Where Every Man's Gone Before

If you want to be straight about it, Captain Kirk, not Picard, got there first. "William Shatner in...William Shakespeare's...Julius Caesar," he once enthused, pitching a complete-text production ("like Branagh") in which he would play all the roles, meaning both Caesar and Brutus; "I'll stab myself in the back," Shatner insisted at the time. (Calpurnia, however, was a part he reserved for Sharon Stone or his T.J. Hooker co-star Heather Locklear.) In the end, the project was aborted, and Shatner wound up on a soundstage performing only a single song from his proposed epic: a hip-hop number called "No Tears for Caesar," which he rendered while dressed in period costume and gangsta gold. So it was only a running gag in a movie about the Trek-obsessed (1999's Free Enterprise), but at least Shatner had sense to realize what he was proposing was the "height of hubris." When Patrick Stewart proposed a King Lear set in the newly minted Texas during the days after the Alamo, he was dead-on serious. And all it took was but a glass of wine with producer Robert Halmi to seal the deal.

There's nothing terribly wrong with King of Texas, this Wild West take penned by ex-Texas Monthly writer Stephen Harrigan; it would seem impossible to destroy such an unassailable piece of work, though even masters have done so (Jean-Luc Godard's version, starring Norman Mailer and Woody Allen in bit roles, is the most untenable of the revolutionary's films). It's just a slight bit of work, a retrofitted Bonanza with three women (Marcia Gay Harden, Lauren Holly and Julie Cox) and the ghost of a dead son; and John Lear's land, which devours most of the newborn state, might as well be the Ponderosa. The biggest kick comes in hearing Shakespeare's poetry reduced to West Texas slang: The serpent (as in, "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child," actually the title of an animated Star Trek episode) becomes a "danged rattlesnake," and Goneril (renamed Susannah and played by Harden) dismisses her betrayal of her father by insisting, "It needed doin'." I believe it was Iago who put it best: "Well, sheee-it."

Stewart, veteran of copious Shakespeare productions, squeezes every drop of melodrama from the part of John Lear, the cantankerous geezer with a heart of stone ready to divvy up his land among his daughters. Problem is, beneath wispy white wig and behind Rio-Grande-on-Yorkshire accent, he's still Captain Picard--an imperious crank. And we're reminded of the Trek connection every time Colm Meaney (Chief O'Brien from Next Generation) steps on screen. Meaney and Patrick Bergin, both Irishmen loath to lose the accents, might even have been cast to render Stewart's accent more palatable; Roy Scheider likewise sounds about as Texan as Rudy Giuliani, while Steven Bauer, as Mexican rancher Menchaca, apparently thinks he's still shooting Scarface. In all, make it so-so.

Or maybe it was inevitable yet another U.S.S. Enterprise captain would want to tackle the Bard, seeing as how Shakespeare used to run rampant through that show and that ship. There's even a Web site titled Shakespeare in Star Trek (http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Forum/5462/bardtrek.html), which documents dozens of instances of specific and suggested allusions, from titles of episodes ("Dagger of the Mind," "The Conscience of the King," "All Our Yesterdays") to direct quotations (in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Dr. McCoy channels Hamlet by insisting, "Angels and ministers of grace, defend us!") to performances of plays (during Next Gen's "The Defector," Data stages a scene from Henry V). Hell, half of the dialogue from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is culled from Shakespeare; no fewer than eight plays are ripped off. And, historians have discovered, Romeo's name in an earlier manuscript was Mr. Spock, so, like, there you go.