The Captains DVD Review

The Captains
Written and Directed by: William Shatner
Starring: William Shatner, Patrick Stewart, Avery Brooks, Kate Mulgrew, Scott Bakula, Chris Pine

The Captains is a documentary made for fans of Star Trek. It features interviews with the actors who starred as starship captains in the Star Trek franchise. What makes this Star Trek documentary unique is that it was written and directed by William Shatner, the second actor to play a starship captain. (Shatner replaced the first actor as captain, Jeffrey Hunter, who starred in only the pilot episode of Star Trek. Hunter has gone on to the final frontier, and so was not contacted for an interview.) Also the interviews were conducted by Shatner, who appears on-screen with his interviewees. On viewing this documentary, it soon becomes apparent that its focus is not on Star Trek, but rather on Shatner himself.

I confess. I am a lapsed Trekkie. I suppose my faith waivered because I was disappointed in Star Trek (2009). Perhaps I couldn’t let go of the fact that William Shatner was no longer Captain Kirk. I grew up with the original series, and William Shatner will always be my favourite captain. For many males including myself, Shatner’s Captain Kirk was the embodiment of masculinity: he commanded the respect of those being led by him; he fearlessly encountered the unknown; and he attracted females wherever he travelled. None of the later captains for whatever reasons were able to highlight these characteristics in the way Shatner did in my mind. Even when there was a conscious attempt to emulate these original characteristics in the last Star Trek series to date with Scott Bakula’s Captain Archer, the general public did not seem to take notice. Every Star Trek fan has his own favourite captain, though, so interviewing all of them seems like the best way to appeal to as many people as possible.

The documentary opens with Shatner being greeted on a runway tarmac by Steve Ridolfi who is the President of Bombardier Business Aircraft, Bombardier Aerospace Inc. (Note that in the “making of” documentary on the DVD, he is misidentified as Pierre Beaudoin who is President and Chief Executive Officer of Bombardier Inc. and also the Director of Bombardier Aerospace Inc.) Bombardier, not Priceline, provided a business Global aircraft for Shatner and the Canadian film crew to fly to the various cities in which the actors were situated at the time of filming. Coincidentally, Bombardier is based in Shatner’s hometown of Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Shatner is the guest speaker at Bombardier Aerospace’s 15th Safety Standdown this year.) Ridolfi is filmed telling Shatner how Captain Kirk and Star Trek inspired him to get into aeronautical engineering. I’m sure Shatner hears this all the time, especially when he interviewed scientists for his book, “I’m Working on That,” and in the documentary, “How William Shatner Changed the World.” But conveniently, this incident will be referenced by Shatner at the end of the documentary when he discusses an epiphany with Patrick Stewart.

There is an effort made to vary the settings in which the actors are interviewed, taking advantage of the various locales. An effort is also made to visually introduce each of the actors in a unique way depending on the location. The most inventive is probably the introduction of Kate Mulgrew in New York which is done by surprising her on the street with Shatner hidden inside a large cardboard box. Multiple HD cameras were used, and sometimes rapid editing is used. The background piano music lends an air of classiness to the interviews.

People who have watched Shatner’s Raw Nerve television interview series will be familiar with Shatner’s interviewing style. It can be intimate at times, and occasionally, Shatner inadvertently interrupts someone’s train of thought in an answer. Since this documentary edits the actors’ answers together, the flow is rather smooth. Still, Shatner’s interview with Avery Brooks is the most bizarre through no fault of Shatner’s, I presume. To be fair, perhaps Brooks thought the questions were annoying. I think Shatner makes the interview work because he goes along with Brooks’ antic of answering questions by playing jazz piano. I think this is the first time that I’ve ever seen Shatner actually try to sing. The improvised vocal duets that he does with Brooks are hypnotic.

In Shatner’s encounter with Chris Pine, Shatner mentions that he enjoyed Pine’s performance in Unstoppable. I still don’t know if Shatner has watched Chris Pine in Star Trek (2009). It’s like Shatner is wearing a badge of honour in not having bothered to watch it. Shatner’s interview with Kate Mulgrew is the most emotional with Shatner getting Mulgrew to admit that it’s impossible for a woman to be successful at both motherhood in real-life and being a starship captain on television. Shatner has a friendly camaraderie with Scott Bakula, and is shown teaching him how to ride a horse. It is no surprise that Shatner seems most at ease with Patrick Stewart with whom he worked on a Star Trek movie.

One thing I find annoying in all Star Trek documentaries is the use of clips from the Star Trek television series and movies. I suppose these might be helpful for people who haven’t seen everything like I have, but to me, it’s just filler. This documentary occasionally shows a clip here and there, and they’re not overly intrusive. (There is a strange use of a clip run backwards of Voyager going into warp.) For Star Trek fans hoping to see other Star Trek actors, there are short interview segments with Jonathan Frakes, Robert Picardo, Nana Visitor, Rene Auberjonois, Connor Trinneer, and Jeri Ryan. It’s funny to see Shatner greet each woman who has been in Star Trek as “the most beautiful woman in Star Trek.” So that’s how Captain Kirk was able to land so many human and alien babes.

In the past, Shatner has gone undercover at Star Trek conventions wearing a gorilla mask. In this documentary, he is filmed casually strolling through a Star Trek convention while the camera catches the surprised reactions of Trekkies. It’s fun to see Shatner quietly sneak into a group of Trekkies in costume being photographed. I suppose that at his age, Shatner commands such respect that he doesn’t need an entourage protecting him, but his bodyguards are undoubtedly off-screen and nearby. Although it’s fun to see this convention footage including the requisite Trekkie interviews, one has to wonder if Shatner didn’t think there was enough interest in the actor interviews to support the entire documentary. Or maybe he knows what Trekkies want to see. There is also a section where he interviews a fellow Canadian actor, Christopher Plummer, who did not portray a starship captain, but rather a Klingon general. Plummer’s inclusion in this documentary has more to do with his time with Shatner at the Stratford Festival where they performed in Shakespeare’s plays.

The actor interviews are edited so all the actors are introduced within the first half an hour. Their responses are grouped around specific lines of questioning that reflect Shatner’s life and concerns. For example, each actor in turn discusses how they got into acting and this leads to Shatner telling about his early experience of how he made audience members cry as a kid acting in a play about the Holocaust. So does interviewing the actors who have portrayed starship captains provide any enlightenment as to what it takes to be a starship captain in Star Trek? Stage experience is common to all the actors, but this isn’t much of a revelation. There is also a discussion of how being the star of a television series affects family life due to the long hours. I don’t think Shatner knows much about the other Star Trek series, and I don’t think he spent much time reading about the actors he interviewed. He is shown reading a research folder on one of the jet trips, but I imagine he was hoping to find insight during the actual interviews. You might think to portray an effective leader that having experience as a leader in real life might help. But this is not addressed. Unfortunately, I don’t think Shatner was successful at uncovering new ground.

There is nary a mention of one French-Canadian actress, Genevieve Bujold, who was hired as the Star Trek captain on Star Trek Voyager, but who lasted only a week before she quit due to the long hours. It is doubtful she would have consented to be interviewed, but it would have been interesting to hear her speak as I don’t believe she has ever talked publicly about her time with Star Trek.

At this point in his life, Shatner confesses that he has been in denial about Star Trek and Captain Kirk’s popularity and influence. He has been insecure all his life. Knowing that he had an authorized biography written in 1979 seems to confirm this. He probably thought that at age 48, he wouldn’t accomplish much more in life. (On the contrary, Shatner detractors might see this as an act of hubris in thinking that he would have much to say at that point in his life.) I have read much about Shatner and the other actors, and there is not much revealed that I was not already aware of through other sources. But it is fun seeing the actors on screen and seemingly enjoying Shatner’s company. There are a few short video clips of early Shatner that I’ve never seen before. As I mentioned earlier, Shatner does have an epiphany at the end of the documentary, and whether genuine or not (it’s hard to tell when Shatner is being sincere), it is kind of heartwarming to hear, especially if Shatner as Captain Kirk is a “hero” of yours.

Promotional materials have listed this documentary at 120 minutes, but my DVD version is 96 minutes. There is undoubtedly much unused footage, but the only extras on the DVD are the trailer and an 11 minute “making of” documentary.

I doubt that someone not familiar with Star Trek would enjoy this documentary, although there is the interesting element of discovering what preoccupies the mind of someone famous in the twilight years of his life. If you’re only a casual fan of Shatner, then you might be disappointed. It probably goes without saying, but if you’re a fan of William Shatner, then you’ll enjoy watching this documentary. And if you ever get a chance to audition for the role of a starship captain in a Star Trek television series, then I highly recommend you watch this documentary first. — Reed

SCORE: 1.5 stars

  • Paul Andrews

    Nice review. Ex captains prefer chinos it seems.

  • Gerry

    Hi Reed,

    Good to see you contributing to Film Junk. You’ve been sorely missed.

    What about another Cantankerous soon?

    And another holiday shopping special? You could film it this time. I don’t pay for podcasts but that’s something I’d happily pay a dollar (UK 59P) for.

    Best wishes.

  • Thx, Paul and Gerry.

    No Cantankerous or other podcasts or film projects in the works.

  • Paul Andrews

    That’s too bad – I’d love to hear about your Star Trek ‘crisis of faith’.