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Review: Shatner in Space

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Shatner in Space
Amazon Studios, 2021
46 mins, unrated

Last year was not only a pivotal year for commercial human spaceflight, but also for television programming regarding those missions. The flights of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and Blue Origin’s New Shepard nine days apart in July got wall-to-wall coverage, as did the orbital Inspiration4 flight in September. The Inspiration4 flight was also the subject of a five-part Netflix documentary about the training for the flight and the mission itself (see “Review: Countdown”, The Space Review, October 4, 2021.) When former football player, now TV host, Michael Strahan flew on New Shepard last month, the flight got extensive coverage on ABC’s “Good Morning America” worth likely far more to Blue Origin than if it sold the seat to a paying customer.

But of all the personalities who flew to space last year, none was better suited for a TV special than actor William Shatner. The idea of Star Trek’s Captain Kirk going to space at long last—at age 90, no less—seemed like the perfect content for a documentary. The earliest reports about his trip, in fact, said that it was being filmed for a documentary, but that one network, Discovery, had passed on it.

Instead, “Shatner in Space” landed on the streaming service Amazon Prime last month, two months after Shatner was one of four people on the second crewed New Shepard flight. The 45-minute show is a straightforward, behind-the-scenes look at Shatner’s preparations for the launch and the brief flight itself, as well as the immediate aftermath.

But of all the personalities who flew to space last year, none was better suited for a TV special than actor William Shatner.

One of the questions many had is how his trip on New Shepard came together given Shatner had been dismissive of flying in space before, particularly when linked to potential flights on SpaceShipTwo. The show doesn’t answer all of those questions but suggests the trip (and the show itself) had been in development for a long time: one of the first scenes takes place two years earlier, when Shatner visits Blue Origin’s headquarters and is given a tour by Jeff Bezos, who at the end asks if Shatner would like to go to space.

The show moves ahead to the weeks leading up to the flight, then the training and final preparations in West Texas where Shatner meets the other three people flying on the mission and is reunited with Bezos, who is a regular presence during the days leading up to the launch. He is continually reminded of his Star Trek legacy: one of his fellow crewmembers, Glen de Vries (who sadly died a few weeks after the flight in a plane crash), shows Shatner a photo of him dressed up in a Star Trek uniform for Halloween a couple years earlier, while Bezos asks Shatner to take with him paper cutouts of Star Trek communicators and tricorders that Bezos made and played with as a kid.

There is not a lot of drama in the show itself. When winds force a one-day delay in the flight, Shatner briefly ponders if the universe is trying to tell him that he shouldn’t go, but the moment passes. There’s a brief hold in the countdown because of a software issue that threatens a scrub (“You’ve got to be [bleeping] kidding,” Shatner says in the capsule) but that, too, quickly passes. There’s some footage inside the capsule during the flight itself, although not much more than what was shown during and immediately after the flight.

While Shatner is the center of attention, he is also somewhat alone: he reveals at one point that his family stayed home, even as family members of the other crewmembers say their goodbyes before launch (in a scene early in the show, he reveals his spaceflight plans to his family, who are dumbfounded and skeptical.) His closest confidante is Bezos, which may be why it’s to Bezos that Shatner offers his now-famous description of the experience immediately after landing (see “Black ugliness and the covering of blue: William Shatner’s suborbital flight to ‘death’”, The Space Review, October 18, 2021). An epilogue nearly a month after the flight suggests the spaceflight experience had a lasting impact on him.

With a regular series of New Shepard flights expected this year, each individual flight will be less newsworthy, at least in the broader media, barring flights by other celebrities or other unique individuals. (One such example is Justin Sun, the cryptocurrency entrepreneur who revealed last month he was the high bidder in the auction for a seat on the first New Shepard flight but wasn’t able to go; he said he will instead go to space late this year on a dedicated New Shepard flight with five “space warriors” he will select in the coming months.) It would be hard in any respect to top the scenes of Captain Kirk getting to go to space at long last.

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