Is William Shatner’s ‘Life of Awe’ the memoir we need now?
Boldly Go: Reflections on a Life of Awe and Wonder
By William Shatner with Joshua Brandon
Atria Books, 256 pages, $28
William Shatner’s latest memoir arrives at a ripe time in the Jewish calendar, just before Yom Kippur and between the account of Moses’ impending death and the prophetic poems that end Deuteronomy and the Torah cycle. Fittingly, ol’ Captain Kirk gives us notes of teshuva and finishes off with a song he wrote about his funerary arrangements.
In the tune “I Want to Be a Tree,” lyrics provided in “Boldly Go: Reflections on a Life of Awe and Wonder,” the 91-year-old Shatner writes: “When my time has come/ Don’t put me in a box/ And skip the fancy shiva/ No platters of bagels and lox … Just plant me like a seed/’ Cause I want to be a tree.”
Shatner has apparently stipulated in his will that he is to be cremated, his ashes placed in a pod and buried in the ground with a tree planted on top. If he’s not following “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry’s lead by having his remains sent out to the Final Frontier, it may be because Shatner’s been there and done that, with his trip on Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. That sub-orbital jaunt instilled a profound concern for Earth’s fragility in Shatner and, perhaps even more surprising, a certain humility, if not complete accountability.
Brimming with insights from scientists, TED talk speakers and Shatner’s life and career, the book is somewhat freewheeling. It segues from discussions of his family and the way trees communicate to fuddy-duddy reflections on technology, pornography and Jeffrey Toobin’s infamous Zoom call. But more than anything it’s a sorta schmaltzy meditation on how all creatures great and small are one (in the introductory chapter, Shatner shares how tiger sharks he swam with “responded with love” when they realized he wasn’t a threat) . The stuff the “$#*! My Dad Says” star says here is mostly bromidic advice with a sprinkling of illustrative on-set anecdote and “Popular Science” factoid.
I’ve made no secret of my distaste for Shatner’s recent Twitter antics, in which he seems eager to question the validity of Jewish converts of color, attack “SJWs” and get into spats with trans people for no obvious reason. Imagine my surprise when, aided by co-author Joshua Brandon, Shatner betrays a generosity of spirit guided by a thirst for knowledge and a philosophy of interconnectedness, with chapters on animal life, music and even his own limitations.
Shatner presents himself as an old softie, in thrall to the universe’s mysteries, brought to tears by an infographic detailing the miraculous odds of each person in the world existing. His biggest regret is hunting a Kodiak bear, and he goes on at length to stress his remorse and his commitment to mainly eat a plant-based diet. I was shocked to read, in a passage discussing white privilege, an acknowledgment that Jews are not white by default. (We may have an editor to thank for that.)
Often, in this diverting, rhapsodic work, one entry in Shatner’s lengthy bibliography, we get a knowing self-deprecation. Shatner admits that he doesn’t have much of a singing voice, and that he was, indeed, serious when he tried to be an unconventional recording artist.
Shatner admits that “it was a disaster” when he debuted a song from his 1968 album “The Transformed Man” on “The Tonight Show.” But that’s because he wasn’t able to provide an adequate set-up for his baffling, conceptual cover of “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
Somehow I don’t think it would have made much more sense for the casual viewer of Johnny Carson.
Elsewhere, Shatner excuses his estrangement from longtime friend Leonard Nimoy by saying that it may have been the result of Nimoy’s battle with COPD. “Sometimes, when one is suffering from an extreme, fatal illness, they will begin to pull back from friends and family,” he writes. The other option may have been a misunderstanding involving a documentary Shatner was filming, which Nimoy did not want to appear in. (Shatner also defends his choice to attend a charity event rather than Nimoy’s funeral.)
Shatner does own up to perhaps being less than pleasant on the set of “Star Trek,” taking away screen time from co-stars and inadvertently shaming his granddaughter by calling her a “bad girl.” Certainly he presents himself as being open to change and learning about where he went wrong in the past — even if it takes others to point out his shortcomings.
At his most affecting moments, Shatner addresses his ultimate insignificance. Whether you buy the story or not, it’s a relief to hear him say, when offered a chance at space flight, “Who on earth would be interested in an actor going up there?” It’s also gutting to read his realization that, in pursuing his acting career, he ended up neglecting his parents. “I paid no extra attention to my family; I did not seek to compensate for my physical distance with more letters and phone calls.”
You feel for him, but then the next paragraph plugs his album “Bill” and the various digital music services where you can find it.
Like his “TekWar” sci-fi novels or his tenure as the Priceline Negotiator and his show that airs on Russian state TV, it would probably not be entirely off-base to dismiss “Boldly Go” as another cash grab — and Shatner makes no secret that concerns over his financial security have dogged him his entire life. (“That’s what being Jewish and growing up in the Great Depression and time of the Holocaust will do to you,” he explains.)
But there is also the sense of a larger, self-important, but not so easily dismissed directive behind this latest book. Its impetus reminds me a bit of Moses’ motivation in Deuteronomy.
“I don’t claim to have any wisdom, but if someone wants to know an answer to a question and I’m not around for them to ask, I have written many books and have tried to leave behind my thoughts and feelings across a lifetime of adventures,” Shatner writes in a chapter addressing his mortality. “Is it enough?”
I think it probably is, and there’s something to be learned from it. While not our most sagacious mind, Shatner still means a lot to a great many people — so much that he was enlisted to record a phone-accessible hologram to which people can pose questions, a technology also used for Holocaust survivors.
Shatner’s life doesn’t carry the lessons of Moses or survivors — to be clear, he never claims it does — but it does contain the rare perspective of someone who has lived a long, eventful life. The man went to space, and it may have taken that experience to bring him down to earth.