William Shatner reflects on 55 years of 'Star Trek' — and that controversial 'SNL' sketch

When Captain James T. Kirk originally set foot on the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise, his mission to explore the final frontier was only supposed to last five years. Instead, the Federation starship's pioneering voyage launched a fleet of Star Trek TV shows, movies and ancillary content that has endured for 55 years and counting. Even though William Shatner's official tour of duty with Starfleet ended in 1994's Star Trek: Generations, he'll forever be connected to the franchise he once commanded alongside creator Gene Roddenberry and beloved crew mates like Leonard Nimoy, George Takei and Nichelle Nichols. (Watch our Star Trek Day video interview above.)

Funnily enough, though, one of Shatner's most famous Trek moments didn't occur in an actual Trek series or movie. Thirty-five years ago, on Stardate 12.20.86, the actor hosted Saturday Night Live and took center stage in a notorious skit penned by Robert Smigel, John Vitti and George Meyer. (Shatner himself credited Bob Odenkirk and Judd Apatow in his 1999 memoir, Get a Life!) The sketch found Shatner visiting a Star Trek convention and lecturing obsessed fans (played by Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey and Kevin Nealon) to — say it with us now — "Get a life!"

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 8 -- Pictured: William Shatner as himself (far right) during the
William Shatner as himself during the "16th Annual Star Trek Convention" skit on the December 20, 1986 of Saturday Night Live. (Photo by: Alan Singer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank)

The dismayed looks on the faces of SNL's fake fans mirrored the reaction within actual Trek fandom, where that sketch proved as troublesome as a loose Tribble aboard a Constitution-class starship. After all, here was Kirk himself mocking fans over their passion for the very thing that transformed him into a TV icon. While it may not have been the writers' intention, the sketch cemented the idea in the pop culture consciousness that Trekkers were a group to be ridiculed.

Over three decades later, Shatner is keenly aware that his "get a life" gag rubbed Trekkers the wrong way. But he also remains tickled by the jokes that the SNL writers penned for him. "I understood [the controversy], but I also understood that it was so amusing that most people would laugh, which they did," the actor tells Yahoo Entertainment now. "Some people didn't, and I'm sorry. But it was meant in fun. And I advise you to laugh."

One person who has a hard time laughing at the sketch is Roddenberry's son, Eugene "Rod" Roddenberry. In a separate interview, the CEO of Roddenberry Entertainment — who was 12 years old when the episode aired — says that he has a complicated relationship with Shatner's SNL appearance. "I don't love it," he admits. "But I can also let go and maybe give it a loose chuckle."

HOLLYWOOD, CA - JUNE 6:   Actor William Shatner, producer Gene Roddenberry and actor Patrick Stewart attend the
William Shatner, Gene Roddenberry and Patrick Stewart attend the Star Trek 25th Anniversary Celebration in 1991 (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

Roddenberry adds that he never discussed the sketch at length with his father, but believes the Star Trek creator's deep affinity for the franchise's fans would have made it difficult for him to let go and laugh. "He truly loved the fans," the younger Roddenberry notes. "He always gave them credit and loved them and knew that they were the ones that kept Star Trek on the air. So I don't think he would've appreciated the comment. However, Saturday Night Live is about pushing boundaries and satirizing social situations, so looking at it from that point of view, that is a very valid and funny joke."

"My father and I have a personal connection to the fans," Roddenberry continues. "My experience has been that people have been inspired by Star Trek to do great things. Sure, they wear a Klingon costume on the weekend, but they go on with their lives during the week. They aren't these crazy, lost individuals who didn't know the difference between reality and Star Trek."

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - AUGUST 01: Producer and CEO of Roddenberry Entertainment Eugene
Eugene Roddenberry attends the 18th Annual Official Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas in 2019 (Photo by Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images)

Today, of course, fandom is a force that's celebrated rather than mocked. As a result, Roddenberry feels that Shatner's "get a life" moment has been supplanted by more loving Trek send-ups like the 1999 comedy favorite Galaxy Quest. "I don't think [that sketch] has an impact anymore. That was then. So I'm not upset about it, but if I'm being honest, I don't appreciate that comment. Galaxy Quest is an example of a humorous, beautiful love letter to fans. I love that kind of humor and poking fun at Star Trek and fandom in a loving way. It's just the whole 'get a life' thing."

Shatner's SNL sketch isn't the only notable Trek anniversary happening on this particular Star Trek Day, which celebrates the launch date of the original series, Sept. 8, 1966. We spoke with the former captain-turned-admiral-turned-captain, as well as Roddenberry, about some of the seminal moments in the franchise's long, prosperous history.

Star Trek: The Original Series (Stardate 09.08.66)

William Shatner made his debut as Captain James T. Kirk 55 years ago with the premiere of Star Trek: The Original Series (Photo: Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection)
William Shatner made his debut as Captain James T. Kirk 55 years ago with the premiere of Star Trek: The Original Series (Photo: Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Let the Starfleet record show that Shatner wasn't technically the first actor to sit in the Enterprise's captain's chair. Jeffrey Hunter preceded him in Roddenberry's first pilot episode, "The Cage," which NBC declined to air. (Portions of "The Cage" were later incorporated into the two-part Season 1 episode "The Menagerie," and the pilot was finally released in full in 1986.) After parting ways with his first star, the creator stumbled upon Canadian-born Shatner, who had parlayed his success as a stage actor at his native land's renowned Stratford Festival into a burgeoning TV career in Hollywood.

Captain Kirk took command of the Enterprise in Roddenberry's second pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before." While that episode sold NBC on making Star Trek an ongoing series, it wasn't viewers' first encounter with the Enterprise crew. Instead, the show launched on Sept. 8, 1966 with "The Man Trap" — the sixth episode to be filmed and the first to air on network television. Written by George Clayton Johnson, "The Man Trap" finds Kirk and his officers facing off against a space monster that feeds on the salt contained in human bodies.

"We laughed at that one," Shatner says of that supposedly fearsome foe. "Imagine! I was at Stratford and this is a what?! It sucks the salt? OK, it sucks the salt out of your body. Different rules now."

The actor may have found the monster amusing, but sci-fi fans were immediately taken with Star Trek, gifting the show with a small, but devoted viewership that encouraged the network to keep the Enterprise flying for three years. But the secret heroine of Trek's longevity was none other than comedy legend Lucille Ball, whose production company, Desilu Productions, financed the series and kept the money flowing even as Trek tried and failed to cross over into the mainstream. That connection between I Love Lucy and Star Trek is something that never fails to delight Trekkers.

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For his part, Shatner thinks that Ball's contribution to the franchise's history is limited to production those first three seasons. "[Desilu] put the money behind the beginning of Star Trek, so they were peripherally involved," he says. "But the resurrection of Star Trek was made by other people. I met [Lucille Ball] once, and she was a beautiful woman and a great comic. But I don't think she was quite as functional as you point out." (Ball passed away in 1989.)

Roddenberry, on the other hand, proudly considers Ball to be an honorary Trekker. "When anyone asks me when I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall the most, it would have been the first introduction between my father and her," he remarks. "My father had pitched the show to many of the networks and they all turned him down. She was the one willing to take the risk, and I've got to give her credit for saying: 'We're going to do something different. We're going to give this show a shot and screw anyone who doesn't think it's right for television.' That's my vision of her, and I'ld love to see that dramatized one day onscreen."

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (Stardate: 11.26.86)

Shatner and Leonard Nimoy in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. (Photo: Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Shatner and Leonard Nimoy in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. (Photo: Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection)

The month before his SNL appearance, Shatner led the Enterprise crew on their fourth big-screen mission, The Voyage Home, which remains the franchise's funniest movie. And it would have been even funnier had the filmmakers succeeded in their rumored plan to cast former Not Ready for Primetime Player Eddie Murphy in a major role in the time-traveling adventure. Screenwriter Steve Meerson shared that secret with The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the film's 30th anniversary in 2016, and apparently it was news to Roddenberry and Shatner as well.

"I hadn't heard that about him," confesses Shatner, who later made a cameo in Murphy's 2002 comedy, Showtime. "I don't know whether that was true or not. If it was, I don't remember!" Roddenberry can't corroborate Meerson's account either. "I've heard the same thing, but I can't tell you anything more because I simply don't know," he says. "That was still an incredible movie." (Star Trek IV is newly available in a just-released 4K box set of the first four Trek movies.)

Fortunately, Shatner does recall one of the film's most laugh-out-loud moments, when Spock uses the Vulcan nerve pinch to quiet down an unruly bus passenger. Asked whether he and Nimoy — who also directed the movie — knew how hilarious that scene was going to be when they shot it, Shatner indicates that they suspected they were onto something. "[The way] it was written, with the proximity of him and [us] and the music we didn't understand, we understood it was meant to be humorous, yes."

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Stardate: 12.06.91)

Stratford Festival alums Christopher Plummer and Shatner were reunited on the set of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Photo: Paramount Pictures/ Courtesy: Everett Collection)
Stratford Festival alums Christopher Plummer and Shatner were reunited on the set of 'Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.' (Photo: Paramount Pictures/ Courtesy: Everett Collection)

The final voyage of the original Enterprise crew premiered in theaters in December 1991, two months after Gene Roddenberry passed away. And his son admits that his family's loss made The Undiscovered Country a difficult watch for many years. "That was an incredibly raw and emotional time, so I didn't pay too much attention to it originally." But the younger Roddenberry adds that he recently revisited the movie, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that its storyline — which finds Kirk having to help the Federation broker peace with the Klingons — resonates well in the present day,.

"Kirk's son was killed by the Klingons, so he has this hatred for them," Roddenberry explains. "Now there's an opportunity for humanity and Klingons to come together, and the challenge of him overcoming that [hatred] is incredibly powerful. And it's incredibly important to have that message today, because we're in such a divisive time. Being empathetic to someone even if you disagree with what they're saying is the backbone of Star Trek."

For Shatner, the most rewarding part of making The Undiscovered Country was finally getting the chance to act onscreen opposite fellow Canadian and Stratford Festival alum Christopher Plummer, whose Shakespeare-quoting Klingon general tried to undermine the peace effort. The two actors were both born in Montreal a year apart, and rose through the ranks together. (Plummer died in February at the age of 91; Shatner celebrated his 90th birthday in March.) "Chris and I were a double helix," he says now. "I followed him through the channels of theater, radio and live television. We met at Stratford, and I was his understudy for Henry V."

"We were good friends from a distance, because he was always somewhere else" Shatner continues. "I admired him, and respected him. It was so much fun to finally be associated with him on [The Undiscovered Country]. I had a great time."

Shatner officially passed the Star Trek baton to The Next Generation crew in Generations, with Kirk's divisive death capping off the climax of that movie. And while he has yet to reprise the role onscreen, he's open to the idea of revisiting the Enterprise in the same way that Nimoy's Spock became part of the rebooted Trek film franchise launched by J.J. Abrams in 2009. "When I saw that movie, I called [Leonard] and said, 'Leonard, you know you're old when you go back in time and you're still old,'" Shatner remembers. "He didn't laugh!"

Star Trek: The Original Series is currently streaming on Paramount+ and Netflix.