First came the movie, as it should be seen: on the big screen among a crowd of cheering fans.
A screening of the 1982 film “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” kicked off events Friday night at the First Interstate Center for the Arts. As composer James Horner’s riff of Alexander Courage’s familiar TV theme came through the auditorium speakers, the audience clapped and cheered. The enthusiasm continued as the cast names scrolled past, with the loudest applause reserved for three men: Ricardo Montalbán as the vengeful warlord Khan Noonien Singh, Leonard Nimoy as the logical and beloved Vulcan Spock, and our host for the evening, William Shatner as James T. Kirk.
After the end credits rolled, the lights came up and Shatner himself, introduced by Spokesman-Review editor Rob Curley, strolled out on stage. The hourlong discussion that followed, which included some questions from the audience, was at times meandering. But it reinforced for those assembled that Shatner is at his core an entertainer: He weaves a good yarn, sprinkles it liberally with humor and isn’t afraid of being self-deprecating.
He’s a trained stage actor. He has released albums and performed at the Grand Ol’ Opry. His post-“Trek” TV career has included the cop show “T.J. Hooker,” his Emmy-winning run as Denny Crane on “Boston Legal,” and the travel adventure show “Better Late Than Never” with Henry Winkler, George Foreman and Terry Bradshaw. He even managed to pop in to visit the nerds on “Big Bang Theory” during the show’s final season.
He talked about all that. He shared his well-established love of horses and dogs, revealed that it’s really him on his Twitter account, and how he aims to lasso his 2.4 million followers for good rather than evil. He offered remembrances of “the brother I never had,” Nimoy, who died in 2015. He’s a chronic lead-foot too, and it has put him in contact with fans in unusual places.
And at 88, he proved he’s still got a sharp wit. The first audience question, posed by James from Coeur d’Alene, was to the point: boxers or briefs?
“Boxers or briefs?” he said, and then gave a perfectly timed response. “Depends.”
Another group from Spokane asked about “Better Late Than Never,” which NBC canceled after two seasons. Shatner hopes the show finds a home with another company because he really enjoyed working on it. He’s especially fond of an episode from the first season that involved opening a can of fermented cod in Sweden.
“It was horrid. It was the stench of dead, fermented bodies,” Shatner said. How bad was it? One cameraman got violently ill. And Bradshaw, who Shatner describes as “one of the great quarterbacks of our times, four rings on his fingers, four Super Bowl rings,” was not having it. At all.
“I wave a little piece of fermented cod in front of (Bradshaw) and I toss it in my mouth, and I’m looking at him, and he sees it in my eyes and he starts to scream like a 5-year-old child, ‘Oh my god, it smells terrible!’ And I take another piece, and I’m looking at him and he jumps out of his seat and starts to run off, and I’m running after him, and makes a cut and he falls to the ground, and I wave the cod in his face.
“So for weeks later, he would tell everybody, ‘I’m telling you, the worst moment of my life was not the fermented cod. It was being run down by Shatner!’ ”
By now, the story of “Star Trek” is deeply embedded in the pop culture firmament of the 20th century. In the mid-1960s, a TV writer and producer named Gene Roddenberry pitched the idea about a TV show set in space. The crew of the USS Enterprise would boldly go, we were told, on a five-year mission to explore strange new worlds. The mission only lasted three seasons, from 1966-69, and 79 episodes, but the show remained a staple in reruns, and built up a fan base throughout the 1970s.
Re-energized by the blockbuster release of “Star Wars,” Paramount Studios brought the original cast back together for a movie, 1979’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” directed by Robert Wise, the Oscar-winning director of both “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music.”
It did OK. Or, as Shatner put it, “It was all right. It was nice. It had a science-fiction theme of a machine going to visit other machines and ganging up on the Earth. That kind of thing.”
A second movie would only be made, studio executives said, if it could be made for less money.
They made it for less money. And “The Wrath of Khan” became a hit, spawned an expansion of the “Star Trek” brand and is widely considered to be the best of the “Star Trek” films.
Meanwhile, the “Trek” brand is going strong. Although a fourth film in the J.J. Abrams rebooted series is up in the air, the CBS All-Access series “Star Trek: Discovery” just completed its second season and will be back for a third. And in the next year 78-year-old Patrick Stewart will return to “Star Trek” for the CBS All Access series “Picard,” reviving his role as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard from “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
As much as Shatner still loves to work, and as much as he remains an ambassador for “Star Trek,” don’t expect him to return to Kirk again.
“Unfortunately I can’t fit into that uniform,” he said. “It’s a product of old age and good food I guess.”
More critically, they killed Kirk off in “Star Trek Generations” 25 years ago. As Shatner said, “They wrote me a dying scene. And I played the dying scene, then I got up and I walked over to the director-producers and I handed him a book I had written where Capt. Kirk comes back. And he said ‘No, it’s not going to work.’ ”
So he might never return to that uniform, but even now, 53 years after he first put it on, it’s clear William Shatner will never leave “Star Trek” completely behind.
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