There is a conundrum in writing about William Shatner. No matter how hard you try, all the decently fun opening lines have already been used thousands of times before. His career is worth dozens of captain’s logs. His performances have lived long, and prospered. He has been beamed up, and then some. But part of the fun in writing about, and talking with, the 91-year-old Canadian icon is that he is just as happy to trek along with whatever pun journey you’d like to map out.
Shatner even gets in on the action with his new book, Boldly Go: Reflections on a Life of Awe and Wonder, which isn’t quite a memoir – 2018′s Live Long and … What I Learned Along the Way takes care of that, as does 2009′s Up Till Now: The Autobiography – but a collection of essays about his place in the world, and what the future might hold after he leaves us for the final frontier (sorry!).
Ahead of the book’s publication, Shatner spoke with The Globe and Mail in a wide-ranging conversation about his life across the stars.
Early in the book, you write that one of the secrets to staying alive is to keep busy. Well, I’m not sure I know of a 91-year-old who is keeping as occupied as yourself.
I think I’m pretty busy for any age! The book is an attempt to put into words my reflections on the unity of the universe. How we’re so close to nature, yet so apart. How we can tap into that joy of being consciously aware of our world. To feel cloaked in the universe.
Have you ever felt so cloaked as you do now?
In some manner. Ever since I’ve read Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, I’ve been more conscious of global warming and the prospect that the Earth as we know it won’t remain, and that all these beautiful things that took five billion years to evolve are going extinct, even as you and I are talking. We don’t know the beauty that’s being lost. After going into space [on Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin flight in 2021], I wrote this song So Fragile, So Blue, about our world. It is my wish, my dream, my fervent desire that it becomes as popular a rallying cry for climate change in the same way that We Are the World was.
That goal certainly doesn’t lack ambition.
Well, saving the world, I do that with some frequency.
You write at one point in your book that, “Whatever happens tonight will make a hell of a story one day.” I can’t help but feel that your whole life has been lived in some unconscious way of preparing to write this book.
It certainly is a distillation of all my many inadvertent adventures. But I never planned anything, of course. I hear people talk about career moves, but I feel that life is so chaotic that there is no chance of organizing it. Life organizes you. So I blunder on, and sometimes an opportunity presents itself. Life has a beginning, middle and end, and there is drama going on unbeknownst to me or anybody else.
The book has a focus on mortality. It feels like a deliberate one last parting gift to your fans.
I’ve got my health and my mind is good, and maybe there’s a few more things I’d like to do. People ask what is your legacy? There’s no legacy! Nobody has a legacy. Statues are torn down, cement turns to dust. The only real legacy is doing good deeds. If you do that, your presence is the gift, that’s your legacy. And that’s what I’m going to do. I have this other song that I wrote, I Want to Be a Tree. When I die, I’ll be cremated and put into the ground and a tree will be planted over me. Sit in my shade, that’ll be enough for me – that’s the lyric. What is perpetuity? Well, how long does a redwood stand?
When you talk about your space flight aboard Blue Origin, you use the word “grief” to describe your emotional reaction afterward. That’s a fascinating way to describe such an adventure.
I got up there and saw the blackness of space and the warmth of our Earth, which is so tiny, and the moment I landed, I had this weird feeling. I was crying and didn’t realize why until I got away from the cameras and sat down. I felt grief, yes. Grief for our planet. I’m in so much awe of how poetically everything here is put together, and aware of how much of it is going extinct. The world trembles right now.
There is a lot of frank discussion here about the 1999 drowning death of your wife, Nerine. How difficult was it to revisit that?
Not so long ago, I was doing a morning show where the host asked if I would mind talking about Nerine, and I guess my voice trembled. He said, “It never goes away, does it?” It doesn’t. Grief is a palpable entity in the human experience. Grief has sides to it. Depending on how you deal with it, it can be assuaged. But it never goes away.
In the same way, do you feel that regret never goes away? There is a lot here about your feelings about never getting the opportunity to reconcile with Leonard Nimoy before he passed away.
Yes, but I don’t know if regret is the correct word. You can’t do anything about that. It’s not taking into account how you as a human being felt at the very moment that you’re regretting. What I feel about that is sadness that he died. He passed suddenly, and then they had his funeral on a Sunday morning. I had a Red Cross charity event to go to that same day, where a thousand people were going to give money. So what I said in my remarks to those people was that I chose to come here because in no time at all, Leonard will be forgotten. But what we won’t forget is the good deeds that you people are doing today. I chose to do that rather than add my mourning to the mourning.
You describe yourself as “Jew-ish” in the book, which is a great joke that I’ve also employed now and then. But how do you view your Jewish faith as you get closer to the end?
Like everybody else, you wrestle with faith. It’s a strange word, isn’t it? Take something like gravity, which you take on faith, right? You observe the apple falling, but why is it falling? It’s a force of nature. So what is faith but that? It’s not a fact, and facts are always changing. It’s so disconcerting that you can’t use an instrument or even our faculties to examine reality. It’s chaotic, it’s messy, this thing called faith. We kind of know what happens when you die. You go back to being a part of the stars. We’re built from star material, and we go back to star material. But what happened to my father? My mother? What happened to Nerine? Nobody knows. It’s all chaos, swimming around.
Before we go, I have to ask about this hologram project you mention in the book. It sounds like something out of an episode of Black Mirror.
I’ve always been curious about the future, so I joined this company called StoryFile. They do 3D and AI, which are magic letters. I spent five days, about nine hours each day, being interviewed on many cameras about every aspect of my life. At the end, they’ll be able to have someone press a button, ask my 3D image a question, and my hologram will very likely have an answer after I’m long dead. Imagine having this technology. “Hey Plato, tell me about those shadows!” This technology is an extension of our humanity. It’s here, not around the corner.
This interview has been condensed and edited