Pondering The Mystery Of William Shatner


The legendary actor’s most personal recording – a look at life and seemingly imminent death – celebrates its tenth anniversary.

It’s astonishing to think that William  Shatner’s Ponder the Mystery – a prog rock album in which the star confronts his own mortality in a remarkably honest and – as it seemed at the time – imminent way is now a decade old, and Shatner is still living and, it would seem, in fine fettle at the age of 92. That there is now a tenth-anniversary remix of the album seems to make a mockery of its very concept, but it fits nicely with what has always been a frankly bizarre secondary career.

Shatner’s musical work has long been the stuff of ridicule, since his first album at the end of the 1960s, with his oddball delivery of popular songs – a heavily dramatised spoken word interpretation – being constantly mocked. But since he returned to recording at the turn of the millennium, a funny thing has happened. While the mainstream critics still invariably sneer at his work (often without actually listening to it), Shatner has produced a series of fascinating records that both bring a new level to well-known songs and reveal a human, self-reflective side to the man – an interesting twist for an actor who has long been criticised as a rampant egotist. That his work has taken in heavy metal and indie pop music is remarkable (making him, together with Christopher Lee, one of the oldest frontmen to have performed metal music) – that he’s done it so well is more amazing still. Listen to his stunning cover of Pulp’s Common People from Has Been and try to tell me that it isn’t an astonishing, passionate, epic work that puts the original recording to shame. This is epic, dramatic, powerful stuff that feels like a classical theatrical performance.

Ponder the Mystery is one of several albums that see Shatner take on different musical styles with a variety of noted backing musicians. This one sees him move into prog rock and is notable for only containing original material – all lyrics are by Shatner, with music by Yes member Billy Sherwood. That immediately removes the possibility of a ‘camp’ cover version for people to chortle at and brings a sense of personal emotion to the songs.

Prog rock is actually perfect for Shatner’s style, given the history of narration and spoken word on prog albums. It must be said that Sherwood’s music is very much prog-lite – more pomp, in fact, or perhaps light jazz, lacking the ferocity or complexity of an Emerson, Lake and Palmer or any other classic 1970s prog act. That’s not entirely a bad thing – this is, after all, Shatner’s album and the music is designed to highlight what is, effectively, his poetry rather than overwhelm it with quasi-orchestral excess.


The album is, in classic prog style, a conceptual piece that follows the emotional journey of a man who is facing his own mortality – something the then 82-year-old Shatner must have been able to relate to only too well. It feels like a brave move to stare death in the face so boldly, as on the track So Am I, where the narrator talks with sad affection about his pet dog: “And now he’s old and stiff and sore / And getting ready to die / And when I look at him with love / I realise… so am I”.

Themes of mortality run through Where It’s Gone… I Don’t Know and the confessional Deep Down (“Deep Down I’m afraid… Deep Down everything scares me”) but the album isn’t excessively morbid – if this was the last act of a man looking back on his life (and as it turns out, it was far from the end), then he’s doing so with affection, a sense of wonder and – significantly – a sense of humour. There’s certainly a tongue-in-cheek element to some of the album, with Shatner playing up and satirising his infamous stop-start delivery and emphasising the rather oddball nature of his poetry (“a parrot can be offered a carrot but a stick will do”). It’s fair to say that Shatner’s poems will probably never make a school syllabus, but there’s something charming and eccentric about his sometimes rather child-like references that makes the more personal and emotive moments all the more affecting.

Imagine Things discusses irrational fears and I’m Alright, I Think takes a positive spin on ageing – looking at the positives of still being alive rather than the fear of death, and the positives living for the moment. Where Does the Time Go? looks back, without bitterness, on the fleeting nature of existence, and the album closer Alive brings a sense of joy that the narrator/Shatner has been searching for throughout the album. This isn’t a bleak album and the finale suggests that we should take joy in our lives rather than fretting about ageing and dying.


While the bulk of the music is performed by Sherwood’s band Circa, each track has guest performers – and it’s a stellar bunch of names – if a listing of backing musicians that regular listeners to Cleopatra Records will be very familiar with. George Duke, Mick Jones, Steve Vai, Rick Wakeman, Robby Krieger, Nik Turner, Edgar Winter, Edgar Froese and others enhance the songs with sympathetic, sometimes pivotal contributions. Their presence perhaps lends a certain prog credibility to the project, but in reality, it doesn’t need it – this is genuinely astonishing stuff in its own right. A bizarre hybrid of styles, certainly, but one that oddly works thanks to Shatner’s strange sense of honesty.

Here’s the thing –  Shatner could have easily just knocked out another album of ironic covers – or could’ve just stayed home altogether. It’s not as if he needs the money. That he opened up to make this undeniably eccentric and rather brilliant album is a testament to his need to keep creating. I’ll take this over the continued bitter sniping from the sidelines from talentless ex-Star Trek second-stringers any day. Shatner might not be a nice man – but he has more self-awareness and talent than those who like to bitch about him could ever hope to have.

Like the best conceptual pieces, Ponder the Mystery works best as a whole – the lyrics and music combining and evolving to tell an emotionally raw and uplifting story of a man who is simply glad to be alive. Ten years on, Shatner is still with us and still making music – let’s hope he has plenty more years left, and more albums to make.



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