Shatner Nation

It sickens me.

By Matt Springer
January 18, 2005

I couldn’t help myself.

There he was. William Shatner. Captain Kirk. Denny Crane. The Shat.

There I was. Matt Springer. No great shakes. Nothing to show for myself. Not much of anybody at all.

The scene was a concert at the El Rey in LA featuring William Shatner along with Ben Folds. For a great fan of both men, an overwhelming occasion. In a moment of silence, I screamed toward the stage. “We love you, Shatner!”

He turned his face away from the crowd. A sardonic smirk played upon his lips. He sipped from a water, drew close to the microphone. He purred into it.

“And…I love you too.”

Shat’s recent live appearance with Ben Folds was not the first time I’d seen the man in person. Nor was it the first time I’d been unable to help myself when in his presence. At a con appearance in Chicago last year, I was so moved by his proximity and charisma that as he left the stage, I yelled at the top of my lungs, “You’re a man among men, Bill!”

“Yeah!” was his only reply.

He didn’t need to say more. He knows exactly what he is. He is Shatner.

We’re in a Shatner renaissance of sorts (a Shatnerenaissance, perhaps?), with the man hitting us up for our hard-earned record-buying dollars as well as our precious TV-viewing time on Sunday evenings. His record, Has Been, dropped last fall, as the kids are wont to say. The current TV season saw his return to weekly series television on Boston Legal as the crazed old attorney Denny Crane. Through it all, the books and horse shows and con appearances and just plain weird events (A yearly PAINT BALL tourney? In JOLIET, IL? What up wit dat?) have continued unabated. He’s not really everywhere, but if you pay close enough attention, he sure seems to be all over the place.

Which begs the question, asked of no pundit other than myself: Do we live in a Shatner Nation? Probably not, but it’s as close as we’ll see in our lifetimes…or his lifetime, for that matter. The dude is pushing eighty.

And yet, are we any closer to understanding this magnetic stranger in our midst? Do we know what makes the Shat keep on shattin’? And do we understand at all just what draws us to this irresistible force in entertainment?

Perhaps I should stop with all the “us” and “we.” It’s probably ridiculous to assume that my abject fascination with all things Shatner is shared by any but the most lonely, sad and desperate of individuals.

I’ll bet you never shut him off, though. That’s the real test, isn’t it: Whether you linger upon his visage when it lightning bolts into your life, or whether you change the channel, flip the radio station, turn the page or surf to the next site. I bet Shatner stays when you see him, and I bet you stick with him for at least a little while. You’ve lingered on those Sci-Fi Star Trek reruns at 1 a.m. and you’ve got an MP3 of Shatner doing “Mr. Tambourine Man” on your iPod, just for the kitsch value.

He’s there. Oh, he’s always there, dragging…out his sentences in…weird and…unexpected ways. He’s riffing on Stern, he’s making horses leap fences in a single bound, he’s hamming it up with Sharon Stone on the Emmys.

He’s there…and why do we linger? Why are we so drawn to this aging, flabby Canadian with a collection of toupees that must look like a squirrel burial tomb?

I’m reminded of a classic tale about another of the twentieth century’s great egotists, Howard Cosell.

Cosell was driving in a limo in a rough part of Kansas City when he saw two young guys fighting. Immediately he ordered his driver, Peggy, to stop the car. He sprung from the vehicle and began to call the match-up: “Now, I want you to listen here. It’s quite apparent to this observer that the young southpaw doesn’t have a jab. And you, my friend, over here, you obviously do not have the stamina to continue. This conflict is halted posthaste.” Cosell stopped the fight cold and obliged a round of autographs. He then returned to the limo, where Peggy couldn’t believe what she’d just seen. Cosell took a long drag on his cigar.

“Pegaroo, just remember one thing,” Cosell said. “I know who I am.”

We are fascinated by Shatner because he too could say the same thing: He knows who he is. He is a man who has reached a level of self-awareness beyond the comprehension of mortals. He is so comfortable and conscious within his skin that he seems to exist in a hyper-reality, where it truly is Bill’s world and we’re just living in it.

Which is enough to rivet any observer, and yet, there is more. If Shatner can be said to be fully self-aware, then he is equally fascinating because of the frequent moments throughout his career when he’s exhibited an embarassing lack of self-awareness. Look back upon his “Rocket Man” performance in the seventies, his classic “sabotage” blooper, or his great magnum opus in the Trekverse, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. These are all cataclysmic errors in any other career, the kind of blunders that could derail a lifetime of work and send a performer straight to the hell of B movies and Hollywood Squares.

For Shatner, they’re just more grist in the mill, added episodes in the grand mythos of his career. We accept them because…well, because he’s Shatner, and because he’s a buffoon. A man equally comfortable with buffoonery and brilliance, an actor who can turn in a subtle, nuanced, emotional performance one movie (Star Trek II) and then shit all over it just a few years later (Star Trek V, again).

So is he really that self-aware after all? Or is he totally lacking in self-awareness, and when we think he gets the joke, he’s really just playing along because he likes the attention?

The more important question is this: WILL WE EVER KNOW?

This is the true secret magic of Shat: He is the most mysterious man in show business. He is either an extremely savvy master of his doman, or an idiotic fool who desperately craves attention. It is not his way to reveal his true nature to us; it is his way to keep us guessing up until he’s been shot out the photon torpedo bay of the Enterprise onto the Genesis planet.

Or maybe Shat himself doesn’t know what he really is. Maybe he’s in on the mystery too. Again, WILL WE EVER KNOW?

He is who he is, and he does what he does. He is both fool and genius, pompous and sincere, daffy and brilliant, mostly at the same time. And so we do what we do, and we watch, because He is the Shat, and he knows who he is.