James Tiberius Kirk. Jean-Luc Picard. Benjamin Sisko. Kathryn Janeway. Jonathan Archer. James T. Kirk, again. William Shatner, Patrick Stewart, Avery Brooks, Kate Mulgrew, Scott Bakula, Chris Pine. The captains of the Star Trek Enterprise, and the actors who played them.
I just watched William Shatner’s documentary The Captains. Check it out on Netflix–it’s great. The heart of the movie is interviews Shatner had with each of the actors, and they’re mostly terrific. Shatner also intersperses footage of himself at a Star Trek convention. It’s a movie for Star Trek fans, in other words, which I am, and which I expected and was looking forward to.
Not to pick nits, but Sisko never captained the Enterprise, and neither did Janeway. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was set in a space station (captained by Sisko) at the mouth of a worm hole, and Star Trek: Voyager is about a different Star Fleet ship, Voyager, lost in the ‘Delta Quadrant,’ way the heck on the other side of the Milky Way galaxy, 75,000 light years from earth. I always thought Voyager was a cheeky name for a star ship, given the fact that the first Star Trek movie, Star Trek 1, which came out in 1979, was about this big scary V-Ger thing heading towards Earth, destroying everything in its path, which turned out to be an artifact from some alien entity intent on returning our Voyager 6 probe.
Anyway, those are the captains, Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, Archer, and then Kirk again, in the J.J. Abrams reboot of the series. The men and woman who sat in the chair. Hard-working professional actors, all of them, talking about the craft. And the cost of it.
Two things surprised me about the movie. The first is Shatner’s interview with Avery Brooks. Brooks comes across as, well, eccentric. He’s a fine jazz pianist and singer, and conducted the interview while sitting at his piano. And often would answer perfectly straightforward actor-y questions with a piano riff. Then he’d smile at Shatner like he’d just answered the question. After awhile, Shatner would go along, singing made-up lyrics to whatever tune Brooks was playing, and then Brooks would sing along too. It was sort of cool, I guess, but it was a little discouraging too. I loved Deep Space Nine. Loved it. It was my favorite of all the series, with a narrative sweep and complexity and political intrigue that was positively Shakespearean, all the Henry and Richard plays. And Sisko gave that series such dignity and pathos and such a marvelous sense of command. I wish Shatner had been able to interview Brooks on a day when he actually took his meds.
But the rest of the interviews were great. Scott Bakula came across as this great guy, pleasant and charming, religious without being obnoxious about it, hard-working and bright and genuine. Kate Mulgrew, the same–a disciplined and talented professional, a capable, strong woman. Chris Pine got the least screen time (appropriately, since he’s far and away the youngest of them, and the one who hasn’t done a TV series), and came across well, a bright young actor, a nice kid, likable. And Patrick Stewart, well, what do you think? It’s Patrick Stewart. Meditative, thoughtful, deeply compassionate and humble and so immensely intelligent and articulate.
But here’s the thing. After some initial ‘how did you get into acting, how did you get the role, what did you think when you were cast’ fan-boy stuff, Shatner gets more meditative. He talks about the cost of it, the human cost of being a professional actor on a sci-fi TV series. What does it do to you when you’re working 12 hour days, every day, week after week? What about those all-too-frequent days when something goes wrong, and a 12 hour day stretches to 14 or 16 or 18, and you told your spouse you’d be home by 6:30 and it’s past 10 and there isn’t time for you to even make a phone call? What is the cost of that? How does it effect your marriage, and your family relationships? And how do you muster the sheer professionalism to just . . . grind it out,
It was at that point that the show got really interesting. First of all, these are all highly trained actors. When Stewart was cast as Picard, much was made of his background in Shakespeare, his years as a leading actor at the Royal Shakespeare Company. And Stewart says, in The Captains, that his training was what he fell back on when he had to memorize pages of Trek-speak, the pseudo-technological gobbledegook that the Captain has to make sound plausible. All that ‘reconfigure the warp coil conduits’ and ‘vent the plasma stream’ stuff. You have to speak that language as clearly and make it as intelligible as ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.’
But all these actors come out of the theatre, and all of them have training to fall back on. Shatner’s background was at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Mulgrew’s at the Public Theatre in New York, Brooks has done Lear, Othello, Oberon, and taught (and still teaches) theatre at Rutgers. Bakula came from musical theatre, and Pine’s from a theatre family, and his background is Berkeley, University of Leeds, and American Conservatory Theatre.
But none of them were really prepared for Star Trek, and what shocked and surprised them was the workload. And more than anything else, the movie starts to focus on that, on the cost of being the leading actor on a popular, hour-long, tech-heavy TV show. Kate Mulgrew was already divorced when she was cast as Janeway, but the show damaged her relationship with her children, who, she says, still resent Star Trek, still harbor anger over it. Shatner says Star Trek cost him a marriage, and Stewart says his biggest regret is his two divorces. Bakula says he was a little prepared for it–he’d been in Quantum Leap, a similar show, and it had destroyed his first marriage; that experience helped him keep his second marriage together despite Star Trek.
Have you ever wondered why the actors in incredibly popular TV series often don’t do anything else? Think of MASH? It kept losing actors, didn’t it: Wayne Rogers giving way to Mike Farrell, Larry Linville to David Ogden Stiers, McLean Stevenson to Harry Morgan. And what did any of them do afterwards? Occasional roles in movies and TV shows, but not another series, not another MASH. Workload. The cost of it. It wears on you, it corrodes marriages. And if you’re on Star Trek, you know it’s going into syndication, and you’ll make enough money that you really don’t ever have to work again. You can start a repertory theatre company or something. You can teach. You can devote your live to jazz music. You can design and build airplanes (that’s what Larry Linville did). You’re free.
And for what? That’s the ultimate question I think William Shatner went into the project asking himself. Was it worth it? He says, when he runs into people on the street, they think they’re being clever if they shout ‘beam me up, Scotty.’ It’s just a dumb TV show. A space opera. Pop culture at its most trivial and escapist, perhaps. And in the movie’s best interview, between Shatner and Stewart, he asks that question–was it worth it? Was it worth being Kirk?
But then Patrick Stewart says, ‘when I die, I will be remembered for Star Trek. I will be remembered for Picard. And I think that’s wonderful.’
And you think of Shatner at the Star Trek convention. And we see a guy at the convention, a guy, in a wheelchair, suffering from what looks like Lou Gehrig’s disease, or something equally debilitating. And his Mom is with this guy, and she’s obviously this great Mom, and she tells us how much her son loves Star Trek, how much it means to him, and how it was worth a grueling, for him, 12 hour drive to come to the convention. And Shatner sees this kid, in his wheelchair, and makes a point of going over to him, talking to him, hugging him, giving him the gift of time and personal attention.
When I think of the kids who I’ve worked with, talented, dedicated kids who desperately want to be professional actors, knowing how long the odds are against it happening, I wonder too. Is it worth it? And I know that the key to a successful career is much less talent than work ethic. But you have the power to inspire people. Not just to pass the time, but to genuinely impact peoples’ lives. The Star Trek captains honored their profession, and blessed the world. It’s worth doing. And it’s worth doing well.