William Shatner on 50 Years of ‘Star Trek,’ the Passing of David Bowie, and Pal Leonard Nimoy

The man formerly known as Captain Kirk opens up about the legacy of his hit series, his Bowie tribute album, and much more.

01.20.16 12:29 PM ET

The O.G. captain of the Starship Enterprise has seen it all.

During Star Trek’s half-century reign as one of pop culture’s most beloved science fiction franchises, William Shatner learned to lean into his Captain Kirk roots and the fandom that’s embraced him for 50 years (and counting) this year. That includes several generations of diehard Trekkies, NASA engineers, and real-life astronauts—but even Shatner was tickled to learn that his musings on the final frontier made it all the way to the floor of British Parliament. 

“Space is one of the last known frontiers, mostly untouched by mankind in his politics,” Scottish National Party MP Philippa Whitford quoted Shatner as saying, addressing a recent House of Commons debate on the future of the U.K.’s space program by reading a “message” from the Star Trek icon.

“In opening a debate on this subject, it is my hope that you take the tenets of Star Trek’s prime directive to universally and peacefully share in the exploration of it. I wish you all a wonderful debate. My best, Bill.” 

Whitford filled the rest of her pro-space speech with Star Trek references and concluded—naturally—by flashing the Vulcan “live long and prosper” sign.

Days later, Shatner was incredulous to hear that his message had been quoted during an official government session when he rang The Daily Beast to talk Trek. “Did they read it out loud? I can’t believe it!” he laughed. “They read it out loud?”

“It was tongue-in-cheek more than anything else,” he said, highly amused. “Well, it’s not a terrible message. That’s remarkable and I’m complimented… I think.”

Should Shatner’s prime directive-directive help make Scotland the site of the U.K.’s first commercial spaceport, however, the erstwhile James Tiberius Kirk will pass on voyages departing from Earth, thank you very much. “Going up into space and coming back down? No,” he declared, “there’s no guarantee I’m coming back down.”

He’s got plenty keeping him busy down here, anyway. Shatner, 84, still stumps for the franchise that made his career and is promoting the Star Trek: The Ultimate Voyage 50th anniversary North American concert tour, which brings music from the films and television shows together, performed by a live orchestra and accompanied by iconic clips from five decades of Trek

“It’s taking the themes and relating them to other Star Trek franchises,” he explained. “Man against man might come up three or four times in different entities. The music is really sensational.”

You’d think he’d be tired of hearing the same majestic scores 50 years in, but Shatner chuckled at the thought. Fifty years into the influential series—which sees its 13th film hit theaters this summer, albeit sans Shatner—Trek has had such a lasting impact on pop culture that this year Apple released an LLAP emoji, weaving Spock’s famous gesture into the very fabric of our digital lives.

“It’s a long time and yet it’s no time at all,” said Shatner. “And that’s the tragedy and the excitement of it. I’m amazed at how much influence this small show had on people’s lives, their choice of career, getting over grief, major events in their lives. Star Trek seems to have helped.”

I ask Shatner if he ever has work dreams from his years in that Starfleet uniform, on the sets of the seminal Star Trek: The Original Series and the seven feature films that followed.

“No, I don’t have those dreams,” he laughs. “Well, I’ll tell you one of my recurring dreams. I ride a lot of horses and I’m competitive in riding, and one of my dreams is I’m on my horse, and the horse is galloping across a field. I’m running, the horse is running, and it’s running for me. I’m running as fast as the horse.

“If you’re seeking to analyze the dream, it could go anywhere! But I am on the horse, and I’m moving at the same speed as the horse.”

I’m a writer, not a psychologist. But the energetic actor, voice actor, spokesman, author, Twitterer, and recording artist has several other projects keeping him busy these days, including the U.S. debut of his one-man show, Shatner’s World—We Just Live In It, which began by request in Australia before Shatner took it to Canada and Broadway.

He’s also releasing his latest book, Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship With A Remarkable Man, about his Star Trek co-star and longtime pal Leonard Nimoy, who passed away last February from lung disease.

The memoir was inspired by the rare closeness he shared with Nimoy, Shatner said.

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“I never had that kind of thing before, and having achieved it was remarkable to me,” he said. “His death was a severe loss in my life. When you lose somebody you love, with whom you’ve had life experiences, all of those life experiences are not validated anymore. ‘Remember when we did this?’ There’s nobody left to say that to, so that memory is lost. A part of your life goes.”

It also delves into Shatner’s musings on friendship itself, particularly among men: “The strangeness of friendship, why men have more difficulty making friends than women do, how to make a friend, what a friend means, and how you sustain a friendship,” he explained.  

Shatner’s bond with Nimoy was born five decades ago, but Captain Kirk wasn’t buddy-buddy with all of his Enterprise mates. His public feud with co-star George Takei, it seems, has not been quashed since exploding over a decade ago in the pages of Takei’s autobiography To The Stars, in which he claimed Shatner snubbed him on the TOS set.

“He is very self-centered,” Takei said of Shatner last year on Real Time with Bill Maher. Shatner shot back, calling Takei “a disturbed individual.” 

Shatner says they haven’t yet buried the hatchet. “He buried the hatchet,” he laughed. “In my back! No, I don’t know him. I haven’t seen him in 20 or 30 years. He’s a strange man, and I don’t know who he is.”

Surely he did once upon a time, when the actors shared time on the bridge of the Enterprise? “I never really knew him to begin with. You know, he’d come in for a day, then leave. I didn’t know who he was exactly.

“The reality in filming a movie or a series is that it’s broken down into scenes, and people can play a scene and then leave. So if George was in a scene—which he was, on occasion—he’d do a scene and then leave. So I didn’t know him very well. He just seems to have had a bug somewhere and has held onto it for 50 years, which seems, on its face, remarkable.”

Earlier in the day, word broke of actor Alan Rickman’s passing. “I didn’t know him, but I was an admirer of his,” said Shatner of Rickman, whose lauded career included the Star Trek send-up Galaxy Quest, in which he played a droll Nimoy figure. “A wonderful and eloquent actor, obviously classically trained. He was a joy to behold.”

Another recent loss sent Shatner down memory lane. His 2011 concept album Seeking Major Tom was inspired by the iconic work of David Bowie, whose Jan. 10 passing shocked fans across the world, underscoring his musical and cinematic impact.

“I had the best time with that,” Shatner fondly recalled. “When I saw Bowie perform it, it was a lesson in uniqueness and individuality and blind talent. For me, I used the song as a device to string cover songs all the way through, trying to find what happened to Major Tom—he steps out of a capsule and we never hear of him again! I tried to find where he might have gone, walking on the moon.”

As for further Bowie covers, Shatner’s “been there, done that.” But he does have a Christmas album in the works. “I can’t tell you what it is, but I do have a concept,” he teased. “Christmas songs evoke a beautiful sense of peace and justice and little chubby fat men on the roof.”

Star Trek’s golden anniversary year also coincides with the 2016 U.S. presidential race, but the prolific Twitterer declined to comment on the upcoming election. “I’m not going to get involved in the Trump debate,” he declared, deftly deflecting.

Maybe he got enough grief last summer when Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz claimed Captain Kirk as his kind of leader. “I think it is quite likely that Kirk is a Republican and Picard is a Democrat,” Cruz theorized, sparking heated debate among fans and a tweet reply from Shatner himself.

Star Trek wasn’t political. I’m not political; I can’t even vote in the U.S.,” tweeted Shatner, who is Canadian-born but became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2004. “So to put a geocentric label on interstellar characters is silly.”

Knowing now that even the British Parliament has his ear, however, he offered the same piece of advice to the U.S. government and 2016’s American presidential hopefuls: Don’t mess with the Prime Directive.

“[To U.S. politicians], I say the same thing: Don’t interfere with our personal lives,” proclaimed the only man to beat the Kobayashi Maru test. “Do what’s good for the general public. That’s about it.”