William Shatner on science, science-fiction, and where the two meet…
Star Trek was first on the air at the height of the rocket age and the excitement over the Apollo programme. Did the show have a relationship with Nasa?
Oh sure – I went down to Cape Kennedy, saw the LEM [Lunar Excursion Module], met the astronauts. The popularity of our show and the space programme seemed to go hand in hand. As our show gained in popularity, the elected officials were aware of that and voted to give more money to the space programme, and as that went from failure to success, our ratings went up and up. We were intimately linked with Nasa.
What was the atmosphere like at Nasa?
Lots of coffee. There was so much where they didn’t know what was going to happen – there was a lot of jeopardy. It was like opening a play and not knowing how the audience would take it. They were opening new technology, and they didn’t know how nature was going to accept it. The technology was infinitely complex, and one little tweak could make the difference between life and death – but there was no way of finding out which was which. The question was, “Can we even get them off and have them live?” We forget that, it was as dire as that.
Were the staff there into science-fiction?
There was more than one way of sending someone to the moon – there were several theories, and some came direct from science-fiction. They read about what wonderful minds thought was possible, then aimed at making it happen. I’ve heard that again and again – people who were inspired by Star Trek as kids and went on to become astrophysicists, engineers or other professions to do with space. That’s what’s fascinating about it – I write science-fiction, and if you go to labs working on weird and strange things, you see things and you can spin out one detail into a fictional world. Just by extrapolating one theory, you can generate a whole environment.
Were you reminded of it by the recent exploration of Pluto?
Sure. You need a goal. There’s an object – the technology works and you see something. Everybody jumped on how the technology worked, it didn’t get hit by space dust or anything – which was miraculous, and testament to their skill. In the Sixties, everybody united behind the goal of going to the moon, and there was a great deal of esprit de corps. You see that again today – the quantum leap in computing is allowing them to achieve incredible things.
A lot of people have talked about technologies appearing in Star Trek then becoming reality. Did you expect us all to have phones just like the communicators you used in the show?
My God, if I’d known that I’d have made sure I invested in Apple. It’s incredible what they have in these companies that hasn’t come to the market yet. There are so many things on the drawing boards right now, but you don’t know which will take off. I just read about graphene, this material that’s like carbon but only an atom thick. Who knows what’s going to come from that? Newtonian physics don’t even apply to it – it behaves with quantum characteristics. There is so much out there that is ready to pop, but we don’t know where it’s going. Quantum physics alone is going to go deliver so much – we’ve barely scratched the surface. What we know we don’t know is exciting. That’s why people come to science-fiction.
Science has made life easier, but has also brought us nuclear weapons and climate change. Are you optimistic?
No. Our technology has got us into trouble – and as Einstein said, continuing doing the same thing after you get the same results is insanity. Take the iPhone – I see two-year-olds playing with iPhones. My grandchildren won’t look up from their phones at the table unless they’re admonished. The phone has been of great benefit, but it’s certainly making us less communicative in person. What else it’s going to do, we don’t know – but it can’t be good. Look at the internal combustion engine, which has shaped our entire culture for years and years, but it’s also brought climate change. It’s ruined our planet.
But doesn’t the solution lie with technology as well? We’re not going to revert to living in mud huts any time soon.
It’s a challenge, but also an opportunity. It’s ironic to me – I gave an interview to an English newspaper some 40 years ago about how we’re polluting nature. I remember they mocked me for being some dumb actor – what did I know about global pollution? I was just repeating what I’d read – and I was pretty convinced. We’re at a pivotal moment where we have the chance to reduce, or at the very least limit, global warming. Sea levels are set to go up 10ft in the next 50 years – what’s that going to do to London? There’s catastrophe in front of us, in front of our children. We just have to get into new forms of energy. It’s as simple as that.
You’re 84 now, and you’re very into social media. What would you say to people who think it’s not for them?
It’s about being shown how things work – people I show the dictation function to on my phone are amazed. The fear is feeling old and stupid – and obsolete. That’s what you have to overcome.
William Shatner Presents: Chaos On The Bridge is out now