Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Sensor Scan: William Shatner in the 1970s

Modern genre fiction actors are superstars. They're today’s teen idols, appearing in multi-billion dollar film and television projects and have their name and face instantly splattered across the Internet the moment their franchise sees the merest inkling of popular success. Typecasting too is far less of a problem now then it used to be: Nowadays up-and-coming genre stars go out of their way to nurture a cult of personality as soon as they start to become famous, and take care to ensure each marquee role they play is a slightly different twist on their iconic public persona from the start: Benedict Cumberbatch, for example, plays a version of Khan Noonien Singh in Star Trek Into Darkness that can succinctly be described as “Evil Sherlock” even though he is self-evidently capable of a vast and diverse acting range. Likewise, there's not a whole lot of difference between Martin Freeman's Bilbo Baggins, his John Watson and his Arthur Dent, which was already an exaggerated and caricatured version of the character he played in The Office. This isn't so much a criticism as it is an observation that in contemporary genre fiction, typecasting is something that's acknowledged and accounted for from the beginning

It wasn't always like this.

It's not like the cast of Star Trek were ever really not famous. The series was always afforded a primetime slot in its original run: Even in the third season when it was shunted into the Friday Night Death Slot, at least it was in the primetime part of the Friday Night Death Slot. Star Trek was a marquee show for NBC, and all the accounts I could find dating to the 1960s indicate it was a series that was considerably recognisable and well-known. At the very least, you don't get to record novelty albums or appear on variety shows if you're not doing at least somewhat well for yourself (and certainly this also would seem to indicate there's always been some sort of teen idol appeal within genre fiction). But the flip side of this is that if you became famous for genre fiction in the 20th century...well, there was a good chance that's all you were ever going to be famous for. And, sadly, perhaps the archetypical example of this phenomenon is what happened to the Star Trek cast, who universally struggled to find work throughout the 1970s, forever becoming associated with the roles they played for three years on the starship Enterprise. No matter how rough the cancellation of the Original Series was for Trekkers, the fact is it was infinitely worse for the cast and crew. And arguably few had it as bad as William Shatner.

Shatner's bad luck started a few months before the end of Star Trek when his wife Gloria Rand divorced him. While things like this are of course complicated and involve many different factors and variables, Shatner himself has expressed suspicion that this might have had something to do with his character bedding a different woman every week on a popular primetime science fiction show. Once Star Trek ended, Shatner was now responsible for supporting his estranged ex-wife in addition to his three daughters, and now he was out of a regular job and unable to find a new one as nobody wanted to hire Captain Kirk to play “real” roles (actually a case could be made this really started in 1968 when The Transformed Man tanked: Again, what Star Trek fan would believe Captain Kirk was capable of making a serious and respectable piece of avant garde performance art?). Shatner wound up losing his home as a result, and spent the early part of the 1970s living out of a flatbed truck in the San Fernando Valley.

So, all throughout the 1970s William Shatner took on any job that would hire him up to and including doing car commercials and showing up as a novelty guest at private parties. As for the actual acting gigs he landed, they could charitably be described as “subpar”: Shatner spent the majority of the decade bouncing around a series of incredibly shlocky low-budget exploitation movies, most of which are regarded as the worst work he's ever done (and remember this is from a “fanbase” who already consider The Transformed Man to be one of the worst music albums in history). Shatner calls this phase of his career “That Period” and describes the experience as “humbling”, but I can only imagine how unappreciated and unwanted he must have felt. Before Star Trek, this was a guy who was regularly appearing in stuff like Oedipus the King, The Brothers Karamazov and Judgment at Nuremberg. After Star Trek, he was more known for such classics such as Big Bad Mama and Kingdom of the Spiders. This is why I find it completely understandable when actors express reticence about genre fiction franchises, in spite of how upset this can make fans: Stories like Shatner's are prime examples of how being associated with genre fiction can legitimately ruin someone's career. We know now that Shatner eventually gets a happy ending, but it certainly wouldn't have seemed that way in 1971 or so.

Even in spite of being forced to appear in a string of unwatchably terrible movies, William Shatner remains as fascinating a personality in the 1970s as he did in the 1960s. Many of the films he starred in from this era, terrible as they may be, at least manage to occasionally have some interesting motifs. Like many horror movies, Shatner's 1970s output draws heavily on folklore and ancient mythology, but what's interesting from my perspective is to learn how close it actually comes to themes I've explored in this blog already within the context of Star Trek. The Horror at 37,000 Feet, for example, concerns a Boeing 747 passenger jet coming under attack by Druidic ice elemental spirits. Naturally, Shatner's character figures out the ice spirits can be combated with fire, which puts the film roughly in the same narrative league as your average- to below-average generic fantasy RPG video game. However, the specific invocation of Druids, dubious historical figures widely believed to be the priest and shaman class of the Celtic and Germanic people, is certainly interesting, especially given the reading we afforded “The Tholian Web”.

Likewise, The Devil's Rain which, along with The Horror at 37,000 Feet is usually regarded as the absolute nadir of Shatner's filmic career (thus making them both, naturally, just as iconic and memorable as his best work), is seeped in syncrestic mashups of Satanic, Biblical and Pagan imagery. Most notably, there is a strong connection between The Devil's Rain, through Shatner, to John Carpenter's Halloween: Michael Myers wears a William Shatner mask and acts in an eerily similar manner to Shatner's character in The Devil's Rain. The novelization of Halloween posits that Michael Myers was under the influence of an ancient Celtic curse, and later films attempt to tie the film's mythos into the history and symbolism of Samhain (usually spectacularly poorly, but it's nice to see them attempt it nevertheless).

So, if we were to apply our synchromystic Twilight Language skills here, we could maybe say William Shatner is a person who seems to attract mystical and occult imagery, between his movies here and the supernatural and Otherworldy aspects of later-period Star Trek, most evident in stories like “The Tholian Web”, “Wink of an Eye” and “That Which Survives”. And of course, there's his noted interest in transcendence and enlightenment that we saw in The Transformed Man and to which Shatner will return when Star Trek is once again firmly established as part of the mainstream. This, combined with the unfortunate dire straits he was dealing with in the 1970s, but also thanks to the way many of his characters have been written (including Kirk), we might say William Shatner is a kind of working-class mystic, or perhaps more accurately someone very good at playing the role of a working-class mystic.

And it's that working-class mysticism that is going to define Star Trek in the short term, at least in terms of how it comes back. Star Trek: The Animated Series doesn't really get a lot of respect, but one thing among many that it really absolutely must be credited for is giving its cast a job when nobody else was willing to. Although if we're being honest William Shatner was always going to be asked to come back, his co-stars were a less sure thing, and it's telling this was the only place that would take any of them. George Takei, Nichelle Nichols and Walter Koenig were originally not going to be cast on the Animated Series because Paramount partnered with Filmation and Filmation had no money and couldn't afford the full cast (not to mention this was the 1970s, a famously bleak time in animation history anyway). Leonard Nimoy refused to do the show unless they brought everybody back, partially because he knew how important Star Trek's diverse cast had been, but also because he knew how poor and desperate he and his co-stars were. And even then Filmation couldn't afford Koenig (although he was able to submit a script). In addition, Star Trek: The Animated Series is the first Star Trek to seriously push the boundaries of what the franchise was capable of: We really are soon about to go Where No One Has Gone Before.


  1. I really know little to nothing about the 70s, and this in spite of historical factoids, period TV sitcoms set during the decade, and 90% of my favorite movies all having come out in the latter half of the decade.

    But I've always had the nagging suspicion that it was a true transition period for the entertainment industry. There was a Mindless Ones (Doctor Who, I think) discussion a while back that touched on it, a little in the comments. And ultimately it's as simple as looking at my own DVD shelf and seeing the crown jewels of genre fiction, the Spielberg/Lucas joints, lined up in a row.

    Somehow making it big in theaters didn't automatically elevate and validate genre fiction TV shows. It had serious growing pains, TV, to fill those niches in its own way (within its own established budgetary confines, with its own failures and coups) and even today, it's only just within the last few years or so that TV has ultimately surpassed films in the realm of serious storytelling. (The irony of course that Star Trek has become mindless popcorn imagery with no substance by being reborn for movie theaters - but that, and the galling lack of working-class science fiction writers these days - is fodder for another day.)

    Shatner, and his other castmates, embody working-class actors in a way that's hard to match. The beauty of the Animated on the horizon is that it opened a few of them up for voice-acting - a massive boon, that, to realize from that just how unique and distinctive they are not just for their diversity, but for their distinctive voices as well. We're a ways away, but their voice-work becomes pretty important, all the way from Doohan's mastery to Nimoy's unforgettable turn as Gandalf right up to things like Takei doing guest-voices for Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

    1. The 1970s were a strange period. I'm not even sure I can come up with any significant trends to define the decade, aside from television animation taking a serious plunge in quality and stuff like the energy panics. In many ways I see the 70s sundered in two between the Long 1960s and Long 1980s: The first half of the decade belongs to the first period and the second half belongs to the second. It's tough to name something that truly belonged to the 1970s and 1970s alone (incidentally I think a similar phenomenon happened with the 1990s, but that's a discussion for another time).

      Certainly the point you raise about being a transition period for media would fit with the larger transitory nature of the decade itself. We see that even in the weird, paradoxical existence of the James Blish novelizations we looked at last time, caught as they were between the disposable TV of the 40s, 50s and 60s and the home video boon the 1980s would introduce.

      And I of course agree completely with your comments about working-class science fiction and cinema. Those will all be major, major themes for me going forward.

  2. 'It's tough to name something that truly belonged to the 1970s and 1970s alone'

    Well, as someone who was a teenager in the seventies, let me suggest a few things. In Sci -Fi TV we have the Pertwee/Tom Baker Doctor Who, The original Battlestar Galactica, Wonder Woman, The Tomorrow People and Saphire and Steel, in movies - Star Wars, Superman, Close Encounters and their various cheapo copies. In Popular Culture generally I would define the early seventies as developing the retro take on the 1920s and 30s which, admittedly, did come out of the Sixties hippy 'Granny Takes a Trip' clothing fad but was, in the early 70s, fed by movies such as The Sting, The Great Gatsby and Murder on the Orient Express. This rapidly (and literally) wore thin and inspired by fantasy and sci-fi literate performers such as Marc Bolan, David Bowie and Roxy Music metamorphosed into the futuristic nostalgia of Glam (So influential on Doctor Who) which in turn mutated in the late 70s into the Do-It-Yourself Punk aesthetic which would have such an influence on Sci-Fi imagery through Blade Runner, Mad Max, Alien etc.and later the whole indie/grunge scene.

  3. The Devil's Rain ... is usually regarded as the absolute nadir of Shatner's filmic career

    Well, the mistake on the poster is certainly embarrassing.

  4. Great article again. I certainly found reading Shatner's account of That Period fascinating. One thing he wrote a lot about was that as well as the schlock movies above, he also continued in the theatre, though not high level stuff. But I find it interesting that along with the work you highlight that he continued with his performative career somehow.

    One thing I want to pick up on is the use of the word 'dubious' in relation to the Druids. I think it may be the case that dubious may be more applicable in relation to writings about them form the period they existed that survive. Dubious in the sense that it has been argued that these may well be propaganda of a sort as they were written by Roman sources who were seeking to topple the Druids from the position they held, and later on massacre them on Anglesey.

    The thing I find particularly interesting as a professional oral storyteller, is that their teachings were completely oral - and they may tie into further themes of your blog in some way, as I really was fascinated in your comments on the computer gaming post about how oral forms of narrative felt important to you. Later Irish texts and surviving Welsh poetic epics have some fascinating links to Vaka Rangi - Annwn, the Druidic Otherworld, allusion in the myths to teachings coming from the stars also, and especially The Spoils of Annwn or Preiddeu Annwfn - where Arthur & his knights set off on a journey into the dangerous Otherworld with their ships, through many islands & castles... & only one ship (Arthur's) survives.

    1. "One thing I want to pick up on is the use of the word 'dubious' in relation to the Druids. I think it may be the case that dubious may be more applicable in relation to writings about them form the period they existed that survive. Dubious in the sense that it has been argued that these may well be propaganda of a sort as they were written by Roman sources who were seeking to topple the Druids from the position they held, and later on massacre them on Anglesey."

      This is, of course, a strong point and one I was trying to get at with my use of that word, perhaps not as effectively as I should have. Yes, certainly there was a magickal tradition and caste in places like Ireland and Yorkshire and elsewhere, but I do find the majority of the historical accounts we can actually read to be things we ought to take with a substantial salt mine, which naturally makes trying to discern any erudition about this period and culture difficult.

  5. Just back from holiday - Yes fair enough. The point I was making though was with regards to evidence proving their existence, but that some of the shreds of evidence out there was coming from a skewed and biased perspective.

    The point you make above is the thing that is interesting about the Druids - their mystery. We see only hints and glimpses of possible figures in written down versions of oral epics such as the Mabinogion.