Frontlines

Shatner keeps on trekkin'

Marsha Boulton December 10 1979
Frontlines

Shatner keeps on trekkin'

Marsha Boulton December 10 1979

In the minds of 10 American prisoners of war, their Vietcong captors were actually “Klingons,” the No. 1 enemy of the United Federation of Planets in the 23rd century. For 2½ torturous years, the captives immersed themselves in a survival tactic they called “the Star Trek game.” Whether mired in fetid water up to their chins or tied with rawhide in fetal positions, they fought the pain by adopting the personae of the crew of the Starship Enterprise. “We came from different places all over the United States and we had nothing in common except our love of Star Trek,” explained one of the returned veterans. “It was the only thing that kept us sane.” When William Shatner heard that, he broke down and cried.

Shatner met that “Trek vet” more than two years ago, while mulling over an offer to re-create his role from the TV series Star Trek—as starfleet Commander James T. Kirk—on a bigger screen, in Star Trek—The Motion Picture. The three-year, 79-episode series had been the biggest “event” in the Montreal-born actor’s career, and its success in television is legend. Today, Shatner is still being greeted on the street as Captain Kirk, and every day at some hour, on television sets in any one of 60 countries, the familiar introduction, “Space, the final frontier,” spreads its settling tones among the faithful. Immediately after the series was cancelled in 1969, groups of “Trekkies” began forming, and over the ensuing decade their ranks swelled to include a second generation. Now there are 371 fan clubs, 429 fan publications and more than 50 books devoted to perpetuating what has become known as the “phenomenon.” Trekkie conventions have attracted up to 20,000 devotees and merchandisers have learned that anything remotely resembling a Vulcan earlobe will sell like hotcakes.

Shatner waffled at the prospect of a regeneration on the big screen, worried about typecasting and about the ravages of time which make him, at 48, less than the specimen of mid-30s virility that Captain Kirk had been. Yet the realization that Star Trek's sci-fi world of “tricorders,” “phasers” and “warps” had been “real” enough to keep 10 grown men sane through 2½ years of agony clinched his decision. “If it could have that effect, it was worth anything,” he says.

When Star Trek began on Sept. 8, 1966, man had yet to walk on the moon. Each episode' looked into the future with a wide-eyed optimism that was disappearing in the real world. The dark horror of Vietnam was bleeding into social consciousness. Richard Nixon was plotting his course toward the presidency. There was violence in the streets and tension in the Middle East. But in the 23rd century, life wasn’t so bad. Man had survived 300 years without self-destructing; adventure followed the pursuit of knowledge and good triumphed over evil on a weekly basis. It was a superb formula for TV success.

The formula returns this month when Star Trek—The Motion Picture opens amid $6 million worth of fanfare. It is the most expensive motion picture ever, with a budget estimated at $50 million and a mandate to go boldly where no TV show has gone before. All of the original crew members have regrouped on the starship bridge, including Shatner, Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock), DeForest Kelly (Leonard “Bones” McCoy), James Doohan (Engineering Officer Montgomery Scott), George Takei (Mr. Sulu), Walter Koenig (Ensign Chekov) and Nichelle Nichols (Lieutenant Uhura).

But at the centre of the production is the overriding authority of the ship’s captain, a man of steely nerves, strong moral sense and decisive action. Will these virtues still sell? Will the movie sell William Shatner? Shatner claims to be awaiting the public’s verdict on the film with an “insightfully laidback” attitude. In fact, he is hoping that it will be the “big break” that has loomed on the horizon since he first went to Hollywood in 1958 to play a starring role in The Brothers Karamazov with Yul Brynner, Claire Bloom and Lee J. Cobb. He had grown up in Montreal and graduated from McGill University with a bachelor of commerce degree which his parents had insisted upon. But he quickly gravitated to the theatre, first as an administrator and finally as an actor in repertory theatres, with summers spent at the Stratford Festival under the guiding hand of Tyrone Guthrie.

If science fiction is the contemporary fairy tale and 20th-century morality play that it appears to be, then James Tiberius Kirk is a perfect hero. He is a futuristic version of C.S. Forester’s blustering seaman Horatio Hornblower, with a touch of Matt Dillon’s Gunsmoke swagger. The enemy Klingons find him to be an “overbearing, tin-plated dictator with delusions of godhead.” William Shatner is willing to settle for “benevolent dictator.”

“Whether I like it or not Star Trek is a big part of our history, and I had a great deal to do with this legendary thing,” he says. As Kirk he appeared in every episode of Star Trek and was on the screen 90 per cent of the time. That visual impact made Shatner/Kirk the most popular of the crew among viewers, rivalled only by Leonard Nimoy’s green-blooded, pointy-eared Vulcan, Spock.

But by the time the series folded, Shatner’s world was crumbling. He had earned about $250,000 for the three years’ work, not an exorbitant amount by Hollywood standards. It had quickly disappeared in taxes, agents’ fees and a divorce from his first wife, Gloria Rand. As Captain Kirk, Shatner had been able to order a 190,000-ton starship to warp speeds far beyond the speed of light, but in real life he found himself “visibly shaking” when he had to take an airplane. It wasn’t just that he was stone broke with three young daughters to support; a nervous collapse was weakening him, especially his memory. “There’s a five-year period that I really don’t remember,” he says. “I meet people and have no recollection of their faces. There are women I knew and had abiding relationships with, who I have completely forgotten.” But since then he has married Marcy Lafferty and has a permanent home with his three daughters in Los Angeles. (Kirk remained a bachelor.)

“Somebody once said that if the business practices practised in the movie industry were practised in any other industry, people would be put behind bars for grand larceny,” says Shatner ruefully, when asked about the percentage of the original series that he still owns. Shatner can’t explain it, but for 10 years Paramount has been declaring Star Trek as a loss despite its continual success in reruns. However, when he was approached by the same company to do the motion picture, Shatner found them “quite generous.”

Still, there was risk involved in the movie. In the beginning the studio had only an idea that they should somehow cash in on the enormous popularity of the series. In 1976, they asked Shatner to re-create his Kirk role for a $3- or $4-million movie. “Fine,” said Shatner. But it wasn’t that easy to get the other crew members. Only at the last minute, after umpteen scripts and false starts, did Leonard Nimoy agree to beam aboard. Shatner blames Nimoy’s hesitation largely on the ears he wears for the part, “because of their allegorical implications,” and because they left Nimoy with permanent scars after three years.

On the subject of health, Shatner, a lean 150 pounds of muscle on a five-foot-11 frame, is fanatical. He talks as though he had discovered the fountain of youth in nutrition and exercise. “Cancer,” he says matter-of-factly, “is caused by what we ingest and by what we associate with in our environment.” Last year he met a like mind in Dr. Ernst Wynder, director of the American Health Foundation. The two of them “clicked” at a dinner party. Shatner is now the spokesman for the foundation’s Know Your Body program, which is aimed at shaping up youngsters.

By Christmas, William Shatner will know whether Star Trek—The Motion Picture will open doors that have been half-closed to him before. In the meantime, he has completed work on The Kidnapping of the President, a $3.5-million Canadian feature in which he plays a secret service agent who saves the day.

Whether or not the phenomenon of Star Trek can hold the attention of an ’80s audience remains to be proven. Science fiction has moved closer to reality in the ’70s and audiences have been barraged with intergalactic heroism. But among Trekkies there is already talk of a sequel.

William Shatner, with his options open, is ready to flow with whatever happens. The other day he saw a young woman wearing a Captain Kirk T-shirt. “It’s a bizarre feeling,” he laughs, “to see your face on somebody’s chest. Jiggling.”