Review: Get a Life © 1999 Tim Harrison
When William Shatner appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1986 and told Jon Lovitz and a convention hall full of absurdly nerdy Star Trek fans to "get a life," it was all in good fun. After all, anyone who’s been to a Trek convention has seen one or two people who bear a resemblance to Dana Carvey’s Spock-grokker, but we all knew Bill was just teasing. Wasn’t he? "That now-infamous sketch," Shatner reveals, "was for me, at that time, equal parts comedy and catharsis…. I bought into the Trekkie stereotypes. In a nutshell, I was a dope."
This revelation comes in Get a Life!, Shatner’s recent book chronicling his education in the makeup of Star Trek fans in general and Star Trek conventions in particular. For 30+ years, the nature of Trekkies ("or Trekkers or Trekkettes or Trekmo-sapiens or whatever you want to call them," as Star Trek producer Bob Justman says in the book) — something George Takei and De Kelley apparently had pegged from Day One — had eluded Shatner. "Why," he asks, "does Star Trek deserve conventions, [but] you never find a convention hall filled with six thousand people dressed like Mr. Roper [of Three’s Company]?" With a question as ridiculous as that, you know the guy was clueless; "I knew Star Trek was a pretty good television show," he says, "but c’mon already, did it really engender all of this?" It was a confusion he sustained until his very last performance as James T. Kirk.
Then Kirk was killed.
Having been lured back to the screen for "one last hurrah" as the good captain in Star Trek: Generations, Shatner was looking forward to closing the book on Kirk. "But in the weeks and months immediately following Kirk’s death scene," Shatner writes, " I found myself grieving. I felt guilty, melancholy, and depressed over a fictional funeral…. Had there always been a deeper connection than I was willing to admit? Was Star Trek really that important to me? Had I always been…a fan?" Shortly after this epiphany, Shatner set out on a mission to discern the true meaning of Star Trek and its hold over a legion of devotees.
After opening the book with a highly entertaining account of the logistics of a convention visit, Shatner and co-author Chris Kreski provide some basic history on Bjo Trimble’s fan campaign to save Star Trek from network cancellation. Background on the earliest Star Trek conventions follows, from long before the days when profiting from such things entered into the equation. Shatner asked convention planner Joan Winston why, when the first conventions proved to be enormously popular (to the tune of 14,000+ attendance in 1974), they didn’t simply charge more per head. "At that point," Shatner writes, "she grew visibly annoyed with me." Winston explained that conventions at their heart are about friendships, affection, and fun. "When those things are happening all around you, making a few dollars seems a pretty poor excuse for throwing a convention."
Shatner incognito, questioning
a dealer room patron
At that point, Shatner set out on his path to enlightenment. He began attending conventions as frequently as possible, wandering the halls incognito as well as appearing as a featured speaker ("No Trekker was more hard-core than me anymore…. If that made me a nerd, so be it; I’d be Captain James Tiberius Kirk, king of the nerds!"). Rubber alien mask in place, he’d mingle in dealer’s rooms, watch the contests, and interview anyone who’d talk to a disguised man with a tape-recorder. While Shatner is by no means a literary genius — one gets the impression Kreski did most of the historical fandom research, and the personal stories are told with trademark ham-handed intensity (the Shat is nothing if not melodramatic) — his discussions and related anecdotes are refreshingly candid and ooze Shatner charm. With each successive interview, he gains more respect for the people who’ve supported his fame over the years, and also discovers "why any human being would want to collect little plastic figurines of me, or worse, Leonard."
Certain terms came up often in Shatner’s talks with the fans. "Belonging" was prevalent. "Together" and "acceptance" were common, too. "I’m still not sure I have all the answers," Shatner writes, "but…what I did learn totally floored me…. Just below the surface, there seems to exist a genuine and very powerful sense of family among Star Trek’s fans." It was a recurring theme, in interview after interview, but Shatner still didn’t understand why this was so.
The most informative interviewees were not, in fact, convention members, but Star Trek professionals. Bob Justman, the producer of the original series and, according to Shatner, "maybe the most knowledgeable Trekker on the planet," is particularly eloquent. "In a deeper sense," Justman says, "there really is a life to be gotten from the old shows." Telling of his own reactions to the swarm of fans, Justman spots parallels between fan behavior and themes of old Star Trek scripts:
"I really believe that these people, through Star Trek, learned that everyone has value and that anyone can be deserving of respect, even if they’re not perfect. Combine all that with the messages about leading a moral, righteous life, and that can be a very empowering, uplifting blueprint for life…. So I think with a little nudge from Star Trek, these folks have indeed found a life, and confidence, and self-esteem."
Dan Madsen, the publisher of Star Trek Communicator magazine, provided more insight. "As you know," Madsen tells Shatner, "I’m a little person, I only stand four feet tall…[and] one of the things I see over and over again at Star Trek conventions is that there’s a lot of handicapped people who come to these things because Star Trek gives them a sense that they belong in this world and that they can be respected in a world where people don’t judge you by the outside, but by the inside, and that’s where it counts." When the Q and A takes a turn toward convention-goers that dress in elaborate costumes and role-play as Klingons or whatnot, Madsen offers another heretofore unrealized concept to Shatner:
"These people, for whatever reason in their life, feel like nobody notices them. So you see, the beauty of a convention is for people like me who want to escape being noticed all the time, I can go there and blend in with the crowd and I’m fine. For people who don’t get noticed enough and feel like the world has forgotten them and people overlook them, they can come to these conventions and everyone makes a fuss over them… their conversation with me is: ‘You’re normal, I’m talking to you like I talk to anybody else.’ My conversation with them is: ‘Hey, you’re unique, you’re different.’ And they’re getting the attention they crave that they don’t get in their normal life."
"Now," Shatner writes, "I understood that there might be larger, stronger, more magnetic forces drawing fans to Star Trek than I’d ever imagined."
Two interviews near the end of the book are rather interesting. A fan by the name of Darryl Frazetti came to Shatner’s attention when people suggested he interview "the cat guy," as Frazetti became known after bringing Bones, his cat, to a convention wearing a McCoy-style surgical scrub. Frazetti’s interview gets a little personal, but in so doing, Shatner writes, it "put a face on every one of the abstract Star Trek concepts I’d been hearing about… Darryl smacked me upside the head with the personification of virtually everything I’d been learning about Trekkers." The other notable interview caused me to wonder if Shatner went a little too far in telling someone else’s story. After hearing of a woman who suffers from a multiple-personality disorder, Shatner went to meet her. He even sat in on one of her therapy sessions; apparently, the woman counted Kirk and Spock among her various personalities. It’s a touching, fascinating, horrifying, and heartwarming story; perhaps told with a little more detail than necessary, but still a highlight of the book.
"The cat guy," Darryl
Frazetti, and Bones
In addition to interviews with fans and Trek personnel, Get a Life! also includes a number of anecdotes of Shatner’s experiences during his research. Some have little or nothing to do with Star Trek, but all are highly amusing. The account of a convention appearance in which Shatner shared the stage with the other three Trek captains — Patrick Stewart, Avery Brooks, and Kate Mulgrew — had me laughing out loud, as did the sidebar entitled "I am not Sulu," in which Shatner reveals that he has been invited on occasion to momentarily take the co-pilot’s controls of a jumbo jet. A segment devoted to a practical joke gone awry played on Leonard Nimoy is good for a few grins. He also details the making of the infamous "Get a Life" skit on SNL, and makes wonderfully self-effacing fun of the plethora of Shatner-imitators out there. "I think it’s great that people still feel strongly enough about Captain Kirk to try and imitate him," writes Shatner, "and at any given convention, I’ll be happy to smile through your Shatner, and when you’re finished, I’ll applaud, I’ll laugh, and I’ll tell you how great it was. Basically, I’ll lie." He then lays out the six essential steps to impersonating Kirk well (which he discovered by asking comedian Kevin Pollak).
Shatner and Kevin Pollak:
The fine art of Shatner imitation
A look at fandom and conventions would be incomplete without some attention to the merchandising and collectibles market. The plethora of Star Trek stuff available for sale can be a lot to digest, even for a starship captain who also happens to be an action figure. ("Nowadays," Shatner writes of the figures, "they actually kind of look like us…but for no apparent reason, we all now have bulbous, much fatter plastic asses. It’s appalling; even Sulu’s got cellulite.") Shatner also spent some time investigating the collectors and the merchants, and in so doing discovered the dark side of a modern Star Trek convention — the hard-core collector/investors, and shady dealers practicing memorabilia fraud. Of the collectors, he writes, "in every aspect of conventionland, this may be the only group that truly needs to get a life." Confessing a bewilderment regarding the collecting obsession, he suggests "perhaps we can reintroduce card collectors to the simple pleasures of flipping, bicycle-spoke sound effects, and trading a Sulu for a Data, a Troi for an Uhura, or several dozen Spocks for a torn Kirk." More immediately disquieting to Shatner, though, was the preponderance of fake autographs being sold. He issues a warning to autograph counterfeiters: "from now on, at some point during my [convention] appearance, I will make it a point to walk through the dealer room. Should I find that you’re selling 'William Shatner's that I know aren’t mine, things are going to get ugly."
By the end of his journey into the hearts and minds of Star Trek fans, Shatner seems to have finally recognized the essentials. "Though Star Trek’s fandom may be rooted in science-fiction," he writes, "it revolves, and thrives, around friendship, belonging, love, hope, and understanding." He still isn’t quite aware of Star Trek’s uniqueness, citing the existence now of conventions for Babylon 5, Xena, and The X-Files as "newer, shinier, hipper toys" — cons, it bears pointing out, which are all organized by profit-minded promoters rather than socially-motivated fans — but he clearly has at least a grasp on it. Of his interviewees, he writes, "All of them, in one way or another, had allowed Star Trek to brighten and enrich their lives. All had found friendship, laughter, and belonging amid our plastic spaceships and papier-mâché planets, and that’s clearly the strongest attraction of all…. I want to thank them all for opening my eyes to exactly what I’d been missing."
Welcome aboard, Captain.