Originally created 03/12/06

Shatner explores real-life 'Trek' technology



LOS ANGELES - Capt. James Kirk's alter-ego, William Shatner, really did shake up the cosmos.

The irreverent documentary "How William Shatner Changed the World" features the actor examining the ways "Star Trek" technology inspired real-life innovators, whose inventions include communicator-like flip phones and medical equipment reminiscent of the starship Enterprise's sick bay.

Premiering today on the History Channel, the show kicks off the network's "Out of This World" week, featuring explorations of comets, meteors and UFOs.

The documentary studies how Gene Roddenberry's sci-fi series helped energize scientific explorers who created gadgets we could only dream about when "Star Trek" premiered in the 1960s.

Shatner chats up researchers who, to quote Kirk's Vulcan sidekick Spock, found fascinating the tricorders, communicators, medical scanners and other devices Roddenberry and his collaborators put in the hands of the 23rd century "Star Trek" gang.

Viewing this brave new world of technology, then staring around a real world where clunky computers filled entire rooms and talking long-distance meant tethering yourself to a rotary phone, these impressionable young minds set out to make what they saw on "Star Trek" a reality.

"They were deadly serious about 'Star Trek,'" Shatner said in an interview after taping TV spots to promote the History Channel shows. "Scientists are a strange group in that they catch glimpses of something that is mysterious and wonderful. They can't quite put their finger on it, so they grasp at something.

"It's a step-by-step process. You climb on the backs of giants. Only rarely are there leaps. Scientific advances mostly are incremental. If enough time goes by, a decade goes by, suddenly, that increment, you take year one to year 10, looks like a giant leap. So here we are 30, 40 years after 'Star Trek,' and it looks like it was extraordinary, the advances we've made."

While we're not yet having our scrambled molecules beamed from place to place, the documentary reviews "Trek"-like technology that has come into being, including cell phones resembling the show's communicators, laser scalpels and other noninvasive medical equipment.

The show also features interviews with researchers inspired by "Star Trek" to miniaturize computers, study time travel and search for alien life.

Based on Shatner's book "I'm Working on That," in which he explored the connections between "Star Trek" technology and real science, "How William Shatner Changed the World" takes the tongue-in-cheek approach the actor often applies to what he considers the over-serious fandom of the TV shows and movies.

As scientists recount the ideas and inspiration they gained from "Star Trek," Shatner struts, blusters and soliloquizes about the impact of the show, hamming it up as much as he ever did as the melodramatic Kirk.

Shatner balances respect and ridicule for "Star Trek," which he famously mocked in a "Saturday Night Live" skit in the 1980s, when he told costumed fans at a "Trek" convention to "get a life."

"I've always had sort of an ironic view of life," the 75-year-old Shatner said. "My belief system is that when this is over, it's over. That you don't look down from heaven and wait for your loved ones to join you. There may be some soul activity, but I'm not sure about that. But what I am sure about is that your molecules continue and in due time become something else. That's science.

"And that works for me. So that if this is it, you better take it at its right proportion. That there are serious things, but most things are temporal and ephemeral, and you should cultivate that attitude. That joy and love and all the verities are what counts. So I try not to take too many things seriously, and if I find myself caught up in the seriousness of the moment, within a period of time, I'm able to cajole myself out of it."

Other shows in the History Channel "Out of This World" week are "Comets: Prophets of Doom," "Meteors: Fire in the Sky" and the UFO documentary "An Alien History of Planet Earth."

The week is more pop-culture oriented than the programs about wars and politics that typical History Channel viewers tune in for.

"We don't know how they'll take to it, but it's not that far out. You do learn a lot," said Charlie Maday, senior vice president of programming at the History Channel. "It will be a fun week. It's sort of like William Shatner's personality. He's informative, and he's fun to watch."

Shatner, an Emmy-winner as an egotistical attorney on "Boston Legal," stars in a hybrid musical-reality show about his life called "William Shatner in Concert," airing this month on TV Land. He also provides voices for the upcoming animated feature films "The Wild" and "Over the Hedge."

While best known as the fearless Capt. Kirk, Shatner does not share the rosy view of technology and humanity's future that motivated "Star Trek" creator Roddenberry.

"Technology has brought us to this point of self-destruction," Shatner said. "It's the dichotomy of our curiosity and greed, which are hardwired - greed, because we had to survive because we were always hungry, so we had to gather things, and curiosity, which brought us out of the trees.

"In small amounts, they're the difference between us and the rest of the animal world. In large amounts, they're causing the destruction of everything. And I think technology has put us in a position of destroying the planet as we know it, and us along with it. I'm very pessimistic about the future of mankind based on all the things that are going on now and our lack of will to correct it."