Maybe it's just his usual comic shtick, but here's William Shatner - you know, Capt. Kirk of the technologically awesome starship Enterprise - baffled by his telephone.
We're about to begin a phone interview about his new "Star Trek" novel, "The Ashes of Eden" (Pocket Books, $23), and there's a pause of over a minute while he tries to navigate the communications equipment between rooms in his suite at New York's Palace Hotel."I'm so technically . . . ignorant," he apologizes in Kirk's familiar cadence when he finally returns, ". . . that I can't even press the hold button."
Not quite the image of the captain with all the Enterprise's phasers at his command?
"Maybe I have the phasers," he replies, "but I just can't find the hold button."
As it happens, that's the subject of the day: The sometimes tenuous boundary between truth and fiction, between the world of the author and the lives of his fictional subjects.
In "The Ashes of Eden," Shatner - who's still hoping for a cinematic revival of the character who died in last year's movie "Star Trek Generations" - gives Capt. James T. Kirk the kind of inner life he never had.
This Kirk is full of regret, spent passion and hope for eternal youth. There's a scene in which the captain is impotent, and another in which he has a reconciliation with Scotty, the engineer played on screen by James Doohan, who in real life has become a fierce critic of Shatner's.
So how much here is Kirk, and how much Shatner?
"The Kirk character has always been played very closely to my own personality," Shatner says, "because in the beginning of the series, there was so little time to hold a character armor in front of me. . . . There was only time to learn the lines and say the words and hope that the way I was playing it would be the way that I, Shatner, would have liked to have played myself, given those circumstances. To be that brave in combat, and that kind of wisdom and that kind of searching for intelligence, and that kind of equanimity and love. So I played it close to me. . . .
"So when it came time to write the book, I thought that I would write it as close to me, also, as possible. . . . I wished to show the sensuality and the sensuousness and the turmoil, and make it textured as much as possible. And take from my own life and feelings."
So there's that question again - how much from the author's life? Doohan, of course, isn't the only "Trek" actor who's expressed, in person or in print, distaste for Shatner - a complaint that, throughout the nearly three decades of "Trek" production, Shatner grabbed from his colleagues the lines and scenes and camera angles that might have given them a moment of his glory. So is there, in Kirk's strained relationship with Scott, an emotional connection with Shatner's life as well?
"Well, surely," he says. "And not that I, Shatner, feel that I owe any apologies for anything. Whatever fancied or real injuries people in the cast feel I have done, was never done in my concept with any ulterior motives, other than what made a better story. . . . I have never deliberately tried to hurt anybody.
"Nor do I think that, since we're on that subject, if you know somebody a length of time, as I have all these people, that there's anything less than great respect and love. . . . Your life is so short that the length of time I've known these people constitutes a great part of my life. Why would I want to subject my life to some negativity?"
Yet clearly there is a negative view from his castmates, which Shatner's own 1993 memoir, "Star Trek Memories," concedes - a view expounded with some vehemence in books by Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) and George Takei (Sulu). Takei, especially, focuses on Shatner's shortcomings, including his absence from "Star Trek" events such as series creator Gene Roddenberry's memorial service.
"Really," Shatner says now. "But it's so profoundly silly. For example, I was working, and my daughter went in my place. But you know, those are things that are so minute - such minutiae - that it doesn't even bear talking about."
"The Ashes of Eden," which takes place six months before Kirk's death, is planned as the first part of a trilogy. Shatner has written a 30-page outline of the next book, "The Fires of Olympus," to be released next year, which will carry out the promise of the epilogue to Eden and bring Kirk back to life.
Paramount, which produces the movies, is a sister company of Simon & Schuster, which owns Pocket Books, and the studio licenses the use of "Star Trek" characters in the novels. Does this mean Kirk will be resuscitated on screen as well?
Shatner says that after he wrote the outline, "I sent it on to Paramount - first of all, I had to, to get their OK. And secondly, I thought it would make a good next movie. And the parties I sent it to all thought it was a terrific story, and left it at that.
"And then a few weeks ago, I read that Paramount was going to do only a movie about the `Next Generation,' and so I assumed that they weren't going to do that novel as a movie. And then I heard some rumors floating around the other day that they hadn't decided yet.
"So I don't know. . . . That decision is not mine. It's Paramount's."
(The "Star Trek" production team is on hiatus now, a later call to Hollywood showed, and producer Rick Berman was unavailable for comment.)
"But I can't wait for that," Shatner continues. He's directing a movie called "Virtual Hero," for release at Christmas 1996; he's working on his own label of CD-ROM games based on his "Tek-War" novels; he's started a company to get in on the explosion in telephone competition.
"I find great joy in pushing the edges of the envelope of the medium I'm working in," he says.
With so much going on, it's not surprising that Shatner is using co-authors for his "Trek" trilogy (Garfield and Judith Reeves-Stevens), just as he did on his "TekWar" novels (Ron Goulart) and his pair of "Star Trek" memoirs (Chris Kreski).
The memoirs were mostly reporting, and Shatner says he has no plans for a full-scale autobiography.
"I've shied away from all that stuff because I don't think it's valid," he says. "I'm bored to tears by it. . . . I try to be as entertaining as possible and not get into me, because it's not of - it's of passing interest."
Yet it seems obvious that there is continuing interest in Shatner and his castmates. The sales of his memoirs show that. In fact, it is suggested to him, some fans still get worked up about an old "Saturday Night Live" skit in which Shatner, attending a "Star Trek" convention, suggested to startled Trekkers that they "get a life."
"No," he replies. "Everybody has taken it - everybody I know - has taken it with the humor it was meant."
Still, there's a scene in "Ashes of Eden" in which Kirk muses on the oddness of being a celebrity, familiar to thousands of people he's never met. Does Shatner have mixed feelings about "Trek" fan-dom?
"On the contrary," he says, "in these two books I wrote on `Star Trek,' the making of, I grew to not only respect but admire many of the fans, and certainly to appreciate the reasons for their passion - and appreciate their passion. No, I'm not ambivalent about the whole thing."
"The springboard for everything that I'm doing, and the ability to do them - to think them and then do them - is all as a result of `Star Trek.' I hold nothing but great fondness, great love for the whole entity.
"And if at times it gets wearying, it's a momentary thing that everybody would have on anything."
Fact or fiction, fiction or fact. After all this time, does Shatner ever wonder where he leaves off and Kirk begins?
"Well, I'm perfectly aware that it's a fictional character," Shatner says. "But it seems that anything that I think of can be Kirk, so long as I can get it past Paramount. . . .
"There were instances - sometimes many, sometimes none - on the screen when I would ad-lib dialogue or talk to a writer or the producer or director about changes, because they just didn't fit the concept of Kirk. And I was holding onto the concept of Kirk - there weren't any bylaws there, it was what was in my head. So I became the paragon of Kirk.
"So who would know better what was rambling around in the character's head than I? But almost it's based on arrogance, because why shouldn't what I say be Capt. Kirk, because I played him. . . .
"Who else are you going to go to?"