4.12.2013

Captain's Blog pt. 9 : And Still We Sing the Song of Shatner

What constitutes a great performance vs. what constitutes good acting is a debate for the ages. I'm not sure that Bruce Campbell or Arnold Schwarzennegar are "great actors," but their respective performances in Evil Dead 2 and Total Recall are unquestionably great performances.


Okay, so a distinction should perhaps be drawn between "performances I'd rather watch" and "performances the world would agree are great." But it's always been a gray area for me. Certainty over "great acting" always amuses me. So many factors come together that influence such a thing, and there is no hard and fast criteria to which one can point.

Let's take an actor who is commonly referred to as "great," Dustin Hoffman. What makes Dustin's performance in Midnight Cowboy great and Bruce/Arnold's campy? All are equally cartoonish. Is it the context? i.e. Midnight Cowboy is a "serious film," and Evil Dead 2 and Total Recall are horror/ sci-fi? Probably it is just as simple as that.

Al Pacino is "great" in The Godfather pt. 2 but "campy" in Dick Tracy. And, well, everything since.

But that's too arbitrary for me. For one, why shouldn't a performer pitch his or her performance to the spirit of the film? Two, so many factors come together to determine a film's context that it doesn't seem kosher to take context as some objective standard. And three, it leads to some weird conclusions - Harrison Ford is "great" in Regarding Henry but not as Indiana Jones? Raiders is a masterpiece, but Schindler's List is the "great" film? You see what I'm getting at, I'm sure.

Which brings us to the enduring enigma of William Shatner.




When I was growing up, it was generally a given that William Shatner was if not the worst actor on the planet, the definition of "ham." Some people still believe this. But let's keep in mind a few things: 1) People have been talking about his portrayal of Captain Kirk for several decades with no end in sight. A performance with that kind of longevity isn't an accident. Each generation seems to get even more of a kick out of it than the last. So, Shatner may be the hammiest ham who ever hammed, he might be the worst actor that ever acted, whatever you say; I'm not here to tell you the guy's career has been unfairly evaluated, particularly with some of the roles I'll cover below. But let's just get this out of the way up front: if your list of Greatest Marriages of Actor and Role does not include Shatner-to-Kirk, you're doing it wrong. 2) Shatner embraced full-time self-parody in the 90s, which turned out to be a shrewd career move, to say the least. It became okay to enjoy Shatner ironically, although Trekkies and Trekkers had been doing that for years. And 3) As with Bruce and Ahhnold, I really don't care whether or not they're considered "good actors," their presence in something ensures my interest. 

(For that matter, I prefer Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman in Dick Tracy over many of their so-called "serious performances." Do I think this way because I grew up on Captain Kirk? I wonder.)
 
I don't want to go too far down this path. Let the brainiacs in China figure it out. What I know is that from the late 1970s to as recently as last night, I am more comprehensively entertained by William  Shatner than just about anyone. Like Stan Lee, he's been an Elder Statesman of the Pop Culture Omniverse to me since I was a kid, and also like Smilin' Stan, the world will seem forever askew to me when they shuffle off their mortal coils.

Not to be morbid or anything, just saying, they're old; Stan's 90, Shatner's 82.

I won't attempt a full overview of Shatner's career, here, though that would be a fun blogging project. (It would definitely need a grandiose title, like "The Dialectic of Agony," a title once proposed by a friend of mine for a project that never materialized; would work great for a Shatner project, though!) As with all things Trek, the internet already abounds with such things, like the apparently-and-unfortunately defunct "Shat Attack" blog.

But let's have a look at some of his non-Trek projects that have entertained me over the years, starting with...


I originally bought this on VHS, and it was titled Shame. The cover was Shatner, his sleeves rolled up and his arms outstretched, before a burning cross, with the tagline: "Small Time Drifter Stirs Up Big Trouble." 

"You get your money from MOSCOW!"

Directed by Roger Corman and written by Charles Beaumont (of Twilight Zone fame) this is actually a legitimate cult classic. It's a bit hokey, sure, but so are the "racism is bad, mmkay?" Very Special Episodes of TV I grew up with in the 1980s. And considering The Intruder was produced in 1962, i.e. when people were actually getting lynched, fire-hosed, and thrown in jail for advocating Civil Rights, I'm much more forgiving of its hokey aspects. It's the same gulf of difference that makes Bob Dylan's "Hurricane" (1975) a more salient protest over Rubin Carter's imprisonment than  The Hurricane with Denzel Washington (1999.)

Shatner plays Adam Cramer, a traveling demagogue who represents "the Quill and Pen society." He sows discord and almost succeeds in getting a young black student lynched for a rape he did not commit; he also almost gets away with a rape (or close enough to it) he actually committed himself. 

 
 

It's more than a little jarring (and uncomfortably amusing) to see Shatner pantomiming Hitler as he harangues the crowd, right down to Der Fuhrer's arm movements and vocal cadence. If you've never seen this, recall any of Kirk's big speeches from TOS and replace the words with incendiary racial rhetoric and you get the idea. Those viewers who cringe at the non-hip-hop/Tarantino use of the n-word, be forewarned; there's an awful lot of that.

Next up, Shatner's turns on The Twilight Zone, "Nick of Time" (1960) and "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (1963) both written by Richard Matheson.



During this period of his career, Shatner imbued each and every performance (even his exceedingly-brief appearance in Judgment at Nuremberg) with an all-or-nothing I-have-one-speed-and-it-is-WARP-NINE energy. (This would of course reach its high water mark with Trek.) Highly enjoyable. Ditto for his turn on The Outer Limits.

From its wiki: "After completing the first manned mission to orbit Venus, astronaut Jeff Barton (Shatner) returns to Earth with recurring nightmares and an increasing inability to stay warm."
"Barton's condition continues to worsen and is accompanied by a peculiar webbing of his fingers. Only after his nightmares become more vivid does he recall an unrevealed alien encounter in the Venusian atmosphere."
"Barton's doctors suspect the astronaut had been genetically affected by his mission, and they then struggle to treat and cure him before his mutations completely take over."

Great episode. The Outer Limits never disappoints. Its creator, Leslie Stevens, showrunner/ruiner for various other series, directed another legitimate cult-classic from this phase of Shatner's career, the beautifully shot and truly unsettling Incubus (1966.)

 
 
 

There's a pretty good write-up of this troubled production here, but for our purposes it's enough to note:

Goat-head / black mass...
...and Esperanto

Really a great slice of the 1960s, here - it feels more like a Jean Cocteau film than something by the guy who would eventually give us Buck Rogers dancing to space disco with a diminutive robot voiced by Mel Blanc. (Something I am in no way knocking; I support anything with "space disco" attached to it.) Incubus could share a bill with Rosemary's Baby or The Innocents and no one would bat an eye.

The same cannot be said for Alexander the Great (1968.)

Obviously proof of something cosmic: this is one of two times Shatner has played Alexander the Great.
Shatner told some funny stories about working with this horse when I saw him last year on his "Shatner's World" tour.

I'm not sure if this was a tv movie or intended as a pilot for an ongoing Alexander series. It's referred to as both/ either in several places. But it didn't catch on. It also starred Adam West and John Cassavettes, weirdly enough:




I sat down and watched this start-to-finish, and it's actually not terrible. White Comanche (also 1968) IS probably terrible, but its combination of WTF-plot/execution, James Cotten, and Shatner's dual role kept me chuckling and shaking my head throughout.

From its imdb: "William Shatner plays two roles: cowboy Johnny Moon and his ruthless Indian twin brother, Notah. Notah likes peyote and gets the crazy idea that he's the Comanche messiah sent to lead the Comanche nation against the white man but more specifically the dusty desert town of Rio Hondo. Moon, estranged from his brother, decides to stop Notah either by words or by bullets."

The production value is not great, but damn! That description is classic.

Gives me a whole new dimension of appreciation for "The Paradise Syndrome.

The end of the sixties saw Shatner's career go into a lull. When Star Trek went off the air, he was so identified with the role of Captain Kirk that networks were reluctant to cast him in anything but supporting roles. His divorce from Gloria Rand, though, was negotiated while he was getting his Trek leading man salary, and to make his child support and alimony payments, he spent the time between TOS and ST: TMP taking pretty much anything he could.

Such as John Adams in the TV movie Swing Out, Sweet Land with John Wayne, Ann-Margaret, and Lucille Ball (!)
More symmetry - not the only Trek veteran to play the 2nd POTUS!

In addition to numerous guest turns on tv shows, Shatner continued to be cast in films. Among them, Impulse (1974.)

There are occasional glimpses of the Shatner-madness we all know and love, but mainly, he comes off as a guy who is earning money that will go immediately to lawyers and alimony.

It's notable for this absolutely crazy muscle shirt he's wearing, above, and some of its supporting cast:

Harold Sakata? Oddjob? As Karate Pete?
Incidentally, Karate Pete gets to tell Shatner's character: "Oh Matt, you all the time horny." So, there's that.
And Ruth Roman!
Not a classic by any definition.

The Devil's Rain (1975) is much better. 
I make this my facebook cover photo at least once or twice a year.

From that link, above, "After his eyeless father melts before him and his mother (Ida Lupino! WTF) is kidnapped by mysterious cloaked madmen, William Shatner dons his straw cowboy hat and heads into the desert to battle faiths with Ernest Borgnine's Dark Master." I mean, if that combination of names and ideas doesn't make you scramble to see this, I don't know what to tell you.


All kidding aside, this actually isn't a bad little film. Maybe Shatner was turning a corner here...


Alas, it was short-lived. (1978)

Directed by John "Bud" Cardos, Shatner plays Dr. Robert "Rack" Hansen and - well, for f**k's sake, who cares! These pics tell you all you need to know.


I first saw this as part of a triple bill that included the (excellent) remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, starring Leonard Nimoy, and the (not so excellent) Night of the Lemus, starring DeForest Kelley. So, that was a fun day.

Around this time, as I'm sure all of you have watched a thousand times (or is it just me?) Shatner found time to "interpret" the Elton John/ Bernie Taupin classic "Rocket Man."

Sorry for the "Play" triangle, there.

Man. Let me say that again: MAN! That never fails to make me giggle uncontrollably and gape slack-jawed at my computer screen. I used to sit next to a guy at a previous job who did a spot-on impersonation of this, usually when I was on the phone with one of the lawyers. I got a lot of use out of the mute button on such occasions.
He also "appears" as the face of the mask worn by Michael Myers in Halloween. Allegedly. I know some swear this is an urban legend or joke of some kind.

The 80s saw Shatner's fortunes revitalized with the big-screen Trek movies, but a few of his non-Trek projects are worth mentioning:

Arguably his first foray into self-parody in Airplane 2
and what comes off as parody (particularly the wigs and coifs) to 21st century eyes in TJ Hooker.

In the 90s and in the 00s, something clicked in Shatner's head, it seems, and he began a still-lucrative phase of his career playing himself in various projects. The best of which is arguably Free Enterprise (1998.)

"No one will ever believe this..."

He also began an ambitious series of non-fiction projects, among them some of Trek's best memoirs (which I'll get to next time) 

Here, he interviews Nimoy for his often surprisingly insightful Shatner's Raw Nerve for the Biography channel.
He and Nimoy share recollections in this underrated DVD, as well. One of the stranger things I learned from this is that Nimoy started wearing a "death watch" at some point over the last 15 years, which counts down to his probable date of expiration. (Still ticking, thankfully; I wonder if he still looks at it.)
(2015 Edit. Yaarg.)

The end of the twentieth century saw Shatner returning to the world of music in a collaboration with Ben Folds, Fear of Pop.

I first heard this in 1997 when it was a limited-release EP (vinyl), but Shatner performed this live on Late Night with Conan O'Brien when the CD was released in 1998. It's actually quite a cool little piece of music.
Shatner's first adventure in recording was this absolute-classic from the late 60s, featuring truly warped versions of "Mr. Tamborine Man" and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," as well as the St. Crispin's Day speech from Henry V, where he lets rip an epic "King Geeeeeeoooooorrrrrrggggeeeeeeee....!!" that defies adequate description.
He's collaborated with Ben Folds on a few other projects, as well, the best of which is 2004's Has-Been, which features the kind of song-parody you'd think it would (a cover of Pulp's "Common People," and his song-rant with Henry Rollins (!) and Adrian Belew (!) "I Can't Get Behind That") and some unexpectedly poignant reflections on mortality ("You'll Have Time") and fame ("Real.") This project has borne sweet fruit, including another collaboration with Ben Folds (2011's Seeking Major Tom) and William Shatner's Gonzo Ballet.

In 2004, he added one more iconic tv character to his credit:

Denny Crane, from The Practice and Boston Legal.
A show I never really took to (in fact, the episode where Candy Bergen is taken hostage by a nerdy Monty-Python-spouting lunatic is among my most personally reviled hours of TV, ever) but the chemistry between Shatner and Spader was always fun.
It also deserves some credit for splicing together a story with an old episode of Son of the Defender, one of Shatner's 60s TV efforts.

2013 finds Shatner still very much active, touring with his one-man show "Shatner's World" which I caught a little over a year ago when it came to Chicago.


I originally hadn't planned on going. I've been a fairly consistent consumer of Shatner's memoirs and anecdotes, so I figured it wouldn't be worth the price tag. What more could I possibly learn? Turns out: quite a bit. 

I never go to shows or conventions or anything like that; more power to those who do, of course, it's just not my thing. But sitting there, watching and listening to this guy whose work I've been devouring and whose cadence I've been imitating for the better part of my thirty-eight years was not just a blast but also quite surreal. Someone once likened watching Marlon Brando's performance in The Freshman to "Seeing one of the Mount Rushmore heads go by in a parade float." 

"Shatner's World" was a little like that, only exponentially more awesome. 

~

22 comments:

  1. Awesome as usual, bro. You'll be amused to know (if you didn't already) that Shatner also has a recurring role in Psych. :-)

    -BRAD

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    1. I have yet to see "Psych," but Shatner's presence ensures its presence on my to-do list. Glad you enjoyed!

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  2. I have many, many thoughts about this, primary among them being that I'd like to just sit down and watch every single thing on the list. Because, amazingly, the only non-Trek thing on here I've actually SEEN is "Airplane 2." I am embarrassed and apologetic.

    I saw Shatner speak on campus at the University of Alabama twelve or thirteen years ago, and attended with a small group of friends. I'm a little shocked we got in; the place was, as you might imagine, packed. He was terrific; just absolutely terrific. He did not sound as if he was telling stories he'd told a million times before (although he probably was); he sounded like a man who'd been put on Earth to stand on a stage telling stories.

    The Q&A session was almost entirely devoid of the type of face-palming questions you expect to hear at such events (and almost always DO hear)...except, of course, for the very first guy in line. With all the nerd-style lisping you'd get in a parody of such a scene, this guy asked a variant on the question of whether Shatner felt like Kirk or Picard had the superior approach to captaining.

    Shatner fixed the guy with a steely gaze for several seconds, and there was nervous chuckling from the audience. Shatner then asked, in a low, serious, tone of voice: "What do you REALLY want to know?" The place erupted in applause, and the dork returned to his seat, defeated.

    It was a great moment.

    As you pointed out, one can say what one wishes about Shatner, but the bottom line is this: he's been an instantly-recognizable star -- a superstar, one might even argue -- for six solid decades now. There won't be two actors in 100,000 who can make a claim like that. It's an astonishing legacy.

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    1. Haha - that is great, I can picture that quite easily.

      I agree on all counts. Glad you enjoyed!

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  3. Wonderful article! I am a fan of Shatner and think he is a pretty decent actor that can be forgiven for T.J. Hooker.

    For those who claim that Shatner over acted, just look at DeForest Kelley's work in Star Trek. Or look at Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes. The 1960s were about emoting -- and overacting. It was all over the place like brown acid.

    I know you couldn't include it all, but I'd submit his performance in the Thriller episode "The Hungry Glass" where he costarred with Russell Johnson of Gilligan's Island. Thriller was a great show and Shatner did two great episodes.

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    1. Good call on Heston in "Planet of the Apes" -- I'd say it'd be cool to imagine Shatner playing that role, but it probably would've been a lot like Heston playing the role.

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    2. Thanks, Brian, much appreciated.

      I couldn't agree more on Thriller. That is a fantastic show. I keep meaning to pick up that whole series. They play it on the oldies channel here in Chicago on Sunday nights, and I'm always pleasantly surprised by both the array of guest stars and general quality of the production.

      "The 1960s were about emoting -- and overacting. It was all over the place like brown acid."

      ha! Yeah, that's true. When I think of the 60s as filtered through tv, it's usually stuff like Morgan Woodward flipping out in "Dagger of the Mind" or Martin Sheen flipping out on "The Outer Limits" or what not. Anxiety and over-emoting were the order of the day. Lots of close-ups of pock-marked faces and bugged-out eyes with wails of anguish.

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    3. "It's a madhouse! A MAAAA-AADHOUSE!!!"

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    4. I actually liked T.J. Hooker. Not a bad cop show. Shatner had a bit more gravitas in it than in some of his '70s work.

      By the way, I'm starting to get the creeping suspicion that I'm from a parallel universe where Rescue:911 existed, and have been thrust into a universe where it never happened. I LOVED that show back in the day.

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  4. Good post. It gave me quite a few chuckles.

    In his early career, pre-Trek and to just after Trek, I think Shatner was a legitimately good actor. Affected at times, yes, but he had genuine presence. Your distinction between "great" and "watchable" performances is thought provoking. Shatner doesn't seem to have a lot of range early on, but he'd gained one by the time of Wrath of Khan. That scene between Kirk and Carol, where he talks about feeling old, may be my favorite example of when Shatner displayed some truth in his performance. I was especially impressed by his allowing silence between lines. Vulnerable Kirk was quite a revelation back when I was seeing WoK in the theater. Up until that moment, Kirk had been something of a cartoon, or maybe a comic book/pulp action hero would be a more accurate description. Suddenly he was human, and much more relatable. It's too bad Shatner didn't really get many more moments like that to shine.

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    1. One of the most frequently-cited examples of bad Shatnerian acting -- and bad acting in general -- might be the infamous "Khannnnnnn!" scene in the second movie.

      However, the last time I watched it, something finally occurred to me: it isn't just Shatner who's acting in that scene, it's KIRK, too. Kirk knows he's not stuck on the planet; Kirk knows Spock is going to be whisking him away via transporter at the appointed time. So KIRK -- not Shatner -- is hamming it up for Khan, who is too stupid to realize that he's being deceived.

      Viewed in that way, Shatner's performance all of a sudden seems more subtle. It's a great moment, and people are still being fooled by it to this very day.

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    2. I like that. In addition to being something I hadn't considered, it's true, isn't it? Nice.

      Shatner in the 60s = not much range but a powerhouse of dynamic energy. (see: "The Enemy Within," or "The Enterprise Incident.") In the 70s, the energy is diminished, and the range doesn't increase all that much. ("CORBIS!! GOD-DAMN YOU!!" from "Devil's Rain" comes to mind.) In the 80s, particularly in pts. 2 and 3, we get some truly fine moments, to be sure. (In 3, in particular.)

      Once the self-parody phase started, he seemed to resign himself to an idea of "Shatner" and his performances become a little perfunctory. Perfectly enjoyable, but he's playing for laughs the last 25 years or so more than trying to convey powerful emotion. (Even amidst all of that, there are some fine moments, of course.)

      It's even more interesting to consider how the history of his hairline plays into this. It synchs up kind of amusingly with the different periods.

      Like you say above, the man was born to be on stage and engage the crowd with stories.

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    3. This is gonna sound like I'm being obnoxious, but I thought the Kirk-is-acting in the "KHAAAAN!" scene was common knowledge. His relative calm almost immediately afterward struck me as the giveaway the first time I saw it. I really don't mean to sound supercilious; I'm just startled that we all saw that scene differently all this time.

      I think he began to coast a bit soon after that movie, but there are glimmers of a more accomplished actor in the rest of the TOS films. This is especially true in The Undiscovered Country, where he evokes Kirk's bitter hatred to good effect. After Khan, UC is, for my money, his best work in the Trek films.

      By the way, am I the only one who thinks killing off Kirk's son, David, in Search for Spock was a big misstep? It felt as anticlimactic as the deaths of Newt and Hicks right at the beginning of Alien 3, almost a decade later, and stole some of the dramatic impact of Wrath of Khan, retroactively. Plus, it gets lost in the shuffle of Search for Spock, which is stuffed to the rafters with plots and themes and epic doings, including the demise of the Enterprise itself, which was also hugely anticlimactic. At the very least, if you're gonna destroy the Enterprise, bring back Kang and make him the antagonist - hell, he has a history of boarding the Enterprise.

      Anyway, back to Shatner. His work in the '70s is so lackluster that it's heartbreaking. That's especially true when The Motion Picture came along, because he suddenly came back to life. His performance in the first Trek movie doesn't get a lot of attention, but it's solid. He rose to the occasion. It seems like the role of Kirk, even then an icon in pop culture, must have been the role he had wanted to play all along. That dynamic energy of the '60s seemed to be back, at least in part.

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    4. Oh, it's not just you...I think The Search for Spock is a borderline terrible movie. Nimoy had not figured out how to direct quite yet, and the story is just a giant excuse to figure out a way to resurrect Spock.

      I agree with you about The Motion Picture, though. Everyone's acting in that one is underrated. Except Persis Khambatta, who is awful; hot, bald, and awful.

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    5. It's always interesting to me how different performances provoke such divergent reactions.

      I've got to preserve my thoughts on the movies, tho, for that blog; otherwise I'll have nothing to talk about!

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    6. But I must say, I'm totally 180 on both Search for Spock and The Undiscovered Country. I see Search for Spock as having some flaws, sure, but I still love it. Everyone is acting understandably.

      Undiscovered Country, though, is, after Generations, my most hated Trek. The crew doesn't act like themselves at all, and everything about it is just terrible. haha - I really split hard on that one, I guess. Having just read Nimoy's and Shatner's and Nichelle Nichols' memoirs, I'm happy to discover they shared many of my own problems with UC. And I was encouraged to discover how significantly troubled the production was; that cleared up a lot of my confusion.

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    7. I'm not a big fan of UC, though I like it much more than Search for Spock, but I like Shatner's performance. His exchange with Spock - "Jim, they are dying." "LET them die!" gave me chills back in the day, and still does. It's an intriguing glimpse into Kirk's depth of feeling over David's death.

      I have a few beefs with the movie, not least of which is the notion of a Shakespeare-obsessed Klingon. I mean, are there humans in the Trek universe quoting Klingon playwrights at length, and basing their entire philosophies of life on them? Ones that are highly-ranked Federation officials? It's bizarre.

      Plus, and this is really nitpicky, wouldn't you think Starfleet (and the Klingons, for that matter) would have developed equipment and tactics for when they lost gravity? When you think about it, wouldn't Zero-G combat be a basic skill taught in the military? And given the miracle tech of Trek, wouldn't they have come up with something better than magnetic boots that make the Marines tromp around like they're from a Daft Punk video? Ai yi yi, don't get me started...

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    8. See what I mean?

      http://youtu.be/s9MszVE7aR4

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    9. I only kinda hate The Search for Spock, whereas I totally hate The Undiscovered Country, for all the reasons you mention.

      I must admit to being a fan of Generations, though. Not of the stuff with Kirk; that's all awful. However, the hour or so in the middle of the movie that is basically just a Next Gen flick...all that stuff, I love.

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  5. Go to the 1:00 mark on that video...

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  6. Whenever I revisit this post, that bit about Nimoy's death-watch "still ticking" hits me like a brick.

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    1. I need to get a copy of that DVD.

      It is indeed hard to accept that Nimoy is gone. Easy to believe; hard to accept.

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