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January 30, 2012

Book Notes: No Trekkie should miss Shatner’s books


— It would be hard to find a television phenomenon as popular as “Star Trek.” Even though it was only on television for three seasons and 79 episodes (1966-69) it attracted viewers and devotees that still follow it passionately 45 years  later. The fanatical supportspawned several movies and television spinoffs. Star Trek conventions continue to this day. There has never been anything like it.

Clearly the idea of future space travel and the notion of what exists in the “Final Frontier” have created such ongoing devotion. The series was saved from cancellation after its second season due to an intensive letter-writing campaign to NBC. It was the first time that such an effort succeeded. But, as if NBC wanted it to fail, the show ended up in a dead zone timeslot of 10 p.m. Fridays and it was axed the following year. Unlike most defunct series Star Trek did not die.

Fans organized conventions where they dressed up as characters, dissected every episode, and the actors made guest appearances. In 1973, NBC even brought Star Trek back as a short-lived Saturday morning animated series with the stars reappearing as the voices of their characters. By 1975 there was talk of a Star Trek movie, which became a reality five years later after the popular appeal of Star Wars.

The success of the first movie led to several sequels and the production of a new television series, “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” That spawned even more movies and two other TV spinoffs. The Star Trek phenomenon was here to stay.

The actor who has benefited most from all this hysteria is William Shatner, who  played Captain James T. Kirk in the original series and seven of the movies. Shatner is best known these days as the spokesman for Priceline.com. He has appeared in several series since his days on “Star Trek,” including “T.J. Hooker” and “Boston Legal.” At 80 he is still going strong.

One place where he has expanded his talents is in writing books. In addition to several novels, he has penned four non-fiction tomes that are a treasure-trove of Star Trek tales. The first two, “Star Trek Memories” and “Star Trek Movie Memories,” are musts for any trekkie who wants to know what went on behind the scenes. The most recent ones, “Up Till Now: The Autobiography” and “Shatner Rules: Your Guide to Understanding the Shatnerverse and the World at Large,” are more about his life in general, but still fascinating and fun reads.

“Up to Now” describes his upbringing in Canada and how he became an actor. He discusses his early days as a struggling actor and how he eventually became a part of Star Trek. He then talks about the whole Star Trek phenomenon, living with the Captain Kirk legacy, and how he endured life beyond it. He goes on to candidly discuss his marriages, especially his third wife who died in a highlypublicized but misinterpreted accident.

He also tackles head-on the friction that developed with other actors on the series who saw him as self-serving boor. The only exception seems to be Leonard Nimoy, the infamous Spock, who remains a lifelong friend.

“Shatner Rules” is an easy read that brings out even more stories of his fascinating life and lifestyle. Many of them are hilarious and eye-opening but there are serious discussions of life lessons, how to age gracefully, and even more fodder from the tension he has had with the other Star Trek actors. Perhaps the most telling revelation is that the popular phrase, “Beam me up, Scotty” was never actually said on the show. I always wondered about that because I never recalled that specific line from the original series.

There are many books about the Star Trek phenomenon but William Shatner’s four titles are a good place to start.

He has a self-deprecating sense of humor and doesn’t shy away from controversy. To be a living legend with a character almost 50 years old can’t be easy. Shatner embraces it in a way that makes the most of it for himself and anyone who follows his career. It’s an opportunity that any Star Trek or Shatner fan doesn’t want to miss.