William Shatner is famous for a lot of roles – T.J. Hooker, Denny Crane (“Boston Legal”), his various commercial pitchmen personae – but for science fiction fans, he’ll always be Captain James T. Kirk of the USS Enterprise.
For more than 40 years, Shatner has been at ground zero of the “Star Trek” phenomenon, one of the most popular and durable franchises in all of pop culture. In addition to his role as Kirk in the original TV series, which ran from 1966-1969, he’s starred in seven “Star Trek” feature films, co-written several tie-in novels, and even authored a book on his experiences with “Star Trek” fandom.
Shatner is one of the headlining celebrities at this weekend’s inaugural Wizard World Raleigh Comic Con, making appearances Friday and Saturday night. For ticket information, visit the Wizard World website at wizardworld.com. Speaking from his home in Los Angeles, Shatner said he still enjoys attending conventions, meeting fans and talking science fiction.
Q: Fan conventions are these giant celebrations of pop culture, and they generate real passion and loyalty from people. You’ve been part of this world for a long time – why do you think these gatherings continue to be so popular?
A: You have to ask, what is pop culture? It’s culture that’s been popularized and that most people can assimilate. That has to do with gossip and celebrity to some degree, but the stuff that remains popular is something that touches a nerve – whether the audience knows it or not. You know, “Star Trek” is going to celebrate its 50th anniversary next year. What is the explanation?
I wrote a book called “Get a Life” years ago, where I felt I’d done my due diligence and figured out why it is that people come to these conventions. And it’s to see each other. That was my final conclusion. Then I did a film documentary and some deeper research. And it was therein that I discovered that this pop culture goes deeper than we’d imagined.
There is a mythological component, especially with science fiction. It’s people looking for answers – and science fiction offers to explain the inexplicable, the same as religion tends to do. Although 99 percent of the people that come to these conventions don’t realize it, they’re going through the rituals that religion and mythology provide.
Q: Why do you think the “Star Trek” story in particular has had such sustained resonance?
A: If we accept the premise that it has a mythological element, then all the stuff about going out into space and meeting new life – trying to explain it and put a human element to it – it’s a hopeful vision. All these things offer hope and imaginative solutions for the future.
Q: Are you hopeful for the future?
A: Well, it’s changing. In the next four or five years, it’s possible that there won’t be anyone left – anyone responsible, anyway – who will claim that global warming isn’t happening. And it’s interesting to think that science fiction stories, the dark and dystopian ones, may have frightened people into doing something about these issues.
Q: You’ve been attending these conventions for decades. How have you seen things change?
A: It’s metastasized, I guess is the word. It’s become a huge, huge business. There used to be one or two conventions a year. Now I have to be careful and pick and choose where I go. Wizard World has really become a giant force out of nowhere. They’re opening up conventions in midsized markets like Raleigh, and really all over the country.
It has really blossomed, and I think it’s because the epic movies of today are science fiction movies. You know, epic films in the past used to be historical or biblical – Cecil B. DeMille and 10,000 extras. But our epic images today are computer-generated images. We can create almost anything on the screen.
Q: I’d like to ask you about the passing of your friend and “Star Trek” colleague Leonard Nimoy, but I understand if you’d rather keep that private.
A: Well, it is private, but you know – I loved him. He was a wonderful man. And we’re all so much the less with his passing. Two other people connected to “Star Trek” have also passed away recently: Maurice Hurley, who produced and wrote the first two seasons of “Next Generation,” and Harve Bennett, who produced four or five of the “Star Trek” movies I was in. We’ve lost a lot of wonderful people of late. It makes you consider your own mortality.
Q: A lot of casual fans might not know that you’re a classically trained Shakespearean actor. Do you still read Shakespeare?
A: Oh, yes. There’s an annual event here, put on by Tom Hanks and his wife, to benefit schools in the Los Angeles area. Those two gather together a group of their friends – I like to think of myself as one – to put together a public reading of Shakespeare every year.
Kenneth Branagh was part of it a couple of years ago, and I performed onstage with him. I always look forward to it when they call me. So at least once every year, I’m onstage in front of 700 or 800 people, performing Shakespeare. To speak that language out loud, it’s just good for you.