In a way, Riverside, Iowa, was asking for it.
As the “Star Trek” faithful know, William Shatner’s character, the beloved Jim Kirk, was born – actually, will be born – in Iowa sometime in the 23rd century.
Seizing on that crumb of information a couple of decades ago, an enterprising member of the town council of Riverside, population 928, boldly went where no Iowan had gone before and erected a sign proclaiming his community “The Future Birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk.”
From that audacious act grew Riverside’s “Trek Fest,” featuring $3 vials of “Kirk Dirt,” themed costume contests and mockups of such sacred sites as the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.
So it was probably just a matter of time until Riverside’s cheeky little joke on Hollywood prompted Hollywood to turn the tables.
The result is Spike TV’s “Invasion Iowa,” a four-hour reality miniseries about the making of a make-believe movie (Tuesday through Friday at 9 p.m. on Spike TV, cable channel 57 in Spokane and 41 in Coeur d’Alene).
The show – which, not coincidentally, will conclude on April Fools’ Day – was dreamed up by Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese, the producers of Spike’s successful “Joe Schmo.”
“Joe” was an elaborate hoax in which a man believed himself to be competing in a reality show when, in fact, all the other participants were actors.
“Iowa” ups the ante by making the pretend production a science-fiction movie set in Riverside. The star? None other than Kirk’s alter ego, Shatner himself.
The target of the ruse? The entire population of the town.
“What happens if we take a movie company to a small town (and record) the perennial soap opera of a movie (production) where there’s always something going wrong?” Shatner recently told TV critics.
Last year, Reese, Wernick and Shatner, who also served as one of the show’s producers, did just that.
Shatner, who won an Emmy last year as loopy lawyer Denny Crane in ABC’s “The Practice” (who’s since moved on to “Boston Legal”), played himself, the movie’s director and star.
The supposed story involves an android she-villain with the improbable name of Disintegratrix 3000 and a plot twist in which a virtuous farm girl – played, like many of the faux film’s characters, by a local amateur – offers to bear the child of Shatner’s character in order to save her town from ruin.
Scores of would-be actors and extras lined up to audition for parts, happy to sing “Pinball Wizard” if Shatner demanded it or to repeat a line “with a Cajun accent this time” if that was what the star wanted.
Throughout, Shatner said, the idea was to keep the joke going but also to keep it from turning sour or mocking.
“This is an improv show,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going to come out of my mouth next, nor did I know what was going to come out of (the Riverside people’s) mouths. … It was an enormous challenge.”
And, of course, there was the apprehension everyone from the Spike production felt about informing the good people of Riverside, after more than a week of shooting, that they’d been taken for a ride.
When Shatner told him about the hoax, “I just looked at him and put my head down,” recalled Riverside Mayor Jim Poch. “It wasn’t a low point in my week or my month. It was a low point in my life.”
But that was before he learned what was in it for Riverside: $100,000 from the producers, earmarked for municipal services, plus a $12,000 donation from the cast and crew for a school book fund.
Not surprisingly, Shatner was of the opinion that a good time was had by all.
“We didn’t really dash their dreams, we enlarged them,” he said grandly. “They’re on national television from Tuesday to Friday.
“Many of my motion pictures didn’t last that long.”
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