William Shatner tells us why ‘Star Trek II’ is so important

William Shatner comes to Philadelphia on May 17. | Manfred Baumann
Manfred Baumann

“Star Trek” fans, rejoice! The legendary William Shatner is coming to Philadelphia on Thursday, May 17 for a screening of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” at the Academy of Music.

The 87-year-old star of stage and screen will also answer questions from the audience following the film.

“I usually spend an hour or more with the audience,” he says. “People are having a great time.”

So why all the fuss over the second “Star Trek” film and not the first? Shatner explains that the first movie didn’t go over well with critics or fans of the show. Paramount decided that they wouldn’t pursue making additional “Star Trek” films.

“It was only the result of people changing their minds for various reasons, that they decided to do ‘Star Trek II.’ They gave the project to the television department, hoping they could do it more cheaply,” Shatner reveals.

The business move ended up paying off in other ways as well, with the TV department basing the entire film off of a “Star Trek” episode with a villain named, Khan.

“It reverted to the concepts that made ‘Star Trek’ [the series] popular — with character, good plot and all those things that the show had done well,” he says. “The movie was very popular, successful with the critics and the fans. It launched all the other ‘Star Trek’ movies.”

Looking back on filming “Star Trek II,” Shatner remembers teaming up with Leonard Nimoy (who famously played Spock), to be heard by management.

“We had a combined front. Things we thought were important to change — we hung out together to make those changes,” he says.

And what did Shatner think of “Star Trek” when he was first introduced to it? It turns out he didn’t even have to audition for the role of Captain Kirk.

“I was fortunate enough not to audition,” he says. “I had some popularity prior to going onto ‘Star Trek’ — I had been on Broadway, movies and television. I was a known product and they asked me, so I actually auditioned them.”

There had been a pilot for the show made with another actor playing Captain Kirk, but it didn’t get picked up.

“The concept was intriguing enough for NBC to say to Paramount, ‘Make another pilot with a different cast. Roddenberry (the show’s creator) called me up and asked if I would see the pilot and consider the role of Captain Kirk,” Shatner says. “When I saw the pilot they had made, I saw why NBC didn’t pick it up — it was a little pedantic, a little lethargic. But the concept was very exciting.”

At the time, Shatner had no idea that “Star Trek” would become so iconic.

“It was just another show,” he says. “Moderately successful for three years and they cancelled it. That was the end of it as far as everyone else was concerned. And then ‘Star Wars’ broke upon the American public and Paramount [this is a story i heard from execs],  said, ‘What do we got that can approximate the popularity of ‘Star Wars?’ They remembered six or seven years previously, they had done something called ‘Star Trek.’ They revamped it. Then what came out was the first movie and everyone was deeply disappointed. We were about to quit, and then came ‘Star Trek II.’”

Flash forward to today, and “Star Trek” has been relaunched many times, both in movie theaters and on television. So what does Shatner think of the remakes? Turns out, he’s a big fan of J.J. Abrams.

“I think it’s great. The movies we made were ultimately cancelled. We reached a ceiling of who was coming to see the movie. We never got beyond $100 million at the box office,” he says. “When J.J. Abrams started directing the films he made, his sensibilities were going for the ride and the big effects — combining the excitement of ‘Star Trek’ with the big computer graphic effects. He was able to break through that ceiling and solve that problem.”

Once Shatner is finished with this leg of “Wrath of Khan” screenings, he returns to Los Angeles to work on a number of other projects.

“The stuff I’m doing is manyfold. I’m doing two albums this year. Brad Paisley and Judi Collins are contributing their talents for the Christmas album and Jeff Cook of Alabama will be on the country album,” he says.

And then he’s got a book on aging that comes out at the end of the summer, in addition to his work on “Better Late Than Never,” an NBC series that stars Shatner, Henry Winkler, George Foreman and Terry Bradshaw.

Despite being close to ninety, Shatner shows no signs of slowing down and offers the following advice for aspiring actors:

“Being an actor is very difficult in that so much doesn’t depend on you, yet so much does depend on you,” he says. “It’s hard to know which is which. But the best thing for any actor to do is have a good education and have a fallback position as well.”

If you go:
William Shatner & “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”
Thursday, May 17
7:30 p.m., $30 to $250 (plus fees)
Academy of Music
240 S. Broad St.

More from our Sister Sites