N.B. Your faithful tinylettrist composed and sent this on Friday March 31st, in the year of our Lord 20 and 17; it was immediately flagged by the abuse prevention team, presumably for the liberal use of the phrase "James T. Kirk is a beautiful lesbian." I have spent the last five days of my life emailing a very earnest customer support team member doing my best to prove that I am not a pornbot sent to bedevil him. Keep these words secret, keep them locked in your heart; whosoever should add to the words of this scroll, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written of therein, and if any man shall take away from the words of this prophecy, God shall take away his part of the book of life.
I have spent the majority of my adult life trying very hard to avoid understanding what I am feeling, and I live with a daily horror of having to explain myself to anyone about anything. William Shatner, through no fault of his own, produces in me such a combination of overwhelming sentiment, such a furious mixture of longing and frustration and a need to speak in complete sentences, that I can scarcely bear to think about him. I have had to remind Nicole repeatedly that I do not want to hear about what he is doing on Twitter, that I do not want her to help me meet him, that for us to ever be in the same room together would result in great humiliation for me and gentle confusion for him. It is not at all unlike Troy from Community's feelings for Levar Burton; I have never sought to consummate any of my desires. I could never be in a room with William Shatner. I would immediately burst into tears, and I do not know what I would require from him, and I think he has spent probably enough of his life around people who overreact at the sight of him. The only gift I can give him is to leave him alone.
William Shatner guest-starred on two episodes of Columbo, but I only require you to have seen the first, 1976's Fade In To Murder. (Columbo, like Star Trek, is a show that tries very hard to imagine how to solve problems without violence, and showcases a certain sort of male peacefulness that makes me cry when I try to explain it to someone else.) His second appearance, 1994's Butterflies in Shades of Grey, is necessary only for the compulsive Shatner completist. I don't mean to reflexively complain about a long-running show's inevitable drop in quality, only that the 1990s-era episodes lack the striking cinematography and compelling murderers that characterized early Columbo. Better watch Fade Into Murder.
I am trying very hard not to talk to you about Star Trek. No one wants to hear how someone else got into Star Trek; those stories all sound the same and never quite tell the truth. I will confine myself to this: I had no real choice when it came to loving Star Wars. I saw it for the first time when I was six years old and was not yet grown enough to be able to decide where to bestow my heart. I loved Star Wars helplessly, reflexively; the age of accountability is not merely theological but extends to matters of the heart. I was baptized at twelve. I did not think of myself as too young then; it is the same way with Star Wars. For better or worse, I am a Star Wars person. I neither regret nor wish to change that part of myself, but I cannot take credit or responsibility for it. Star Trek, however, is wholly mine. I came to it grown and I went willingly, with my whole mind and my whole heart.
At any rate, Bill Shatner is more than Star Trek – or at least I want to believe that he is more than Star Trek, which is why I am trying to put off talking about Star Trek for as long as possible. You should certainly watch Fade Into Murder, in which Bill plays Ward Fowler, an actor famous for playing TV detective Lt. Lucerne. He is also the murderer; he wears lifts and a toupee and is following a joyless studio diet to keep his weight down, and spends the majority of the episode sheepishly acknowledging these things. "I'd appreciate a certain matter of discretion in that matter, Lieutenant," he tells Columbo. "Public image, you know." You know, of course, that William Shatner was well-known for wearing lifts, and a toupee, and following joyless studio diets to keep his weight down, and has spent the majority of his post-60s career acknowledging and apologizing for himself.
It should perhaps go without saying that unless you are Kevin Pollak, I do not want to hear your William Shatner impression, but I will say it nonetheless, in case you are ever tempted.
Most Columbo murderers fall into one of two categories. They are either profoundly irritated at his quiet, relentless presence, or they are overwhelmed with relief, and find excuses to spend more time with him. He is a rumpled little conscience who dogs their footsteps almost from the moment they have murdered someone. William Shatner played the second kind. Columbo is an enormous relief to him, a source of joy and freedom from something terrible, and he spends the majority of the second act smiling ruefully at Peter Falk as if to say, "Isn't this all a little ridiculous? Aren't I more than a little ridiculous? Do you want to have lunch with me anyways?" and breaking my heart. William Shatner could put a promise into a smile like nobody's business.
There is a website called Shatner's Toupee that – surprisingly uncruelly, given its name – celebrates the quality of sheepishness that Shatner brings to Columbo. ("Affected by or showing embarrassment caused by consciousness of a fault.") Shatner is always affected, always conscious of the embarrassment he causes others, always conscious of his faults; sheepishness is the fastest way to convince me something or someone is worth loving. Hello, yes I'm aware I'm like this, I'm sorry.
It's a very good episode, especially if you are interested, as I am, in watching the breakdown and ultimate failure of charm. 1976 was most likely the year when the last of Shatner's boyishness left him, and Fade Into Murder pays it appropriate tribute. His last line to Falk, after a brief and gentle confrontation, is very charming, and very boyish, and very sad: "Lieutenant," he says, "you'd be doing me an enormous favor if you stopped calling me 'Sir.'" There is no shit-eating in his grin then.
Please don't mistake that ending, or Bill's performance, for sadness. There is no possibility for true sadness in any performance of Bill Shatner's. I don't mean he is not capable of displaying sadness, merely that the gigantic reality of his underlying joy can never truly be compromised. Ward Fowler may go to prison, but Columbo has seen him, and that is something we cannot take away from him.
A few weeks ago I was at a conference in Tennessee with a bunch of medievalists and I was trying to explain something about boyishness. We were talking about Apollo and Hyacinthus, and I was trying to figure out why exactly it felt so important to me to explain that Hyacinthus died, pretty much, during a game of Ultimate Frisbee. Not because that was funny, but because it seemed very important to identify just what kind of beautiful boy he had been. "There is a certain type of beautiful boy who plays Ultimate Frisbee and invites you to come watch his game," I said, "not because he is vain and self-centered, although he maybe is, but because it is the only way he knows how to invite someone to share in his particular joy, and I think maybe the only thing I have ever wanted is to be a very beautiful, very dead, gentle boy that everyone gathers around and looks at." William Shatner was, in his prime, a very beautiful, very gentle boy, although being dead had very little to do with his particular type of boyishness. It was a type of boyishness that drew scrutiny and criticism in a manner much like girlishness, and that seemed to require a constant public apology from him for aging.
I am also firmly of the belief that Captain James T. Kirk was, and is, at every age and in every incarnation, a beautiful lesbian; I fear that now I will be called upon to explain myself and that I will be unable to do so. I can only repeat myself with increasing fervor: James T. Kirk is a beautiful lesbian, do not ask me any follow-up questions. Like Goldwater, in your heart you know I'm right. There is plenty of stupid, surface-level evidence I could marshal forth in defense of my argument – people criticized Shatner for his weight, and women are often criticized for their weight; Shatner was beautiful in a way that generally women are beautiful; James T. Kirk lived with her long-time girlfriend (Spock) and her ex-girlfriend (Bones) in a benevolent feelings-and-sex-triad and generally observed the campsite rule when it came to bringing short-term partners around; James T. Kirk is vulnerable and anxious and riddled with sincerity and in love with her car; James T. Kirk wears motorcycle boots and seems to spend a lot of time on her hair, doesn't want kids and rereads Dickens and doesn't feel comfortable showing her feelings in front of anyone she's known less than ten years but that doesn't mean she won't do it – but those things aren't really what make James T. Kirk a beautiful lesbian, I don't think. (It should perhaps go without saying that Chris Pine is also a beautiful lesbian, but that doesn't have anything to do with my feelings for William Shatner, so we're not going to address that any further here.)
At this same conference, I tried to explain to those same medievalists the strange reaction I have every time I read anything more than 100 years old. "I feel a profound sense of triumph and superiority over the author," I said, "because they are foolish enough to be dead, while I am young and gloriously alive. Not because I think their ideas are outdated or anything like that. It has nothing to do with how they think, or how we see the world differently. It is visceral, it is personal, it is gleeful, and it is triumphant. I have the good sense to still be living, while they have very foolishly died, and it always takes me at least ten minutes to stop crowing over my victory and pay attention to what I am reading." No one else at the table, it turned out, felt quite the same way when reading something by a dead author, but that does not mean I am alone.
William Shatner would have made an excellent Maggie the Cat, because he is alive, no matter how many discuses you try to throw at him, no matter how easily the rest of us get distracted by his hairline or his age. He is beautiful, and alive, and not dead, and I don't think I've done a very good job explaining anything today.