INT. MAUSOLEUM - DUSK. A pleasant little party is underway. (You read that right.) I approach William Shatner (the William Shatner) and, gesturing out the doorway toward nearby Paramount Pictures Studios, I tell him: "Out there, just over that wall -- I used to work there." Mr. Shatner regards me for a moment, gently grins, then quickly replies: "Yes, so did I."
Talk about a fantastic evening. Mr. Shatner, of course, currently celebrating his 80th orbit around our little yellow sun, requires no introduction. But let's give him one anyway: Captain Kirk! Sure, he's all sorts of other things, too (producer, director, vocalist, novelist, horseman, father -- oh, and mega-icon); but tonight, July 25, 2011, at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, amidst fans, friends and costumed Trekkers, it's all about the Kirk. Or, more broadly: it's all about Shatner's brand-new documentary, The Captains.
Foregathered this balmy evening -- breathlessly following the ginormous San Diego Comic Con -- we find Mr. Shatner and his lovely wife Elizabeth; plus celebs and friends such as Jason Alexander (Seinfeld) and Dominic Keating (Star Trek: Enterprise). Also in attendance, the one and only Henry Rollins, resplendent in "Black Sabbath: Dehumanizer" t-shirt, a marvelous conversationalist (since Mr. Rollins currently hosts a show at KCRW-FM, we talk DJs: Sunset Strip impresario and godhead music man Rodney Bingenheimer, as well as the multitalented Steve "Jonesy" Jones).
The party gets even cooler when I am introduced to Chase Masterson -- she of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine fame, who has also produced and appeared in James Kerwin's Yesterday Was a Lie, as well as releasing a jazz album and serving her widespread and devoted peeps via many a "con" (convention), USO shows and even helping to mentor kids on L.A.'s mean streets. So what's she like, Ms. Masterson? You know in the Star Trek movies, when, like, Khan's stolen ship or the Klingon moon Praxis blows up, sending shockwaves through deep space? Meeting Chase is like that. You feel the galaxy transform around you.
Getting back to the occasion, it's the wonderfully unorthodox Hollywood premiere of Shatner's lively and revealing The Captains -- which a thousand or more fans, many in Federation finery, have turned out to view vividly projected out-of-doors (and, though nobody mentions the Shatner-Priceline synergy, they've "named their own price" for admission: free). What we're talking here is a really upscale boneyard -- but no, you don't sit on the graves; there's a grassy park. Since Shatner isn't above a little indulgence, neither shall I be: having in my dewy years interned and worked at the adjacent Paramount lot, encountering Klingons, Vulcans, Romulans and Starfleet officers (as well as awe-inspiring moments with Patrick "Jean-Luc Picard" Stewart, Walter "Pavel Chekov" Koenig and LeVar "Geordi La Forge" Burton, as well as crewmembers celestial and "Terran"), this night is -- well, it's wowing me. It's wowing me a lot.
Following a fun costume competition won by a Klingon warrior-princess (I've dated a few in my time), Mr. Shatner takes the mic, and thanks us all immensely. Pointing toward Paramount, he then muses, "Okay, so, how weird is this? When the sky was slightly lit up, you could see the outline of the stage where we shot Star Trek almost 50 years ago. Talk about 'Hollywood Forever!'" (And then -- because the experience wouldn't be complete without it -- some guy yells, "KHAAAN!")
Having been a movie critic for perhaps too many years, and socially often expecting the worst of actors, I figured I'd find affection for The Captains in the way one embraces a misshapen cousin, but I didn't expect to love it. I loved it. While its thesis is deceptively simple -- Shatner interviews the primary Captains of the Star Trek franchise, including Sir Patrick Stewart (Captain Jean-Luc Picard), Avery Brooks (Captain Benjamin Sisko), Kate Mulgrew (Captain Kathryn Janeway), Scott Bakula (Captain Jonathan Archer), the legendary Christopher Plummer (Klingon General Chang); and even his own cinematic reboot Chris Pine ("Kirk" from J.J. Abrams' nonsensical moneymaker Star Trek movie) -- the production is elegant, enlightening, expansive, and, by turns, hilarious and moving.
In The Captains, Shatner puts on a grand show for us, bouncing from amused to bemused at Star Trek conventions, confessing how he used to bristle at fans' apparently "derisive" cries of "Beam me up," and detailing his work as an actor from Canada to New York City to the bridge of the Enterprise -- where he took over from Gene Roddenberry's initial casting of Jeffrey Hunter (the original pilot's Captain Christopher Pike) to command a series which, deservedly over forty-five years and counting, has become legendary. There's a maudlin moment here and there (obligatory visit to a handicapped boy; struggling with the alleged "conflict" of being a branded and very-well-compensated celebrity -- boo-hoo); but on the whole, Shatner, as director, producer and star, proves supremely engaging. (Years ago I beheld him in a documentary about whale sharks; that was fun; this is better.)
Much of the joy of The Captains involves the parallels and divergences among its subjects. "It's all music," philosophically declares New Jersey hepcat Brooks from his piano (where he and Shatner shuck the jive); and then we contrast with Mulgrew who admits to severe Captain-fatigue (they all do; World's. Smallest. Violin.) whilst raising two little kids on too little sleep. She also declares that, for her, loved ones come first, but somehow she held the bridge; unlike Patrick Stewart, who nearly grows teary (oh, those Brits) when he admits that he absolutely put his career first -- and blew two marriages over it. Scott Bakula also concedes that his first series (Quantum Leap) killed his first marriage -- but at least he gleans some equestrian skills from Shatner.
Just personally, I cannot accept a new, bratty Kirk -- but Shatner's two-out-of-three arm-wrestling challenge with half-century-younger Pine on the Paramount lot proves very entertaining. Mostly absent here, alas, is Leonard Nimoy (who of course became Captain Spock; hearsay suggests that, amidst friction, he opted out of The Captains; but please work it out, fellows, we love you); yet Shatner nonetheless puts in a few kind words for his fellow artist. Though...come to think of it, regarding rank, Shatner feigns surprise at Mulgrew's complaint at having to play a boys' game with boys' rules in Hollywood -- but it is nonetheless true that all of Star Trek's original cast rose to the rank of Captain or above -- except for the pioneering Nichelle Nichols, whose character Uhura remains lodged at Commander. Hmmm. Anyway, and then Plummer -- heck, the man could sit there and read the Klingon dictionary and I'd be spellbound.
So yes, it was a stellar experience. Bravo, Captain: your movie is aces. And as for me, hey, I chatted with the One True Kirk inside a mausoleum in Hollywood, mere yards away from where all those many Star Trek series and movies were filmed. Apart from the time in 1999 when I encountered Leonard Nimoy asking after his friend Bill Shatner at a Kurt Vonnegut reading, showbiz and sci-fi get no cooler. With this, let all doubts as to my multidimensional, intergalactic badassness be put to rest. Ha.
Live long and prosper! Boldly go! The human adventure is just beginning...
The Captains screens again, free to the public, this Saturday, July 30, at the Intrepid Air & Space Museum in New York City. For those tuning in at home, it will be broadcast on premium channel Epix as part of (I am not making this up) "Shatnerpalooza."