Friday, February 22, 2013

No Captain/My Captain: A Look into the Trek World Today

Twenty-five years of anything is reason to celebrate, and in the case of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the celebration kicked off with the release of the much-maligned season one of the show on Blu-Ray (season two has been recently released, with season three and the first season of Enterprise coming soon). Without question, the transfer to high-definition alone is enough to make Trekkers and videophiles drool – you can find some stunning comparisons of the Blu-ray transfers to the older DVDs on various websites, including YouTube, but the most amazing part of the release is a three-part documentary about the beginnings of the show, as told by the people who were there at the time, both now and from archival footage (including David Gerrold, DC Fontana, Rick Berman, and others). While a good deal of the information is well- known by most aficionados, there are many tidbits that even the most devoted fans may never have seen or heard about in great detail before.

A Macht Time?

One of these unknown, unearthed gems is an interview with actor Stephen Macht, who was up for the role of Captain Picard – Gene Roddenberry’s first choice, actually – at the same time as Patrick Stewart. (For the curious, Macht appeared in the Deep Space 9 episode, “The Siege” and is a veteran of both TV and film). Macht’s talk is interspersed with interviews from various producers who are quite frank about Gene Roddenberry’s reluctance to cast Patrick Stewart (he needed convincing, plus the network wanted the actor to wear a toupee). Macht himself is very blunt about how his own ego interfering with him obtaining the part, how  Roddenberry had told him “You are our guy,” and how he was taken aback when he was asked to audition after being told this. Hearing Macht’s New York accent as he speaks about the role is disconcerting to those who are used to Stewart’s very British intonations (even if he’s supposed to be a Frenchman), but as Macht speaks in very self-assured tones, it’s clear that he had a very good grasp of the role as Roddenberry envisioned it – someone who was advanced and enlightened, and had the ability to recognize these qualities and bring them out in others. It’s fascinating to hear Macht, as a classically trained actor, recognize the lack of conflict and drama in such a role, which was something he was not prepared to play, and hilarious to hear Macht verbally kicking himself as a “putz” for turning down the chance to audition.

When one recognizes that Patrick Stewart’s apparently “stiffness” in the season easily translates into that “advanced, enlightened being” that Roddenberry so much wanted to present—as well as the way the writers deconstructed the character over time by making him break down and show his lack of perfection (think of the mind meld in “Sarek,” the family life he never lived in “The Inner Light,” his avoidance of his feelings for Beverly Crusher in  “Attached,” and the ultimate breakdown when he becomes Locutus of Borg in “Best of Both Worlds”) it becomes clear that no one else could have played the part of Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Nevertheless, this dip into an alternate “mirror” universe – even if it is behind the scenes—is a fascinating look into the development of one of the most beloved characters in science fiction, and of the road not taken.

William Shatner’s “Shatner’s World”: Amuck Time

William Shatner has taken quite a different road since the death of Captain Kirk, and despite this title, he doesn’t really lose control in the one-man show he toured recently (based on his book by the same title). At least, not as much control, some would argue, as he lost when directing Star Trek V (easy target, though I happen to be a fan of it). In fact, while watching Shatner’s performance of monologues, jokes, reminisces, video clips, slides, and Hollywood tales, it’s easy to see the gusto with which he brought to his directorial film debut, and why he has so much fun not taking himself seriously, even if others miss the point. The show was touted as 90 minutes, but he kept going for an additional half-hour. He leapt across the stage, rolled around in a desk chair, used props and slides to make his points, and adopted voices and personas as a good actor should. He came across as extremely likable: the life of the party who wants to make people laugh at his own expense.

Not to say that Shatner is completely free of the egotism he’s been accused of. He acknowledged patching up things with all of his Trek cast members except one, and then displayed to the audience a perfect example of how his feud with said cast member continued to provide hours of entertainment for fans (Shatner does this by playing a clip with an unprintable quote by the other cast member given during the infamous “Roast of William Shatner” on Comedy Central).

Shatner makes no qualms about being multifaceted in his career and rolling with the punches; this was the subject of his album “Has Been,” recorded with the Ben Folds Five, and he makes no apologies for reinventing himself as a Falstaffian figure of fun, thanks to both his appearance in Free Enterprise and subsequent Priceline commercials – after all, it was after changing course from serious leading man to comedy that he landed the role of  presenting a Lifetime Achievement Award to George Lucas. The shocked reaction of Harrison Ford and a Wookiee in the audience (shortly before Shatner is hauled away by Stormtroopers) is priceless -- and probably the same reaction of many fans when the news about JJ Abrams directing Star Wars VII hit the Internet.

Amidst all of the self-mockery and surface level gags in “Shatner’s World” were genuine moments of connection with the audience as he talked about his family and his mother’s reaction to him becoming an actor, as well as his playing second and third fiddle in Shakespeare productions to acting greats such as Christopher Plummer (he got the last laugh, he pointed out, as a clip of the Enterprise blowing up Plummer’s Bird of Prey in Star Trek VI played). He discussed his attempt to raise his daughters while divorced, broke, and living out of a camper in the lean post-Trek years prior to The Motion Picture. There were also moments of real poignancy, as Shatner showed clips from his visit to NASA upon the unveiling of the first Space Shuttle (I’ll let you guess the name), his privilege of being asked to record a message for the astronauts on the final shuttle flight, and his plumbing the depths of despair when he spoke about the death of his wife, who drowned in an accident.

What emerged from this two-hour self portrait/montage was the image of a man who recognizes, -- after 80 years --  the ups and downs of life, how 15 minutes of fame can come back again, even if it can’t be replayed, that being famous doesn’t mean your life ends, and that he, like everyone else, is above all else, a real person (“Sorry to disappoint you,” Shatner sings to a montage of photos from his life, “But I’m real!”) Even if he’s not Captain  Kirk, or even the “evil Captain Kirk” (as Shatner made fun of on the infamous “Get a Life” Saturday Night Live sketch), his show revealed much self reflection, deprecation, pain and joy on a public stage, presented by an inimitable actor. Just as it’s impossible to think of anyone but Patrick Stewart in the role of a 24th century captain, it is impossible to picture a world without William Shatner.

By Adam Throne