William Shatner’s latest television enterprise is for History as the host and executive producer of the new Friday night series The UnXplained, which will seek out extra-terrestrial mysteries but won’t require a Galaxy-class starship to accomplish its small-screen mission.
This weekend the Emmy-winning actor and Star Trek icon will also be the top-billed special guest at AlienCon 2019 at the Los Angeles Convention Center. The three-day event (presented by A&E Networks and Mischief Management) is both a pop culture expo and a summit for psuedo-science; the convention was inspired by the History hit franchise Ancient Aliens, a show that will be splitting the Friday night schedule with Shatner’s new on-screen life form. (The UnXplained is from Prometheus Productions and executive producer Kevin Burns, creator and producer of Ancient Aliens and The Curse of Oak Island.)
Nobody knows more about conventional thinking than Shatner: Star Trek conventions in the late 1960s and early 1970s helped set the stage for the brand name’s 1979 revival as a big-screen flagship franchise for Paramount Pictures.
Amazingly, it’s been almost two-and-a-half decades since Shatner last portrayed his signature character, James T. Kirk, the headstrong commander of the USS Enterprise. This August marks the 25th anniversary of Star Trek: Generations, the 1994 feature film that featured Shatner’s swan song performance and the death of Kirk.
Shatner has actually played a deep-space screen hero in five different decades (in 1954, more than a decade before Gene Roddenberry launched Star Trek on NBC, Shatner was Space Command, an early sci-fi series on the Canadian Broadcasting Company). Despite all that interstellar experience, Shatner says he is still awaiting his first UFO sighting in real life. Deadline caught up with the Golden Globe-winning actor to talk about The UnXplained voyages ahead.
DEADLINE: You know better than anyone how fan conventions have become a formalized part of the entertainment industry. The early Trek conventions were a template for most everything that followed them.
SHATNER: Absolutely. It just exploded. There must have been a hunger for it but then the first one that I attended so many years ago, I think there were like 15,000 people in the audience and I had to go out there and it was the actor’s nightmare that you’re naked and you don’t know your lines. That’s the nightmare. So, in my case, I had clothes on, but I didn’t know what to say. These things were new, too, so I had no context. What are you going to say to 15,000 people? That was terrifying. Over the years I’ve become accustomed to facing an audience and not knowing what the next words were going to be and it’s kind of like a high-wire act except that the guy on the high wire doesn’t know whether he’s going to fall or not. And now it’s, it’s like fun. It’s like a game of chance. How good will this hour be with me and the audience?
DEADLINE: What do you remember about that first Star Trek convention you appeared at? That was perhaps the 1972 one in New York?
SHATNER: I was in New York. It was a New York hotel and there’s a certain iconic story about this but I don’t quite remember but they kind of shoved me up there once I agreed to go out there. Now you’re standing on stage facing 15,000 people in this enormous auditorium and you’re wondering whether the word f— is going to come out of your mouth by accident. That was always the thing that bothered me. Whether you would say something inadvertently and reveal some inner part of your mind that you didn’t want to reveal.
DEADLINE:AlienCon is light years removed from the old Trek cons. Fans can pay to get an autograph or photo with many of the guests and the schedule is packed with UFO theory discussions and $25 sessions that help fans recover their repressed memories about past abductions. How would you describe the event?
SHATNER: AlienCon is an invention of the History channel to celebrate and bring together people of common interest who are fascinated by the thought that aliens were here, or are here, or are coming here. All three.And it’s for people who find it all dubious but are still interested. So, some opportunities. It’s interesting, what do they call it? Not a hole in the market, but a…?
SHATNER: Niche, yes. It’s a interesting niche in the market that hasn’t been exploited about, well, aliens. So that’s what they’re doing, and it goes along in a way with this new series I’m going to host on the History Channel in July. The UnXplained is what it is, and it’s all about the mysteries that surround us that remain inexplicable. Evil places on earth that seem to collect bad deeds. Or people who’ve had seriously rare things happen to them, like the woman who’s been struck by lightning more than twice or the car accident victim who comes out of the coma and plays the piano. He never played the piano before, now he’s playing.
DEADLINE: And the show presents theories that may explain the mystery?
SHATNER: Correct. There are all kinds of mysterious events that have happened, some are well-known and some are relatively unknown. And we’ve developed the research and that’s the show. It’s an attempt to show you a mysterious event, all of the context of it, and then and offer a possible explanation in some cases but certainly no real proven scientific explanation.
DEADLINE: Are you coming to the show as a resident skeptic or more like the franchise’s true believer? Have you, in your own life, witnessed or otherwise perceived a phenomena that, afterward, had you scratching head?
SHATNER: I’m waiting to have my moment. People tell me ghost stories all the time. They can be intense about it, too. “I saw George coming out of the closet and he said hello.” So I ask, well what he was doing in there? They know, too, because, I mean, they have entire conversations. It sounds like a dream so I ask them, “Well, were you were asleep? Was that half-sleep half-awake?” No. No. They were awake, they say, they weren’t asleep. I have people tell me about the time they walked into a house and heard a voice. More than once, too, it’s the house with a voice that’s always there and no one can explain it. So, I’ve waited for something like that to happen to me. I go to places deliberately to try to find these things that I’ve heard about. Does it happen? No, when I go it’s, “Now the ghost isn’t here?” It never happens. I’m waiting for that mystical moment where I can finally scratch my head and say, “Don’t worry, it isn’t head lice.”
Deadline: You probably wouldn’t want to run into the otherworldly creatures and strange phenomena that Capt. Kirk has encountered over the years. The same can be said about the characters you’e played in movies like Kingdom of Spiders or on TV shows like The Twilight Zone…
Shatner: Well, one is a figment of an active imagination. Anybody can write science fiction because nobody knows what’s going to happen in our next breath. So then my opinion of what’s going to happen next (whether it’s the next instant or whether it’s 300 years from now) is as valid as yours because we just don’t know. That then allows and cultivates a fertile imagination regarding what could possibly happen. We’re destroyed, we’re not destroyed. We’re living in the sky. We’re living underground. Any of the many, varied, stories coming from these wonderful imaginative people are all equally valid. But the evidence of life after death, I guess, is probably what we’re talking about. All of that comes from one person. Books, as you know, have been written saying, “I was up there. I saw God and I came back!” But all of that’s inside the one guy’s head. So, I’m an Agnostic as far as all that. I’m waiting for proof.
DEADLINE: You’ve been to so many conventions over the decades and met so many people. Do you find any joy in the process at this point?
SHATNER: I love talking to those people who have had – and are absolutely certain about it – an incident. I love talking to them and I love exploring what it is they experienced. But then, in talking about aliens, there are also instances of accredited people – airline pilots and military pilots – not just somebody in the Florida woods that got picked up by a spaceship and examined by a spaceship a spaceship picks up and examined. There’s one event I’m thinking of, too, where military pilots scrambled for an unknown object in the sky and they saw it and they armed their guns and they were chasing it and then it just left them standing there. It went so fast at such a sharp angle that they couldn’t keep up. They reported all that and it’s that kind of thing that makes you scratch your head.
DEADLINE: One of the hallmarks of your career are your memorable characters and distinctive performances. The rhythms of your acting are unique, I’d say. Looking back over the years, who are some of the actors that you’ve worked with who really “got” you and your work? Someone who clicked right away with your sensibilities and those rhythms?
SHATNER: Well, I don’t know. Up until the last sentence I was with you. In the situation when things work it’s the same thing. Mostly it’s the actor in front of you is performing as deeply, as fully, as is possible and then if that moves you emotionally as well? That’s when you react back. And then they react to you and then it becomes a beautiful tennis game. It’s the French Open in acting.
DEADLINE: You’ve had some amazing match partners over the years. Leonard Nimoy, Ricardo Montalban, James Spader, and Candice Bergen spring to mind…
SHATNER: You know, I guess James Spader comes to mind. There were just so many people over the years that I played opposite of, but James Spader is a good example of a guy that I was in many, many scenes with and a guy I enjoyed being in those scenes with.
DEADLINE: You’re always juggling a dozen things. What are some of the things you’re working on these days?
SHATNER: I’m on tour from time to time with a film called the The Wrath of Khan. They play the film then I come out for an hour and play with the audience. The other night I gave a speech in Seattle and then spent an hour-and-a-half with the audience after the speech and the audience reacted really well. I was in Ticonderoga over the weekend during which I entertained Friday and Saturday for four or five hours each day. I’ve got this new show, as you know, The UnXplained, and I’m busy selling other shows either ones that I have thought or that other people thought of and then brought it to me. I’m very busy it appears.