for 7 glorious and critically acclaimed seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994). Shatner apparently respects the formidable talents of Stewart, who explains to Shatner, as many fans already knew, that he has maintained a love/hate relationship with his role on Star Trek, one that overshadowed almost everything else he has ever done during his long career in film and theater. In recent years Stewart has been a bit more willing to embrace his Trek legacy, and he comments near the end of the doc that of all of the lofty roles he has played, he will probably always be best known as Captain Picard…and he’s OK with that now. Shatner admits that after years of denial, he’s OK with his forever-captaincy now, too.

To me, William Shatner is in many ways like the character Faramir from The Lord of the Rings. Heroic in everyone’s eyes but his own, he constantly yearns to prove his “quality” to a disdainful and dismissive father. To Shatner, his father figure is the public, so often cruel and derisive about his genuine talents as an actor. This documentary helps show that Shatner proved his quality decades ago, well before he ever became Captain Kirk…I just hope that the experience of writing and directing The Captains helps him to believe it.

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One Response to “THE CAPTAINS DVD: Sorry Haters, Shatner Still Rules.”

  1. Geoff says:

    I especially liked the sequence where Shatner talks to the Captains about the enormous personal cost the role exacted on all of them, how it contributed to ending marriages and estranged children, and yet it was clear that despite this they all ultimately relished playing the part.

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