seen @ The Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, New York NY
Believing in a better world has become harder and harder. I have no doubt that people in all eras of history have thought this at one time or another, but the downward spiral we've all been on really does seem like it has gotten deeper... and yet the dream represented by Star Trek lives on. Trek is a multi-million-dollar pop culture franchise, of course, but if you look past all the toys and T-shirts and novels and video games and other tchotchkes, at its heart it remains a story of what could happen if the people of the world put down their guns and their bombs, forsook greed and hate, and started to work together. If that idea sounds too hippy-dippy and romantic to you, well, have you picked up a newspaper lately?
My relationship with Trek has become a little distant lately, I admit. For one thing, the books have taken a darker turn, which has sapped more than a little of the fun out of reading for me, so I've dropped them for the moment. Maintaining this blog has kept me from watching old episodes as often as I have in the past. And I never was much of a Trek con-goer. Still, I'm always game for an excuse to renew my ties to Trek, and last Saturday I got to do that in a big way by seeing William Shatner's new film The Captains on board the USS Intrepid.
Shatner, of course, has been the most recognizable face of Trek for decades. The very name "Captain Kirk" has become a metaphor for so many things - hammy acting and nailing alien space babes being the least of them. The character is an icon not just of television, but the 60s in general. He embodies the hopes and dreams of John F. Kennedy when he invited America to be pioneers in his New Frontier. And if Shatner portrayed him with an excess of brio, then that, too, can be interpreted as part of the spirit of the times, which were turbulent and violent, but also passionate and creative.
Of course, Shatner's story does not begin and end with Trek; far from it. Indeed, it is astonishing to see how he has reinvented himself over and over through the years, from his subsequent television roles to his books and spoken-word albums and commercials and more. His ability to not only cultivate a unique public image but to make fun of that image from time to time has endeared him to newer generations of fans, and should not be underestimated.
Still, it is Trek which remains his greatest legacy, and in The Captains, he discusses that legacy with his successors in the captain's chair: Patrick Stewart, Avery Brooks, Kate Mulgrew, Scott Bakula, and the newest member of the club, Chris Pine. As a director, Shatner is, of course, best known for the fiasco that was Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Here, at least, he doesn't have to worry about sub-par special effects or a ridiculous script, although I did find the editing heavy-handed and the score a bit treacly at times. (It should be noted that Shatner has directed a second movie this year, William Shatner's Gonzo Ballet, about the making of the ballet based on his last album Has Been.)
At its heart, The Captains is about acting. We, the audience, don't get to see how truly difficult television acting can be - the long hours on the set, the challenge (in this particular case) of wrapping one's tongue around complex and near-incomprehensible technobabble (Mulgrew likened it to mastering Shakespeare), the toll it takes on one's outside relationships. Shatner and his fellow thespians discuss all this and more here, and it's extremely enlightening. They have more in common than just Trek: most of them are theater-trained, some are equally adept musicians (Brooks spends most of his interview time in front of a piano), and all of them faced unique pressures in building and expanding this franchise, and some of the stories they share will genuinely surprise you.
I don't love all of Trek equally; there are some incarnations I favor over others. Still, to see all of those incarnations represented by their stars, in a film devoted to the history and meaning of Trek, was quite thrilling for me...
...as was the venue in which I saw it. I had never been on board the Intrepid before. It's a World War 2 aircraft carrier docked on the west side of Manhattan in the Hudson River, which hosts a museum devoted to military history and scientific endeavors. Normally it's expensive as hell to visit, but the Captains screening was free. (They show other free movies during the summer, but this was not part of that series.)
As you can imagine, the line to get in was huge and filled with Trekkies galore. I waited on line next to a hard-core fan who was there with his sister and a friend. He was dressed in a red Next Generation uniform with a rubber Klingon forehead and a wide variety of replica weapons and other props from both the Original Series and Next Gen eras. His sister and friend were more casual fans. I remember hearing his sister saying she preferred Shatner in Boston Legal. Though his costume wasn't that elaborate, the guy got photographed by lots of people and even got a brief interview with a camera crew from Epix, which hosted the event (you'll recall they also hosted the Warriors screening).
Fans were invited to dress up as part of a pre-show costume contest, but regrettably, there were few costumes more elaborate than Spock ears and a Starfleet uniform. The best costume by far was by this one girl who created a replica of the Enterprise-D (with glowing lights) which she wore on her head. Her outfit was black with white dots, and her face was painted the same way, to represent space no doubt. As you can imagine, she was the biggest hit.
The screening was held on the top deck of the Intrepid, where the jet planes were kept. I briefly got to look at them. There was even a Blackbird, which was smaller than I imagined. They didn't provide seats, though, so everyone had to sit on the deck itself, which wasn't so bad, I guess. I lucked out with a great spot; dead center, near the front, amidst a huge crowd of people. Among the pre-show music were selections from Shatner's upcoming album.
Oh, and did I mention that the director and star himself was present too? He addressed the crowd from a stairway leading to the navigation bridge with cameras surrounding him from below. He made a point of how personal The Captains is to him, and in watching it, this does come through. The other actors became his good friends through the making of the film, and he even gained new insights into his relationship with Trek.
All in all, it was an extraordinary night, one of the best movie-going experiences I've ever had.
Star Trek (2009)
Star Trek Into Darkness
Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Star Trek TNG: The Best of Both Worlds
Mixtape movies: The Trek captains volume