Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project
Learn more about Voltaire!The Sanders Portrait

Canadian Shakespeareans in Space

Even before Marc Garneau, Roberta Bondar (Guelph BSc 1968), and the Canadarm, there was a long and "glorious" history of Canadians in space. Hollywood and television have often recruited Canadian Shakespearean actors to command the most famous spaceships in Science Fiction and popular culture, including Star Trek's Enterprise and the Battlestar Galactica. This page gives numerous examples of the uncanny intersection(s) among Shakespeare, Space, and Canadian thespians. Is Shakespeare the final frontier that translates into all languages? Are Canadians, that elusive blend of a colonial past and an Americanized present, the optimal captains because they can negotiate both a Shakespearean past and a technological present, or does it simply come down to the experience, professionalism, and genius of the individual actors? This page brings together the wide range of ways in which Canadian Shakespeareans have found their way into popular cultural representations of space, frequently via some form of connection with Shakespeare.

William Shatner in
Julius Caesar (Stratford, 1960) 

From its debut in 1966, Star Trek has drawn heavily upon Shakespeare for its stories, characters, titles, and actors. Gene Roddenberry, originator of the series had a clear vision about doing a science fiction show that was literate, had a humanist basis, and appealed to an intelligent viewership. Shakespeare was an obvious source for these qualities and the connections between Roddenberry and Shakespeare (though still not fully explored) have received some critical attention. Two examples of the kind of linkages between Star Trek and Shakespeare will suffice:

"Star Trek has far more in common with the Bible and the works of Shakespeare and the Brothers Grimm than most would realize." (cited from Startrek.com)

"Gene Roddenberry was not a writer like Shakespeare, though there are certain parallels in that the stories we associate with them have the virtue of being both of their time and transcending that time by providing insight into the human condition, human motivations and human actions: Shakespeare's tapestry was the past; Roddenberry's was the future. However, while the comparison can take us some distance down the path to defining Gene Roddenberry's legacy, it is not enough to complete the journey. Shakespeare's was the single hand holding the pen that wrote Hamlet, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth; but while Star Trek is undoubtedly associated with one man named Roddenberry, it is also undeniably the work of many hands." (Cited from Trekweb.com)

Certainly, in the actual stagecraft involved in producing the most memorable figures from Star Trek, a Shakespearean pedigree figures. The well-known Canadian actor, William Shatner spent three years at the Stratford Shakepeare Festival, Patrick Stewart (the next actor to command the Enterprise but not a Canadian) was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company for twenty-five years, and in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) Shakespearean actors, Canadian Christopher Plummer, who has worked at Stratford and with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and David Warner, who played Henry VI in John Barton's and Peter Well's famous adaptation The Wars of the Roses in 1963 with the Royal Shakespeare Company before numerous other Shakespeare plays, were chosen for the lead Klingon roles. (Note: Shatner got his break at Stratford in 1956 when he replaced Plummer as the lead in Henry V on three hours notice after Plummer was hospitalized. Québécois adaptor Jean Louis Roux was also in the production. Please see the New York Times' review of the play.) According to Iotia: Deep Space 93, thirty-six Canadian actors have appeared in Star Trek episodes or movies, including James Doohan as Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott. Nor can we forget Winnipeg-born actor (1928) Douglas Rain's role as the voice of Hal 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)––Rain, one of Canada's most accomplished actors had a four-decade relationship with the Stratford Festival from his appearance in Henry V in 1956 through to his more recent appearance in the 95-96 production of The Merchant of Venice, where he appeared as Shylock.

This brief history of affiliations and associations in relation to Canadian Shakespeareans working in the genre of science fiction film points to one of the more interesting ways in which Canadian culture has "penetrated" American popular cultural markets, an interesting form of cross-influence in which Shakespeare crucially figures. The more recent example of Christopher Plummer's huge success in a Stratfordian production of King Lear that opened in New York at the Lincoln Center in February 2004 (see Shakespeare of Canada), points to a set of cumulative and mutually reinforcing forms of cultural recognition in which Shakespeare is a significant catalyst.

Two other Canadian actors who were recruited into space by Hollywood are Leslie Nielsen and Lorne Greene. In 1956, Leslie Nielsen, who studied at the Lorne Green Academy of Radio Arts after World War Two, and who, like Greene, spent time at The Neighbourhood Playhouse in New York, was cast in 1956 as Commander John J. Adams in Forbidden Planet, a science fiction adaptation of The Tempest, opposite fellow Canadian Walter Pidgeon who starred as Professor Morbius, the film's Prospero-figure. (Canadian playwright and director Carroll Aikins was also involved with the Neighbourhood Playhouse in the years after WWI. Please see The God of Gods in the Online Anthology for more information.) Nielsen's Commander Adams, who fights off the Caliban monster while seducing Morbius's daughter, seems like a prototype for Shatner's Captain James T. Kirk, and the film continues to be regarded as one of the most important science fiction films of its time.

 Lorne Green and William
Shatner in Julius Caesar
(Stratford 1955)

In 1978, Lorne Greene was cast as Commander Adama (after perhaps Nielsen's Commander Adams in Forbidden Planet?) for the television and film series Battlestar Galactica. In the early 1950s, Greene acted in a number of Shakespeare plays, including Othello on CBC television in 1954, and Julius Caesar at Stratford in 1955 (with a young William Shatner). In 1959, Greene took the role of Ben Cartwright in the long-running series Bonanza (1959-73). On the subject of being hired for this role, Greene notes:

"They told me that they wanted a new series, a one-hour weekly western. They wanted it to have a strong father-and-son relationship because they were concerned that American soldiers' defections in Korea had been traced by some psychologists to Momism, the strong identity of U.S. kids with their mothers. Also, they were sick of American movies in which fathers were depicted as bumbling dolts." (qtd. from Pevere and Dymond 68)

During the mid-sixties, Bonanza was watched by a quarter-billion viewers around the world, making Greene one of the most recognizable people on the planet (Pevere and Dymond 68).Greene's role as Commander Adama, then, continues the identification of Greene as an authoritative patriarchal figure, a role that Greene prepared for as the news anchor for CBC Radio (1939-42) where he earned the nick-names "The Voice of Canada" and "The Voice of Doom," and performing at Stratford and on Broadway.

Colm Feore as Supreme Leader of the Necromongers, Lord Marshall

More recently, Stratfordian actor Colm Feore played Lord Marshall in the Vin Diesel vehicle The Chronicles of Riddick (2004; David Twohy director). American-born/Canadian Feore has had extensive experience at Stratford (with over 40 performances in more than 40 productions during 13 seasons). Again we ask if there is a connection between that formation and Feore's casting in the role of the supreme leader of the Necromongers, a totalitarian empire seeking complete domination of the cosmos?

The role is of course ridiculous but perhaps only an actor with Feore's background and Shakespearean gravitas could lend it what credibility it has. In interviews promoting the film Feore cagily addresses how the Lord Marshall character is somewhat analogous to Julius Caesar: "He’s like one of these ancient crusading rulers or a ruler of Rome who says, 'Look, we are spreading out over the known world, or known worlds, and we are taking over. Yes, we are taking over. We are going to build relationships with these people. We are going to actually involve them in our empire. It’s not all bad, it’s not all scary. We are going to make your life better. We’re going to bring you commerce and pain-free living. We’ve learned things you simply don’t know so come and join us. Yeah, you have to give a few things up like your rights, your land, your life and things like that but that’s just minor. Come along with us.' And so they are absolutely driven with a very powerful conviction that their way is the right way. I think there are a lot of wonderful parallels to our world as it is today that you’ll see in the film" (see "Colm Feore Battles Vin Diesel in 'The Chronicles of Riddick'").

The echoes of empire and its critique via Caesar and imperial Rome make for an indirect Shakespearean connection, one that Feore shares with other Canadian actors who ended up in space sagas, including both Lorne Green and William Shatner (as recently as 1990 Feore had played the role of Cassius in a Stratford production of Julius Caesar). Online critics who took The Chronicles of Riddick a tad too seriously had no problem suggesting that Feore had given a performance that made it appear he was "in a Shakespeare play, what with his melodramatic line readings and perpetually steely glare" (The Chronicles). Ironically the very stage element that made Feore castable as Lord Marshall  becomes the reason for the negative critical response to his performance. Again, the further afield in space Canadian actors go, the more tied to Shakespeare they seem to become. [The movie, incidentally, cost 120 million US dollars to make and lost some 66 million making it one of the biggest money losers (based on absolute loss on worldwide gross).]

What to make of all these odd connections linking classically trained Canadian, Shakespearean actors to expensive space epics drifting through popular culture?

The regular occurances of Canadian Shakespeareans in space is telling of Canada's colonial history with Britain and colonial present with the United States. Irene Makaryk points out that "there has been a nearly unbroken tradition of playing Shakespeare since at least the 18th century," and that Shakespeare has long been used in Canada as a defence against American cultural encroachment (64). State sponsored media, such as CBC radio and television, were also developed with the intention of uniting the country culturally, and Shakespeare was the prefered programming choice: Makaryk notes that over 60 radio adaptations of Shakespeare were broadcast by the CBC between 1944 and 1955 (64). In protecting ourselves culturally we have developed institutions that produce experienced and professional actors much in demand in Hollywood, and the Shakespearean experiences at the CBC or Stratford, it can be argued, develop the aura of authority needed for the commanders of spaceships or evil-doing empire builders. Therefore, the cultural authority of Shakespeare lends itself nicely to the colonial fantasy inherent in much of science fiction, where "peaceful" exploration and science missions are undertaken by military officers in spaceships armed with apocalyptic power––or where the dream of total control and all-encompassing power by a single empire is resuscitated.

Daniel Fischlin and Gordon Lester

Makaryk, Irene. "Canada." The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. Ed. Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells. New York: Oxford UP, 2001. 64.

Pevere, Geoff, and Greig Dymond. Mondo Canuck: A Canadian Pop Culture Odyssey. Scarborough: Prentice Hall, 1996.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

Christopher Plummer as
General Chang

"Borrowing its subtitle (and several lines of dialogue) from Shakespeare, the movie finds Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) and his fellow Enterprise crew members on a diplomatic mission to negotiate peace with the revered Klingon Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner). When the high-ranking Klingon and several officers are ruthlessly murdered, blame is placed on Kirk, whose subsequent investigation uncovers an assassination plot masterminded by the nefarious Klingon General Chang (Christopher Plummer) in an effort to disrupt a historic peace summit. As this political plot unfolds, Star Trek VI takes on a sharp-edged tone, with Kirk and Spock confronting their opposing views of diplomacy, and testing their bonds of loyalty when a Vulcan officer is revealed to be a traitor" (http://www.target.com/gp/detail.html/602-7528414-5237403?asin=B0000UJL96).

Video Clip: "The Undiscovered Country"
In this clip, Klingon Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner) and his advisors are being entertained at a diplomatic dinner on board the Enterprise. Gorkon makes a toast to "the undiscovered country: the future," which sparks a brief discussion of Shakespeare, the phrase "undiscovered country" coming from Hamlet 3.1, the famous "To be, or not to be" speech:

                         who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?

General Chang (Christopher Plummer) reinforces the Shakespearean reference when he says "To be, or not to be" in Klingon. (Please see The Klingon Hamlet.)

The translation effect evident in the clip––translation being another form of adaptation––marks the appropriation of "translated/adapted" Shakespeare as part of the battle between imperial cultures the film (and the Star Trek genre generally) portrays. The cultural adaptability of Shakespeare to Klingon here signals not the importance of Shakespeare so much as the displayed superiority (and the related cultural anxiety) of the Klingons, whose version of Shakespeare is made out to be better than the human version. Shakespeare becomes the site of imperial collision, one in which language and adaptation are crucial to imperial display––perhaps a not so far-fetched allegory for the tense relation between British colonial culture (ur-Shakespeare) in relation to its colonies (adapted Shakespeare).

Khamlet (Hamlet) III.i.55ff. ("To be, or not to be....")

Khamlet: taH pagh taHbe'. DaH mu'tlheghvam vIqelnIS.
quv'a', yabDaq San vaQ cha, pu' je SIQDI'?
pagh, Seng bIQ'a'Hey SuvmeH nuHmey SuqDI',
'ej, Suvmo', rInmoHDI'? Hegh. Qong --- Qong neH ---
'ej QongDI', tIq 'oy', wa'SanID Daw''e' je
cho'nISbogh porghDaj rInmoHlaH net Har.

Translated by Nick Nicholas & Andrew Strader. KLI, 1995.

Video Clip: "To be; or not to be"
In the climactic battle scene between the Enterprise and the Klingon Bird of Prey, General Chang (Christipher Plummer) starts spewing indiscriminately and mercilessly an assortment of Shakespearean quotations.

Free Enterprise (1998)

This indie film follows two men on the fringe of the movie industry: Robert (Rafer Wiegel) edits movies like Teen Bimbo Beach Assault, while Mark (Eric McCormack from Will and Grace) is writing a screenplay about a serial killer who murders all the characters from The Brady Bunch. Mark and Robert also happen to be "20-something science-fiction geeks employed at the fringes of the movie industry--Mark edits a movie-fan magazine that is an obvious take-off on FANGORIA and STARLOG; Robert is a film editor at a direct-to-video film studio called Full Eclipse, a blatant parody of the real-life studio Full Moon--who one day run into their childhood hero, William 'Captain Kirk' Shatner, at a purely chance meeting in a second-hand bookstore. But their mental image of Shatner is shattered when they see that the STAR TREK icon is not like his on-screen persona but is, in reality, just another egocentric actor with numerous human foibles.

Nonetheless, Mark and Robert are still smitten enough to pursue a friendship with 'Bill' and promise to use their influence in 'the industry' to help him get his pet project off the ground. And that project is? Well, it seems that Shatner wants to create a musical version of Shakespeare's JULIUS CAESAR in which the actor will play all the parts himself. (When Mark and Robert point out that playing both Caesar and Brutus means that Shatner will have to stab himself in the back, the actor replies, 'So? I've done it before.')" ("No Tears for Shatner"). The film thus plays with Shakespearean adaptation as a form of (self) parody and cleverly spoofs the Hollywood cult of celebrity with Shatner a willing participant.

Video Clip: "Shatner's Vision"
After a few drinks, Shatner pitches Robert (Rafer Wiegel) and Mark (Eric McCormack) his idea for a one-man production of Julius Caesar where Shatner would play all the parts himself.

Video Clip: "Caesar Rap"

Shatner does a rap version of Mark Antony's "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears" speech from Julius Caesar (3.2).

 

William Shatner
The Transformed Man (1968)

The Transformed Man (1968)

In 1968, William Shatner (billed as "Captain Kirk from Star Trek") recorded an album called The Transformed Man that contains covers of the Beatles's "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" and Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man," as well as Shakespearean soliloquies from Hamlet and Henry V. As noted above, Shatner got his break at Stratford in 1956 when he replaced Christopher Plummer as the lead in Henry V on three hours notice after Plummer was hospitalized.

In December 2003, the CBC reported that Shatner was about to release a new album produced by Ben Folds.

Audio Clip: William Shatner's "King Henry The Fifth"
William Shatner as King Harry delivers the speech from Henry V 3.1. The opening flurry of music sounds like the music they played during fight sequences during the original Star Trek.

Audio Clip: William Shatner's "Hamlet"

Shatner performs the "To be, or not to be" speech (Hamlet 3.1) like only he can. The background music also sounds like Star Trek. Ay, there's the rub.

Shatner, William. The Transformed Man. Varese Vintage, 1968

 

Pulp Poster for Forbidden Planet featuring Robbie the Robot and Altaira.
Anne Francis as Altaira and
Leslie Nielsen as Commander
Adams
Walter Pidgeon as
Professor Morbius 
Nathan Fillion as Captain Malcolm Reynolds.

Forbidden Planet (1956, Fred M. Wilcox) / Serenity (2005, Joss Whedon)

"This 1956 pop adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest is one of the best, most influential science fiction movies ever made. Its space explorers are the models for the crew of Star Trek 's Enterprise , and the film's robot is clearly the prototype for Robby in Lost in Space. Walter Pidgeon is the Prospero figure, presiding over a paradisiacal world with his lovely young daughter and their servile droid. When the crew of a spaceship lands on the planet, they become aware of a sinister invisible force that threatens to destroy them" ("My evil self is at the door, and I have no power to stop it"). Forbidden Planet continues to spawn Shakespearean adaptations, as in the 2005 adaptation by the Blackfriar's Stage Company of Return to the Forbidden Planet, a musical spoof that combines science fiction, with rock n' roll, and an adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest

The film was nominated for an Oscar and Gene Roddenberry admitted to its influence on his own Star Trek TV series, with the idea of beaming down via teleporters having been "filched" directly from the film. Moreover, the imaginary range of the adaptation, sophisticated musical score, the clever analogues to Shakespeare's characters (including Robbie the Robot as Ariel and the monstrous power of the Id as Caliban), and the critical eye towards 50s notions of family as embodied in Morbius's odd relations with his daughter Altaira, all point to a film that did not sacrifice content for focus on filmic special effects or technology. Its influence as one of the great if not the most influential early science fiction films is significant––and this cannot be separated from its genesis in Shakespearean adaptation.

For example, Joss Whedon's 2005 film Serenity, features a planet called Miranda that has been destroyed by the Alliance's desire to create a perfect society. The Alliance introduces a drug called Pax (Peace), which produces people incapable of desire to the point that they voluntarily die from not caring about anything. In a small percentage of Miranda's population Pax produces extraordinary violence that includes cannibalism (which creates the fearsome intergalactic marauders known as the Reavers). There is no coincidence that Miranda gives birth to fearsome cannibals (Calibans), a nifty play on the following exchange from The Tempest:

PROSPERO:
Thou most lying slave,
Whom stripes may move, not kindness! I have
used thee,
Filth as thou art, with human care, and lodged thee
In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate
The honour of my child.

CALIBAN:
O ho, O ho! would't had been done!
Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else
This isle with Calibans.

That the unthinkingly violent, cannibalistic Reavers enact the worst aspects of some deeply internalized form of humanity echoes the mostrous Id that terrorizes the denizens of Altair in Forbidden Planet. 35 million people die on Miranda as a result of the experiment, a clever echo and ironic comment on Miranda's infamous "brave new world" comment in The Tempest (5.1).

"How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in't!"

Serenity's clever use of language reinforces its connection to Shakespearean influences and is yet another rich intertext to Forbidden Planet's legacy. Whedon has considerable script-writing skills as evidenced in his TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which also has its share of Shakespearean referents), have been linked to Shakespeare and Tolkien: "not only is Serenity about something, it's also extremely well written. Joss Whedon has invented a kind of weird future slang that is still perfectly intelligible but is different, with snatches of foreign languages and obsolete English words that make it clear that it's not ordinary English they're speaking. The effect of this––at least in Whedon's deft hands––is to allow himself something of the kind of heroic language that was possible for Shakespeare––and for Tolkien. It allows him to be eloquent (Serenity).

The Wikipedia entry for Serenity remarks that "Several references to the movie Forbidden Planet exist, including the name of the failed colony, Miranda (the name of Prospero's daughter in The Tempest, which Forbidden Planet is based upon), and the vessel labeled C57D, which was the name of the main spacecraft in Forbidden Planet."

Yet more connections to Shakespeare are in evidence in the movie and the culture out of which it grew. When the Fox network cancelled Whedon's enormously popular series Firefly on which the movie Serenity is based, Whedon "vowed to revive the show and bring them all back. He [then] proceeded to give the group regular updates and they stayed close, even gathering at Whedon's home for weekend readings of Shakespeare" (Dream Takes Flight). Moreover, River, the psychic warrior girl who is the key to the Miranda mystery is held captive on the planet Ariel, and one of the episodes from the TV series Firefly (which preceded the film) is actually called "Ariel."

Two further Shakespearean notes:

Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays the malevolent assassin "The Operative" is a British-trained Shakespearean actor. That training gives his characterization an edge that is more than convincing on the big screen.

And the punch line: Captain Malcolm Reynolds in both the TV series and the film is played by Canadian/Edmonton-born Nathan Fillion, thus confirming a deep pattern already in place in how popular culture not only expects but also recycles Canadians or Shakespeareans (or both) in such roles––a pattern we see originating in Forbidden Planet. The connections we describe here merely reinforce the ways in which popular culture recirculates Shakespearean energies.

Video Clip: "Miranda"
In this clip, Altaira (Anne Francis) the film's Miranda-figure is introduced to Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen) and his crew.

Video Clip: "Caliban"
This climactic scene between Leslie Nielsen and Walter Pidgeon reveals that the "Caliban" monster that has killed all the settlers on Altair-IV and a number of Commander Adams's crew is a material projection of Professor Morbius's sub-conscious.

 

Battlestar Galactica (1978)

"The pilot to this series, the biggest budgeted of that time, originally was released theatrically in Canada and Europe in the summer of 1978 in a 125-minute version, and in most cases outgrossed Star Wars in terms of box-office receipts. Months later, in September, the uncut 148-minute pilot premiered on ABC with spectacular ratings, but as the series continued they slid as the writing declined and the budget restrictions meant that the established special effects shots were overplayed into tedium. Star Wars creator George Lucas sued the producers for plagiarism, and in April of 1979 the network executives cancelled the still strong-rated show in a failed attempt to position Mork and Mindy into a more lucrative time slot. A month later, the theatrical version of the pilot was finally released to U.S. theatres" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battlestar_Galactica#Original).


Star Trek Links:

Iotia: Deep Space 93: Canada Invades Star Trek
Star Trek: The Canadian Generation
"William Shatner." Canadian Science Fiction
"Christopher Plummer." Canadian Science Fiction
"James Doohan." Canadian Science Fiction
Shakespeare Online: "To Bardly Go..."
Shakespeare in Star Trek
Shakespeare and Star Trek
Star Trek and Literature
Surfing with the Bard: The Undiscover'd Country
Acting Advice from Shakespeare and Shatner
The Kingon Language Institute: The Klingon Hamlet
The Klingon Language Institute: Much Ado About Nothing
If Shakespeare Wrote Star Trek
Frogstar: Star Trek Fan Page
Poor Yorick's Star Trek Reference Download

Forbidden Planet Links:

"Leslie Nielsen." Canadian Science Fiction
"Walter Pidgeon." Canadian Science Fiction
The Unofficial Forbidden Planet Home Page
Tashiro, Charles. "The Essay." The Unofficial Forbidden Planet Home Page
Forbidden Planet.org

Battlestar Galactica Links:

"Battlestar Galactica." Wikipedia
"Lorne Greene." Canadian Science Fiction
SCIFI.com: Battlestar Galactica

Star Trek is Copyright Paramount Pictures / Viacom 1996-2004. No copyright infringement is intended. 'Star Trek' , 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' , 'Star Trek: Deep Space Nine' , 'Star Trek: Voyager' and 'Star Trek: Enterprise' are registered trademarks of Paramount Pictures, a Viacom company. Star Trek pictures and multimedia within the Great Link are also the property of Paramount Pictures. The copyright for pictures and multimedia for other TV shows remains with their respective copyright holders. This page is strictly for academic, non-profit usage.

Online Anthology | Spotlight | Database | Interviews | Bibliography | Essays | Multimedia | Links | About CASP | Shakespeare News | Interactive Folio | Learning Commons