Captain Kirk in Colorado Springs: A Trekkie's thoughts on William Shatner's UCCS speech


Shatner speaks to a small group of assembled media. - ALISSA SMITH
  • Alissa Smith
  • Shatner speaks to a small group of assembled media.

Let’s get this out of the way first thing: Star Trek is my life. Specifically The Original Series. Specifically, Captain James Tiberius Kirk, whom I’ve loved so dearly for so long that I now refer to him in conversation as “Jim Jam,” as if he’s an old friend. Save your snickering. Believe me, I know how ridiculous that sounds.

But hopefully that provides some context, and explains why my drive to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs on the evening of April 19 (stardate -304702.28310502286) felt more like a pilgrimage than the familiar 20-minute trek it usually is.

Because William Shatner, the original Jim Jam, was speaking at the UCCS Bachelor of Innovation program gala, presenting a keynote speech entitled “Hope and Innovation.” I had wondered since his appearance was announced what made him qualified to talk about innovation to these students and faculty. Not to disparage The Shat Man, but he's an actor whose entrepreneurial success arose less through innovation and more through his established fanbase. And while he's done wonderful things for charity and been kind to five decades of fans, I wouldn't necessarily consider him an innovator. But whether he's qualified or not, he was here in my hometown to deliver a speech. Excitement outweighed confusion in the end.

In addition to being a massive Trekkie, I also happen to be a member of the media, meaning I had a built-in excuse to spend a few minutes asking him questions, and to attend the gala without paying the $200/plate fee. Naturally, I jumped at the chance.

There were so few of us in the press pool for his 15-minute media event that before anyone asked any questions, I actually managed to share a moment of awkward eye contact with him. I wondered if he saw the mushroom clouds exploding in my pupils — if he knew that meeting him, even formally like this, was a dream come true. But I’m a professional, dammit, and I didn’t show off my 50th Anniversary Star Trek ring. I didn’t tell him that Jim Kirk is a daily inspiration to me, or ask if he could explain that one line from his 2007 novel Star Trek: Collision Course that I've been thinking about for a decade.

Instead, my fellows and I asked him about science fiction, about inspiration, innovation and immortality. For all his bluster, he came across surprisingly genuine. In discussing the hope that sci-fi can offer people, he said: “We might not be able to recover from what’s going on now. At any moment a bomb could drop and then we certainly won’t recover. At the same time, there is this extraordinary burst of innovation that’s happening, so we must try to be on the side of life.”

My heart glowed. That’s the lesson of Star Trek right there — try to be on the side of life. It was beautiful to hear it straight from my captain's mouth, and I swear I felt a tear threatening to fall out the corner of my eye. And then, you know, he followed that up with. “Innovation is good. Unless it’s bad. And then it’s bad.” Classic Shatner. It's nice to remember he's human.

But when Hannah Harvey, editor in chief of the UCCS student paper The Scribe asked about the $60,000 donation he reportedly gifted the Bachelor of Innovation program, he said simply that he didn’t want to talk about it, and didn’t want to take credit.

I never really think of "humility" and "William Shatner" as belonging in the same sentence. But he was as humble as an icon like him can be — which almost gave me the courage to ask to shake his hand as the questions came to an end. Almost.

Afterwards, I waited at UCCS for three hours for the gala to begin, sent a picture to my friends in our Star Trek group chat, basked in the glory of having such a prestigious stamp on my nerd passport, and considered all the things I wished I’d asked. I wanted to ask about "Kirk Drift," the way Kirk’s character has been so warped by pop culture as to make the popular conception of him unrecognizable from canon. I wanted to ask about Leonard Nimoy — what happened to sever their friendship? What’s it like being Captain Kirk without Spock and Bones? I wanted to ask if he knew how important Star Trek was, and is, to so many people. He has to know, doesn't he?

But he had said “It was actually just a television show,” mere minutes into the press conference, effectively breaking my heart, so I didn’t ask any of those questions, and maybe that's a good thing. It’s certainly not just a television show to the rest of us.

At the gala, UCCS Chancellor Dr. Venkat Reddy gave Shatner a heartfelt introduction, talking about how Star Trek was his favorite weekly show — the only show available in color in India during his childhood — and how he never thought he’d be sharing a table with his hero.

It was a reminder that I was far from the only person in that room who looked at William Shatner with mushroom clouds in my eyes, and who saw my captain in his smile. Nearly everyone there, about 400 people, probably had a Star Trek story. It's hard to wrap your head around how powerful that is.

Now, if I shed a few tears during Shatner’s speech, it was probably due more to the fact that I was there listening to him talk, rather than what he was actually saying. His speech reminded me of his famous spoken-word song covers — I’m sure you’ve heard “Rocket Man” — as he listed important innovations in science with all the oomph of a slam poem for 10 whole minutes. I don’t know if everyone in the audience was as lost as I was while he hopped topics from Vikings to fusion reactors to dark matter, but, hey, it was soothing to hear him speak if nothing else.

A rare moment looking away from the teleprompter. - ALISSA SMITH
  • Alissa Smith
  • A rare moment looking away from the teleprompter.

Thankfully, the list didn’t last too long, and he edged into sentimental territory. He talked about the unkindness of the world, and the promise he sees in these students of innovation. “If you students take your diploma and scroll it up and look through it, as if it were a telescope, and fixate on points of light, you might see something different. You might see hope.”

Okay, yes, it’s philosophical and needlessly romantic, but that's exactly what I would want and expect in a speech by William Shatner. He went on, saying that technology is moving at a breakneck pace. The world is changing around us all the time. “The one thing that doesn’t seem to change, or at least moves with tectonic slowness, is human nature," he said. "And that’s the final frontier. Human nature needs to change.”

There was a lot going on in that speech — a lot — but the lesson I took from it was one of hope, excitement and possibility. He spoke for nearly 40 minutes with an air of enthusiasm that made me forget that he was 87 years old. Though he graciously reminded me every time he referred to Twitter as “the social media.”

Eighty-seven years old. It’s hard to believe. I had asked him during the media event about something he said recently, after a hoax about his death had circulated on Facebook: “I’m not planning to die.” He laughed at my question about his secret to immortality, but in all seriousness if anyone were to live forever, it would probably be William Shatner. At this point, I’m convinced he will. If nothing else, a part of him will.

And as he wrapped up his speech with a message of hope, it hit me. That is why he is qualified to talk to the Bachelor of Innovation students. It isn’t so much Shatner himself as what he represents — the hope that the future can be better, that it can be wonderful. And that we can make it happen. Any one of us.

Think about it. Jim Kirk was a bookish nerd from Iowa, who survived an incredible ordeal on Tarsus IV, turned that trauma into tenderness, and went on to save the galaxy (multiple times, mind you). William Shatner is just an actor, sure. But he’s Jim Kirk, too. And that means any one of us can be Jim Kirk.

Hopefully, amid Shatner’s rambling, poetic meditations on chimpanzees and war, that message sank in for some of the students in the audience that night. Any one of us, including this guy up on stage, can be Jim Kirk. And what a wonderful, hopeful feeling that is.

The whiteboard I keep next to my desk here at the Indy office, where I rotate inspirational Jim Kirk quotes and doodle the Enterprise. - ALISSA SMITH
  • Alissa Smith
  • The whiteboard I keep next to my desk here at the Indy office, where I rotate inspirational Jim Kirk quotes and doodle the Enterprise.

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