The Time SNL Boldly Went Where No One Had Gone Before

Everyone remembers William Shatner telling Trekkers to get a life, but do you remember when Khan shut the Enterprise down for a health code violation?

In 1986, William Shatner hosted Saturday Night Live and mercilessly poked fun at the franchise that made him famous in what is still one of my favorite SNL sketches of all time.

No, not the one you're thinking of.

The convention sketch is a well-remembered classic with good reason. Its "get a life" twist was genuinely shocking (and here I will humblebrag that I was in the studio audience for this episode, snuck in by a friend's mother who had connections and an endless willingness to indulge her nerd son and his nerd friends, and while I was only eleven and don't remember much, I do remember gasping at that line); it's a perfectly constructed little bit of setup, joke, get the hell out, which SNL has never been great at. But it's also...kind of mean? Thirty years later, we bandy about the phrase "nerd culture," and as I write this San Diego Comic-Con is the biggest event happening right now, and there's something about the comedy nerds poking fun at the Star Trek nerds that makes me a feel a little bit bad about laughing at this one (though I still do).

But later in the episode, after Weekend Update, comes "The Restaurant Enterprise."

From the get-go, this sketch has an entirely different vibe from "Trekkers," with a premise that's 100% goofy: the Enterprise has been purchased by the Marriott Corporation (weirdly specific) and turned into a rotating restaurant. We see Kevin Nealon as Spock and Phil Hartman as McCoy fully committing to the bit of these two beloved characters waiting tables. One gets the sense that Nealon has maybe never seen Star Trek before, but that Hartman absolutely has. His "Dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor, not a-- oh, oh sure" in response to a choking customer gets me every time.

And then there's Shatner, who completely, un-self-consciously makes fun of himself. He could have shown restraint rather than call attention to the hammier aspects of his TV and film performances, but he goes for it with...full relish.

The sketch drags in the middle (nowadays they don't seem to know how to end things; in this era it was getting from setup to punchline that was the problem), and the running gag about Sulu putting on weight is funny in its weirdness until you consider that its only there because Akira Yoshimura was a production designer on the show and I guess the only Asian they could find in all of New York City somehow?

But then we get to the point: Dana Carvey arrives as Khan. Considering Shatner was on SNL to promote Star Trek IV, two whole movies too late for this to be topical, I wonder if this whole sketch only exists because Carvey wanted to break out this shtick. It's perfect in every particular. The wig, the costume ([nerd]unlike the crew's TOS costumes[/nerd]) the pointing, the sneering, the "What IS that accent?" over-pronunciation. Carvey's clear delight in saying "Kark" and holding all his S-es is the only thing with more joy than Shatner's self-deprecating schmacting. In the same way Carvey's George H.W. Bush penetrated the culture, I fully believe any Star Trek fan who saw this sketch even once is, on some level, doing Carvey's Khan when they quote Star Trek II.

Shatner has a (fairly well-earned) reputation for self-seriousness, especially in the pre-Priceline-commercial '80s, so it's nice to see him poke fun at himself here. And sure, the sketch could have been a little harder on the show and its tropes -- it's odd that we spend all that time with Nora Dunn's unsatisfied customer and Kirk never tries to...satisfy her -- but they'd already done mean once. On SNL, as in my favorite classic Trek episodes, silly wins.

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