Shatner in space

A few months ago I wrote an article about how space exploration has become boring. The title was deliberately provocative, and of course it goes without saying that I’m approaching the subject from the point of view of a layman. But the point I made stands – it’s been a very long time since any mission to space, and even longer since any crewed mission to space, was of anything more than minor interest.

Many space missions in recent years saw unmanned probes launched, satellites placed into orbit, and the only missions with crews aboard visited the International Space Station. The ISS is without doubt an amazing feat of technology and engineering – but after more than two decades of permanent inhabitation, it’s long since lost much of its interest from the point of view of the layman. Scientifically and technologically space continues to be very important, but for me – and many other folks as well – it’s no longer the inspirational, aspirational place it once was.

The International Space Station.

Partly that’s a consequence of the scaled-back nature of crewed missions, the budget cuts space agencies have faced since the end of the Cold War and its associated space race, and perhaps the difficulty, expense, and length of time required to undertake missions to places we’ve never been before. But regardless of the cause, missions to space in the real world have lost much of their lustre over the decades, and no longer feel as special or as interesting as they once did.

But William Shatner’s recent trek to space was different. Even an old cynic like me felt genuine awe and wonder at the idea that Shatner – Captain Kirk himself – was actually going into space. For decades, journeys to space were the exclusive purview of a tiny number of well-trained air force pilots and scientists. Just getting into the astronaut or cosmonaut programmes required either a career as a high-flying ace fighter pilot or a doctorate in a relevant scientific field. There have been attempts to put spaceflight within reach of more people – Christa McAuliffe, who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, was set to be the first teacher to travel into space. But generally speaking, becoming an astronaut and travelling to space was out of reach for practically all of us.

William Shatner aboard Blue Origin’s NS-18 mission.

People like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have talked in vaguely-defined terms about future missions to space or to Mars that would bring along more civilians and regular folks, but those missions seemed like a long way off. Then came missions in the last couple of years taking paying passengers – but at such a high cost that space felt like a playground for the billionaires’ club and was still beyond the reach of most ordinary people.

William Shatner’s space flight has gone a long way to challenging all of those perceptions. There’s something truly inspirational about the idea of Captain Kirk actually going into space; just writing those words feels incredibly surreal. This character was at the head of a television show and a franchise that, for more than half a century, has done more than any other to inspire people to look to the stars and to look to a future where space travel will be something anyone can participate in. And here he was, actually making that dream a reality in the real world.

Shatner with his crewmates.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Star Trek as an inspirational franchise. Generations of people have watched the series and been inspired by its message, its morals, its optimism, and its technology. The franchise has a track record of bringing its technologies to life – everything from tablet computers, wireless communicators, video calling, and more were “predicted” by Star Trek before becoming a reality. And perhaps that’s what makes William Shatner’s space flight so inspiring – he made the dream of going to space come true as well. There’s hope that, if Captain Kirk can actually travel into space, as Star Trek depicted all those years ago, perhaps the rest of us can too.

Not to be impolite, but at the age of 90, William Shatner isn’t in the prime of his life in terms of his physical condition. He looks great for 90, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a bit of a belly, a few too many wrinkles, and the ever-present toupée! But I’m not here to criticise any of that – because it’s those things that make his journey to space even more astonishing and aspirational. Not only is Captain Kirk himself in space, but here’s someone who’s older than any previous space traveller, who isn’t in the best shape of his life, and yet still it was possible to undertake that incredible journey. By simply being who he is, Shatner has once again inspired millions of folks who might’ve felt space travel was beyond them. Perhaps they felt they were too old, or they have a health condition, or something else. But seeing William Shatner at age 90 boarding that rocket and floating around up in space demonstrates to all of us that such a journey might be possible after all.

William Shatner and his crewmates boarding their spacecraft.

To me, that’s the success of this latest mission to space. For the first time in a very long time, a crewed space mission managed to get me genuinely excited and emotional; I felt I was sharing that moment with William Shatner and the others aboard the rocket. His sense of awe and wonder was so genuine, and the way he spoke and conveyed how it felt was passionate and beautiful.

There are still issues with space travel. The fact that it costs such an insane amount of money is going to be a barrier for a lot of people. But that was true of many inventions from the motor car to the aeroplane, and now those methods of travel are available to many more people than they were when they were first invented.

The idea that Captain Kirk could actually go into space has captured the public imagination in a unique way.

It feels like we’re on the cusp of a new age of space exploration. No longer will space be the exclusive realm of government-funded agencies, gated off to all but a select few people who were privileged enough to be able to head down the perfect career path. Commercial spaceflight has the potential to open up space to untold millions of people – and not just for short fun jaunts either. Orbital hotels, moon colonies, the exploration of Mars, and so many more things all feel one step closer today than they did just a few short weeks ago. That isn’t William Shatner’s doing – Blue Origin, SpaceX, and other companies have been building up to this moment for years. But once again, William Shatner brought space to the fore and captured the public’s imagination in a way that only he could.

I have no time for the naysayers. Prince William, one of the last wriggling vestiges of a dying aristocratic elite, had the audacity to criticise Shatner’s spaceflight shortly after he returned to Earth, saying that we should focus our energies on fixing climate change, not racing to colonise new worlds. But why can’t we do both? And not only that, but there’s more to fighting climate change than getting to the precious “net zero” that seems to be the fetish of our current crop of leaders. Space can offer solutions – harvesting solar energy, for example, capturing carbon and removing it from the atmosphere, or even building solar shades to shield parts of the Arctic and Antarctic are among many hypothetical ways that missions in space could have a real-world impact. And for all of the criticisms I made earlier of space exploration and missions to the ISS feeling boring from the layman’s perspective, the scientific advances they provide have already made an impact here on Earth.

William Shatner looking down at Earth from space.

For the first time in a very long time, a real-life mission to space managed to capture my attention – and showed off to millions of people that the dream of space travel, embodied by television franchises like Star Trek, hasn’t died. There’s the real and genuine potential to repeat this feat, and as technology continues to improve and costs come down, maybe spaceflight will be within reach of the average person sooner than we might expect.

All William Shatner did was accept an invitation and take his seat. But that simple act, and the wonderful reaction he had to it, was life-changing – and not just for the man himself. Just as he did in the 1960s when he commanded the starship Enterprise, William Shatner has once again inspired people all over the world, showing us that it isn’t futile to look to the stars.

Some images used above courtesy of Blue Origin via YouTube. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Will we see William Shatner back as Captain Kirk?

Spoiler Warning: There may be minor spoilers ahead for the Star Trek franchise, including the most recent seasons of Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard. There will also be major spoilers for the film Star Trek: Generations.

There has been some buzz lately in Star Trek fan communities about something William Shatner said in a recent interview. To make a long story short, Shatner said that he’d be interested to return to his most iconic role, provided it was more than a mere cameo.

I don’t really like commenting on these types of stories. There were many in the run-up to the release of Star Trek: Picard, when practically everyone who had once been a main cast member in a Star Trek series was asked whether they’d be up for a return. People like Robert Picardo and LeVar Burton got some attention for their comments, as did others, but they were all saying basically the same thing, which was some variant of this: “I’d like to do it, but there hasn’t been any formal discussion with ViacomCBS about it.” Well… that could apply to anyone. Aside from very few individuals who seem to want nothing to do with the franchise any more, practically every ex-Star Trek star would – for the right price, of course – be up for a return.

William Shatner as Capt. James T. Kirk in The Original Series second-season episode The Trouble With Tribbles.

So why has William Shatner’s comment blown up the way it has? I’m honestly not sure. In the aftermath of 1994’s Star Trek: Generations, Shatner co-wrote a series of novels – his first set in the Star Trek universe. In these books, Kirk – who you’ll remember died in Generations – was resurrected by Borg-Romulans and would go on to live in the late 24th Century. As a statement of intent from the actor that Kirk could be resurrected somehow, a published series of novels is about as clear as it gets! Shatner has been willing to reprise his role ever since he last played Kirk in 1994. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that he still is.

As things stand right now, I don’t see it happening. The first and biggest reason why is that it would be incredibly difficult to do in-universe. Kirk is dead. He died in Generations, and even with all the technobabble at Starfleet’s disposal, there’s no way around that. Star Wars has learned to its great cost that the resurrection of long-dead characters can go over incredibly poorly, feeling like nothing but cheap fan-service and a blatant nostalgia play, and frankly there’s no way to resurrect Kirk without those same issues rearing their heads.

The second “Shatnerverse” novel, The Return, saw Kirk brought back to life.

The only way Shatner could reprise the role of Kirk would be as an alternate-universe version. And that has problems too. The first is which parallel universe this version of Kirk would inhabit. With the production of a fourth Kelvin timeline/JJverse film unclear at best, it seems very unlikely he could appear there. There had been rumours in the run-up to Star Trek Beyond that Shatner might join former co-star Leonard Nimoy for a role, with both older actors appearing as future versions of that timeline’s Kirk and Spock. With Nimoy’s death, that element of the film never happened – if indeed it was ever going to.

Could Shatner appear as another character, though? In my opinion, for whatever that’s worth, this would be the only way to include him in any new Star Trek production. He could be, just as an example, the grandfather of a young Ensign or Lieutenant Kirk. But it would be hard to make a role of this kind anything more than a cameo, which is something Shatner has said he wasn’t interested in.

Killing off Kirk in Generations was a big decision, and it wasn’t without controversy at the time – though in the days when most people weren’t online and there was no social media, those criticisms were less widespread! But it was undeniably a final end for the character, and there simply isn’t a sensible way to bring him back in his original, Prime Universe form. Frankly, it would be disrespectful to ask William Shatner to play a minor role or to make a cameo appearance, and I understand why someone of his calibre and with his unique standing in the Star Trek community would feel that way. But all of this means that there really isn’t a way to bring him back.

Capt. Kirk was killed at the end of 1994’s Star Trek: Generations.

The final point I’d make is this: Star Trek is doing okay at the moment. CBS All Access is still in a very competitive market in the United States, but it’s clear as day that recent Star Trek projects have been at least somewhat successful, or we wouldn’t see the continued investment in the franchise that ViacomCBS has been willing to make. A second season of Picard is happening, a third of Discovery is happening, and there are two new live-action shows that have been announced, one that’s in early development that hasn’t been announced, and two animated shows too, one of which already has a two-season order. With all of this going on, I just don’t see a need for Kirk to be shoehorned in.

The obvious comparison is Palpatine in The Rise of Skywalker, which I alluded to above. That film had a number of issues – as I noted in my review – but what it boiled down to was that Star Wars as a brand has found itself unable to escape the characters and storylines of its original trilogy. We see this across Star Wars, from the prequels to the sequels and the spin-offs. The entire franchise revolves around its original incarnation, as no one has really been bold enough yet to take it in a new direction. As such, when JJ Abrams needed a powerful villain for The Rise of Skywalker, he fell back on the original “big bad”: Palpatine.

Star Wars tried bringing back a long-dead character… and look how well that worked.

Star Trek, in contrast, has long since moved on from Capt. Kirk – something which has been obvious since 1987, when The Next Generation premiered and showed that the franchise could be more than its first captain and crew. And Star Trek has only grown since then. Discovery may overlap slightly with Kirk’s era, but that’s all it is: an overlap. Strange New Worlds will share that setting, but again, it’s not a story that’s as tied up with The Original Series in the same way as Star Wars’ ongoing saga is with its original trilogy. Star Trek may have started with William Shatner’s Capt. Kirk in the 1960s, but it doesn’t end there, not by a long shot. As a result of that point alone, there just isn’t any need for Kirk to come back. As a fan of The Original Series I can admit it would be a cute nod and wink to fans to find a way to bring Shatner in – but no more so than it would be to see Robert Picardo or LeVar Burton, or any of the other 30 or more actors who once played a main role in a Star Trek show.

Speaking more broadly, any franchise has to be careful when looking backwards. One of the things I was concerned about with Star Trek: Picard is that it could end up trying to be Season 8 of The Next Generation – something which it simply never could be. As fun and nostalgic as it can be to see classic characters return, if that’s all that a story offers it will never be a success. There has to be something interesting, entertaining, and dramatic to drive the plot, and any new characters we meet along the way have to be part of that. Spending too much time looking backwards means there’s no time to look forwards, and that’s unfair to any new cast members. They deserve at least a chance to become fan favourites for a new generation of Trekkies, the way William Shatner and others were fan favourites for the first generation. Stories can be drowned out by nostalgia, with new characters left underdeveloped and sidelined. While it can be done well, as I’d argue Star Trek: Picard demonstrates, it can also be done poorly as we’ve seen in recent years.

Star Trek: Picard brought back Sir Patrick Stewart to the franchise.

So do I think we’ll see William Shatner back in Star Trek? I would never say “never”, but at the moment I think it’s unlikely. With his character having been killed off more than two decades ago, and with the franchise standing on its own two feet just fine without needing to continually return to The Original Series for ideas, it’s hard to see where there’s a place for him to make a major contribution. If he wanted to do a cameo I think that could be fun, but as he’s made clear that isn’t something he’s up for – which is perfectly fair enough – it’s hard to see any Star Trek writer going out of their way to create a role especially for him, or to find some convoluted and inevitably controversial way to un-kill Kirk.

There will always be these kinds of comments from actors. It’s understandable, given that Star Trek has made a big return to our screens, that journalists and fans will ask anyone who’d been involved with Star Trek in the past if they’d be willing to come back. And it’s understandable for someone of Shatner’s pedigree to say he’d only do it if he could be given a decent-sized role. But none of it actually means anything, because if the people in charge of Star Trek over at ViacomCBS were genuinely interested, they’d have reached out to him. That’s why I tend not to comment on these kind of stories.

The Star Trek franchise – including all properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.