Writing about a talk by William Shatner is like dancing about tribbles. That’s because when it comes to the man who has been the living, breathing conduit of Star Trek’s Captain James T. Kirk for 50 years, words don’t convey his rhythm, his particular manner of speaking. For the most part, he speaks in an average cadence. But when he’s excited, his dramatic pauses are as amped up as his volume.
At Star Trek: Mission New York, the Star Trek convention held this weekend at the Javits Center, Shatner explained to a packed audience how he developed his memorable diction. He was the co-star of the play The World of Suzie Wong—and the reviews were just terrible. “All seven papers hated it. ‘If this thing were alive, it should be dead.’ Every paper just HATED it. How bad was it? I’ll tell you. Whole rows of people would get up and leave.”
One month later, as yet another audience member was about to walk out, Shatner told his co-star France Nuyen in character, “SIT DOWN, SUZIE WONG!” And then the audience member sat down. “Well, that worked," said Shatner. "I made up a speech. I’d say things that aren’t in the play. But I made them sit down.” And thus Shatner’s mannerisms were born. Instead of closing, the play ran for two years.
The experience stuck with him in more ways than one. When an audience member tried to leave, Shatner ordered, “SIT DOWN!” (He graciously relented a moment later, when the fan explained he needed to use the bathroom.)
He’s equally outspoken when it comes to acting. When asked for advice on becoming an actor, Shatner said, “Why would you do that and not be an astrophysicist? You can be an astrophysicist. You could do some good. … Go to school, people.”
Shatner has been spending time with astrophysicists recently, for his upcoming documentary, The Truth Is in Our Stars. “They’re theorizing. They’re thinking about possibilities that science fiction writers think about. And they do mathematics to prove [their theories]. … Astrophysics is so romantic.”
What he doesn’t romanticize is Star Trek itself. Shatner has has rarely seen episodes of classic Star Trek and has never seen an episode of latter-day Treks. He had once skewered his fans for their over-the-top enthusiasm in a Saturday Night Live skit, “Get a Life,” which he wrote himself.
However, he can at least explain its ongoing popularity, thanks to some soul-searching, which led to his work as as a director on the documentaries The Captains, Get a Life and Chaos on the Bridge, which are about Star Trek and its cultural impact.
“I discovered that it’s all to do with mythology. … [Star Trek] seeks to explain that which has no explanation, and we’re here doing the ritual, the autographs and the pictures, and things are part of the ritual of mythology. We’re here because of the mystique of the awe and wonder of what’s out there.”
Star Trek has not only become a modern mythological touchstone but also has served as an inspiration, as the NASA scientists who spoke on several panels at the convention could attest ... as can Shatner himself. When Shatner was looking at the budget for The Captains, he realized he could never afford the flights he needed to secure his interviews with other Star Trek actors. He called Canadian airline Bombardier to ask the CEO, “Can you lend me an airplane?”
The CEO later told him, “I became an aeronautical engineer because of Star Trek, and this is payback. Here’s your airplane.”