Synopsis: At the center of each incarnation of Star Trek is what has becomes a truly iconic character: The Captain. The Captains Close up is a five episode mini-series that provides an in-depth look at each of the actors that have inhabited this role through the eyes of the man who played the first Captain over 45 years ago: William Shatner.
Includes: William Shatner, Patrick Stewart, Avery Brooks, Kate Mulgrew and Scott Bakula
eyelights: Patrick Stewart. Kate Mulgrew. William Shatner’s relative maturity.
eyesores: William Shatner’s hyperbolic persona.
After the infuriating ‘The Captains‘, I was in no mood for more William Shatner; his omnipresent egotism and distinct lack of class overwhelm and overshadow everything in his path. So it was with some trepidation that decided to take on ‘The Captains Close Up’, the 2013 5-part TV mini-series that was built on the foundations of 2011’s ‘The Captains’.
Honestly, I figured that this would simply be an extended version of the same thing, except with outtakes padding the material and all re-edited to focus on each individual actor. Mostly, I expected just more of the same lame blathering by Shatner, who had basically railroaded the original programme by making it all about himself instead of the titular captains.
Let’s just say that, after the debacle that was the first programme, and given his long-standing reputation, I didn’t trust Shatner to helm this project with the grace that it deserved. Frankly, I thought it was just a way milk the fans a little further. But I was surprised to discover that he must have seen the errors of his ways, and righted the ship with this outing.
The mini-series consists of five half-hour episodes, featuring each Star Trek actor chronologically:
1. William Shatner: This episode focuses on the first captain, the one and only, William Shatner. Although most of it comprises of an interview conducted by Kate Mulgrew in an empty 125-seat theatre, there are also briefer ones with Scott Bakula, Avery Brooks, Jonathan Frakes, Walter Koenig, Chris Pine, Patrick Stewart, and Grace Lee Whitney, amongst others. Mulgrew is a terrific interviewer, composed, intelligent and incisive – she pretty much tells him to his face that he’s crazy, but unique, right from the start. Wow. That’s ballsy, given that it’s his episode and that he directed and produced the programme.
In this one, Shatner briefly discussed his early opportunities and getting the call from Roddenberry. He talked about his career on TV and even his music – though he admitted that he can’t sing (not that this will stop him!). He seemed to express regret about being married very early, and having kids right away; his grueling work schedule, along with his philandering, destroyed his marriages. He admitted to still being worried about getting work, though he’s never been busier. When he’s asked by Mulgrew to pick work or love, he reasons that you can’t love if you’re worried about survival – and that work is a basic part of survival, so it’s more compelling. It paints the portrait of an insecure workaholic and it humanizes him in a way that ‘The Captains’ failed to do.
Of note: 1) See him at rehearsals for “Shatner’s World”, a one-man show that he stars in and that is still running to this day. It really doesn’t seem that great, more like a cheap way to make money. 2) Ironically, there’s an equal amount (or more) of footage with Chris Pine here than in ‘The Captains’, which was three times the length – it gives him more relative screen time. 8.0
2. Patrick Stewart: This episode finds William Shatner visiting Patrick Stewart at his country home, with the two sitting on the backyard steps. Together they talk about Stewart’s family history, how his 15-year-older brother went to war, and the impact that had. He went to a tough enough school that some of the kids ended up in jail. To give us further perspective on the British society of the day, Shatner provides a quick backgrounder on the British school system. It was a rough life, furthered by the domestic abuse that he witnessed at home (he seizes the opportunity to highlight Refuge, a domestic abuse organization that he works with).
Stewart talks about how he used acting as a means of escape, starting relatively early. He did a lot of Shakespeare, making a name for himself and, by the 1980s, landed small roles on television. They talk about how he wasn’t the first choice for Captain Picard; Roddenberry didn’t want him. They discussed the pressure he felt at filling Kirk’s shoes, how he didn’t even dare to watch all of the original show’s three seasons. In the early years, he worked like mad to be ready for each episode that they did, practicing his lines six days a week – on top of filming. And yet he really didn’t expect it to work, as he kept being told that revivals of iconic shows usually failed. The episode is also peppered by interviews with John de Lancie, Michael Dorn, Jonathan Frakes, Gates McFadden and the producers of ‘Star trek: The Next Generation’.
Of note: 1) Stewart’s son, Daniel, joined the two captains in a discussion of their craft, with Daniel explaining how his father helped him with his own acting. Stewart pointed to the first 20 years of Jack Nicholson’s film career as reference for skilled performances. 2) Stewart talks about his failures in marriage. Dang, he’s so candid that it feels real, even though it must have been rehearsed somewhat. He’s beyond awesome: Either he’s über real, or he’s an über actor. I wuv Patrick Stewart. 8.5
3. Avery Brooks: In ‘The Captains’, Avery Brooks was so baffling that one couldn’t help but wonder if he was stoned, out of his mind, or just… um… different. Well, Shatner admits defeat early on, saying Brooks isn’t easy to describe or define. Brooks talks in big words in a way that sounds pretentious and new agey, as though he’s trying hard to make an impression. Problem is that he winds up losing clarity in the process, leaving it to the other interviewees to explain or excuse it. And yet, his former ‘Deep Space 9’ colleagues say that his communication style was simple, wordless.
In any event, the episode covers some of his background: How his parents were teachers, that he got his Master’s in art at Rutgers University, and how he’s now a teacher in college. Shatner and Brooks discuss his work in ‘Paul Robeson’, and the influence that Robeson (amongst others) had on him. Avery gives three answers for doing Trek: 1) Putting his kids through college, 2) He liked the script for the pilot, and 3) He liked that 400 years from now, there would still be a human black man. They talk about the struggles of doing a show on a space station: it was like running a hotel; it was character-driven, not story-driven. Plus his character didn’t want to be there, so it didn’t make him easy to like.
Of note: 1) They show a clip of a really crap performance from a TV movie. They used the same clip in ‘The Captains’, but I can’t fathom why – he’s terrible in it! 2) Brooks ended up producing the music of this mini-series, picking Andy Milne himself. We get to watch them work together in the studio – along with Shatner. 7.5
4. Kate Mulgrew: Echoing much of the material from ‘The Captains’, Shatner’s interview with Kate Mulgrew is set in a small (only 125 seats!) New York City theatre that she was performing in at the time. It even begins with the same awkward intro, with Mulgrew walking down the sidewalk and pretending, poorly, to be surprised to find Shatner hidden in a cardboard box, waiting for her. Le sigh. Thankfully, she impressed me enough to make up for that opening segment.
For one, she appears very smart and confident. And through interviews with family and friends we learn that she was always sharp and focused. She also receives a lot of praise from the cast and crew of ‘Voyager’. Even Sir Richard Burton apparently said she was the best he’d ever worked with – bar none. A number of fans discussed the importance of her Captain Janeway, how her strength had so much impact on them.
And yet, despite all this, she seems humble enough. She’s certainly candid, talking about the personal problems that conflicted with her first couple of years on the show. She also talks about the difference between doing work for money (‘Voyager’) and for passion (the 125-seat theatre).
She also expressed empathy for Genevieve Bujold in her two-day stint on the set as the original Janeway; though some of the ‘Voyager’ crew are not as forgiving, Mulgrew is very understanding of her decision, saying that Bujold was right in leaving as quickly, once she realized that the TV grind wasn’t for her.
Naturally, they also covered her career before and after ‘Trek’, which I knew little about. So, ultimately, it was a very fulfilling episode. 8.25
5. Scott Bakula: As with the Kate Mulgrew episode, Scott Bakula’s episode repeats a deeply grating opening, which finds Shatner telling Bakula that the latter is his hero – not one of his heroes, but “you’re my hero”. Period. Given how unlikely it is, and given how insincere Shatner frequently is, this is utterly galling.!@#$ I really didn’t need to see this again.
I knew nothing about Scott Bakula, so discovering that his passion is singing (he still takes lessons now) was surprising. He was introduced to musicals via his parents who would come home with soundtracks from popular stage shows. He got started early and found success on Broadway, after which he landed ‘Quantum Leap’, which permitted him to show his range and versatility.
He was really candid about his post-‘Quantun Leap’ career, how it sputtered for a bit. But then he got ‘Star Trek’, incidentally, while he was trying to shop another project. He talks about this at length, going explaining what was going through his mind as it was offered to him. Nice. We’re told that he was exactly perfect for the part, the way the creators had envisioned it.
Bakula and Shatner really seemed to have a good time together: meeting at Shatner’s ranch, he is taken horseback riding, with the Shat giving him riding lessons. They talk about singing in film, having a blast, Shatner being completely oblivious to the fact that he can’t sing. They also discuss the afterlife, Bakula saying he sees life and death as a continuous journey.
Interesting. If anything, the episode gives the impression that Bakula is really just a nice guy. Or someone who’s good at giving off that impression. To cement this impression, a bunch of his colleagues are interviewed saying he’s so nice it’s almost beyond belief. Ultimately, Bakula comes off as perhaps the most grounded of them all; he’s a grateful, humble guy. Cool 7.75
Finally, I was very pleased with myself for having gone ahead and given ‘The Captains Close Up’ a chance, despite the grating Shatner-centric quality of ‘The Captains’. Had it been more of the same, I probably would have killed myself half-way through. But this iteration of Shatner’s one-on-one chats with the other ‘Star Trek’ captains was really well-rounded and enjoyable.
See this one instead.
Dates of viewings: July 31-August 15, 2016