Review: The Captains (2011), a film by William Shatner

Review by Rebecca Whitus Longster

The Captains: in the beginning ~ 

At the risk of showing my inner nerd, geek, dweeb or whatever it’s called these days, I’ve got to say how pleased and impressed I was, watching William Shatner’s “affable documentary,” (Netflix) The Captains (2011).

Yet, what I found most enlightening may not have been what he intended ~ and that is the apparently huge divide between his perception of himself and his contribution to the Star Trek universe ~ and ours.

I read on the NPR site last week about his one man show, and I wonder how much material used there came from the same place as the revealing, almost intimate, glimpse The Captains ends up giving us into Shatner himself, into the man whose portrayal of Captain James T. Kirk made such an indelible mark on the universe that grew up around the original Star Trek series.

In the documentary, Shatner interviews Sir Patrick Stewart (Jean-Luc Picard), Avery Brooks (Benjamin Sisko), Kate Mulgrew (Kathryn Janeway), and Scott Bakula (Jonathan Archer), all captains of their own ships, Enterprise and otherwise, in the Star Trek universe, along with Chris Pine, the most recent Captain of the Enterprise, by virtue of his incarnation as the young Jim Kirk.

Yet the connection between these captains, forged by their shared legacy of the big chair (and, I’ve got to say, one of my favorite throw away lines in the 2009 Star Trek movie is young acting-captain Spock’s dry drawl to young not-yet-captain Kirk: “out of the chair,” during a tactical planning session) is but a framework for a discussion that becomes much less about the characters they once played than about the people they are, the things they value, and how, at least in part, their lives and perceptions of themselves have been impacted by their shared heritage and yet uniquely individual experiences as Star Trek captains.

Essentially, “polling” his “peers” in this one common (yet so uncommon) experience, on matters beyond that shared experience, Shatner himself gains insights that change, or at least aid in the change of, his own perceptions ~ and in, I think, a very positive way.

“Unprecedented,” Patrick Stewart says of the phenomenon that is Star Trek, of the fact that so much grew out of William Shatner’s portrayal of Kirk and the relationships between him and his bridge crew.

“A magical kind of relationship,” Scott Bakula says of the relationship between characters inhabited by the members of the ensemble cast at the core the original Star Trek series’ success ~ but a seemingly unique magic, he continues, as no one else had been able to replicate it.

Yet Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Carl Urban, Anton Yelchin, John Cho, and Simon Pegg (and even Bruce Greenwood) manage to recreate it in J.J. Abrams’ 2009 tour de force.

Jim Kirk’s World: we wish we lived in it

I remember how nervous I was to see the 2009 Star Trek in the theater. I had gone into the theater, the film, and the universe itself, so afraid they were going to . . . well, screw it up.

And they so didn’t.

I wasn’t sold right from the start. Not by the utterly heart wrenching scene in which George Kirk chooses to sacrifice himself to ensure the crew’s escape, even as his son is being born in the escape shuttle. The circumstances of his birth, the scant few seconds George has with his wife over the com link to share the joy and decide what to call their baby boy, their love for each other a tangible thing standing out from and separate to the chaos of the moment, is so poignant that I’m clearing my eyes of tears so I don’t miss anything ~ even as part of me is saying “that never happened” in the “real” Trek universe.

And it didn’t, this isn’t the “real” Trek universe, and the cadets who become the crew of the Enterprise aren’t the real crew of the original series. And yet, somehow it is ~ and somehow they are.

The actors’ portrayals of these iconic characters ~ Kirk, Uhura, McCoy, Spock, Chekov, Sulu, Scotty, even Captain Pike ~ are so spot on, while at the same time so delightfully unique to the actors portraying them, that you are sold on their reality perhaps by those very divergences.

I literally wept at the end ~ not because it was sad, but because it did feel so real. I had entered in to the universe once more and, somehow, I had time traveled back to the beginning of the adventure, when the young crew had it all before them. So real were they to me that I envied them that adventure.

I felt so like the older Spock, who, looking down on the scene of the young Kirk’s newly minted captaincy, murmurs, with a kind of bittersweet longing: “thrusters on full.” I was sad that I, too, must remain behind, like the older Spock, a relic, out of time.

And still, in this alternate time line of a universe, the young Captain Kirk is the linchpin, the axis on which all of the action turns and around which all of the other characters orbit, defined by their interactions with and relationship to him and each other.

Picard and Kirk: the yin and yang coalesce

While the documentary cuts back and forth between Shatner’s interviews of the different Captains, on topics as far ranging as their beliefs about what happens to us after death, and contains brief remarks by other individual stars in the Star Trek firmament, like Johnathan Frakes and even Christopher Plummer, in truth, the unifying thread is largely a conversation between Shatner and Stewart, the two most iconographic Captains of all.

It always comes back to those two, Shatner and Stewart, the yin and yang of Enterprise captains, and their discussions seem underscored by a certain depth of affection and trust between them that I find most appealing and reassuring.

But most revealing, and surprising, is Shatner’s revelation, during a discussion with Stewart, that for the longest time he felt embarrassed by his association with Star Trek, felt that people derided and looked down on him because of it ~ even in the face of the thousands of fans that show up at conventions year after year, decades after the original series wrapped, and despite the standing ovations and roof raising cheers his appearance at these conventions always occasions. For all those years, he believed that every “beam me up, Scottie” was derisive, meant to belittle, and so it seemed he would never be at peace with what has become his most memorable role.

Like Patrick Stewart, William Shatner can look back on a depth and richness that is his body of work, multiple roles well acted and scenes well played, and yet his perception of Captain Kirk as an embarrassing interlude has long cast a shadow over all of that. As Julia Roberts says in Pretty Woman: the bad things are easier to believe.

And so, unbeknownst to the rest of us, and even when those “bad things” had no substance in reality, they have been easier to believe for William Shatner ~ until now. Finally, in what is a very revealing 90 minutes, we are allowed a glimpse of insecurities we never even suspected existed within the talent and presence of our Captain Kirk. Best of all, somehow that chink of uncertainty shines a bit more light on the absurdity of our own negative perceptions of our own work and the dangers inherent in projecting that negativity onto others’ reactions and observations.

Completely in keeping with our perceptions of William Shatner and James T. Kirk, however, we are only made privy to these insecurities now that he has come to terms with them. It’s also clear that Patrick Stewart is instrumental in that resolution and influential in Shatner’s perceptual shift.

Sir Patrick Stewart in talking with Shatner reflects upon the joy he took in his role as Captain of the Enterprise in TNG, illustrating that he brought to that role the same passion he brings to the exercise of his craft and to every role he plays.

In his openness and equally revealing observations, Stewart in some way illustrates to Shatner, by his own example, the value of what they each contributed. As they talk, one can almost see that perceptual shift taking place in Shatner’s eyes and expression.

The man who originally defined the role that made him, William Shatner, as iconic as the character he inhabited, seems at last at peace with, and perhaps even proud of, that role.

Perception is a tricky thing ~ our perception of ourselves, of reality, of truth ~ of how other people perceive us. Testing our perceptions against a more objective yardstick is trickier still, I think, and requires much more courage. To forge on in spite of ones fears and insecurities is the very definition of courage, and that quality is something both Jim Kirk and Bill Shatner have always had in abundance.

For the fans, The Captains is enjoyable just for the opportunity to see again some of our favorite people, and I hope to see William Shatner’s one man show (Shatner’s World, We Just Live In It) for the same reason.

The Captains may have originally been meant to give us some insight into the shared experience of being a Star Trek Captain, or perhaps it was meant to try to discover why the Star Trek Universe continues to be such a powerful draw for so many people (the as yet untitled sequel to J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek is filming even now).

Whatever the intent, and whatever else it may be, in the end, The Captains provides us with a unique insight into the power of one’s own perception ~ for good or ill ~ even for an icon like William Shatner.


Rebecca Longster is a writer, an avid reader, and just generally addicted to words in a row. In addition to writing fiction and non-fiction, both for the web and for print publication, she currently teaches writing at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN and lives “across the river” in Lafayette, with her husband, James (artist, photographer, and renaissance man) and two crazy kitties. You can get in touch with her at or visit her website of the same name (currently under reconstruction).

About Erin Underwood

BIO: Erin Underwood is the senior event content producer for MIT Technology Review’s emerging technology events. On the side, she reads, writes, and edits SF.
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