The search for schlock

In the Starfleet of self-referential entertainers, William Shatner has the captain’s chair

Photo Illustration by Don Button

This article first appeared in Maisonneuve magazine,

In the 23rd century, most starship captains, in order to earn their first command, will be required to take what’s known as the Kobayashi Maru test. It’s a sophisticated space-battle simulator, whose salient feature is that the battle can’t be won. It is a test of character. Only one officer in history will manage to defeat it. You’ve heard of him: James T. Kirk, captain of the USS Enterprise. His tactic will be hailed as a paragon of inventive simplicity. He’ll reprogram the test to make it winnable.

It should be pointed out that these events are due to occur within Star Trek’s universe, not our own. Nevertheless, any lesson on how to render a no-win scenario survivable is a worthy one, and it’s not entirely academic to wonder what the real future holds for the man who originated Captain Kirk—the man who has proven especially wily and resourceful of late and who, although many people may not believe it, still bears watching.

Has the time come to take William Shatner seriously? Hadn’t we decided the matter of his reputation? That as an actor, director, writer and musician, he’s a quadruple threat of mediocrity? That as a fanboy role model, he’s surly and pitiable and self-aggrandizing?

Perhaps. But new data has been streaming in. One notices, for instance, that he’s still here. Shatner has noticed, too, and his awareness of the fact is a large part of what drives him—indeed, it has allowed him an unprecedented creative growth spurt and forced a reassessment of his capabilities.

If you doubt his relevance to world affairs, note’s recent disclosure that purchasers of The Encyclopedia Shatnerica, a glib and handy career guide by former Museum of Television and Radio staffer Robert Schnakenberg, also bought Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Whatever his reputation, Shatner has always seemed like a gauge of humanity’s future. And the next few centuries’ societal advancement may very well be made or broken by how we manage those two vast perpetuities he has so audaciously probed: outer space and self-referential popular entertainment.

In no uncertain terms, Shatner has beaten the Kobayashi Maru. His test has taken place within the crucible of public opinion, and his strategy for winning its unwinnable battle has been to reframe it. Whether we take him seriously or not, we must concede his brilliance.

At first, it seemed easy to dismiss Shatner’s latest album, Has Been. His earlier adventures in music, going boldly where no man should ever have gone, still earn and deserve sardonic laughter (a performance of Elton John’s “Rocketman” at the 1978 Science Fiction Film Awards went down in history, or flames, depending on your allegiances). But even the most leery listener had to wonder what it meant when Henry Rollins, who performs a duet with Shatner on the album, and Ben Folds, who co-wrote and produced it, actually wanted to work with the guy. Was it an elaborate practical joke at Shatner’s expense? And hadn’t that gag gotten old ages ago?

Or is he masterminding a joke at the expense of his countless detractors? When you consider the goofy, hard-to-hate commercials and the cuckoo-lawyer supporting spot on The Practice and Boston Legal, for which he has won an Emmy and a Golden Globe respectively, Shatner starts to seem, if not more subversive, at least markedly less ridiculous. There is no longer any way of knowing whether he’s deluding himself or mocking himself, whether he even knows the difference or whether the matter was ever ours to decide. As summed up by one supporting player on Invasion Iowa, the ersatz reality show in which Shatner pretends to be filming a Star Trek prequel in Captain Kirk’s fictive hometown, “With William Shatner, you never know what’s going on.”

Meanwhile, the expanse of cyberspace echoes with cries of undying respect. Last March, he got this fame audit from celebrity news site Fametracker: “Shatner has conquered. He was cool, then he was nerd-cool, then he was kitsch, then he was kitsch-cool, then he was knowing-wink cool, then just plain cool again, and now he’s something better than cool. He made himself a punch line with such debonair cunning that—guess what?—the man is not a punch line anymore.” Somehow it now feels un-hip not to root for him. He is the Teflon ham; no ruin or shame can stick to him.

Among VH1’s 200 Greatest Pop Culture Icons, Shatner is ranked No. 117, just between E.T. and Whitney Houston. That’s not bad; it puts him well below Bugs Bunny (No. 77) but well above David Bowie (No. 147). VH1’s definition of a pop-culture icon, incidentally, is quite straightforward: “You can quote them in an instant, reference them with just one name and even dress up like them for Halloween. In this always-expanding pop culture of ours, there are plenty of stars, but precious few icons.” It’s on this last point—the separation of superstar wheat from wannabe chaff—that Shatner’s significance is singular. How odd that in a culture rife with celebrity-itis, and full of pretenders and copycats and second-raters, a man of such modest talents—so famously, hilariously imitable—has wrought such an inimitable career.

And from what? Three seasons’ worth of late-’60s cheapo-schlock science fiction? Certainly there is more to it than that, and not just T.J. Hooker or Rescue 911. It’s not that he’s one of those constant self-re-inventors of the order of Cher (No. 41) or Madonna (No. 7). No, Shatner’s self is already firmly invented, and unwavering. We know this because he is so aggressively self-referential. In a few short decades, Shatner has become the most tenaciously self-spoofing performer on the planet. The Internet Movie Database records 70 appearances as “himself” and 216 “notable guest appearances,” and these don’t include his many commercials, hawking everything from the Commodore Vic-20 computer to Labatt beer or travel. There is also a tacit understanding among audiences that even when he’s not playing himself, he is. If the question is how much mileage you can really get out of being William Shatner, the answer is: not miles, my friends, light years.

You can’t really call him a navel-gazer or a hipster ironist. Rather, Shatner’s instincts for camp are so bluntly expressed that they seem downright refreshing. He is endearingly indelicate. As Ben Folds told The New York Times, “I recognize Bill as being a brother in working-class entertainment. You do your job, you do it with integrity, and you don’t worry about the reviews and what the cool kids think. Everyone that worked on his record had working-class upbringings. There was a boldness about it that the art-school students usually weren’t into.” Shatner has come—or rather brought himself—to epitomize a great leveling axiom of our image-conscious pop culture: Dignity is overrated.

His impulse to caricature his own persona was already palpable in his 1982 Airplane II: The Sequel appearance. By most accounts, though, the turning point of self-awareness occurred in 1986, when during a Saturday Night Live sketch, he famously told off a convention full of dorky Trekkers: “Get a life, will you people? I mean, for crying out loud, it’s just a TV show!” These remarks had a bracing effect.

Shrewdly, and obviously, the “get a life” remark became the title of a 1999 book, in which Shatner reflected on the subculture of Star Trek fandom (he even decked himself out in alien makeup for undercover convention reconnaissance) while, of course, reflecting on himself. This is how he works now. Becoming vulnerable and confessional has made him invincible.

In late 2004, when asked on his Web site by a fan, “Is there any Shakespearean role you feel that you still need to do?” Shatner replied, “No, I don’t need to do any more Shakespeare roles. As much joy as there is to speak his language, there is an equal amount of hard work to learn it. At a certain age, one cancels the other.” What a good, frank answer—and typically Shatnerian in that it manages to combine obstinate pride with lucid self-reckoning, in slightly weird proportions.

Now you may be asking yourself, “Any more Shakespeare? Dear Lord, does this mean the man has already done any Shakespeare?” You are forgetting—perhaps because you’ve blocked it out—that Shatner medleyed readings from Shakespeare’s plays with the likes of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It Was a Very Good Year” on his 1968 album, The Transformed Man. You’re not expected to recall the Shakespearean training he squeezed in while earning a commerce degree at Montreal’s McGill University (where a building is unofficially named after him) or that before moving down to the United States and into the cosmos, Shatner put in a few years at the Stratford Festival of Canada. It is safe to say he’s no Laurence Olivier but fair to give him a break for having learned his limitations.

How obvious it has been to quip that Shatner takes himself and his career too seriously—as obvious as his slabs of leading-man ham. And so, what a coup that he has finally achieved a kind of quirky, counterintuitive naturalness, in spite of our judgments, by being so emphatically himself. Maybe he’s trying to tell us that we’re taking ourselves far more seriously than he ever did. It’s a good point. “I’d love to help the world and all its problems,” he wistfully intones on Has Been’s last track, “Real.” “But I’m an entertainer, and that’s all.” Well, we know, Bill. We know.

This article first appeared in Maisonneuve magazine,