Life as an Extreme Sport

Living in Shatner’s World

I grew up in an ecumenical household. There was no battle between the Stars – Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica. As long as it was space opera, it was welcome, and this was the influence of my father. I don’t have any memories of this starting, because it always was.

What I do remember, however, is my first.

Oh, you typically hear of “the first” – genre-wise – with regards to Doctor Who; who was your first Doctor? And while I certainly have a first Doctor (Nine, thankyouverymuch), it doesn’t have the same hold on me as my first captain.

Oh captain, my captain – Captain Kirk.

Yes, Sir Patrick Stewart was wonderful as Captain Picard, and I suspect you can trace much, if not all, of my interest in philosophy and history and most importantly, ethics, to Captain Jean-Luc Picard and his thoughtful troubleshooting and conflict resolution. I will happily debate episodes, quote Darmok to you (and Jalad, at Tanagra), and discuss all the ways in which John de Lancie was a fantastic foil to Picard.

But it’s William Shatner that is my captain. Every afternoon, Dad would make sure he was home in time to watch Star Trek with me (in reruns, obviously). We watched Kung Fu, also, but it just wasn’t the same. There was something about Star Trek. Maybe it was because I had been raised on science fiction, Dad choosing to read me scifi novels instead of children’s books. Maybe it was because of NASA and the shuttle and the sense of the potential out there – space, that final frontier. Maybe it’s because as they’ve aged, William Shatner and my father have become similar, in posture and appearance and voice. Maybe it’s a little of it all, bound together with those afternoons watching the TV, rapt, with Dad.

It’s that ephemeral thing that makes something yours, and that fondness hasn’t faded over the years, even if I haven’t always followed Shatner’s career closely.

So it was with some apprehension I looked at the Philadelphia ticket sales for Shatner’s World, William Shatner’s one-man play. While I came of age after that particular incident that was so soundly mocked on SNL, I was a con-goer when I was young, and I’d heard the stories, and I was wary. I have these wonderful memories and an enduring warmth for Shatner; did I want to risk it on a play that might snuff that out and, for lack of less poetic a term, shatter illusions?

I did what any girl in my position would do: I called my father and asked him what he would do. Was it my only chance, he asked me. I confirmed that it was, and Dad held the beat for just long enough before asking, nicely, if maybe I was a little wrong in the head.

William Shatner. When would I ever have the chance again? Sure, he’s going to be here for a comics convention in May, but that’s crowded and… different. Perhaps it’s my con-going youth, but crowds of people paying large amounts of money for a signature and perhaps a photo is just not what a con should be, and not how meeting someone you admire should be. You can call me old-fashioned, I’ll do the yelling to get off my lawn.

So I shrugged and I bought a ticket. The play, after all, had been getting wonderful reviews – at worst, I would lose a few more of the illusions that I had clung to into adulthood. At this point, there aren’t too many left, so they’d be in good company if they did go away.

But oh, oh, they didn’t. I came out of the theatre more starry-eyed and head-in-clouds than before, and so did everyone else. I have never left a show where everyone is talking about the same thing: how amazingly profound what they just saw was, and yet, that’s exactly what happened.

Shatner’s World is a retrospective of William Shatner’s life. It’s a narrative, so while it starts with him as a young man, the stories are what link the show together, rather than strictly linear narration. Shatner’s. Famed. Delivery. is not on hand here, save for casual mocking – instead, it was more like listening to a good friend tell a story – a long, engrossing story that you don’t want to end. This play wasn’t polished; he stuttered and stammered, he got lost in his story, he slipped up and misspoke and corrected and laughed – or then again, maybe the play was just that polished, that these slip-ups that felt natural were worked in to feel natural.

That, right there, is the genius of the experience – while clearly being rehearsed, it felt not-rehearsed-at-all. And Shatner is fast on his feet; he had quippy remarks for the crowd, especially as they reacted to young and shirtless images of him, and the poor person handling the spotlight had a rough time of it when his (or her) aim was off, and Shatner started deviating from his story to give staging directions.

Or was that scripted, too? I couldn’t tell you.

Here’s the thing: I’ve been a fan for my entire life, so I know these stories. I know about his horses, I know about the tragic death of his beloved Nerine and how he found love again. I know the Star Trek saga inside and out, the rivalries and friendships. I know the jokes about him doing anything for money, about the CDs and Priceline and on and on…

And yet I sat, rapt. I was leaning forward on the edge of my (very nice, thank you again lovely usher who moved me to a plush box seat with generous leg room) seat, absorbed in everything Shatner said. And I wasn’t the only one. When I did pull my eyes off the stage to see how the crowd was reacting, rather than just hearing the sighs and laughter, it was hard to miss the fact that almost everyone else was leaning forward, too. Drawn in, and to, attention.

I don’t know that I expected to laugh, but I hoped, and I did – hard and often. What I didn’t expect was to tear up, which I also did at several points, and where I also know I wasn’t the only one, because you could hear the sniffles traveling through the crowd. And it wasn’t at the necessarily expected points, either – it was in moments like hearing his sorrow over his horse, his acceptance at being Captain Kirk, his pride at the house his kidney stone bought, in his first trip to NASA and his final recording for Discovery.

It was in the tender, and the funny – and he was able to turn a story from one to another in the span of a few steps across the sparse stage.

Shatner gets mocked a lot for saying yes – he’s known for doing almost anything put in front of him. But he explained this philosophy in his show, and it makes sense: it’s easy to say no. It’s easy to stay inside, away from the world, disengaged. But one of the hardest things you can do is say yes. Yes to opportunity, yes to life, yes to potentially making a fool of yourself, yes to wonder and awe – yes to love.

Is it Shatner’s World? It is while he’s on the stage, and I’m lucky enough that – even in such a culturally distant way, he’s so central to mine. So perhaps it’s not surprising that I think the ultimate answer to that question, is yes.

The End of the Shuttle Era

I took a nap rather than actually sleep through the night, in order to watch STS-135 (Atlantis) land for the final time. For the entire space shuttle program’s final time.

Atlantis Landing
The last shuttle landing, via NASA TV

The shuttle program is 33 years old. I grew up watching the shuttles, from the Enterprise OV tests to Challenger and Columbia and all the launches and successes between. And now this, the bittersweet end. A program that started because JFK realized the importance of manned exploration of the world beyond ours, fueled by a space race against those evil commie Russians, now ends with American reliance on the Russians to get to the ISS at all.

There might be a modicum of irony in that.

Yes, the shuttle program is expensive – but it’s the kind of expensive I want my tax dollars going to. It’s the kind of expensive that brings back miraculous and amazing technology, research, and discovery. So much of the world around us has come from NASA – yes, more than just Tang. Whether you realize it or not, the space shuttle program has touched your life, immediately and directly.

And now it’s gone.

Sure, there’s talk of privatization, but that’s still several years off at the very least and optimistic. And NASA says that they will shift their focus to manned space exploration, to Mars and beyond. And of course, Voyager and Voyager2 are still out there, still threatening to become V’ger, and there are the Mars rovers and the list of what NASA is doing is still impressively long.

But it’s not the same, and I have my doubts about some of these things ever happening, like a manned voyage to Mars. Right now, our country doesn’t value science, exploration, or discovery. We have managed to lose that adventurous spirit that defined everyone who came to America looking not just for something more and something better, but for the answer to the simple question: what’s beyond that horizon?

Religion and politics have split us asunder in the last twenty years, and a casualty of that war is our national curiousity, our pride in scientific advancement pushed by brilliant American minds, and now, our shuttle – and space – program.

Speaking to History

The NASA announcer got a bit poetic welcoming Endeavour home this evening – and why not? How often do you go into a situation knowing that you’re speaking to history? Most of the time, we recognize history in hindsight, and it’s pieced together from the banal comments and reactions that were of the time.

But not this time. This time, everyone knew that this was it. This was the 25th and final flight for Endeavour, the penultimate landing for the entire US space shuttle program. History. She has spent 299 days in space, orbited Earth 4,671 times, and traveled 122,883,151 miles. Everything about this was historic – so why not take a minute to wax poetic, not only to the returning astronauts and watching and listening viewers, but to whomever will be writing this history down, in some future history of the space program book? If nothing else, the act of speaking the words put them to paper (and print and digital and all sorts of media, I’m sure), archiving them for future curious souls.

“It’s sad to see her land for the last time, but she really has a great legacy.” -Commander Mark Kelly