William Shatner explores the legacy of Star Trek and finds out something about science or space or whatever.
Thoroughly confused, this documentary doesn’t know if it wants to be a Star Trek retrospective or a space exploration. Either way William Shatner is the wrong person to front it.
He’s already done a straight-to-Netflix Star Trek documentary, the unwatchably bad The Captains, so whoever thought it would be a good idea to let him tackle astrophysics is probably almost as dense as Shatner consistently appears.
The science bits are lovingly illustrated with stock footage, and every interview is heavily padded to compensate for the lack of material (we get to see Shatner eat a sandwich with Seth MacFarlane). He’s a terrible interviewer, and as a consequence his interviews, with the likes of Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Whoopi Goldberg, are only as good as his subjects.
To give you an example, he wants to examine the link between science and art, so approaches Trekkie Goldberg with the question “So what do we know about art?”. To her credit she manages an impressively thoughtful answer, but this is certainly no thanks to the Shat’s incisive questioning.
He interviews distinguished physicist Neil Turok, and to his credit begins the interview by describing himself as an ignoramus. Turok charitably describes that as nonsense, then, over the course of the interview, begins to see his point.
Shatner asks him about how his work overlaps with Stephen Hawking’s, adding “Just to be mentioned in the same breath is really phenomenal isn’t it?”. “For him”, Turok replies, before attempting to explain Hawking’s specific contribution to physics to the blank-faced Shatner. Shatner’s follow-up question: “Is that string theory?”. Turok: “No.”
The documentary’s second biggest problem, after the hiring of William Shatner, is that everything leads towards the climatic interview with Stephen Hawking. So much so that Shatner actually asks his other interview subjects what he should ask Hawking. If any of them suggested reading one of his books first, Shatner ignored them.
The interview is built up to with a full 9 minutes of Shatner wandering around Cambridge and thinking to himself before Hawking enters, for the most cringe-inducing interview I’ve ever seen. It makes Sacha Baron Cohen look like Parkinson. Going into the interview it’s not clear if Hawking is a Star Trek fan, but it’s all but certain he isn’t by the end of it.
Shatner literally treats Hawking like the Messiah (“it’s like a religious experience”). He tells Hawking his whole journey has been leading up to meeting him – even though it’s not clear what he wants to find out or why Hawking is the best person to answer his questions.
He treats it like the end of Wizard of Oz, where he meets an all-knowing genius who will answer all his questions. Maybe if he’d actually watched the Wizard of Oz he might have seen the flaw in that approach. It’s so unbearable that I had to watch it through my hands.
The apparent reason Shatner misjudges the situation so horribly is that he thinks Hawking is The Cleverest Man in the World who is able to make arbitrary pronouncements of truth. It shows a shocking level of scientific ignorance, particularly for a man who was the star of show known for its authenticity in the area, and who is presenting a documentary on the subject.
When he finally meets the great man his questions include “Will we ever evolve to be immortal?”, to which Hawking, who looks like he’s realised this was a bad idea, replies with a firm no. This isn’t even Hawking’s area of expertise, it’s just a question anyone but Shatner could work out the answer to with a moment’s reflection.
The whole scene could be used in one of those ‘end the awkward‘ ads from Scope on how not to talk to a disabled person. The piece de resistance is when Shatner insultingly suggests he and Hawking could co-helm the first ship to colonise Mars. Erm…if I’m on that ship I think I’ll just stick with Hawking. If he needs a co-pilot maybe try literally anyone else.
This is indicative of another problem with the documentary; that Shatner consistently talks as if he actually helmed a starship, to the extent that you begin to wonder if he really understands the difference between a TV show and reality.
If I was being charitable I’d say Shatner is not helped by the fact he looks significantly younger than he is. If he looked his 85 years it wouldn’t be so strange that he seems totally confused by everything. But whatever the reason, on a list of the best people to front this documentary he’s somewhere between B.o.B. and Ken Ham.