One Little Blue Marble
William Shatner is 81 years old. As most of us know, he’s had a complicated relationship with Star Trek fans. Recently, he’s turned reflective about the experience. William Shatner’s Get a Life! is the latest in a series of artifacts chronicling his attempts to come to terms with his status as a cultural icon. While it comes across as primarily self-promotional, it also tells the story of a man still seeking, in retrospect, to understand his own life.
The hour-long documentary—premiering on EPIX on 28 July—takes its name from Shatner’s 1999 memoir, which in turn took its title from a 1986 Saturday Night Live sketch. Get a Life! opens with the punchline of that sketch, which not only neatly closes the circle of references, but underscores just how long Shatner has been trying to negotiate his role within Trek fandom.
In the sketch he plays himself, as the guest of honor at a Star Trek convention. He takes questions from a room full of trivia-obsessed fans, representing the kind of diehards who in 1968 nearly tore his clothes off as he left NBC headquarters. Finally he exclaims, “Get a life!” As their mouths drop open, he insists, “It’s just a TV show!, and moreover, just a gig he did for money.
Before this seminal moment, Shatner, a former Shakespearean actor, had long voiced similar disdain for Trekkers and had stopped going to conventions during the 1970s. But he also needed to work, as the sketch neatly points when he storms off the stage, only to return when he’s reminded that he’s under contract. The sketch’s final joke is cruel, in its way, and delivered at Shatner’s expense: give the fans what they want if you expect to get paid. Shatner’s life is defined by his audience. He’s trapped by commercial exchange, imprisoned by his fans’ fastidious adoration.
This is territory that Shatner has continued to mine. In 2011, he produced The Captains, a documentary about the actors who have played captains in the Star Trek franchise. In conversation with Patrick Stewart, he confesses he’d only recently realized he was “slightly embarrassed about playing Captain Kirk.” After all, he says, he received poor reviews for the role, a new experience at the time, and in the years since Star Trek, he’s resisted the idea that manning the helm of the Enterprise might be his lasting legacy. Only after hearing Stewart acknowledge that despite years as a Shakespearean actor himself, he was still best known as Captain Jean-Luc Picard, does a teary-eyed Shatner confess that if, when he dies, “They say, ‘That was Captain Kirk,’ I’m happy with that.”
If this moment suggests Shatner has a private, even self-reflective self, we’re most used to dealing with his blustery public persona, one that doesn’t suggest he’s burdened with self-consciousness. He typically presents an amiable superficiality, a kind of glibness. Get a Life! delivers more of that. It focuses on “Star Trek Las Vegas,” an annual convention that draws some 20,000 fans, with the premise that Shatner still has more to learn about his fans.
The film focuses more on our education than his. This is framed in a series of familiar convention scenes, with costume contests, autograph hunters, and merchandise booths. There’s a Klingon make-up class. Several interviewees assert that Star Trek conventions offer a safe haven or note the difficulty of being a “geek.” While Shatner claims that he still wonders, “Who are these people?”, the film does little to illuminate them as individuals, only revealing that they aren’t all the 30-year-old virgins of the SNL sketch.
In pursuit of more information, perhaps, Shatner brings in Robert Walter, head of the Joseph Campbell Foundation, to explain why Star Trek endures. He offers some fairly obvious points about the show’s utopian vision of collective harmony (still run by a captain, though), alongside more dubious assertions such as, “We are hardwired for narrative.” Convention goers, he explains, see the event as a ritual, their fellow attendees as part of a tribe. “They’re buying into a narrative, a series of narratives, a mythology if you will,” he says, and “a myth is a metaphor for life.” Star Trek provides a potent myth: this, of course, is exactly what the president of the Joseph Campbell Foundation would say.
It’s impossible to know whether this kind of talk helps William Shatner understand his fans, or himself, because Get a Life! never interrogates these ideas. He says in closing, “That’s what these shows do: they lift us out so we can see that we’re a part of one human tribe, living on one little blue marble.” Perhaps Star Trek really does that, and we never want to underestimate the value of platitudes. But the film’s easy conclusions leave us wishing for a little less abstract pontificating, and a little more self-reflection.