Tuesday, December 3, 2013
Sensor Scan: William Shatner in the 1970s
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.