Spoiler Warning: There may be minor spoilers ahead for the Star Trek franchise, including the most recent seasons of Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard. There will also be major spoilers for the film Star Trek: Generations.
There has been some buzz lately in Star Trek fan communities about something William Shatner said in a recent interview. To make a long story short, Shatner said that he’d be interested to return to his most iconic role, provided it was more than a mere cameo.
I don’t really like commenting on these types of stories. There were many in the run-up to the release of Star Trek: Picard, when practically everyone who had once been a main cast member in a Star Trek series was asked whether they’d be up for a return. People like Robert Picardo and LeVar Burton got some attention for their comments, as did others, but they were all saying basically the same thing, which was some variant of this: “I’d like to do it, but there hasn’t been any formal discussion with ViacomCBS about it.” Well… that could apply to anyone. Aside from very few individuals who seem to want nothing to do with the franchise any more, practically every ex-Star Trek star would – for the right price, of course – be up for a return.
So why has William Shatner’s comment blown up the way it has? I’m honestly not sure. In the aftermath of 1994’s Star Trek: Generations, Shatner co-wrote a series of novels – his first set in the Star Trek universe. In these books, Kirk – who you’ll remember died in Generations – was resurrected by Borg-Romulans and would go on to live in the late 24th Century. As a statement of intent from the actor that Kirk could be resurrected somehow, a published series of novels is about as clear as it gets! Shatner has been willing to reprise his role ever since he last played Kirk in 1994. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that he still is.
As things stand right now, I don’t see it happening. The first and biggest reason why is that it would be incredibly difficult to do in-universe. Kirk is dead. He died in Generations, and even with all the technobabble at Starfleet’s disposal, there’s no way around that. Star Wars has learned to its great cost that the resurrection of long-dead characters can go over incredibly poorly, feeling like nothing but cheap fan-service and a blatant nostalgia play, and frankly there’s no way to resurrect Kirk without those same issues rearing their heads.
The only way Shatner could reprise the role of Kirk would be as an alternate-universe version. And that has problems too. The first is which parallel universe this version of Kirk would inhabit. With the production of a fourth Kelvin timeline/JJverse film unclear at best, it seems very unlikely he could appear there. There had been rumours in the run-up to Star Trek Beyond that Shatner might join former co-star Leonard Nimoy for a role, with both older actors appearing as future versions of that timeline’s Kirk and Spock. With Nimoy’s death, that element of the film never happened – if indeed it was ever going to.
Could Shatner appear as another character, though? In my opinion, for whatever that’s worth, this would be the only way to include him in any new Star Trek production. He could be, just as an example, the grandfather of a young Ensign or Lieutenant Kirk. But it would be hard to make a role of this kind anything more than a cameo, which is something Shatner has said he wasn’t interested in.
Killing off Kirk in Generations was a big decision, and it wasn’t without controversy at the time – though in the days when most people weren’t online and there was no social media, those criticisms were less widespread! But it was undeniably a final end for the character, and there simply isn’t a sensible way to bring him back in his original, Prime Universe form. Frankly, it would be disrespectful to ask William Shatner to play a minor role or to make a cameo appearance, and I understand why someone of his calibre and with his unique standing in the Star Trek community would feel that way. But all of this means that there really isn’t a way to bring him back.
The final point I’d make is this: Star Trek is doing okay at the moment. CBS All Access is still in a very competitive market in the United States, but it’s clear as day that recent Star Trek projects have been at least somewhat successful, or we wouldn’t see the continued investment in the franchise that ViacomCBS has been willing to make. A second season of Picard is happening, a third of Discovery is happening, and there are two new live-action shows that have been announced, one that’s in early development that hasn’t been announced, and two animated shows too, one of which already has a two-season order. With all of this going on, I just don’t see a need for Kirk to be shoehorned in.
The obvious comparison is Palpatine in The Rise of Skywalker, which I alluded to above. That film had a number of issues – as I noted in my review – but what it boiled down to was that Star Wars as a brand has found itself unable to escape the characters and storylines of its original trilogy. We see this across Star Wars, from the prequels to the sequels and the spin-offs. The entire franchise revolves around its original incarnation, as no one has really been bold enough yet to take it in a new direction. As such, when JJ Abrams needed a powerful villain for The Rise of Skywalker, he fell back on the original “big bad”: Palpatine.
Star Trek, in contrast, has long since moved on from Capt. Kirk – something which has been obvious since 1987, when The Next Generation premiered and showed that the franchise could be more than its first captain and crew. And Star Trek has only grown since then. Discovery may overlap slightly with Kirk’s era, but that’s all it is: an overlap. Strange New Worlds will share that setting, but again, it’s not a story that’s as tied up with The Original Series in the same way as Star Wars’ ongoing saga is with its original trilogy. Star Trek may have started with William Shatner’s Capt. Kirk in the 1960s, but it doesn’t end there, not by a long shot. As a result of that point alone, there just isn’t any need for Kirk to come back. As a fan of The Original Series I can admit it would be a cute nod and wink to fans to find a way to bring Shatner in – but no more so than it would be to see Robert Picardo or LeVar Burton, or any of the other 30 or more actors who once played a main role in a Star Trek show.
Speaking more broadly, any franchise has to be careful when looking backwards. One of the things I was concerned about with Star Trek: Picard is that it could end up trying to be Season 8 of The Next Generation – something which it simply never could be. As fun and nostalgic as it can be to see classic characters return, if that’s all that a story offers it will never be a success. There has to be something interesting, entertaining, and dramatic to drive the plot, and any new characters we meet along the way have to be part of that. Spending too much time looking backwards means there’s no time to look forwards, and that’s unfair to any new cast members. They deserve at least a chance to become fan favourites for a new generation of Trekkies, the way William Shatner and others were fan favourites for the first generation. Stories can be drowned out by nostalgia, with new characters left underdeveloped and sidelined. While it can be done well, as I’d argue Star Trek: Picard demonstrates, it can also be done poorly as we’ve seen in recent years.
So do I think we’ll see William Shatner back in Star Trek? I would never say “never”, but at the moment I think it’s unlikely. With his character having been killed off more than two decades ago, and with the franchise standing on its own two feet just fine without needing to continually return to The Original Series for ideas, it’s hard to see where there’s a place for him to make a major contribution. If he wanted to do a cameo I think that could be fun, but as he’s made clear that isn’t something he’s up for – which is perfectly fair enough – it’s hard to see any Star Trek writer going out of their way to create a role especially for him, or to find some convoluted and inevitably controversial way to un-kill Kirk.
There will always be these kinds of comments from actors. It’s understandable, given that Star Trek has made a big return to our screens, that journalists and fans will ask anyone who’d been involved with Star Trek in the past if they’d be willing to come back. And it’s understandable for someone of Shatner’s pedigree to say he’d only do it if he could be given a decent-sized role. But none of it actually means anything, because if the people in charge of Star Trek over at ViacomCBS were genuinely interested, they’d have reached out to him. That’s why I tend not to comment on these kind of stories.
The Star Trek franchise – including all properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.