Captains

I’ve never been one for visual anthropology, and I’m totally uninterested in pushing the boundaries of what constitutes ‘ethnography’. As a fieldworker, I’m fascinated by the micro-dynamics of human behavior and how we create roles for each other to inhabit in everyday life. When I watch documentaries, then, I’m usually trying to imagine the human situations involved in production and let me tell you, there is a whole lot of that stuff in Captains, William Shattner’s documentary on the different actors who have portrayed captains in the sprawling Star Trek franchise.

Things get interesting quickly because it becomes obvious that the subject of the documentary is not the interviewees but the interviewer: Shattner’s real intention is clearly to make a documentary about himself and the long road he’s trod in life, and particularly to let the entire world know that he was once a classical thespian in the mould of Olivier and Gieldgud. The other major theme is how ennobled and wise he has become being forced to carry the entire weight of the Star Trek franchise on his back across the course of his career.

As a result the show focuses prominently on the fact that the other captains also started out in theater, mostly so Shattner can ask tell them about his time treading the boards. He asks them how Star Trek has changed them, so he can tell them how it has changed him. He asks them their views on life after death and the nature of infinity so that he can brood over his inevitable mortality. It is, in short, a clinic on how not to interview people, with special focus on the preoccupied and narcissistic interviewer. Absolutely fascinating to watch.

Actually, at times, the movie is almost unwatchable — most notably when Shattner asks Kate Mulgrew how women can realistically expect to be considered for leadership positions given the fact that they menstruate. But a lot of the time Shattner gets it right: his interviewees are seasoned respondents, indeed they are people whose lives importantly revolve around talking over and over again about their experience on Star Trek. As a result, it is very easy for them to slip into well-established stories and self narrations. But Shattner doesn’t give in, ‘probing’ (as we say in the business) for real answers in a way that is both boorish, but often get results.

Normally, of course, you can’t expect to get much fieldwork done when you ask blunt questions about people’s divorces or act like a raging misogynist. But it is the wider psychodrama of these interviews that is so interesting: clearly, each of the people interviewed pretty much had no choice but to participate. I’m not sure why, but I have this strange sense that in the world of Trek when Bill wants to make a documentary about the captains, you pretty much have to talk to him. As a result, the interviews have a strong flavor about them of captive respondents doing their best to contain the interviewer, knowing that their throw-away 90 minute meeting will eventually appear on the big screen and, like what they had for breakfast, be canonized in the Trekverse forever. Talk about prolepsis.

And contain him they do, largely because each of the people being interviewed are obviously amazing. Especially — and I don’t mean to be cruel here, but it’s true — especially when compared to Shatter. I had never watched Voyager before, but I was simply amazed by Kate Mulgrew’s charisma, articulateness, and intelligence as she attempts to deal with Shattner at what is probably his worst. Although perhaps that award goes to the interview with Avery Brooks, who when not being a star fleet officer is apparently a combination of Miles Davis, Paul Robeson, and Wittgenstein. Brooks is so gnomic that it is difficult to say, but he appears to be a total genius and also the only respondent who really seems to be trying to teach Shattner, to draw him out of himself. But what we get instead is a bizarre improvised jazz crooning session between the two of them reminiscent of the beatnik scenes that appeared in sixties surf films.

The other captains play things closer to their chests, but you can see their obvious intelligence: Bakula is too good at being disarmingly charming to not be one of the sharpest knives in the drawer, and Patrick Stewart does a superb job of both providing candor and removing himself from the interview when Shattner wants to grandstand. Even Chris Pine, the youngest and most vulnerable member of the franchise, is up to the task of being forced to respond to the man whose role he shares. Between the arm wrestling (yes, Shattner makes him arm wrestle) and other indignities, Pine puts up a professional front, and only occasionally lets something slip to show that he’s quite a thoughtful person. “I like how ephemeral theater is,” he muses even as he steps into a fan community that will preserving every iota of the material he will produce.

I’m not a huge trekkie, but I think any anthropologist who has thought a lot about the dynamics of interviewing will find Captains absolutely fascinating. It’s the sort of thing that I’d show in a field methods class to begin sensitizing students to give and take of interviewing. If you have Netflix or can find it in other locations, I’d highly encourage you to watch, even if the going isn’t always that easy.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

6 thoughts on “Captains

  1. That’s a wonderrful piece, Alex. I was a trekkie once. I will never forget our ancient TV blowing up in the middle of an episode, leading me to knock madly on the doors of our village high street for a chance to keep watching.

    The French have an ethnographic tradition, promoted by Marcel Griaule, in which the story is at least as much about the interviewer as the interviewee. I was never one for the self-effacing style, “tell me about yourself and your culture”…

    But mostly it’s just a brilliant essay.

  2. Thanks for putting me onto this one. When Shatner told Chris Pine, “You’re me fifty years ago!” I am pretty sure Pines was thinking, “Let’s hope the converse doesn’t hold.”

    On a serious note, it amazes me how often anthropologists who you (by which I mean “me”) would think should know better seem unaware of the fact that the other party to the interview has his or her own agenda, constraints, and set of expectations.

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