The Captains debuts tonight on EPIX at 8 p.m. Eastern.
William Shatner, the narrator, star and director of, The Captains, is not known for his modesty. Shatner’s rollicking sense of self-importance has come to define him in the decades since he played Captain Kirk on Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek. So it’s not exactly shocking to hear him introduce The Captains by bragging, “My name is William Shatner and I was a Starship Captain. But I wasn’t the only one.” He goes on to tell us that The Captains is about what makes each actor that’s played a Starfleet captain since him unique. It’s “a journey of discovery by me, you and ultimately, them.” In reality, The Captains is a schmaltzy, skimpy group character study about how talented, grateful and humble the Trek captains are. It’s a canned narrative disguised as a documentary starring William Shatner and his ego and featuring a couple of other talented actors.
The self-important Shatner that we know and mostly love takes center stage immediately in The Captains. In one preliminary scene filmed at a scifi convention, he photobombs a crowd of cosplayers. Unlike other photobombers, Shatner doesn’t sneak up behind his fans—he leaps in front of them. They gasp appropriately and prove his foregone conclusion that he’s about to blow their tiny little minds just by being near them. Still, watching The Captains from my living room, I don’t get a contact high just by looking at an image of Shatner like these ebullient fans did from actually seeing him in the flesh. As such, the scene looks like Shatner giving himself a boost by abusing the power he knows he wields over the minds of so many impressionable nerds.
Technically, that’s the way Shatner wants us to see it. The film’s big emotional bookends are scenes where he contemplates a chance meeting he has with the president of Bombardier, the airline that made the jet he flew into this latest convention on. Shatner tells us that he has “to think about” the fact that this fan was inspired to become an aeronautical engineer because of Star Trek. Shatner doesn’t let the poor guy speak for himself but rather uses voiceover narration to talk over and summarize his conversation with him. It’s also important to note how naturally Shatner makes a self-serving leap in logic from saying that this man decided to build planes because of Star Trek to, “He became an aeronautical engineer because of me.”
But still, Shatner says he’s not comfortable with the idea of being associated exclusively with Captain James Tiberius Kirk or of being a nerd idol. It brings out the “derisive” side in him, he says to Patrick Stewart. That concept is, depending on how much you buy Shatner’s self-pitying schtick, either confirmed or denied in a scene where he asks an elderly woman on the street if Star Trek ever changed her life. Unfortunately, he only tells Stewart that he can’t stop himself from being “derisive” (he says it three times) much later on in The Captains. We’re meant to think that that thought is on his mind while he’s talking to all the other captains. Too bad he doesn’t spell this out for us early on. If he did, we would at least know what he was thinking when he asks his fellow captains how they were able to balance their professional aspirations with their home life, what they think of when they think of death and what acting does for them.
Then again, even if he did initially explain that he’s looking to better understand himself through others’ experiences, Shatner’s skills as both an interviewer and a documentary filmmaker would still leave a lot to be desired. More often than not, his overzealousness makes him look incoherent—but ebullient! He sets up each of his interview subjects with bizarre and faux-cutesy scenes, like arm-wrestling Chris Pine right outside the entrance of Paramount Studios or arranging to meet Mulgrew, a New York City resident, on the street while hanging out inside a cardboard box marked “Captain Inside.” Presumably, these sequences are meant to show Shatner palling around with his successors. But half of these jokes are just too flat out bizarre to be intentionally funny, like when he and Scot Bakula, both on horseback, take turns sing “If I Were a Rich Man.” I’m not sure there’s a context where that joke is either comprehensible or funny on purpose.
More importantly, I’m not sure how knowing that both Bakula and Avery Brooks have musical talents or that Mulgrew was a single mother of two children when she starred in Star Trek: Voyager necessarily makes them seem more real or more individualistic. All it tells me is that they had lives outside of starring in Star Trek spin-offs. Shatner doesn’t want to talk about what makes the characters they played unique and that’s fine. But most of his interview footage doesn’t really get at what it’s like to be these actors beyond some generic, albeit heart-felt, replies about how hard these actors have worked, what they think about the after-life, etc. I mean, it’s nice to know that Bakula thinks that, “as you get older, I think you get more grateful.” But if you’re not already high off the fact that this is Scott Bakula, former star of Quantum Leap and then later Enterprise, talking here, why would you really care about what he has to say? You’re either automatically fascinated with everything these guys have to say or you’re not going to take away much from The Captains.
None of Shatner’s interivew footage is helped by the poor directorial decisions in the editing bay. He has an obnoxious habit of cutting scenes in such a way that the viewer can’t help but feel that being an egomaniac is more than just schtick at this point. Take one interview segment with Stewart that Shatner concludes with a close-up of himself nodding his head after Stewart says, “You set the form, the quality, the shape of that series.” Or how about when Voyager’s Robert Picardo jokes that the true popularity of a Captain can be judged based on whether or not his or her action figure is still in stock. He finds Stewart’s figure pretty easily. But he can’t find Shatner’s. And he tells the camera that. And that’s the end of the scene.
Shatner’s ego is totally out of control here. He pours it on especially thick at the end of The Captains when he stands onstage dressed entirely in white while four different flood lights are trained on him. He says: “So, Scotty, wherever you are: it’s okay for you to beam me up. But not yet!” Bakula may be right about how age breeds humbleness. But in Shatner’s case, it hasn’t quite managed to tame his raging sense of self-love.