No one ever involved with the Star Trek franchise has benefited from its enduring popularity and cultural legacy as much as William Shatner. And why shouldn’t he? This is Captain James Tiberius Kirk we’re talking about here, one of the most popular and recognizable heroic figures ever created. Shatner saw his own fortunes as a struggling young actor with great talent and promise rise considerably in the 1960’s when he signed on to play Kirk after the original pilot episode of Trek with Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike was poorly received. The show may have only lasted three seasons in the first place, the third of which was made possible by one of the most effective fan letter-writing campaigns in the history of civilization, but its countless television and feature film spin-offs helped the franchise become the cornerstone of a geek nation that stretches to every corner of the planet and one day possibly to worlds yet unexplored. Shatner is one of the show’s greatest champions, its most iconic character and star, and to this day continues on as a tireless promoter for Star Trek‘s undying themes and the power of its fans and alumni to inspire greatness in themselves and others. Plus, those residual checks must be pretty nice.
Most recently Shatner wrote and directed The Captains Close Up, a 5-part series for the cable channel Epix that expanded on the intentions of his 2011 documentary feature The Captains. Each of the five episodes were devoted to interviewing and profiling the actors who played Starfleet captains in the original Trek and its four television spin-offs and multitude of big screen sci-fi adventures. The entire series has been released on DVD courtesy of Entertainment One, and with a combined running time of two-and-a-half hours on one disc makes binge watching essential and well worth the time of any Trek devotee.
The first episode is naturally dedicated to Shatner himself, providing the audience with a brief overview of his life and career pre- and post-Trek. We see the man in rehearsal for his Broadway one-man show Shatner’s World and working with progressive rock musician/producer Billy Sherwood on a new album. Most of what is discussed in this episode will already be known very well to fans of the actor and Star Trek. Current silver screen Kirk Chris Pine doesn’t get his own episode but he does come in at the conclusion of Shatner’s to ask some questions of his own. The first show establishes the formula for how the entire series is constructed and is an unabashed Shatner love fest. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The remaining four episodes feature Shatner interviewing Patrick Stewart, Avery Brooks, Kate Mulgrew, and finally Scott Bakula. Stewart talks about his childhood in war-torn England, being inspired to become an actor after seeing On the Waterfront, making his Broadway debut in Peter Brook’s production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the initial terrors he felt over being cast as Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The character was originally named Julian Picard and creator Gene Roddenberry wanted him to be French with a full head of hair, not some bald Englishman. Nonetheless Stewart eventually made the character his own over seven difficult but prosperous seasons.
At the end of his interview the actor opens up about his work with organizations that provided assistance to victims of domestic violence and how it was motivated by his own upbringing with a father who could become very abusive. He also gets rather candid about his two failed marriages. But all is not grim in Patrick Stewart’s world; his son Daniel, also an actor, shows up midway through to talk about getting into what has become the family business of performing. The tone of this episode is mostly light-hearted but Stewart’s heartbreaking admissions towards the end make this the best of the entire set.
But the other episodes offer up a generous helping of valuable insights and highlights from the careers of the other beloved commanding officers in the Trek universe. Brooks, Mulgrew, and Bakula all have extensive experience acting in the theater. Brooks rose to prominence playing the legendary African-American filmmaker, singer, and political activist Paul Robeson on Broadway. Mulgrew and Bakula both also added stage portrayals of great American cultural figures to their resume: Mulgrew as actress Katherine Hepburn in the one-woman show Tea at Five, and Bakula as baseball player Joe DiMaggio in Marilyn. A recording of a 16-year-old Mulgrew performing in a radio play was unearthed for her segment, while Brooks’ follows the actor in his post-Trek career as a professor of theater arts at Rutgers University and touring musician. Bakula’s episode begins with his riding horses with Shatner.
I don’t want to go into everything covered in The Captains Close Up, but watching every episode back-to-back I got an honest but loving glimpse into the role the Star Trek franchise played in shaping the destinies of the five actors interviewed. They were all established actors with lucrative careers when Trek came into their lives. Being involved with an universally-adored cultural touchstone gave them the opportunity to explore strange new worlds on the acting frontier and expand their fan base far beyond their greatest expectations. Shatner, Stewart, Brooks, Mulgrew, and Bakula are all fascinating people who worked hard for their success and now have the freedom to keep on following their dreams forever, even without the help of a warp-capable starship to take them there.
Each episode of The Captains Close Up is presented in 16×9 enhanced transfers in a widescreen aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The picture quality is very clean and sharp with no imperfections. The interviews were lighted excellently but the brightness is kept at just the right level. English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing are included.
Our audio options are English Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 stereo soundtracks. Watching on a standard television set does not reveal any audible differences in the tracks, though I suspect a home theater system would be the most appropriate for the 5.1 channel. There are no defects in the sound mix for each show. Everything comes through with crystal clear clarity.
Two brief interview clips with Shatner discussing a 1983 fire on a set at the Paramount Pictures lot constructed for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock that he helped extinguish (a story I’m already familiar with as he has talked about in greater detail in the past) and the studio’s purchase of Star Trek’s production company Desilu once owned by Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz are the only bonus features offered with this release.
The Captains Close Up is a fun and intimate look into the lives and careers of five iconic figures in the Star Trek franchise presented on a terrific DVD. Some more bonus features would have been welcome, but at least what we have in the five episodes produced is more than enough to compensate. Recommended to all Trek fans and anyone with a vested interest in actors deserving of more recognition.