William Shatner’s latest endeavor is the documentary “Get a Life!,” a feature about “Star Trek” conventions and fandom based on his book of the same name and premiering tomorrow, July 28th at 5pm on Epix. Like his 2011 film “The Captains,” “Get a Life” was directed by Shatner and finds the man who was Kirk delving into the subculture of the landmark series in which he starred, one that has, for better and worse, dominated and shaped both his career and those of many of his fellow castmembers.
Inspired by the film, we put together this Kübler-Ross-style chart of the Seven Stages of William Shatner, tracking his transformation from young Canadian unknowning signing on to a sci-fi series to mid-career actor trying desparately to distance himself from the franchise to the current shamelessly self-aware legend embracing his destiny as a genre icon.
“Star Trek,” 1966-1969*
Role: Capt. James T. Kirk
“To boldly go where no one has gone before” fittingly launched a young Shatner into an uncertain franchise that would define his career. The true shock of a cult hit comes when you’re a young actor and no one is sure what will stick. By now, most people are familiar about the original run of “Star Trek,” as it’s been made subject of self-parody (1999’s “Galaxy Quest”) and pop-culture significance (an episode from “Futurama” where the original cast returns when kidnapped by an alien fanboy).
In the original series, Kirk came across as an awe-inspiring figure with a bravado that was as easy to capture as a sexy green alien. It would be a role that would power fanboy culture into the 1970s with the “Star Trek” films and convention appearances, one that would forever link Shatner to a ham-fisted sci-fi world fandom that clearly became the type of addiction that’s tough to give up.
2. Pain and Guilt
“T.J. Hooker,” 1982-1986
Role: Sgt. T.J. Hooker
In his second franchise, the Shat gave up the ensemble sets for a combination “elder statesman” role and the chance to lord his screen-time over a younger additional cast. Running for five seasons and spanning ABC and CBS, “T.J. Hooker” featured a post-Trek Shatner who now craved more of the attention he got from “Star Trek.” He acted as the mentor figure to a trio of young cops — including Heather Locklear — and would occasionally get his “ladies man” act on as well.
Sparing the obvious connection, “Hooker” showcased a Shatner desperate to never be called “Captain Kirk,” despite the continuing “Star Trek” films. This was a pure attempt to get away from the USS Enterprise while proving that he could be the same randy officer who can awkwardly disarm you with a karate chop. Except Trekkies didn’t entirely buy that their Captain had abandoned them, and so Sergeant Hooker moped onward.
3: Anger and Bargaining
Role: Walter Bascom
“TekWar” is original idea Shatner toyed with that would’ve been “T.J. Hooker in Space,” but instead grew into a series of books during the 1988 Writer’s Guild strikes. The novels were pumped out for four years before leading to a TV movie adaptation that premiered on USA and served as a backdoor pilot for what became a two-season show. Shatner played an eccentric CEO who freed a wrongly imprisoned cop to track down virtual drug lords.
The show would be marketed as “William Shatner’s TekWar.” While the hubris may seem a bit much — his face is also on every book cover — it can be read as the man’s self-realization that the co-production effectively decided to wring more blood from Captain Kirk’s name for rabid fans. It’s a sort of partial appeal from Shatner: use my name rather than Kirk’s to bring my show to life.
“3rd Rock from the Sun,” 1999-2000
Role: The Big Giant Head
Shatner’s painfully self-aware guest spot on this NBC sitcom can be summed up with its first gag being a “Twilight Zone” reference between him and John Lithgow about seeing “something” on the wing of a plane. This is Shatner at a TV low point — okat, not his lowest — but one predicated on us knowing all too well why he’s appearing and why he’s playing “The Big Giant Head.” It’s filled to the brim with references only “Star Trek” nerds and those who’d kept up with Shatner’s career to this point would find funny — which is why the greatest role he has played since James T. Kirk is the one that broke this downward spiral…
5: The Upward Swing
“The Practice”/”Boston Legal,” 2004-2008
Role: Denny Crane
Imagine if you took all the great things about Shatner as a performaer, threw them into a blender and, upon pouring the resulting mess out, shouted “Go!” Denny Crane became a massive turning point for Shatner, as it launched him back into a weekly dramedy with not a single sci-fi element aside from explaining how James Spader doesn’t do freaky sex things. Shatner’s Crane is so self-obsessed, he routinely ends sentences with a pierced “Denny Crane!” just to make sure you get the point he’s a legend. For four years, Crane waltzed through courtrooms, shot people he didn’t like and showed off an actor who had came to terms with his own iconic image — William Shatner!
Priceline commercials, 1999-2013(?)
Role: Himself/Priceline Negotiator
Shatner didn’t officially become the Priceline Negotiator until after two previous versions (including Leonard Nimoy making cameos) could solidify his post-Denny Crane self. Gone were the attempts to shy away from his past. Instead, the ads found him embracing his iconic timbre for song medleys and playing an Evil Negotiator with a goatee in a nod to the classic “Trek” episode “Mirror, Mirror.” Even when he was “killed off” in January, Priceline still milks the fact that people can contact “The Negotiator,” because Shatner still technically has a year left in his contract. But when was the last time an actor could so transform a simple ad spot into his own personal place to show-off?
7: Acceptance and Hope
“The Captains”/”Get a Life!”
Which leaves us with the current status of not James Tiberius Kirk, but William Shatner, new-found documentarian and oddly proficient interviewer. Who else could spearhead a project like “The Captains,” which involved arm-wrestling Chris Pine outside the Paramount lot, or “Get a Life!,” which takes the original SNL sketch from 1986 that provided the title and turns it around with Joseph Campbell? Shatner’s transcended just “being” an actor. His roles, while sometimes questionable, are what make the man himself more impressive than Kirk, Hooker or even Denny Crane.