Television shows and fads come and go. But not Star Trek. Ever since its 1966 debut, the television series has been at the forefront of sci-fi pop culture, steadily inspiring and wowing viewers new and old. The series often addressed social issues and taught tolerance and acceptance, encouraging curiosity — and to boldly explore beyond one’s world.
For the past 50 years, William Shatner has wowed audiences as an award-winning actor, producer, director and writer. But he’s still best known for playing the character Captain Kirk on the much-loved series. On Saturday March 24, audiences at the Riverside Theater will be treated to a screening of the 1982 film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, followed by a discussion and audience Q&A led by Captain James T. Kirk himself, William Shatner.
Below is a condensed and edited transcript of our recent conversation.
What can people expect from your discussion after the film screening?
I’ll come on stage afterwards and people will ask me questions about the movie or themselves or life in general. And I’ll do my best to answer the amusing and entertaining and informative and all of the above.
What are some of your favorite Milwaukee related experiences?
Well, that’s a good question. I did appear in Milwaukee years and years ago in a play that I did on tour. And I had a fascinating experience in Milwaukee with people there and the theater company. Then I came back about five years ago with a one man show that I had done on Broadway [called “Shatner’s World”]. I came to Milwaukee and it was very successful.
Also, a choreographer [named Margo Sappington] asked if she could choreograph a ballet to several songs that I had on an album [called “Has Been”] that I had made with Ben Folds [Editor’s Note: the ballet, titled “Common People” was created for Milwaukee Ballet]. And I said yes. My wife and I came out for the opening and we watched a ballet done to songs that I had written. And we cried quietly in the corner. It was so beautiful. And then it became an award-winning documentary called “Gonzo Ballet.”
Are you planning to visit the Bronze Fonz statue?[laughs] There’s a Fonz statue in Milwaukee?
Yes, it’s right along the river.
I’ll have to go there. [Henry Winkler] has become a good friend of mine. I do a show with him that’s gotten quite popular called “Better Late than Never.”
I’ve really enjoyed watching that show.
Oh, that’s great. I’m glad you did.
I’m also doing two albums. Jeff Cook of Alabama and I are doing a country western album. I’m also working on an album of Christmas songs, sort of an offbeat album of Christmas songs. I’m working on various other entertaining things as well.
What do you think of Star Trek’s lasting influence on sci-fi culture?
I think it did a lot. I can’t quantify that. I don’t know how specifically. But Star Trek the series and many of the movies were good science fiction stories. The concept that you need a good story to make a good sci-fi movie became prevalent. I read a lot of sci-fi before I became connected with Star Trek and I got to meet some of the wonderful science fiction writers, who I don’t think are alive today. Science fiction before Star Trek and after Star Trek, I think science fiction propelled Star Trek into being and Star Trek enhanced science fiction from then on.
Who or what aspect of Wrath of Khan resonates most with you all these years later?
I think Ricardo Montalbán, who was in the original [“Space Seed”] segment in Star Trek and did the movie, was magnificent. I had seen him years before, but I didn’t quite know him more than to nod in his direction. But I got to know him after making the movie. He became a wonderful acquaintance of mine. I was with him close to the end. I wasn’t there when he died but close to it. He was a wonderful dancer in his earlier years and a wonderful actor and leading man. On top of all of that he was a wonderful guy. I appreciated Ricardo Montalbán more than anybody.
You’ve had some entertaining interactions with people like Mark Hamill on Twitter but have also used it to promote things that mean a lot to you. Why do you feel Twitter is a useful tool?
Well, Twitter, as we’ve seen from our president, is a whole game-changer in publicizing something or getting something out there. I run a charity called the Hollywood Charity Horse Show. [Twitter helps with] raising funds by getting people to contribute items for silent auction or actually contributing funds for children and veterans. It’s a wonderful way to get awareness.
In addition to that, in defiance of all of the ugliness that we see on Twitter, I believe that there’s a really large number of people who have goodwill and can be reached through Twitter. I’ve started a campaign called Ubuntu, which is a Swahili word which means humanity. I want to encourage people on Twitter to help their neighbor. I’m using Twitter as a means of helping people. That’s basically the reason why I’m out there tweeting as I do.
Your Khan yell in the movie is one of the most iconic and memed scenes of the movie. How did you prepare to do that scene?[laughs] Well, there is a range of hot peppers that you can get from Mexico. So, I started with the low-grade pepper, and got to the very hottest where it burns your mouth. And then we filmed it. How does that sound?
That sounds like quite a story.
That’s exactly what it is. I’m an actor. If you want me to yell, Josh, you do it.
It sounds like you found a possible way to return to Star Trek if you’re asked. Can you talk about that?
I’ve joined a virtual reality company [called Ziva]. I think it’s one of the big entertainment forces of the future. So, one day they photographed me with 250 cameras and spent the day getting my virtual image electronically down. And now they can make me look, do, sound and act in any way they want. Contractually I have control of that. They can make me look a lot younger. I believe I said one way to get back into Star Trek is to do this virtual reality youthful program. But it’s a half-joke.
What you think of Quentin Tarantino directing the first R-rated Trek movie?[laughs] God knows what he’s going to do. He’s a madman. He’s been a fan of Star Trek for a long time. I’ll be as interested as everybody else to see what he does.
Go See It: William Shatner Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan at the Riverside Theater; Saturday, March 24