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William Shatner on NASCAR, Putting Out Fires, and Standing on Principle

William Shatner at the Raleigh WizardWorld Comic Con.
William Shatner at the Raleigh WizardWorld Comic Con.
The Negotiator boldly travelled to the WizardWorld Comic Con in Raleigh, NC—though as a man that has travelled across land and space, he had trouble differentiating Raleigh from Charlotte, another major city in NC. In person, William Shatner’s personality more closely matches the Negotiator than Captain Kirk. He is a natural storyteller—he didn’t wait to sit in his seat before starting his string of stories and instantly held his audience under his spell. He told stories about NASCAR, a fire on a Star Trek set, learning through fans about his casting in the third Star Trek film coming up by J.J. Abrams and also spoke about the wonders of science, the mythic qualities of science fiction, and the balance between negotiation and standing on principle.

Shatner kicked things off with a funny story about a time when he was in a celebrity NASCAR qualifying run at Charlotte Motor Speedway with a looming film schedule. Worried that he’d miss his filming schedule if he qualified for the race, he drove his laps anyway. The experience was highly discomforting to him—as Captain Kirk, he travelled at the speed of light without breaking a sweat, but he described driving a stock car at 180 mph near a concrete wall as a nerve-racking experience. He ran the fastest lap, only to disqualify himself by crossing the white line at the apron of the track. He got the “best of all possible worlds,” he said, proving that he could win while also disqualifying himself so he could make his film schedule.

If that story is any indication, Shatner has experienced many adventures on and off the screen. He described how on one occasion a fire broke out on the set of Star Trek that burned the fiberglass prop rocks, which emit poisonous fumes while burning. Shatner helped put out the fire with a hose until the Fire Dept. took over. One time he married a couple as a ship captain. He also related how fans came up and told him about an upcoming movie role that he didn’t know he had been cast for at the time. “You guys know more than I do!” he said. The fans cited sources and even told him the very scene in which he would appear. Shatner denied knowing anything and received an email by J.J. Abrams thanking him for his silence. Shatner replied that he truly knew nothing and that a director had to have talked. Next he heard that a director had been fired from the production. “I’m afraid to talk!” he exclaimed.

The success of Star Trek baffles him, and he wrote a book of fan interviews called “Get a Life” in an effort to better understand the fans. Some of the people he interviewed at conventions included a man whose cat, dressed as Captain Kirk, spoke for him. “I interviewed a lady who had multiple personalities, all of them Star Trek,” Shatner said. In explaining the conclusion of his book, he said, “I thought [the fans] all came to see me. . . .[But] you came to see each other!” Here Shatner touched upon one of the profound wonders of conventions and fandoms—the feeling of having arrived to one’s own tribe, where people from all places can identify with fictional characters in a shared mythology and can recognize the costumes of characters from the same stories they themselves experienced.

Shatner spoke about the mythic qualities of science fiction and the wonders and mysteries that persist in the largely unknown universe. He pointed out to the audience just how little scientists really know and how much room for discovery there really is. He likened science fiction to how ancient mythologies sought to understand their world, as science fiction often speculates on what might be.

Image taken by Pamela Poole
Image taken by Pamela Poole
During the Q&A session, a young woman, on the verge of tears, thanked Shatner for inspiring her and her brothers to enter the fields of math and science. “Your voice was trembling,” Shatner said, and asked what emotion she was feeling. After gathering her thoughts, she replied, “Gratitude,” leaving Shatner visibly humbled.

After a particularly long question about Shatner’s original vision for the fifth Star Trek film, Shatner’s mic died. “Such a long question. . .the batteries died!” he exclaimed. He held the microphone up to his head as if it were a communicator, saying, “Can you hear me?”

With a new mic in hand, Shatner explained that originally he wanted the Enterprise crew to search for God in the heavens and explore the implications of that. Studio executives were uncomfortable with the premise on the grounds that fans who do not believe in God wouldn’t buy a ticket. They suggested instead that the Enterprise crew meet an alien that thinks it is a god. Shatner gave in, but now he has regrets. He told the audience that the film lost its power because he “politicked.” He cautioned fans that everyone makes some sort of negotiation every day, even when deciding which kind of ice cream to buy at the supermarket, but care must be taken while negotiating. He urged fans to stand on principle, warning that people lose their force when they give in to political correctness.

Shatner demonstrated humility and enthusiasm throughout the panel. If the audience members forget every word he said, they will remember this—Shatner was not at WizardWorld for William Shatner. He was there for his fans.



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