The Captains

The CaptainsKirk. Picard. Sisko. Janeway. Archer.  Just hearing these names is enough to bring a smile of fond remembrance to Star Trek fans of all ages, and conjures images of heroism in the face of danger, face-offs with alien races, and some egregious fashion faux pas.  From the original Star Trek in the 1960′s to the 2009 movie by J.J. Abrams, the Star Trek franchise has been one of the most enduring and profitable in Hollywood history, and even though interest in the TV shows has waned in recent years (the recent series Enterprise was cancelled after four seasons), the characters and the actors who played them continue to be a force of pop culture with which to be reckoned.  But despite (or perhaps because of) the myriad documentaries, interviews, and convention appearances that the actors have taken part in over the years, it is the individuals who played the storied captains of the various vessels in the show who continue to fascinate millions of fans worldwide.  And it is with this in mind that William Shatner, who wowed audiences and wooed women as Captain Kirk in the original series, set out to create a film that offers a singular insight into the hearts and minds of the actors who have had the distinct privilege to sit in the fabled captain’s chair.  The result is a documentary consisting almost entirely of simple conversations between Shatner and these actors that is equal parts compelling and funny, while also managing to be heartbreaking and even a bit awkward.  Shatner, whose career includes high profile shows like Boston Legal, melodramas like Rescue 911, and a dose of sitcoms and commercials to boot, is clearly in his element as he interviews the actors–often providing a window into his own heart and even upstaging his subjects from time to time.  It all comes together to make The Captains a fantastic and singular work of art that boldly goes where no documentary has gone before, and offers Shatner the unique opportunity to blaze a trail that no one else could hope to trod.

What would you say if you could sit and chat with Patrick Stewart for an afternoon?  Would you ask him what it was like to play Jean-Luc Picard, one of the most recognizable figures in modern science fiction?  How about Kate Mulgrew, the woman whose Kathryn Janeway helmed the starship Voyager on its 70,000 light year journey through the Delta Quadrant? Or Chris Pine, the young actor who filled Shatner’s Starfleet-issue boots as Captain Kirk in the 2009 film?  What questions could possibly be worth their time–surely nothing these actors haven’t been asked hundreds or thousands of time before.

Shatner-Pine

Captain Kirk vs. Captain Kirk in the arm wrestling match of the century!

And so Shatner wisely stays away from all of the topics that would, on the surface, be of most interest to fans.  Instead, his conversations with the “captains” wander back and forth from pop culture to horseback riding to philosophy, religion, and even death and the afterlife.  Heavy subjects to be sure, but counterbalanced by a liberal dose of Shatner’s off-kilter sense of humor and glowing charm.  The most profound and compelling segments come from his discussions with Patrick Stewart, where things start off cordial but end up digging deep, exposing a side of both actors that has rarely been seen in public.  Stewart goes as far to divulge regrets that are as deeply felt today as they were back when he was filming The Next Generation, and Shatner likewise comes to a realization about his role as Kirk that has haunted him for decades.  I doubt the two are best friends, but it’s clear there is an incredible mutual respect and genuine appreciation for the contributions both have made to science fiction and modern culture.

His visits with the rest of the captains may not be at heart-wrenching, but each is compelling in its own right.  It’s hard to not smile as Shatner and Scott Bakula (Captain Jonathan Archer) shoot the breeze over drinks at a diner, talking about the acting profession and their appreciation of each other’s work.  He visits with Mulgrew on stage at a New York theater, where the two discuss the pioneering work she did as the first female captain in Star Trek and how the work put impossible demands on both of them–the effects of which were bitterly felt by their spouses and children.

While these conversations are thoughtful and compelling, Shatner’s afternoon with Avery Brooks (Benjamin Sisko) goes somewhat off the rails.  Brooks improvs jazz licks on a piano while Shatner provides a somewhat bewildered impromptu lyrical accompaniment, and the two go off on metaphysical tangents that make me wonder if part of Brooks is still lost in the wormhole somewhere.  The weakest link by far is Shatner’s all-too-brief conversation with Chris Pine.  Even though the two men give it a good honest try, their segments are brief and lack nearly all the chemistry from the other interviews.  To their credit, neither actually has much in common besides the Kirk character, and Shatner is old enough to be Pine’s grandfather.  But whereas the role of captain serves as the genesis of Shatner’s conversations with all the other actors, it actually seems to hamper his dialogue with Pine.

There are plenty of other Star Trek documentaries and behind-the-scenes featurettes out there, but none so personal and intimate as the portraits Shatner constructs in The Captains.  It is an impressive labor of love that could have been made by only one man, and as a lifelong Star Trek fan I am grateful for the work Shatner has done to assemble this collection of interviews–if nothing else than for sheer posterity.  I would imagine this film would come across as boring or obscure to non-Trek fans, but if you wouldn’t feel at home in a Star Trek convention rubbing elbows with Klingons, Cardassians, and Orion Slave Girls, this is definitely not your kind of movie.  However, for those of us who have spent years venturing into the final frontier with the Star Trek captains, this film is a jewel and not to be missed.

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