Canada’s corps of spaceflyers diversified today as actor William Shatner — the Star Trek star turned comedian — took a suborbital space flight this morning.
Shatner was a passenger aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard, on its second spaceflight since sending founder Jeff Bezos and three other crew members aloft on July 20. At 90 years old, Shatner is the oldest person to fly to space.
Shatner joined Audrey Powers, Blue Origin’s vice president of mission and flight Operations, and crew members Chris Boshuizen and Glen de Vries on the flight, launching from Launch Site One near Van Horn, Texas.
“I’ve heard about space for a long time now. I’m taking the opportunity to see it for myself. What a miracle,” Shatner said in a Blue Origin press release.
In the days leading up to the launch, Shatner endured Trek-related jokes over Twitter. He made fun of himself, as well — for example, in response to a fan asking if he considered himself an astronaut, he responded:
Shatner has run into his fair share of social media controversy over the years. He landed in hot water when discussing social justice warriors, in disclosing his feelings about the word “cis” (with regard to gender), and after saying that the #MeToo movement, regarding sexual abuse and harassment, has “become hysterical.”
It’s important not to minimize these incidents and to put them in context, as the Trek franchise is famous for embracing diversity across the decades; a recent series, Discovery, added the first non-binary and trans actors to the list of characters, for example.
That said, Shatner has become more comfortable in recent decades making fun of himself and embracing his persona accumulated from decades in Hollywood following the role he remains most famous for: Captain James T. Kirk in the original Star Trek (1966-1969.)
In the early years (1970s and 1980s) following the now-famous series, Shatner built out his career with other ventures — such as starring in T. J. Hooker and undertaking prominent guest roles on then-popular series such as Mission: Impossible and The Six Million Dollar Man. The actor also turned away from the popularity of Trek — this despite revisiting the series again, as he starred in seven Trek movies between 1979 and 1994.
Shatner’s brushes with controversy in this era include a notorious 1986 skit on “Saturday Night Live” in December 1986, one month after the release of the highly successful drama-comedy Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
The skit, usually called the “Get A Life” sketch by fans, refers to a line Shatner delivers at a fictional Star Trek convention. In part, the skit includes Shatner saying this: “Get a life, will you people? I mean, for crying out loud: it’s just a TV show. I mean, look at you. Look at the way you’re dressed. You’ve turned an enjoyable little job, that I did as a lark for a few years, into a colossal waste of time!”
By 1999, however, in his autobiography also entitled Get A Life!, Shatner wrote that he had grown to respect the Star Trek fan movement after he started attending conventions and was touched by the enthusiasm, love and good humour of fans. Since then, he has willingly embraced jokes, Canadiana and space-related outreach about his time on Star Trek, and we’ll mention a few of the more famous moments of the past two decades here.
Just for Laughs (2000): Shatner made a cameo at Montreal’s “Just For Laughs” festival, riffing off the famous Molson “I Am Canadian” ad campaigns of the era. Shatner made jokes saying he is not a Starfleet commander (the intergalactic, pan-species peaceful entity of Star Trek) and does not live on a starship. Referring to the method acting popular in the late 1960s that has been endlessly parodied by Trek critics, Shatner said in the skit, “When I speak, I never ever talk like every! Word! Is! Its! Own! Sentence!” And in talking about tribbles — adorable Star Trek creatures that would not stop multiplying in one famous episode — Shatner said, “Tribbles were puppets. Not real animals! Puppets!”
Boston Legal (2004-2008): Shatner was a star of this series, portraying lawyer Denny Crane as he had in its predecessor, The Practice. The comedy did make several references to Star Trek during its run, in honour of Shatner’s legacy. Other Star Trek actors appeared in the series, like Jeri Ryan, Seven of Nine on Star Trek: Voyager. Shatner’s Trek-related gags included once opening a clamshell-style phone that emitted a Star Trek communicator sound, and patiently listening to a co-star describing “cling-on” fish; speaking as though recalling a distant memory, Shatner said slowly: “Did you say … Klingons?”
Comedy Central Roast (2006): Shatner was the guest of honour during this “roast”, a type of comedy in which long-time friends and colleagues deliver embarrassing jokes that the guest is meant to take in good spirit. Most of the one-liners are too raunchy to mention here, but there was a lot of Trek humour associated with the appearance. Appearances also came from Trek co-stars Leonard Nimoy (Spock) and George Takei (Sulu), the latter of which complained Shatner has been mispronouncing his name for 40 years.
Paying tribute to the space shuttle (2011): William Shatner narrated a free hour-long documentary produced by NASA to commemorate the end of the space shuttle program, which ran for 30 years between 1981 and 2011. Famously, the first space shuttle prototype was called Enterprise after a huge letter-writing campaign by Trek fans. Shatner did not join the other Trek actors that attended the first rollout of the prototype in 1976 (during that era where he was focusing his attention elsewhere), but the actor did agree to recreate his famous opening monologue of Star Trek for the last space shuttle crew, which was beamed to space in 2011.
Conversation with Chris Hadfield (2012): Shatner’s voice beamed up to the International Space Station during a half-hour conversation with none other than Canadian Chris Hadfield, who had made international news by tweeting Shatner and other Star Trek actors from orbit, with Trek jokes. Hadfield opened the conversation (available in full here) with the famous whistle-call shown during Trek communications and referred to the ISS being in “Earth orbit”, a reference to the so-called “standard orbit” that Trek vessels often reached above a planet. The ensuing conversation was focused on earnest questions Shatner had about spaceflight, such as its future directions and how Hadfield deals with the fear of the unknown.
Hosting the Junos (2012): Shatner was host of the famous Canadian music show, held that year in Ottawa. The opening monologue made no reference to Trek, but Shatner did make jokes about being from Montreal — “Who cares?” — and about playing to “a smaller venue” (the Canadian Tire Centre has a capacity of nearly 20,000 people), again a self-deprecating reference to his ego.
NASA outreach (2012-present): The last decade has seen Shatner and NASA collaborate on other occasions, including a 2012 video presentation about the Mars Curiosity mission and a 2012 advertisement about NASA spinoff technology. Shatner also asked people to sign up to “send their names” to two celestial destinations on board NASA’s Parker Solar Probe (2018) and Martian InSight mission (2017). As late as this year, Shatner was still performing outreach on behalf of NASA. In a four-minute short that ran on the agency’s television channel, Shatner read a text warmly describing NASA’s space work as “our activities;” the text was prepared by now-deceased science fiction author Ray Bradbury for the agency in 2000. NASA also awarded Shatner the agency’s Distinguished Public Service Medal in 2014.
This biweekly column by Canadian science and space journalist Elizabeth Howell focuses on a trending news topic in Canadian astronomy and space.
— Story updated by Allendria Brunjes
— An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated that Shatner was a paying passenger. SkyNews apologizes for the error.