Happy 90th birthday to the starship captain of my childhood, Capt. James Tiberius Kirk, aka William Shatner

A guy who used to be on this show I watched as a kid turned 90 Monday. You may have heard of him: William Shatner. The Canadian-born actor played this cool, always-in-control character on a science fiction series called Star Trek. His name was James Tiberius Kirk, he was born in Riverside, Iowa, in 2233 — exactly 302 years after Shatner — and he was the captain of a Starfleet Command starship, the USS Enterprise.

I couldn’t tell you the first time I watched Star Trek, which arrived on NBC in 1966 when I was 5 years old and lasted three seasons and 79 episodes. It’s possible my brother Isaac and I watched it during the first couple of seasons, but my first real memories are from the third and final season in 1968-69. I thought Kirk, Spock, Dr. McCoy, Scotty and the other main crew members were awesome — and that was in a third season that was easily the series’ weakest.

But it was when Star Trek went into syndication soon after the network canceled it that I became a diehard Trekkie and really started worshiping Shatner, Leonard Nimoy (Spock), DeForest Kelley (McCoy), James Doohan (Scotty), George Takei (Sulu) and the rest of the cast. From 1969 to ’71 before we moved north from Houston to the Conroe area, Isaac and I would come home and watch it after school with Dad, who loved sci-fi and Star Trek.

William Shatner as Capt. James Kirk and Leonard Nimoy as Spock. What an incredible pairing.

The next few years, I began collecting Star Trek books and other memorabilia including blueprints of the Enterprise. The more fandom of the series grew after its cancellation, the more merchandise was produced for people like me. I was into building plastic models as a kid, and I remember looking for the Star Trek versions at the model shop every time we went to Sharpstown mall.

I ended up building the Enterprise, the Klingon Battle Cruiser, the Romulan Bird of Prey, the Galileo Seven shuttlecraft, along with models of Kirk, Spock, a phaser, tricorder and communicator. I had every last one. I hung the Enterprise from the ceiling over my bed. I had the Enterprise’s serial number, NCC-1701, embedded on my brain. I’d bring my Star Trek books to school at Washington Junior High, where my fellow Trekkie, Brian Perlmutter, and I would compare what we had and talk about the rerun episode that aired the previous day after school.

At home, Isaac and I watched not only the regular series on the TV in our upstairs study room, but the animated one that aired on NBC in 1973-74, usually on the TV in the den. He and I also had this crazy thing we did: We’d act out our own Star Trek fight scenarios, wrestling on our beds and the floor, one of us being Capt. Kirk and the other an alien adversary, even tongue-singing the music that always seemed to accompany every one of those kinds of man-on-man struggles on the show.

By the time I started at Conroe High as a 13-year-old in 1974, I met a nice kid who’d just moved to town named Mark Stevens — and it turned out he was a Trekkie too. And when the first Star Trek movie came out in early December 1979, I was in my first semester at Texas A&M, where Mark had already been a student for a year. He, his girlfriend, our mutual friend Beverly whom I was dating, and I went to see the movie at Manor East Mall in Bryan and, of course, Mark and I thought it was great. Then when I went home for Christmas, Dad and I saw it together, and after we left the theater, he said, “That’s what a science fiction movie should be.” 

***

In the nearly 55 years since Star Trek made its debut in 1966, William Shatner has become a cultural icon. Simply put, he’s everywhere, although it hasn’t always been that way. While he’s never been viewed as a top-rung actor, he’s parlayed his fame from the original Star Trek series and the seven Trek movies in which he appeared into a dizzying array of projects as an actor, author, commercial pitch man (Priceline.com and others), producer, director, screenwriter, singer and more. 

Some have questioned Shatner’s talents and say he gets jobs because of who he is, not what he’s capable of. He’s become somewhat of a caricature in his later years, someone who seems determined to stay eternally young and have his hand in every possible opportunity to stay in the limelight. But you’ve got to give him credit for continuing to perform and enjoy life, and for all he’s been able to accomplish into his 10th decade.

In recent years, Shatner has done documentaries, one-man Broadway shows, and appeared in the NBC reality miniseries Better Late Than Never, traveling to far-off lands with Henry Winkler, Terry Bradshaw and George Foreman. And after recording a few music and spoken-word albums over the years that had little or no success, he gave it another shot, recording a country music album in 2018 and a blues album that hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart last fall.

Some might find it hard to believe, but after graduating from McGill University in Montreal in 1952, Shatner trained as a classical Shakespearean actor with the Canadian National Repertory Theatre in Ottawa. He then performed at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Statford, Ontario, playing a number of roles, and was even an understudy to the great Christopher Plummer. Shatner made his Broadway debut in a Shakespeare production in 1956.

Before Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek and Shatner landed the role of Capt. Kirk, he had a number of TV roles, including Kraft Theater, Playhouse 90, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Outer Limits, Thriller, Route 66, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Twelve O’Clock High. He also had a feature role in a 1958 movie that starred Yul Brynner, The Brothers Karamazov; Stanley Kramer’s 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg; and a 1962 Roger Corman film, The Intruder, in which Shatner plays a racist who tries to incite violence by whites against blacks in a Southern town after desegregation has been ordered at the local high school.

Shatner’s memorable turn in the 1963 Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.

One of Shatner’s most memorable TV roles before Star Trek came in one of two Twilight Zone episodes in which he appeared: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet in the final season of the series in 1963. Shatner plays a husband and father who’s just left a mental hospital where he spent six months recovering from a nervous breakdown. He and his wife are flying home and Shatner, whose breakdown had occurred on a flight, sees a gremlin on the wing trying to sabotage the plane. He tries to convince the flight crew and his wife of what he’s seeing, but the monster disappears every time he tries to show them. For those who haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil the episode, but it’s entertaining and one of Shatner’s finer moments.

***

If you took a poll, I think most people would go with Spock as the best character on the original Star Trek. There have been so many great ones since the dawn of television, but his character is one of the most remarkable, unique, best-acted in the medium’s history, thanks to Leonard Nimoy’s perfect playing of the part.

But the character of Capt. Kirk, despite what many have seen as Shatner’s tendency to overact, has to be seen as one of television’s more notable roles as well. The show’s numerous talented writers gave him some great lines, and he made the most of them. His dramatic pauses when speechifying or philosophizing could be a bit much, but that was just the Shatner way. That style must’ve come through in other roles he’s played — T.J. Hooker, Boston Legal, The Practice, none of which I watched. But he did get six Emmy nominations for the latter two and win two awards.

It’s fun to wonder what another actor might have done with the Kirk role — say, Martin Milner, Robert Wagner, Robert Conrad, Robert Culp, Bill Bixby, James Garner, even Jack Lord, who reportedly was the first choice to play Kirk. Shatner played the role with passion and moxie, and it was clear from every line and scene how serious he was about pouring himself into Kirk.

I was texting with my oldest brother Crys the other day about Star Trek. In the nearly 16 years we’ve known each other since I found my 3 birth siblings, I don’t remember us talking about the original series or about how obsessed I was with it growing up. So I was shocked to get this first response from Crys, who’s 17 years older than me and was working at WSAZ-TV, the NBC station in our hometown of Huntington, West Virginia, when Star Trek first aired. 

“Star Trek was on when I was at the TV station and I watched it religiously,” he said. “Since I worked the evening shift, I never missed it and was constantly ‘fascinated’ by Spock.”

I knew Crys and I had a lot in common, but a mutual love of Star Trek? How had we missed that in all the ground we’ve covered since 2005?

I’ve always felt Shatner has a lot of braggadocio in him — I think that’s why he was good in the role. Kirk had a strong personality and also milked his masculinity for all it was worth.

“James Tiberius Kirk was named after one of Rome’s greatest generals, but he couldn’t have been more different from his namesake, who never really wanted to be Emperor,” Crys says. “Kirk, on the other hand, relished the Captaincy and never missed the chance to pull rank. James The Great would have been a more apt name.”

Gene Roddenberry clearly wanted his captain to be a take-charge guy. And when Kirk came back for Star Trek: The Motion Picture —  directed by the great Robert Wise (The Sound of Music, West Side Story) — and took command from Commander Will Decker (Stephen Collins), that persona was still in place.

Another trait of Shatner/Kirk’s, love it or leave it, was that he was a womanizer. I was surprised to read in my research for this post that he kissed only 19 women/aliens — I would’ve guessed at least 25. That includes the history-making scene in which he kissed Lt. Uhura, played by groundbreaking actress Nichelle Nichols, in the third-season episode Plato’s Stepchildren. It was long referred to as the first on-screen interracial kiss, but it turns out there were others, including Conrad on The Wild Wild West and Culp on I Spy.

***

Here are some of Shatner’s best lines as Kirk, with the episode or movie they’re from:

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (after Spock’s death): “Of my friend, I can only say this: Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most … human.”

Mudd’s Women: “You either believe in yourself or you don’t.”

A Taste of Armageddon: “Death. Destruction. Disease. Horror. That’s what war is all about. That’s what makes it a thing to be avoided.”

Return to Tomorrow: “They used to say that if man was meant to fly, he’d have wings. But he did fly. He discovered he had to.”

Elaan of Troyius: “The prejudices people feel about each other disappear when they get to know each other.”

Obsession: “Intuition, however illogical, Mr. Spock, is recognized as a command prerogative.”

A Taste of Armageddon: “Sometimes a feeling is all we humans have to go on.”

Space Seed: “If I can have honesty, it’s easier to overlook mistakes.”

Mirror, Mirror: “Conquest is easy. Control is not.”

I, Mudd: “What is a man but that lofty spirit, that sense of enterprise, that devotion for something that cannot be sensed, cannot be realized but only dreamed, the highest reality?” 

Balance of Terror: “Leave bigotry in your quarters; there’s no room for it on the bridge.”

Charlie X: “Hang on tight and survive. Everybody does.”

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: “KHAAAAAAN!” 

City on the Edge of Forever: “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

***

And just for fun, here are my favorite 15 episodes from the original Star Trek:

Season 1
Where No Man Has Gone Before

Balance of Terror

The Galileo Seven

Space Seed

City on the Edge of Forever

Season 2

Mirror, Mirror

The Doomsday Machine

The Deadly Years

The Trouble with Tribbles

A Piece of the Action

Assignment: Earth

Season 3

The Tholian Web

The Empath

All Our Yesterdays

The Savage Curtain

***

Regardless of what you think of his acting, singing, writing or other talents, he’s a pretty amazing guy. And he made a pretty damn good starship captain, too.

Live long and prosper, Bill Shatner.


14 thoughts on “Happy 90th birthday to the starship captain of my childhood, Capt. James Tiberius Kirk, aka William Shatner

      1. Thank you very much! If the book is the type you might like, I hope you’ll check it out and let me know what you think. Yes, Boston Legal was a good one. It was actually a spin-off of The Practice, which was also good.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hey, Brandon, just checked out your blog and read your post about Joe and your “Temperature change” short story. Great writing. I’m sorry about Joe, who I assume was your brother. Would love to read your books, but I find myself not having time to read books as busy as we are these days — and when I do, I listen to audiobooks. Plus, I’m more of a nonfiction reader. 🙂 I work at The Dallas Morning News, but I’m an editor who only occasionally writes for the paper (even though writing has always been my true passion). Am following your blog now and look forward to reading more. Take care.
        Frank Christlieb
        Arlington, TX

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Very true. I’m sure you can do it, and you’re young enough that you have plenty of time and talent to find your way in the publishing industry. Not that I know from book-writing experience, since all my published work has been in newspapers, freelance stories for a Dallas-area hospital chain, and in the literary journal published with winners of the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference writing competition that the University of North Texas has hosted the past 15 years. But I do have a book project I’d like to do on my birth family journey if I can EVER find the time, lol. I just turned 60 last month, so I need to stop procrastinating (my wife will vouch for how good I am at that!). But if writing is your dream, you should definitely go for it!

        Liked by 1 person

  1. This was great. Your love of the show is so obvious and colorfully described. I love Star Trek but, am not really a Trekkie. I have always thought the Shatner never took himself serious. I’ve never seen him as arrogant. I think he’s grateful he’s been able to make a living doing something he loves and has fun with.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Pam! Thanks for reading the post. I do think he was a serious actor earlier in his career, but as he’s gotten older, I think he’s just been having a lot more fun with his roles. And maybe the arrogance/braggadocio is just something I’ve perceived; I may be totally wrong. That certainly doesn’t mean I like him any less — I’ve always respected him and enjoyed watching him. He can be very funny, and loves to have fun with people for sure! Hang in there, OK? Thank you again for always reading my posts. 🙂

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      1. When I see Shatner now, I see the actor version (but, 20 years older) of Robert Plant. Plant has done and seen it all and he’s just having a blast. He’s a goofy old man and I admire him more for not going the plastic surgery route. He’s also an extremely intelligent man. If he’d become what he started school for, Plant would be a retired chartered accountant and Zeppelin may not have graced this earth. Yeah, I really don’t see arrogance in either of them. I think Shatner does mock arrogance. Btw, I’ve met probably 20 people who have met Plant and every single one of them said he’s the kindest of down to earth people ever. I even saw this guy’s pics of him and his family with Robert and his family at Disney World. Everyone eventually goes to DW.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hi Pam! I’m sorry I never had a chance to reply to your last comment. I know zip about Robert Plant except who he is. But he sounds like a really cool guy with no pretenses. He’s got to be well into his 70s by now, doesn’t he? I’ve never even been a big Zeppelin fan, but they were sure big when we were young! Anyway, thank you for the comparison between him and Shatner! Take care of yourself. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I didn’t realize he was 90!! I grew up watching Star Trek and always liked JTK. In adulthood and upon analysis, I think what makes him special is his ability to make a complete fool of himself and take himself completely seriously at the same time. If there’s a joke, he’s definitely in on it. Rocket Man, anyone?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Holly! You know, I think you hit the nail on the head! I wish I’d thought of it in those terms and been able to express it like you did. I think he was a much more serious actor earlier in his career, but the older he’s gotten, the more fun he’s had with everything he’s done. And why not? 🙂 Again, I haven’t watched the more recent TV shows he’s done because we don’t really watch that much series TV; we tend to watch older stuff (heck, we still love watching Friends, Mary Tyler Moore, Johnny Carson and Carol Burnett reruns, lol!). But Shatner is a lot of fun to watch. Thanks for reading the post. I need to catch up on yours …. nice to see you back again!

      Liked by 1 person

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