August 29, 2013 -- This new addition to the Star Trek universe is a DVD (also available as online streaming videos) of a TV documentary miniseries which was telecast on the Epix channel starting in May of this year. The episodic features on the disc include interviews with the actors who played Star Trek captains in TV series and in movies, William Shatner, Patrick Stewart, Avery Brooks, Kate Mulgrew, Scott Bakula and Chris Pine, along with film clips and other archival materials, such as comments made at Star Trek conventions and publicity appearances.
This series of interviews and other materials appears to be an expansion of an earlier documentary film called “The Captains,” released in 2011. I thought I had seen everything related to Star Trek, but I missed seeing, “The Captains.” As near as I can tell, this new documentary covers some of the same ground as “The Captains” did, but is more in depth. This new documentary series seems to be more focused on the captains. As with the previous project, William Shatner is up front, producing, directing and writing. A lot of this is about Shatner, but that is to be expected from this self-centered fellow.
These five documentary features are each 30 minutes long. Each one is self-contained, so they don't have to be watched in one sitting, but they can be, since the DVD has the “play all” feature in the menu. There are a couple of extras on the disc, which are both short interview segments with Shatner, one of them about his fire-fighting exploits on the Paramount lot, the other is a brief history of Desilu Productions and how the Desilu lot in Hollywood was combined with the Paramount lot in the 1960s. The original Star Trek series was a Desilu production. The company was originally owned and operated by show business legends Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz.
The disc is in the widescreen format (16X9 or 1.78:1) with a 5.1 surround soundtrack. Audio and video quality vary considerably according to source, with film, video, and some archival footage being of considerably lesser quality than the contemporary video recordings.
The first episode, naturally, is about William Shatner, who played Captain James T. Kirk in the original Star Trek TV series, which first aired in 1966, and in subsequent movies. The documentary follows Shatner's long movie and TV career, including his Emmy-winning turn as attorney Denny Crane in the Boston Legal TV series. Shatner manages to include some material from his one-man stage show “Shatner's World,” his musical collaboration with Billy Sherwood, formerly of the group “Yes.” Also included in this episode is an interview with actor Chris Pine, who plays Captain James T. Kirk in two Star Trek movies, “Star Trek” and “Star Trek Into Darkness.”
The second episode is perhaps the best, with Shatner visiting the British estate of Sir Patrick Stewart, who played Captain Jean-Luc Picard in the spinoff series “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” starting in 1987. Stewart gives a very candid interview, seemingly talking as much about his personal failures as his professional accomplishments. Joining the two captains in the interview is Stewart's son, Daniel. Stewart takes up a topic that comes up frequently in the other interviews: concerning the time requirements of acting, particularly in a TV series, and the negative effects of this on family life.
The third episodes includes an interview with a fascinating, eloquent actor, Avery Brooks, who played Captain Benjamin Cisco on the spinoff TV series, “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” starting in 1993. This series overlapped with “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and there were some cast overlaps as well, with Michael Dorn and Colm Meaney reprising their “Next Generation” roles as Lt. Commander Worf and Chief Miles O'Brien, respectively. Dorn is one of many actors who appear in brief interview snippets commenting on the various actors featured in the episodes.
Brooks is seen sitting at his piano, which he plays during the course of the interview with Shatner. Brooks and Andy Milne collaborated on the music for “The Captains,” and have appeared together on stage. Brooks is also a professor of Theater Arts at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, in addition to being an accomplished actor and musician. Compared to most actors you see in these sorts of interviews, Avery Brooks is a lot deeper, more thoughtful, eloquent, cultured and dignified than most. To give you an example, he says, “I am interested in the equation of live-saving and life-giving. Period. It doesn't matter what I am doing.” He quotes poets and philosophers and refuses to be put into any conventional cultural box, or defined by a mere sound bite.
The fourth episode features Kate Mulgrew, who starred as Captain Kathryn Janeway in the spinoff series “Star Trek: Voyager” from 1995 to 2001. Mulgrew is also seen in the first episode, where she proves to be a better interviewer than Shatner. Mulgrew is a very strong woman, whose odd voice has gotten mellower over the years. Garret Wang, who played Harry Kim on “Star Trek: Voyager”, does a hilarious impersonation of Mulgrew's voice in one of the clips in this episode. Wang is a gifted mimic.
Mulgrew, as several other actors do in this series, talks at some length about the personal cost of doing a TV series like this, with few days off and 18-hour work days. She alludes to one harrowing episode involving a child's illness which illustrates the enormous pressure she was under as the star of the show, a mother of young children, and her family's breadwinner.
The last episode is with Scott Bakula, who played Captain Jonathan Archer in the prequel series “Star Trek: Enterprise,” which aired from 2001 to 2005. Bakula was also the star of another popular TV science fiction TV series, “Quantum Leap,” which took advantage of Bakula's abilities as an athlete, a singer and dancer and his other talents. Some of this episode is taken up with Bakula and Shatner riding horses on Shatner's property. We don't really get to know much about Bakula's personal life in this episode, other than an interesting story about how he was offered the leading role in the “Star Trek: Enterprise” series.
A common thread through all the episodes is that all these actors who played Star Trek captains had experience in live stage productions prior to being in Star Trek TV series. In the case of actors Patrick Stewart and Kate Mulgrew, their first love is the stage. Mulgrew says that she did television for money, but she does theater for free. One of her regrets is that she thinks she should not have moved from the New York stage scene to Hollywood TV productions at such an early age. Several other actors interviewed in these episodes also have long backgrounds in the theater. Avery Brooks is another avid live theater lover. He jokes in his interview segment that he did “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” to put his kids through college. He may have only been half-joking about that.
This production is obviously mainly for Star Trek fans, and also for fans of these particular actors. There is some insight into the lives of Patrick Stewart and Kate Mulgrew. The Avery Brooks episode is also very good, although little is said about his portrayal of a character named Hawk in the popular TV series, “Spenser for Hire,” starring the late Robert Urich, and in the spinoff series “A Man Called Hawk.” Brooks played the same character in several made-for-TV movies based on the Spenser series and books by Robert Parker. Brooks doesn't do these kinds of interviews very often, so this is a rare treat. There is somewhat skimpier coverage of Shatner, Pine and Bakula.
While Shatner is not a very good interviewer, he has a lot of charm and the episodes are well-edited. Good use is made of an abundance of research and supporting materials and clips. This makes a good addition to a well-stocked Star Trek video library. This production rates a B.
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