William Shatner in "You Can Call Me Bill" (Screenshot from trailer)
William Shatner in "You Can Call Me Bill" (Screenshot from trailer)

A new William Shatner documentary is more meet-and-greet than film

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For the last few years, William Shatner, once the posterboy for staccato line readings, sweater-based science fiction and Priceline.com, has been the ambassador for a phenomenon known as the overview effect.

After his sub-orbital trip on Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin in Oct. 2021, Shatner touched back to terra firma with a deep feeling of grief. Having observed Earth from above he was struck with the fragility of our planet. Shatner dedicated much of his last memoir, TV news interviews and even an Amazon documentary about his trip to space to his humility and helplessness in the face of accelerating climate change.

And, in the new documentary “You Can Call Me Bill,” during which Shatner muses over his career and what it means to “boldly go” in the direction of a meaningful existence, we are regularly reminded that he wrote a song about it too.

“So Fragile, So Blue,” delivered tearfully with the backing of an orchestra, concludes with this cri de coeur:

I hope I never recover from what I discovered
Like a long lost lover I am left to neglect
Mountains, trees, birds, beasts
Life-giving water, Magnificent feasts
North, South, West, East
All human reactions from terror to fun
All that breathes, swims, flies or runs
Literally everything under the sun!

If those words do anything for you, you’ll probably enjoy this film; all other comers may do better to watch a rerun of “Boston Legal.”

The film, produced by the fan-owned media company Legion M, is for the real heads. For those who care to hear Shatner — the only interview subject — bloviate about horses and his endless curiosity, which evidently has its limits when engaging with trans or autistic people on social media, there’s much here to enjoy. As a Shatner skeptic, it’s not quite the retrospective that I feel the culture is owed.

While Shatner indulges in a discursive, pop-philosophical tour of his life, from childhood in Montreal to his breakout role in “Star Trek,” it’s impossible not to register the singular space he occupies. 

For over 50 years he has essentially made a career of playing a parody of himself. But, rather than examine how he arrived as a pervasive punchline for the mainstream and a guru for the Trekkie set, director Alexandre O. Philippe instead gives us a Shatner-guided tone poem.

Hear Bill share his knowledge of the mycelial network set to gauzy b-roll of Muir Woods. See clips of him in “The Twilight Zone.” Uncover the origin story of his dead childhood dog and how, if he were to receive an award, it should be “for taking care of [his] inner child.”

Arranged into chapters on loneliness, the “masks” we wear in acting and in life and his intent to nourish a tree with his ashes in death, “You Can Call Me Bill” often seems more like an extended fan convention meet-and-greet than a work of biography. What’s amazing about that, and what the film would do better to examine, is that for millions of people that’s not a knock against it.

If you love Shatner — or Captain Kirk or Denny Crane or T.J. Hooker — you will almost certainly find something to love in this movie. But if you want to understand the reason for that love, his cosmic significance from the 1,000-foot view, you’ll have to travel further from Shatner’s orbit.

“You Can Call Me Bill”

Showing at several Northern California movie theaters on March 20 with a livestreamed post-film Q&A with Shatner. A full run opens March 22. Get more details here.

This article was originally published on the Forward.

PJ Grisar
PJ Grisar

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].