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Monday, December 12, 2011

The Captains DVD Review

The Captains, is a feature-length documentary that “boldly goes where no man has gone before,” giving viewers an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at one of the most durable and profitable franchises in entertainment history, and the men and women who made the Star Trek brand an international phenomenon since 1966.  Written and directed by William Shatner, The Captains chronicles one of the most engaging media personalities of our time on his quest to explore the impact that Star Trek has had on his life.  Why, in spite of his voluminous stage, screen, and television credits, as well as his numerous Emmys and Golden Globe Awards, does one role in his career loom so large that it nearly eclipses all others?  To find the answer, Shatner enlists the help of the elite group of actors including Patrick Stewart (Captain Jean-Luc Picard), Kate Mulgrew (Captain Kathryn Janeway), Avery Brooks (Captain Benjamin Sisko), Scott Bakula (Captain Jonathan Archer), and Chris Pine (Captain James T. Kirk, Star Trek 2009) who also assumed the mantle of Starship Captain.  In the process, coupling their own unique stories with their compelling insights, the five Captains give Shatner a better understanding of his own life.

“My hope is to delve deeply into these actors’ psyches, find out more about them so you can… see what common denominator there is among us as actors that brought [us] to this worldwide renown as part of Star Trek.”  - William Shatner

Film  

I’ve been a fan of Star Trek since I was a young boy and I remember eagerly watching the reruns every day and getting into trouble for trying to watch it during dinner.  I loved the adventure and exploration of the show and it was also set in space which was another bonus.  Another reason that I loved the show was the camaraderie between the crew, especially between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy.  Even at my young age, I understood that their friendship was special as was their chemistry together.  I’m also a big fan of William Shatner himself in all of his multi-faceted glory. I’ve read his books about Star Trek (“Star Trek Memories” and “Star Trek: Movie Memories”), his actual Star Trekbooks, his “TekWar” books, his autobiographies, his music (“Has Been” was really good), the Star Trek videogames, and of course I’ve watched his other non-Trek shows like “T.J. Hooker” (Heather Locklear was also a  factor), “Rescue 911″, “Boston Legal”, “Shatner’s Raw Nerve,” and even “S#@t My Dad Says.”  In full disclosure for this review, I will admit that I may be slightly biased.
Being a fan of Shatner since the seventies, I’ve been witness to his struggle with Star Trek.  On one hand, it gave him everything, but on another it took everything away from him.  The show cost him his marriage which not only reduced the amount of time with his children, but also ruined him financially when the show was cancelled.  It also took away his privacy and changed his career path for better or worse since he would never be able to shake off the aura of James T. Kirk.  Those opposing forces led to his somewhat diffident attitude towards Star Trek for years and partly even led to his infamous Saturday Night Live sketch where he half-seriously told some fake Star Trek fans “To get a life!”  The two-edged sword that represented Star Trek to him was also brought to bear every time there was another negotiation for a new Star Trek movie.  I can remember worrying whether or not he would sign the contract for several Trek films over the years while he held out for more money.  To me at the time, it seemed like he cared more about his paycheck than making a Star Trek movie for his fans, which may or may not have been true.
Over the years since then, it’s been interesting to watch Shatner’s position change.  And to be fair, he wasn’t the only cast member that felt that way since Leonard Nimoy wrote a book called “I Am Not Spock”  only to release another book years later called “I Am Spock.”  For William Shatner, I believe that shift began when he wrote the two Star Trekbooks that covered the making of the show and the movies.  After that, he was forced to actually mourn the character’s death in Star Trek: Generations, a concept that didn’t faze him at all until the day of shooting arrived.  That movie was also a clear passing of the baton to the “Next Generation crew,” which didn’t escape his notice either.  It was a lot easier to keep Star Trek at bay when you knew there would be another movie down the road.  Now faced, with the the end of the character, it was time for him to reflect on what it all meant to him which he did when he wrote a new book called, “Get A Life.”  In that book he talks about how he used to view Star Trek conventions as just business, where he would fly in and out as quickly as possible.  When he started to actually check out the displays and secretly meet the fans while hidden behind a mask, he became as he said, ”Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning.”  That experience changed his entire outlook on the conventions and now he loves doing them and meeting the fans.
I give you all of this background information because I believe it sets up and helps explain Mr. Shatner’s latest effort – The Captains.  In this movie, he wonders if there is a common thread that he shares with the other actors who have played Star Trek captains as well and if they share his feelings about the whole thing.  If you’ve never seen “Shatner’s Raw Nerve”, or his similar film MindMeld - Secrets Behind The Voyage of a Lifetime where he filmed a long and fantastic talk with Leonard Nimoy, then you may not be aware that he’s also a gifted interviewer.  It’s easy to forget that most of these actors have been involved in Star Trek for years and it becomes readily apparent watching this that the franchise has changed all of their lives for better and for worse over time.  For the men, it played a part in their marriages collapsing with Scott Bakula and Shatner commiserating with each other once they realize how similar their life paths were.  Patrick Stewart also was divorced twice, while Avery Brooks’ relationship also suffered because of “Deep Space Nine.”  On the flip side, Kate Mulgrew talks about how as a single mother she was unable to be as good a mother and as good an actress as she wanted to be because she was exhausted by the pace of “Voyager” and by raising her kids alone.
That’s not to say that the shows were the complete cause of all of these troubles since for some of the actors, their profession needed to come first.  As Patrick Stewart says,”I remember once sitting around a dinner table with colleagues, actors, directors and hearing one of them say ‘I love my job, but my family always comes first, always’. And a voice inside my head said not me.”  Mulgrew also asserts that the male captains had an easier go of it because they were men and didn’t have the same maternal instinct to try to take care of their kids like she did.  As she says, “I think that the great difference is that the female is wired once she has her young to take care of them and to raise them, and I couldn’t do it well.  You know, there were 16 to 18- hour days on that set for seven years, and I had two little kids.  Believe me, they resented it to this day.  They never watched it, they disdained it, they had nothing but dripping contempt for it.  And I don’t blame them.  So the woman cannot have it all.  But I’ve watched you guys and you guys can.”  Despite that, she says,”The acting is absolutely central to my happiness, to my well being and to my life.  If that is erroneously or wrongly criticized, I really resent it.”  It’s these kind of candid comments that makes The Captains so fascinating to watch.  It also helps that Shatner travels to their homes or a place where they feel comfortable talking with the exception of Chris Pine who he talks to outside the gates of Paramount Studios.
In their wide-ranging discussions, we learn that Avery Brooks is impossible to get a straight answer from since he likes to answer questions like a philosophy professor who turns your questions back on you, or he simply sings some nonsense while playing the piano.  Shatner gamely invents lyrics on the spot with him and tries to connect with him, but Brooks seems out of it.  He seems like a very nice fellow but as Shatner says later, “he’s a little out there.”  We also hear Shatner, Mulgrew, and Bakula talk about life and death with Shatner being the most worried about it.  As he says,”I’m saying to life and therefore to death, I’m still here and I’m not extinguished yet…I’m frightened of death…I thrust it out of my mind and probably by the dint of work, because I know death is over my shoulder.”  On the other hand, Scott Bakula is comfortable with growing older since he believes that ”the longer I’m here and the more I see, the less I think about that, because so many people don’t get to have what I’ve had as long as I have. So many people don’t have as much as I have, and so I think as you get older, you know people talk about perspective, but I think you get more grateful about it every day.”
Bakula also shares how much he loved the original Star Trek show and what it meant to him, “I watched, because I loved the male relationships on the show.  The way you guys related to each other and the camaraderie and the friendship and the love, I always said the love.  And that was my goal – one of the things I was attracted to about doing my version was to try and get that back, and we didn’t succeed and you guys did.”  When Avery Brooks was asked why he accepted the role of Benjamin Sisko he said, “I read the pilot and I said, ‘oh well, this is very interesting to me.  I mean, defending humankind to some other intelligence in the universe, a man dealing with loss, having to raise a child – indeed, a male child, by himself – and be brown, as we spin this tale in the 20th century about the 24th century, I said ok, that’s why’.”  In fact, Brooks believes that “Without Paul Robson, I [wouldn't be] on Star Trek…That is to say I wouldn’t be here.  I wouldn’t be here without Brock Peters.  I wouldn’t be here without Muhammad Ali, I wouldn’t be here without Sidney Poitier, I wouldn’t be here without William Warfield.  I could go on and on.  That’s the fact of the matter and I’m not fooled.”
One thing that Shatner discovers that all of the captains share is a theatrical background that helped prepare each actor for taking on the command role and that they all love performing on stage.  As Pine says, “What I love about theatre is that there’s an ephemeral quality to it: It happens, it comes together, it exists and then it goes away.”  Pine also happens to be the person with the least amount of screen time which makes sense since he has the least amount of experience, but it’s still cool to see both Kirks together especially when they decide to arm wrestle.  And don’t just think that only the captains were interviewed, since their first officers were also included to offer their thoughts about their captains including: Jonathan Frakes, Connor Trinneer, Kira Visitor, and others like RenĂ© Auberjonois, Richard Arnold, Robert Picardo, and Christopher Plummer who all had very nice things to say about their friends.  Shatner himself is effusive in his praise for Patrick Stewart.  For years, Shatner had resisted watching “Star Trek: The Next Generation” for many reasons, but he decided to watch it to prepare for his interview with Stewart and was struck by Stewart’s performances.  As he confessed later to Stewart, ”I’m looking at the dignity and the seriousness and the application of your talent to this role and I’m thinking this is really good. I’ve seen your stage performances, many of them, so I’m a fan of you as an actor. [What you did] on camera [in] the “Next Generation” was so serious and so real and had such character that I thought this marvelous actor is playing this part with all the grandeur and gravitas of his career as a Shakespearean actor.”
During these visits to the other actors, Shatner shares his own feelings and stories with them as they bond over their shared experiences.  The most touching and interesting interview for me was watching Shatner and Stewart go over a lot of emotional ground.  They’ve been close friends for years which you can tell just by watching them.  Stewart talks frankly about his childhood, about getting the role of Jean Luc Picard and the snobbery he endured from people who thought he was “slumming” by doing Star Trek after his work in the Royal Shakespeare Company.  Shatner relates instantly to that since for years he admits, he’s been derisive and somewhat embarrassed about being in the franchise and somwhat dismissive of anyone who told him that it changed their life.  On the trip over, he met the CEO of a multi-billion dollar airline company who told him that he went into that profession because of Kirk and Star Trek. This triggered an emotional epiphany while talking to Stewart and the two friends agree that being known as Kirk and Picard isn’t too bad at all and it’s something that they are actually proud of.  This emotional revelation obviously shook Shatner to the core and you can tell that his outlook on the franchise has shifted again as he remembers all of those people who have told him how Star Trek has changed their lives.  No longer passing it off  as simply fans being fans, he now seems to be honestly wondering how much of an impact Star Trek has really made in the world.
If you are one of the people who automatically dismiss Shatner because of his unique way of delivering his lines, or his Priceline commercials, or his old albums, or even how he acts, then you should give this a try.  If you are already a fan of the man and his portrayal of Kirk and the other captains, then you already know you will love this.  I really wish this was longer since I know there’s a lot of missing footage that was included in the trailer but didn’t make it into the film which is a shame since I would like to see it all.  This is a thoughtful, well directed, and insightful documentary film by William Shatner that I really enjoyed.  While I would have liked to see all of the footage or at least have it included as deleted scenes, that is my only complaint other than I wish they had given a little more time for Chris Pine.  This piece offers a nice glimpse of the humanity and common decency of the people who have been tentpoles for the Star Trek franchise and I highly recommend it!

Video (4 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

This enhanced for widescreen TV 16:9 (1.78:1) transfer looks very good for DVD.  There’s a surprising amount of detail offered and both colors and textures are brought to life well.  Details like Brooks’s wispy goatee or Stewart’s inviting green garden all look great in this transfer. Flesh tones are natural and change depending if the interviews are outside where it’s warm or inside a convention center.  Black levels and contrast as acceptable as well.  I was pretty impressed with this DVD transfer that looks a lot better than it should.

Audio (3 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

The Captain’s Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound is also pretty good with the dialogue coming through the front speakers clear and clean even during the crowds in the Las Vegas Hilton’s Star Trek convention.  When it crowds like that, there is some ambiance that is delivered by the rear speakers, but this is a mainly front channel presentation since it’s almost entirely interviews.  Avery Brooks’ piano music is nicely captured but the score of the documentary by Andy Milne is downright annoying.  It plays incessantly even during moments that would have been stronger if the emotional between the two people had been given a chance to breathe.  The music wants so hard to manipulate emotions that it actually hinders some very touching moments.  That’s my only real complaint about this documentary.

Special Features (2 out of 5 stars) 

I’ve already stated that I wish all of the extra interview footage would have included in the main documentary or at least here as deleted scenes but that didn’t happen.  Instead, we get a short making of featurette and the trailer.
  • The Making of The Captains – We hear from the people involved in making the movie and the share their thought on Shatner and his place and importance in the Star Trek universe.  We also hear from Shatner who talks about his motivations for making the movie and his thoughts on his fellow alumni.  This is interesting but very short and just like the main documentary, I would have liked a lot more.
  • Trailer

Final Thoughts (4 out of 5 stars) 

The Captains is an excellent documentary that showcases the many rewards and costs involved in becoming a Starship captain for many years.  All of the people involved share not only a rare friendship between each other, but also an understanding of what each of them went through for their roles – both personally and professionally.  While I knew that Shatner and Stewart were very good friends, I was struck by how well everyone that was interviewed for this documentary got along, it’s almost as if the extended Star Trek casts really are a family, or at the very least an exclusive club with a lifetime membership.  If you’d like to get more insight into these talented people and hear their unfiltered thoughts on it all, then check this out as I highly recommend it!
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