For the first time, last weekend I attended Dragon Con, the nation’s premier science fiction and fantasy convention, in costume – decked out in a Zorro outfit. Posing with other attendees in wild getups was fun, but the highlight was getting to see two of my favorite genre stars in the flesh.
I never before paid for a photo with the former star of a TV series. Not only did it seem like clingy celebrity worship — plus a waste of money — I always felt embarrassed for fading screen idols reduced to scraping by on $20 a pop. But when I spotted James Marsters, who played bleached blond cockney vampire Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I couldn’t resist. Not because I especially wanted a memento, but just for the opportunity to tell him face-to-face what a smashing job he did on the show. As I told the actor, he took viewers on a wonderful journey, deftly pulling off comedy, drama – even singing in the famous musical episode.
Marsters modestly responded that the writers “gave me such wonderful stuff to work with.” Which is certainly true. The arc of the character, who goes from villainous Billy Idol from hell to love-struck romantic hero, was one of the best ever written for the tube. Still a consummate actor, Marsters managed to make every fan on line feel like they shared a “moment” with him. (He complimented me on my “cool costume.”) Some of his legion of female admirers may have been a bit disappointed, though. A card on the table politely informed them that there should be no requests for “kissing, hugging or biting.”
Later, in a giant ballroom filled to capacity, I got to see my boyhood hero Captain Kirk himself speak. Bouncing around the stage buoyantly, the actor’s energy and mental agility belied his 85 years. It was a striking – and welcome – contrast to the classic Star Trek episode “The Deadly Years,” in which a mysterious disease causes Kirk to age rapidly, and he goes senile!
A voracious reader, who chatted excitedly about the latest book he’d read on the intelligence of birds, Shatner proved himself far from the vapid egotist some see him as (an image spoofed hilariously by Tim Allen in the movie Galaxy Quest.) Shatner got deep as he recounted his discussion with astrophysicist Stephen Hawking for a science documentary. Surprisingly, when given an opportunity to ask Shatner a question, the genius posed the same superficial one any elementary school kid would: What was your favorite episode? The truth, the actor admitted, was that he recalls few details from the show in which he appeared 50 years ago.
“I barely remember what hotel I woke up in this morning,” he joked. The star did say that in general what intrigued him were the episodes built around “big ideas.” In particular, he cited the one featuring a pair of aliens from the same planet, who hate each other because one is white on the right side and black on the left, the other just the reverse. Even when I watched it as a kid, the message about racial tolerance seemed heavy handed. The duo hail from “the southern part of the galaxy,” Spock informed the captain. But I guess in the 1960s, when TV’s first interracial kiss was shocking to viewers, you had to pound people over the head.
Asked about his experience as a young actor in Judgment in Nuremberg (1961), he recalled how the director sat the cast down and screened for them death camp footage of corpses being mowed into a trench by a bulldozer. He still wonders how humans can be capable of such bestial behavior, yet also incredible nobility and self-sacrifice. (That duality was, of course, the subject of another memorable episode, in which Kirk is split into a good half and evil half, due to a transporter malfunction.)
But the former starship skipper was mostly funny. Asked about the short-lived 1975 series The Barbary Coast, in which he played a master of disguise, he reenacted the grueling experience of being made up as three different characters every day, often with elaborate prosthetics. It was such a pain in the butt that even though it was his first gig on the air since Star Trek ended nearly a decade earlier, “When it was cancelled after 13 weeks, I was glad!”
In a famous Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” Shatner played an airline passenger recovering from a nervous breakdown, who keeps spotting a gremlin on the wing. He frantically tries to alert the flight crew, but naturally no one believes him. The TV legend revealed that when he flew with his children, they invariably made him prank stewardesses. They’d buzz for one, and when she came over, he’d turn from the window, making “the face.”
Mock Shatner for “overacting,” all you want. I maintain he’s way underrated. As is often the case with good performances, it seems like the actor is simply playing himself. But before being cast as the swaggering, self-assured, macho Kirk, he was best known for portraying weak or neurotic characters like the one described above. He wasn’t typecast. What holds up best, as you watch the original series today, are those mind-blowing ideas, and Shatner’s performance. As he once said in an interview, he’s always been a storyteller, and you can see him reinforce the plot, note by note in each scene, with his acting choices. Experiencing what a splendid raconteur he is was a great reminder of this.
Still, I’m not above poking fun at Shatner’s acting style, as anyone knows who’s seen my impression.
Below are some more of my favorite Dragon Con moments: