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Capt. Kirk is climbing a mountain. Why is he climbing a mountain?

September 29, 2014

William Shatner announced that he received an offer to appear in the next Star Trek film, slated to shoot some time after the crowned scion of Sci-Fi movie direction J.J. Abrams finishes his work on Star Wars Episode VII. From a cultural standpoint, this is a bad move by Abrams on Trek’s behalf. We all know Shatner is a cheesy performer: his stock-in-trade is in the pause-filled, navel-gazing read of the iconic Captain Kirk role he originated in the Star Trek TV series of 1966. But the last time he appeared on screen as that character was twenty years ago (now taken up since 2009 by Chris Pine in Abrams’ high-octane reboot of the film series). Killed off by Malcolm McDowell’s character in 1994’s Generations and never seen since except as the younger Pine portrays him (quite capably, and without many legitimate complaints by fans), Shatner’s Kirk has sat out the last five Trek movies.

“Captain Kirk is climbing a mountain. Why is he climbing a mountain?” In this video by the brilliant remix artists Fall On Your Sword, the refrain tickles us in its almost Dadaist anti-thesis of jettisoned cultural cache. Taken in isolation, the very words betray ignorance of what the rest of humanity not named William Shatner might consider an interesting or stimulating topic of discussion. How awkward for Shatner to even raise such a pretentious question before his audience, by way of an attempt to intellectually explain away the cheesiness of his art. You’re an action hero, dummy. Maybe just pretend (you know, ACT) like this attempt at doing something which requires physical effort isn’t a life-or-death existential crisis for you.

Why does this question even exist? Only because Shatner briefly got to helm the entire enterprise, and not just the fictional ship on which its adventures took place, in 1989. The midlife-crisis level of strain apparent on Shatner’s increasingly folded face, which he plastered across cinemas in his horrendously self-indulgent and tedious directorial debut for the franchise, The Final Frontier, prompted a nationwide revolt against the film and TV series’ formerly kitschy and fun image. This was Star Trek‘s tipping point towards oversaturation in our popular culture, particularly for Shatner as a cringe-worthy yet indelible part of its mythos.

Oh, Captain Kirk, remember how your character dealt onscreen with your advancing age three movies ago (in 1982’s The Wrath of Khan), in a graceful way, by acknowledging that the adventure of living his unique life kept him young, even while he knew that death was inevitable? WE THOUGHT THE SUBJECT HAD BEEN CLOSED. Never mind, okay, here we are spending an hour and a half pondering it all over again with you, watching a desperate flail through the emotional beats you doggedly drag us through, like stations of the cross on which Kirk is tortuously flayed.

In a blaze of torporific Shatnerian turgidness such as “what does God need with a Starship?” — meant in earnest to provoke and delight its audience rather than bore them senseless — the movie failed, and backfired on its producers tremendously when it closed early and fell far short of box office projections. This dramatic flop, the immediate subject of ironic scorn by younger TV parodists who had grown up watching the show and were horrified by its new direction, prompted Paramount film executives to frantically woo ace-in-the-hole director Nicholas Meyer back to save their cash cow from unceremonious slaughter, finishing the original Star Trek cast’s series of adventures on a high note with The Undiscovered Country.

Abrams and the rest of the current production team would do well to learn from this experience, and take careful pains not to repeat a colossal blunder by catering to the whims of the Shat, in all their I-can’t-believe-he’s-actually-serious trainwreck of screen-chewing glory, even for one last spin around the galaxy.

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