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The Captains

Director: William Shatner
Cast: WIlliam Shatner, Patrick Stewart, Kate Mulgrew, Avery Brooks, Scott Bakula, Chris Pine

(US DVD: 18 Oct 2011)

I’ve never been a Trekker (this is preferred over Trekkie by the faithful). I’ve always come down squarely on the Star Wars side of the geek internecine wars. Whatever your complaints about what Lucas did to his own series, I’m certain Han would have shot first if ever faced with Kirk or Riker.


Still, it’s impossible not to love the world of the Federation and I do spend a fair amount of mental time there. Roddenberry’s optimistic sense of the human future in which science and discovery represented the greatest of adventures never fails to captivate. Moreover, the various iterations of Star Trek set the standard for thoughtful and thought-provoking TV. In fact, various Star Trek series broke new ground in their often sophisticated examination of politics, religion, gender and sexuality.


Fans of the series, hardcore or not, have been delighted ever since hearing about William Shatner’s project The Captains. The premise, as least as most of us understood it, seemed simple enough. The character of the various Captains has proven central to the popularity and identity of each series. Why not have Captain Kirk himself sit down with each one of his confreres and talk about the series and how they shaped their respective versions?


The Captains fulfills, in part, all the promise of that idea. Shatner travels from New York to Los Angeles to Toronto to London to ‘talk Trek’. Along the way he arm wrestles Chris Pine (The Kirk of the newest Star Trek film franchise) and engages in a bizarre zen/jazz improv chat with Avery Brooks (Captain Sisko of Deep Space Nine).  He has a discussion with Kate Mulgrew (Star Trek: Voyager) about femininity and space travel that will make you want to throw your official tricorder replica at the screen. He has a long chat with Patrick Stewart in the English countryside.


Along with footage from the various series and interviews, we also get a look at Shatner horsing around at conventions with fans. This includes suddenly inserting himself into pics being taken by Star Trek cos-players, much to their delight and the delight of everyone around them. Fans will also enjoy the interviews with Jonathan Frakes (Commander Riker from Star Trek: Next Generation) who has some smart things to say about why this particular space odyssey has had so much to say to so many different people.


Sadly, there are some serious problems here that ultimately undermine a great idea. Rather than simply staying with the concept of turning on the camera and letting Shatner ‘talk Trek ‘with Stewart, Mulgrew, Brooks, Bakula and Pine, the documentary suddenly turns into a warp nine “journey of personal discovery”. What this means for Shatner’s conversations with the captains is that too much time gets spent on personal matters.  I want to hear Patrick Stewart talk about his career as a whole, and also what it was like when he had to play a Borg, but a reflection on his divorce doesn’t hold my attention.


Speaking of taking too much time, this documentary feels grindingly long. Coming in right at two hours, it desperately needed 30- to 45-minutes chopped out. Not only do the conversations and interviews meander, but also Shatner’s inner monologues that serve as narration become repetitive. Moreover, the camera wastes long minutes on establishing shots of Shatner getting on a plane, on the skylines of New York and Los Angeles and on the English countryside.


All of this is to remind us that Shatner travelled “around the globe” to reconnect with his fellow Starfleet commanders. But we already know that and it’s not what we care about. Nor does it help that all of this takes place while a lounge piano jazz soundtrack plays in the background, jumping between up tempo numbers and then going treacley and maudlin when Shatner gets sentimental.


Shatner both wrote and directed this project and, I’m really sorry to say, I think that’s a big part of the problem.  He’s a really fine actor and not a writer/director. He talks a lot in this film about how he had been type-cast as Kirk for so long and how his scene-chewing style often earned him scowls from critics and hoots from a public that didn’t always get it. Since then, this guy has proven that he has the same chops as the young man who performed Shakespeare to accolades in the early ‘60s.  And who became Emmy and Golden Globe-winning actor on Boston Legal.


So I wish he had found a good writer for this and gotten someone else behind the camera. Then he could have gotten in front of it and been his charming self. That self comes through again and again in this deeply flawed production, so much so that it’s a documentary that feels like something special to me, even as its not one I can give a high recommendation to for the casual fan.


You would think that a project like this might come packed with some special features, especially since it’s a valentine to fans. But no. There’s the trailer for the film plus a very short “Making of” that won’t hold much interest given the deeply problematic nature of this production.


Die-hard Trekkies should certainly pick this one up. It’s hilarious when Shatner gets down to being Shatner. He meets many of his female co-stars on his travels to conventions and says every time, with unimpeachable sincerity, that she was “the most beautiful woman to ever appear on Star Trek.” Even more casual Star Trek fans will adore the discussion with Patrick Stewart and enjoy hearing Shatner and Avery Brooks share a series of what’s either Zen koans or impenetrable nonsense (or both).


So while this is not a film that fulfills its promise, it deserves at least some of your time. Just be ready to do some fast-forwarding and scene skipping as you follow Shatner on his sometimes fascinating and sometimes annoying journey to explore strange worlds, old and new.

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W. Scott Poole is a writer and an associate professor of history at the College of Charleston. He's the author of Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror (Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press), a book about the life and strange times of America's first horror host. He is also the author of the award-winning Monsters in America (2011). Follow him on twitter @monstersamerica.


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