Book Review 48: Get a Life

It never occurs to me that people might be offended. It never occurs to me that Trekkers might believe I was making fun of them. The sketch is simply SO exaggerated and SO stupid and SO cartoonish that I can't even fathom the possibility. I decide to think positively, and hope for the best.

Page 111

In 1986 Shatner angered legions of fans with his now infamous "Get a Life!" sketch on Saturday Night Live.

In plenty of previous book reviews and Shartner-Palooza posts, Shatner's self involvement has been obvious. Many cast members have said he was oblivious, at best, to their needs as actors. That sketch showed that he lacked similar awareness of needs and feelings of his fans.

This book is, in some respects, a chance for Shatner to try to fix that and understand his fans better.

And there you have it. We're barely fifteen pages into this thing, and I'm deeply embarrassed to confess that until fairly recently, what you just read constituted the sum total of everything I knew about Star Trek conventions. Somehow, throughout more than a quarter century of "featured speaker" appearances, I managed to remain almost entirely ignorant of the bigger picture, my sole point of view coming from the podium out.

Page 10

In "Get a Life!" William Shatner takes the reader on a tour of the Star Trek Convention phenomenon. It chronicles his efforts to learn how the conventions got so big, why people attend, and just what exactly happens outside of the speaker's stage.

Much of the early material, including the efforts to save Star Trek from cancellation are detailed elsewhere, so I won't go into detail here. Shatner retells those stories because he wants this book to be about the fan movements and their impact on Star Trek, so it's they definitely have a place in the book.

Shatner is not afraid to admit his ignorance of the impact conventions had on fans. He interviews attendees, organizers and others involved in the convention circuit, including Joan Winston, one of the women responsible for the very first convention.

Joan: We were never in it for money. We were doing it out of love and affection for the show, for the characters, and for the writers. We genuinely loved you guys. Did you know that?

Bill: I do. And I'll tell you, Joanie, the voyage of discovery I am making, while doing research on this book, is the fact that there was and is all that love out there. I had no idea, quite frankly, I truly had no idea as to its depth and breadth. I have been moved to tears on some of these interviews when people have opened up about what the show meant to them.

Page 99-98

As that's the thing about Shatner. His book about conventions and fans isn't about the conventions and fans. It's about William Shatner learning about the conventions and fans.

There is a little bit of self-awareness at the end, but throughout the book, it's still mainly about Shatner.

I spent a full two decades scared to death of a big blue space-slug of my own concoction. Star Trek's fans confused and eluded me, while Star Trek's conventions were every bit as terrifying as that mammoth, mythical, murderous mollusk. However, once I'd allowed myself to actually confront my fears and to understand the motivating factors that drove Star Trek's fans fan and simultaneously allowed their conventions to thrive, I realized just how silly and ignorant my own apprehensions had been. I was the Starfleet bad guy.

Page 317

So if you want to learn about how Shatner learns about conventions, this is a good book to read. If Shatner's ego-cnetric approach to everything annoys you, you are not likely to enjoy this book.

For the rest of this article, I'll highlight Shatner's convention experience, some of the fan comments he picked up in his interviews, a few of his Leonard Nimoy stories, and finally the Shatner convention presentations.

When Shatner would speak at a convention, he typically flew in just in time for his presentation and would leave as soon as he could. He contrasts the travel experience with the love of the fans when he speaks.

Ever notice how every airport smells exactly the same? As far as I can tell, it's an endlessly recirculated mix of old coffee, fast-food french fries, newspaper pulp, and a huge collective cloud of cologne, parfum, and other upscale stinkwaters. Disgusting, yes, but I swear to you, I absolutely love it. Somehow, over the past thirty years, and countless white-knuckle plane flights, I believe my subconscious gray matter has come to equate that distinctively funky airport aroma with official notification that my airborne torture session's now over, and the terra-firma fun is about to begin.

It doesn't matter what town I'm in, or what gathering I'm headed toward, William Shatner's ''Star Trek Convention Experience'' always begins right here, with a happy, heaping lungful of airport funk. It then proceeds pretty much like this.

Page 5

A convention ovation is unmatched, and probably best described as a loud, long, percussive "I love you." You can never get used to it. You can never prepare for it. It's a message that genuinely overwhelms me, every single time it hits. It's unique; a heartwarming, mind-boggling, ego-inflating, plainly staggering experience.

Page 9

He decided to learn more about the conventions and fans after Star Trek Generations came out in 1994. This was also around the time he was working on Star Trek Memories, and Nichelle Nichols first told him that the rest of the cast hated him.

Maybe three stops into Kirk's "Yes, I'm really dead" convention tour, I realized that I still had absolutely no idea what went on outside the featured speaker's auditorium.

Page 101

Throughout this extended "kirkapalooza" tour, I also began consciously squeezing the most out of my convention time, chatting one-on-one with dealers, organizers, and fans whenever I could, while simultaneously arm-twisting my embarrassed coauthor into wandering convention floors in search of hard-core fans who'd sit for an interview.

Page 23-24

Naturally, William Shatner couldn't very well walk around the convention floor without a mob, so he wore a mask. A green, rubber alien mask.

I was a hideous monster, manipulating and secretly interrogating innocent victims. I'd become Linda Tripp.

Page 102

He tells stories about chatting with Klingons, trying to talk people out of buying expensive Leonard Nimoy autographs, and generally annoying people while trying to understand them.

Of course a Star Trek convention is on of very few places in this world where you can walk around in a rubber green alien mask to specifically not attract attention.

And it goes beyond wearing a mask to be anonymous. Fans who may not be noticed in their daily lives, dress up in costume and become the center of attention. Fans who may get too much unwanted attention in their daily lives can come to a convention and just be accepted and not stared at. This comes up when Shatner interviews Dan Madsen, the Publisher of Star Trek Communicator. In additon to being a fan, his is a self described littler person (he's 4 feet tall)and enjoys Star Trek conventions in part because he is simply accepted. He talks about acceptance he feels at the show, and the large presence of those with handicaps.

So you see, the beauty of a convention is, Bill, for people like me who want to escape being noticed all the time, I can go there and blend in with the crowd and I'm fine. For people who don't get noticed enough and feel like the world has forgotten them and people overlook them, they can dress up in a costume, they can come to these conventions, and everybody makes a fuss over them.

Page 131

Shatner is blown away by the joy and optimism in the crowds that attend conventions.

Unconditional delight is an extremely rare commodity in the lives of most adults.

Page 314

Shatner is never one to leave Leonard Nimoy un-picked-on. They've built a strong friendship over the years. If they weren't good friends, I'm sure Nimoy would have arranged a transporter accident by this point.

He tells the story of one of Nimoy's first appearances at a convention.

When at last Leonard was able to get out a few words, he simply thanked the fans for their love and support, and shared his joy at seeing such tangible evidence that our work on Star Trek really had been appreciated. Overwhelmed, Leonard then said his good-byes, left the stage, and ran for his life.

Ushered quickly back through the hotel kitchen and out through a service entrance to an icy New York alley way. Leonard was nevertheless spotted by a large contingent of overzealous fans. Their shouts of "Spppppppooooooccckkkk!" gave Leonard's position away immediately, allowing the trailing crowd to grow at an almost exponential rate. At that point, Leonard, Joanie Winston, and their pair of security men all frantically began flailing their arms, in a desperate attempt to flag down a cab. Sensing that their prey might elude their grasp. the mob picked up speed now, and began running, as did Leonard. Can you imagine this? It's the middle of winter. there's ice and snow everywhere, and here comes Leonard (who, by the way, runs like an old lady) sprinting down the sidewalk, eyes wide, making a mad dash for a taxi while a posse of kooks gives chase. He must've looked like a turkey on Thanksgiving morning.

Finally, Leonard lands a Checker cab and dives inside, but the chase isn't over yet. Four gung-ho Trekker/stalkers leap up onto the cab and hang on for dear life. They dangle, giddily, until the cab pulls away, sliding on the icy street, while narrowly avoiding both a pair of fellow cabs and a delivery truck.

Page 88-89

Shatner does ask a StarTrek convention organizer about working with different cast members. Adam has positive things to say about everyone. Here are his comments about Nimoy.

Adam: Leonard was the type of guy who would show up for the engagement, deep in thought about what he was going to say. And so he would come in, somewhat disassociated from you, his mind thinking about what he was going to say when he went on. He was basically a Vulcan. So the usual rule of thumb was just say "Hello," then as little as possible, and try and get him on quickly, because he was concentrating, primed to go on, and he wanted to go right on, urgently. So when he would show up, it would just be about expediting him, getting him onstage, as quickly and as expediently as possible.

Page 145

Shatner also uses this book as an opportunity to talk about his experience as a speaker. He discusses the different questions people ask in Q&As. He spends some time talking about the autograph lines, and about the time he shared the stage with Sir Patrick Stewart, Avery Brooks, and Kate Mulgrew.

What is a Shatner presentation like? Well, he asked the attendees one time, and promised to put it in the book.

Never make a promise you'll regret. I learned that the hard way, because in less than ten minutes, this crowd had an overwhelming favorite. In an unbiased nutshell, according to your evil, conventioneering peers, my speaking style is best described as "a cross between Rip Taylor and Regis Philbin."

I mean come on. Rip Taylor, maybe, but Regis? You people really know how to hurt a guy.

Page 135

Shatner does tell stories at the conventions that largely feature him being humiliated. He talks about ending up covered in elephant dung in one story. In another, he talks about his misadventures walking to a horse show. And in yet another, about his inability to get help via a 911 call. It seem Shatner just can't catch a break.

Shatner has property in Kentucky. And he waxes poetic about the beautiful country side. But he can't discuss the beauty of nature without talking about peeing all over it.

On those joyous occasions when good ol' boy meets good ol' truck, there's nothing my pickup and I love to do more than cruising aimlessly about the backroads of rural Kentucky. George Jones in the cassette deck, a thermos full of black coffee in the glove box—it doesn't get any better than this. Here, in this beautiful part of the country, you can spend an entire afternoon meandering along two-lane roads, soaking in the beauty of dense, green, entirely unspoiled pine forests, every once in a while pausing to simply get out of the truck, take a deep breath, and realize how truly beautiful the world can be. With each roadside pit stop I take time to wander, to watch quietly as the wonders of nature unfold around me, and more often than not, to deal with the aftereffects of that aforementioned thermos full of black coffee.

Page 219

He tales pains to draw the comparison between cell phones and the Star Trek communicator, like it's the first time anyone has seen the links between the two (okay, he did write this this in 1999 so I'll cut him some slack on that).

Tucked away in the back of the glove compartment, I had stashed one of those tiny, pocket-sized, portable phones. You know the type. They fit into the palm of your hand, flip open, you push your buttons and speak. They really do look exactly like our old Enterprise communicators, so you can imagine how silly I feel using them in public. Nevertheless, I snatched it up as fast as I could, and without having any idea where I was. Or even how to get to the nearest town, I dialed 911.

Page 222

He talks about how grateful he is for his career and fans. He feels the love, but there still appears to be a detachment. He doesn’t quite understand them.

Trust me, I know exactly how lucky I am. It's nearly impossible to survive when your career choice is actor, even harder to work steadily, and next to impossible to become financially secure. I've been lucky enough to achieve all three of those impossible dreams, and there's not a day that goes by where I don't look up into the heavens and say, "Thank you." Still, the God's honest truth of the matter is that though I love my work, and I'm thrilled with the fact that I have fans, I simply don't give a rat's ass about the phenomenon of "being famous."

Page 280

Perhaps Shatner is mystified by this affection because of his self-centered-ness. Is it possible for Shatner to feel about someone else the way his fans feel about him?

Even in the middle of this love fest, he can't help but take a shot at James Doohan.

Unlike the Gilligans and Marcia Bradys and Montgomery Scotts of the world, never will you hear me complain that being inseparably tied to a familiar television character has hurt my career. I've repeatedly missed out on roles because producers or directors couldn't imagine me as anything but a starship captain, but to even insinuate that the positive aspects of being James T. Kirk weren't undeniably and exponentially more impactful than the negatives would be insane.

Page 289

Doohan was tied to the role of Montgomery Scott in a similar manner to the way Shatner was tied to the role of Jim Kirk. The difference, though, is that Kirk was a starring role. Scott was not. Kirk was a big payday role. Scott was not. It's one thing to be inseparably tied to the starring role of the biggest sci-fi franchise in TV history. There are a lot more doors available to you then are opened to the scecondary cast members.

I'm not saying Doohan didn't have any options or alternatives. The successes of Walter Koenig, George Takei, and Nichelle Nichols show there were plenty of other options. But that fact that Shatner chooses to think he and Doohan were in the same situation, and feels the need to take a shot at him, just further illustrates how detached he was from the needs and feelings of the rest of the cast.

In "Get a Life" Shatner tries to make up for his earlier arrogance and ignorance. He doesn't quite succeed. He still seems to lack the self-awareness necessary for that. We don't really see that honest self assessment until his more recent book, "Up til Now," which is a far more compelling portrait of the main behind the yellow shirt.

Still, it's a nice primer on the Star Trek convention industry. The people Shatner interviews are insightful. The history of the early conventions is useful for those new to field. And Shatner's stories are still funny.

Of the four memoirs/histories Shatner has written, this is probably the least important. "Up til Now" will give you a much better understanding of who William Shatner is and how he got to be the person he is today. "Star Trek Memories" and "Star Trek Movie Memories" have a lot more information about the series and movies respectively, admittedly through the lens of William Shater. Still, they'll tell you a lot more about the struggles to make the show and movies than many other resources.

"Get a Life," part mea culpa, part documentary, and part story telling. It is still an interesting and well-written book. I would just suggest reading the others first.


Anonymous said...

I admit it that I am a Star Trek geek, but I have never had the opportunity to attend a convention...I would love to go to one...from what I hear it is crazy amazing.

Descartes said...

I like William Shatner and it should come as no surprise that William Shatner's many biographies are about William Shatner.

He lives in a universe where he is the star and everyone else is a supporting player. I'm sure he thinks of Miss Congeniality as a William Shanter movie with Sandra Bullock.

I met Shatner at a fan dinner and he seemed nice enough for the ten minutes we were with him.

Jon Clarke said...

This is the only one of the four I haven't read. But thanks to this review, I have a very clear idea of how it would go.