Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


Where no man has gone before

Y’know what? I’m not too proud to announce my absolute enduring love of William Shatner.

Shatner was a big part of the twin poles of my moral and ethical upbringing, those signposts being “Star Trek” on one side and Marvel comics on the other. I’m not sure I realized just how much my entire belief system was built atop these two pop-culture foundations, but reading Sapiens last year made it all clear. Sometimes, when you apply the animal/vegetable/mineral quiz, you realize you are undeniably bauxite. I didn’t want to belong to the church of liberal humanism — of higher expectations, in a belief that humanity can and should do better, in the way promulgated by both “Star Trek” and those great Lee/Kirby Marvel comics, both of which showed us that people of different races and even different species could work together for the common good, both of which showed us what was right and what was wrong, and both of which called upon us to be our better selves — but I do.

And so this is why I bought a ticket to see Sunday’s “Shatnerfest” at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, so I could see the great man in person, even if it meant sitting through three of his middling (or worse) low-budget indie features of the 1970s.

Yes, sure, three low-rent William Shatner movies in a row. But then: William Shatner.

For the record:

“Kingdom of the Spiders” (1977) is one of the better “nature-gone-wild” horror movies of its era and, I think, of all time, and Shatner is honest-to-God impressive in it. He’s in his mid-40s, and looking fit and younger than his age, as he rides horses, ropes a steer, leaps around, and combats about a million actual live tarantulas. He’s witty and charming in the movie when it’s called for, he’s an action hero when needed, and he’s a good-looking roguish lover before Harrison Ford patented the character. Watching this movie allows you a glimpse into an alternative universe where William Shatner had a very different career.

“The Devil’s Rain” (1975) features Shatner in a supporting role, as both a 17th century reformed devil-worshipper and a modern-day combatant who loses his soul to the devil. The movie stars Ernest Borgnine and a bunch of other faded stars and soon-to-be’s, including Tom Skerritt and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him John Travolta. But it’s dull in the extreme, and, well, I drank a tall-boy beer during this one and fell asleep, safe in the knowledge that I was missing nothing. (You try staying awake for six straight hours of not-great 50-year old movies!)

Finally, “Impulse” (1974) is bad. Bad, bad, bad, in a way we once associated with drive-in movies later relegated to channel Z after midnight. It’s bad, but it’s not dull. The twin delights are Shatner as a ladies’ man who is also a demented serial killer (!!!) and a snotty pre-adolescent girl determined to foil his plans. No effort was made in making this a good movie. It was shot in 15 days (12 of them with The Shat) and for about nine bucks, but took in $4 million at the box office, making for a very good time for the director and the producers. And, judging by the audience Sunday, for audience members like me found it highly entertaining and howlingly funny.)

Then: William Shatner came out.

Shatner is 91 years old. I know other people in their 90s, and while I find them impressive in their own way, they haven’t been global pop-culture icons for going on 60 years, and they haven’t recorded albums and written novels and memoirs, and they for God’s sake have not gone up in space at age 90. They’re also not the sort of raconteur who can off-the-cuff keep an audience engaged for 45 minutes of freewheeling conversational fun without note cards and while doing lots of funny back-and-forth with the crowd.

Yes, I know The Shat has a reputation for being “difficult” (whatever that means), but I don’t care. I’ve never been called upon to make a TV show or a movie with him, and I never will be. I rely on Shatner for entertainment value, and he always delivers. Whatever he’s in, and whether he’s good in it, terrific in it, or just plain awful, he’s always always always watchable — unlike some highly regarded actors who get up their own backsides sometimes.

While I realize that William Shatner’s primary influence on my life is in playing a character he is not, I also credit him for his creativity and for his incredible drive, even at this advanced age. He is an inspiration — even to himself. One of the stories he shared Sunday was this one: When, last year, before setting sail for outer space courtesy of Jeff Bezos and earning his own “NBC News Special Report” on that spaceflight, he was given a last-minute chance while the ship was still on the gantry to change his mind and get out. He thought about it, he said… until his inner voice reminded him, “But I’m Captain Kirk!” The only course of action was onward and upward.

Shatner also said that, at age 91, he knows he’ll die soon. “Like…” he said, “in 20 or 30 years.”

Make it so.

One Response to “Where no man has gone before”

  1. Dan Says:

    I believe is was William Shatner who first publicly used the phrase “Get a life.” and thereby enriched our culture.

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