The Captains
Unexpectedly Deep

I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I have, of late, been working through the newly-restored release of the original Star Trek series, available for streaming on Netflix. 

I remember my dad, who never watched TV with any regularity, making a point of tuning into the show when it aired originally.  I remember arguing with my siblings about whether it was “Star Trek” or “Star Track,” and which made more sense.  And countless beyond number are the times over the decades that I’ve seen the butchered reruns in their various permutations in syndication heaven/hell.  But as much as I have admired many of the Star Trek films and spinoffs (Star Trek II and III being, for my money, the apex of the concept, along with the recent very admirable reboot), I’ve never quite shaken the feeling that I am, in fact, slumming when I indulge my taste for Captain Kirk, Spock, and the crew of the Enterprise.

So it’s been nice seeing the original episodes as they were intended to be seen—if in a far crisper presentation than the makeup artists ever envisioned they would be.

Avery Brooks and William Shatner in The CaptainsAnd imagine my surprise, upon screening William Shatner’s documentary The Captains, in which he interviews the various actors who have helmed Star Trek’s ships, in finding that Shatner himself has always been somewhat embarrassed by the whole, um, enterprise.

Also imagine my surprise in discovering that the documentary is not only a thoughtful examination of Star Trek’s—and his own—legacy, but a probing and artful inquiry into the very notion of leadership.

Three highlights.  First, of course, everything with Patrick Stewart.  Long before he became Jean Luc Picard, Stewart stood out on my cinematic radar as an actor long overdue to make a significant mark in the industry.  Here, the strength of his interviews focus on the cost of making such a mark—and the common bond of domestic wreckage that has been left strewn in the wake of all their careers.

Second, the segments that the surprisingly sensitive Shatner shares with Captain Sisko, aka Avery Brooks.  Who knew that this artist was such a prodigious visionary and virtuoso jazz pianist who conceives of every artistic endeavor as part of the music of the spheres?  Shatner’s talks with Brooks really launched the discussions into a different frontier, if not the final one.

No, those conversations—the third standout surprise of this documentary—were reserved for Kate Mulgrew, she who really did go where no man had gone before as Captain Janeway.  Mulgrew’s counter-questioning of Shatner, and her very thoughtful responses to his own queries, are really the highlight of the film.  The two get at the core of three issues: first, what the role of Kirk really means to Shatner; second, what the series really accomplished in portraying—even defining—dynamic leadership in a crucible; and finally, the implications of such leadership in the real world.  Mulgrew’s admissions on that score are particularly shocking and enlightening.

Perhaps not coincidentally, just last night I screened the original episode “The Naked Time,” Tim Matheson’s intelligent (if overwrought) dissection what it takes to produce leaders like Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, Pike, or other starship captains.  I can’t recommend enough watching that episode in tandem with The Captains.

Even if you’re not a big fan of Star Trek, in any of its permutations, Shatner’s film is a valuable historic document of a pop culture phenomenon.  And if you are a fan of any sort… well, beam this up.  You’ll love it.

The Captains is unrated, but this is almost G-rated, except for, as I recall, a handful of  conversational expletives.  Call it PG.

Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a promotional copy of The Captains.