Well that was real mature...

Well that was real mature...

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Oh, Captain My Captian: Fear and Loathing with the Paradox of William Shatner

Between my son's fall baseball, school plays, conventions, and deadlines, I have been neglecting my blog lately. While in a week or two I hope to do a catch all up date, I thought I would fill the dead air by digging into the archives with an old essay I penned a few years ago that would be new to the blog.
Being a life long lover of all things Star Trek means that, likewise, I have a deep and abiding love/hate relationship with William Shatner. No one can seem to figure him out. He is criticized as being a hammy over-actor but he has multiple Emmys and made his mark as an iconic television hero. He can't sing but has Grammys for an album where he does recitations to music. At times he is criticized for being over weight while time and time again he shows himself to be in phenomenal shape.
None of it seems to jibe. The puzzle pieces just seem to fit and yet don't match up. Now, I can point out his nuanced amazing performance of an explorer coming to terms with his age in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan but everyone just remembers the single over the top scene and screams "KhAAAAAAAAAN" at the top of their lungs. I can point out his amazing comic timing in Free Enterprise, which would foreshadow the award winning role from The Practice/Boston Legal several years later and fans would just dead pan his catch phrase and introduction: "Denny Crane."
There are always moments that detract from the greatness. The awesomeness is never pure. (Strike that, there was the Star Trek episode "City on the Edge of Forever" but it's practically impossible to screw up even a watered down Harlan Ellison screenplay).
The absolute best example of this I can think of is from early in his career when he did a guest spot on the David Janssen vehicle, The Fugitive. The third season episode, titled "Stranger in the Mirror," is a perfect example of Bill Shatner and his dramatic career. All in one episode, we can see what we love and hate about the actor. (Warning spoilers abound if you have not seen the episode, in fact, I won't even do a synopsis, I'll just assume you have seen it or if you are intrigued you will open a new tab and stream it before continuing).
When we first see Bill, he is physical-athletic playing ball with the kids. Love him or hate him, young or old, fat or thin, the Shat has always been a physical guy. His next scene he comes in like a force of nature, a whirlwind of energy (akin to the Tasmanian Devil in a Bugs Bunny Cartoon). He blazes through the scene likeable and energetic, always moving, delivering dialogue and back out. A brilliantly written and performed character introduction. It was hit and run with no breaks or pauses. Shat does what he needs to do to introduce the character AND upstages a superior actor (Janssen). I actually forgot David was in the scene. Shat didn't just steal it from the star, he mugged him and left him bleeding on the stage floor. This is Shat at his best. When you can't help but watch him. Many times in his career he shows he has the goods and nails roles.  People forget that because of the hammy crap.
The episode continues and Shat acquits himself well. (Although predictable that he his revealed to be the killer later on). His scene in the police station, while not subtle, is lower key and methodical even mechanical occasionally, but nothing unforgiveable. We can see the wheels turning. Something is going on behind the eyes. He inhabits his character, giving us a new side. At one point I could not help but wonder: Is this the set-up for a spin off -- a back door pilot about the ex-policeman who now helps kids by day at camp and solves crime by night? This show is about someone else other than Dr. Richard Kimble, and I just don't care. That is a major achievement by any guest star.
His first real misstep is the awkward scene when his wife is on to him. Is he lying or blacking out and genuinely not remembering? Shat can't seem to decide. Was this intentional to keep the viewer guessing or was he too in love with the idea of making his killer sympathetic? One wonders what the writer intends. Not a good sign for the actor.

Then the wheels come off and all is revealed: He is a bat-shit insane serial cop killer. And the hammy Shat comes out to play.
The over the top crazy takes over. No, this is not the brilliant over the top he displays in The Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" or the embarrassing to watch over the top we get in various Star Treks (Enemy Within - "I'm Captain Kirk", Day of the Dove - "Look at me" or "Turnabout Intruder" - almost any line). No, this is somewhere in between more of an eye rolling moment that is amplified by the under acting of Janssen right next to him. If Shat left him mugged and bleeding in the earlier scene, he quietly has picked himself up, cleaned himself off and stepped over the self-inflicted hemorrhaging Shat who is now both literally and figuratively on the floor.
If you love the Shat or hate the Shat, the best example of all that he is rolled right up and delivered in 50 minutes of a classic series. It is tight and awe inspiring as well as eye rolling. A fun hour for fans of the almighty William Shatner.

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