We’d do a “your mom” strapline, but honestly with Christine here it’s a bit weird

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L.I. Underhill is a media critic and historian specializing in pop culture, with a focus on science fiction (especially Star Trek) and video games. Their projects include a critical history of Star Trek told through the narrative of a war in time, a “heretical” history of The Legend of Zelda series and a literary postmodern reading of Jim Davis' Garfield.


  1. Adam Riggio
    September 30, 2013 @ 3:29 am

    I've always gotten this vibe from William Shatner, that he was just as much a performance artist as an actor, which is what I've always enjoyed about him.

    I am doubtful about quite how much he experienced the forests of Quebec, though. It might end up being nothing more than a quibble, a biographical detail that's ultimately unimportant to the Vaka Rangi narrative. And having never met Shatner, unfortunately for me, I'm not really able to probe how much experience he may have gained of those forests themselves. Although I'm sure he had similar sympathies and thoughts for mysticism and the counter-culture of the time.

    I'm actually fairly familiar with Montréal, the city of Shatner's birth and young life, and its culture. I didn't grow up there myself, but the Italian side of my family has had roots there going back to the aftermath of the Second World War (my grandfather was proud to have deserted Mussolini's army as soon as possible and spent the war partying in the mountains, sneaking back to my grandmother's farm whenever he could). Where this may cause problems for Shatner's actual experience of the boreal forests of Quebec is that he's an Anglophone Montréal Jew. And the rural areas of Quebec are populated by Francophone communities that have lived in unbroken cultural continuity since the late 1600s, some of whom mixed with the Cree, but many of whom remained ethnically French. There's a strong current of cultural conservatism there. Few of them are Catholic anymore, since many of these communities signed on with Quebec's political liberalization movements of the 1960s, as the Church treated ordinary people as little better than slave labour for the mining and forestry industries.

    The kicker is that these communities, especially the pure French, are especially hostile to Canadians, English-speakers, ethnic minorities and immigrants of any kind, and especially Jews. Jacques Parizeau, in his concession speech when his separatist party lost the second referendum vote (50.5% to 49.5%), made a speech that made Enoch Powell and George Wallace look like Barack Obama, screaming and spitting into the microphone blaming what the translators called "ethnics and money." But I knew enough French that I could actually make out that the Premier of Quebec was on national television ranting about the niggers and the kikes. These are the people who wholeheartedly endorse the current Quebec government's "Values Charter" proposal that, if implemented, would practically eject all Muslims, Sikhs, and Jews from Quebec's public service sector, including health care.

    Growing up a Jew in Montreal in the 1940s and 50s, Shatner, I think, would have known where he was and was not welcome in Quebec. It's not like no one ever took vacations on canoe trips in the forests, but Montréalers don't usually spend much time outside the city unless they go to English Canada or travel internationally. In Quebec, the rural areas aren't associated with enlightenment or open thinking, but with insularity and racism.


  2. K. Jones
    September 30, 2013 @ 5:13 am

    I'm from far enough north in New York State that Montreal is the closest large city. It's at that point you start realizing Shatner is basically a "local boy" and would've had a youth and early adulthood probably remarkably similar to mine.

    The performance art thing is key, though. I know Shatner developed a lot of it later, but it was present from the beginning with him. This shouldn't be that surprising – he was an actor and young man during the 1950s when the New York School was changing the meaning of art, John Cage was using sound to tickle the senses. It would've been a pretty fertile landscape for a young artist.


  3. Flex
    September 30, 2013 @ 7:24 am

    Fantastic piece on a badly misunderstood album. I don't think this work was done any favors when that Nimoy/Shatner "best of" collection came out some years back and split up the tracks so the spoken word and "song" pieces became different performances. That DOES have the effect of making the material exactly as bad as people say it is.


  4. Josh Marsfelder
    September 30, 2013 @ 8:50 am

    I was actually secretly hoping you'd respond with a comment like this. I live very close to Quebec myself, but far enough south so as to be disconnected from the everyday comings and goings of the province, especially as my experience largely stems from the writings of naturalist-mystics from Cascapedia. And I mean I certainly wouldn't be intimately familiar with what life would have been like there during the 1930s.


  5. Josh Marsfelder
    September 30, 2013 @ 8:59 am

    You and I share a similar background as well then. Being born and raised a Vermonter, my personal sense of heritage has always felt more in tune with that of Canada just across the border then the mid-Atlantic states next door, and it's gotten considerably more so over the past two years or so. From my house I could conceivably be in Montreal in four hours. I'm closer to it then I am to New York City or Boston.

    And I definitely agree IRT the New York School. I think that's a very good point of comparison.


  6. Josh Marsfelder
    September 30, 2013 @ 9:02 am

    I didn't talk about it much here, but the way in which people were exposed to his material over the subsequent forty-odd years or so would absolutely have had an impact on its legacy and reputation The compilation album is a good thing to keep note of, as is the fact Shatner was sampled by a number of artists, thus by necessity taking him out of context: If you don't know what The Transformed Man is or what it's doing and only know him from Star Trek it's going to be profoundly bizarre.

    Then there's the "Golden Voices" celebrity compilations too, which played up the novelty of celebrities "attempting" to sing pop songs, thus cashing in on something The Transformed Man never actually did.


  7. Adam Riggio
    September 30, 2013 @ 12:14 pm

    I mean, really, Quebec is two countries: Quebec and Montréal. That would have been especially true in the 1930s-40s, because the Catholic Church exercised almost feudal control over the people of rural Quebec. Contrary even to the relatively enlightened Jesuit position, which at least valued education and knowledge, the Church in Quebec kept people undereducated and docile, unless they selected a particular bright (or pretty) student to train for the priesthood. And through the 1940s-50s, Quebec had an autocratic premier, Maurice Duplessis, who kept power through cheap populism using anti-Anglo and anti-Montréal xenophobia, driven through the Church, and funded by corruption from the forestry and mining sectors.

    Montréal, meanwhile, was the only place in Quebec with any genuine ethnic and cultural diversity other than French, Métis, Cree, with Innu and Inuit in the far north. Their liberalization, the Quiet Revolution, was basically the first generation of left-of-centre Francophone political leaders who were all educated at McGill University instead of in the Church. The Jewish community, still today to a degree, was isolated even within Montréal, living largely in the Westmount region of the downtown. It's quite common for Westmount Jews, even today, to speak barely a word of French.

    The Values Charter mess illustrates precisely the cultural divide in Quebec that's been papered over. All the culturally homogeneous Francophone regions support it, because they're basically rural hicks with the politics of retro-Enlightenment French secular Humanists. And most of them have probably never seen an immigrant in their lives. The most vocal opposition (street protests again!) has been in Montréal, which is the only place in Quebec to attract any immigrants. They tend to be from southern Europe, Haiti or French Guyana, Vietnam, and the former French imperial lands in northwest Africa. But the separatist party that currently holds a minority in the province's parliament has a radically anti-immigration platform, because their vision of Quebec is a land for white Francophones only. No Asians, Arabs, or Africans, European descended Anglos tolerated. It rather disgusts me.


  8. K. Jones
    October 2, 2013 @ 2:21 pm

    This article comes hot on the heels of my having found "William Shatner's Gonzo Ballet" on NetFlix, so it's painting a neat picture. That documentary was way deeper than I thought it'd be.


  9. Josh Marsfelder
    October 3, 2013 @ 3:50 pm

    That's likely to get covered at the requisite point in history as well. William Shatner is a theme I don't intend to leave behind for a long time.


  10. Daru
    January 17, 2014 @ 12:50 am

    Thanks again Josh! I have to say I absolutely ADORE the Transformed Man. Thankfully I discovered it in its full form (rather than the compilation album) whilst I was at art school via a close friend. Interestingly I was involved just after that time with a semi-academic late-night discussion group at the Theospohical Society called the Transformation Studies group, exploring transformation in many areas of our life. I really get the distinction of Shatner being a performer rather than an actor, being a performer myself.


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