There’s an old Star Trek episode in which Captain Kirk and crew encounter some aliens who, at first glance, appear docile, obtuse, and about as intelligent as lint. It turns out, however, that the aliens are actually a race of super-smart, super-powerful beings who can vaporize the universe at will. But because they’re so benevolent, they spend their time kicking back, having cocktail parties — that sort of thing. In the end, Kirk is left ruefully smiling and vowing never to underestimate dimwits again.
Hard as it is to admit, after reading William Shatner’s Star Trek Movie Memories, I actually empathized with the sheepish captain. Given Shatner’s reputation for having the sensitivity of coal and the recent glut of self-serving Trek tell-alls to hit the shelves (see Nichelle Nichols’ and George Takei’s, for instance), I expected just another semiliterate collection of self-aggrandizing anecdotes. Instead, Memories turns out to be an entertaining, well-drawn, and fairly balanced look at the bickering that went on behind the scenes of the hugely popular movie series. As Mr. Spock might have said, ”Who-da thunk it?”
Not to say that Shatner completely avoids bumping up against his infamously inflated ego. He constantly claims credit for originating scenes and lines of dialogue, and he is frighteningly nonchalant when discussing his efforts to hog the spotlight.
But to his credit, Shatner also displays a surprisingly wry, self-deprecating wit (and here one senses the helping hand of coauthor Chris Kreski). The good captain pokes fun at everything from his career low points (”hawking Promise margarine all over television”);to his hammy, well-worn fighting moves on screen (”the giant windup into a left-handed haymaker the two quick jabs to the stomach followed by a right to the jaw”); to the shortcomings of the disastrous, Shatner-directed Star Trek V: ”Obviously,” he says, deadpan, ”it didn’t come out as I’d hoped.”
Shatner also helps his cause by relying heavily on the voices of others. In addition to adding balance and credibility to the narrative, the lengthy quotes from other principals, stitched together with Shatner’s own observations, create a vivid picture of the wacky creatures inhabiting the Trek universe: the volatile, prickly Leonard Nimoy; the vocal but sadly powerless Gene Roddenberry, Trek’s legendary creator; and the ever-shifting tableau of studio executives, determined to put their own stamp on each film, often with comical consequences.
There are also some entertaining Revelations about the films themselves. For example: that Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was originally written as an Eddie Murphy vehicle (Murphy’s role eventually became Kirk’s female love interest); that Sha Ka Ree, the name of the paradise planet in the fifth film, was actually a bastardization of ”Sean Connery,” whom Shatner had hoped to cast as the villain in the movie; and that then Paramount president Michael Eisner was responsible for softening Spock’s death in The Wrath of Khan, paving the way for his resurrection in The Search for Spock.
Memories does end on a limp note: After an intriguing description of the eagerly anticipated seventh Trek movie, which features the cast from the Next Generation TV series, the book gets bogged down in a gushy little epilogue about Kirk’s vaunted death scene, in which Shatner ruminates about the meaning of life, death, and the final frontier. To make matters worse, after this mawkish eulogy comes a perky little disclaimer noting that at the last minute, Shatner had been recalled to reshoot his final scenes, thus casting doubt on the finality of Kirk’s death.
Even though Shatner is not really to blame for this hasty addendum (studio shenanigans were behind the reshoot brouhaha), I expected a more graceful conclusion. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Memories it’s this: Never underestimate aging television actors — or doltish aliens — again. B