William Shatner wants to go back into space, explore the universe and go on a thousand new adventures light years away from earth. This time, though, it would be for real. The veteran Star Trek actor might be 89 and grappling with the day-to-day realities of a pandemic, but he is optimistic and confident that he can still relaunch his mission. “Before the virus hit, we were on the road – we pretty much had a show which would have involved me going into space. It will all reveal itself eventually,” he says.
Shatner, for many, is a cult figure, venerated by Star Trek fans – “Trekkies” – for his part in a franchise that captured the hearts and imaginations of generations around the world. He played the wise Captain Kirk in the first series in the 60s and starred in the first seven films – it was he who articulated the grand mission statement at the beginning of each episode. “Space. The final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds: to seek out new life and new civilisations: to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
But Shatner has not been in Star Trek for more than 25 years. His last performance was in the film Star Trek: Generations, when his character died. Since then, he has been incredibly busy as a producer, writer – of memoirs, Star Trek novels, and his own original science fiction series, TekWar – and critically acclaimed singer-songwriter, (he released his debut country album Why Not Me? with Jeff Cook last year, and is known for his spoken-word covers of Pulp’s “Common People” and often-parodied version of Elton John’s “Rocket Man”). He’s a talk show regular and a stand-up comedian and in his spare time, he is a committed and enthusiastic horse and dog trainer.
Arguably, though, Shatner’s longest-lasting role has been himself – or, perhaps, the buoyant persona that he projects on screen in TV shows and adverts. It is a surreal experience interviewing Shatner over Zoom. He is larger than life, makes intense eye contact and is self-deprecating throughout. He is talking to me from his home in California, in the San Fernando Valley, as he promotes the second series of The UnXplained on Sky History.
In Shatner’s words, his non-fiction series explores “mysteries of life and death, of space and UFOs, of places where terrible things seem to happen all the time and of people who have had brain injuries and come out doing something completely foreign to them”. The first episode in the new series, “The Oak Island Curse”, explores why treasure hunters have been coming to a small island in the north Atlantic for the past 200 years. There are rumours that treasure was once buried on the island, perhaps by pirates.
Shatner interviews historians and bereaved family members of treasure hunters to look at what drives people to spend years searching for something which may not exist. Six people have so far died while drilling deep into the earth. A “parapsychologist” is interviewed as Shatner tries to examine whether the island may actually be cursed.
In the first series, Shatner explored subjects as varied and (perhaps) unanswerable as what happens to us when we die to how structures such as the Great Pyramid at Giza were built. The idea that there may be outside “forces” is always on the table. For viewers who are sceptical about the paranormal, the show is often unintentionally funny, but also explores genuinely compelling mysteries. When I ask Shatner whether he believes in the paranormal, he does not initially answer the question, preferring instead to talk about the subjects in his show. He does eventually tell me: “Something is out there, beyond our lives, and that’s what I believe.”
Could his background have influenced these beliefs? Shatner grew up in a Jewish household in Canada and is descended from Eastern European rabbis. He has a liberal interpretation of the faith. “The Jewish religion is amorphous about what’s out there. It does not say this person came down from heaven and made miracles. What it says is that there is a spirit, ‘something’ created something. It’s the mystery – we worship the mystery, the idea of the unified God.”
Shatner caused a stir on the internet recently when he appeared to suggest that he would never again play Captain Kirk. The new Star Trek spin-off, Star Trek: Picard, stars Sir Patrick Stewart in the titular role. A fan asked Shatner whether he would consider reviving Captain Kirk in a new series, to which he responded brusquely on Twitter. “No. I think Kirk’s story is pretty well played out at this point.” He later clarified: “I don’t do cameos (that one stretches back to 2008 & JJ) [referring to the 2009 Star Trek film which was directed by JJ Abrams, and in which he was not offered a role]. Kirk’s story is [the most] well told out of any other captain’s story: Kirk died in Generations. What is really left? Adventures in the ribbon?”
Touchy subject, but I chance bringing it up again. His answer is a direct pitch to a future director. “If they wrote a good role and paid me well, my goodness, why wouldn’t I do that?” Shatner’s wealth is estimated at $100m (£79m) and he has recently divorced his fourth wife.
I wonder whether he ever gets tired of people asking him about Star Trek. But he is still happy to talk about it at length. He says it still resonates so deeply because of “maybe two things. One is that the future actually exists – that we will still be around in 300 years from now – and also the fact that it is a positive story.”
The series reflects people’s hopes, dreams and fears. Characters fight, fall in love, misunderstand one another’s intentions and rely on their friendships, just as they would do on earth. “Most really good science fiction does that – it projects the future, but human nature is still the same,” he says.
Shatner thinks that part of the appeal of Star Trek is that it shows humans as alive and kicking in 300 years’ time. He is not entirely convinced, though and becomes most animated, focused and serious when he talks about climate change. He clearly cares about taking steps to minimise global warming, rather than relying on jetting off to a different planet.
“I think this pandemic is a rehearsal for climate change. In 50 to 100 years from now cities will start going under water and we will lose arable land. And, at the same time, this pandemic shows us what can be done. The air is cleaner than it has been since the Second World War. The answer to global warming may just be this very thing – not the pandemic, but closing down and working without cars as much as possible.”
He leaves me with a small glimmer of hope and a call to action in his otherwise stark prognosis. “Things are going to change as a result of climate warming,” he says. “It is just a matter of whether it is catastrophic or if it is something that human beings can survive. That difference is between what we do now in the next 20 years.”