Why William Shatner Is Fascinated By History's The UnXplained And Its Mysteries

william shatner the unxplained

When it comes to tackling the unknown on television, William Shatner is a seasoned veteran. From exploring outer space on Star Trek to digging into real-world mysteries on projects such as Weird or What? and Mysteries of the Gods, the fan-favorite icon has enjoyed quite a mind-expanding career. Currently, Shatner serves as the host and executive producer for History's The UnXplained. The always engaging series recently returned for the back half of Season 2, and the Emmy-winning actor had a lengthy conversation with CinemaBlend about the show and its thought-provoking subject matter.

With episodes devoted to "The Greatest Escapes" and "Superhuman Senses," The UnXplained wastes zero runtime and packs each installment with topics that audiences may or may not be familiar with, but will be fascinated by nonetheless. When I congratulated William Shatner on heading up such an intriguing series, he offered quite the introspective response, saying:

That's the perfect word and I've been using it. The show is intriguing. We're all fascinated by mystery. I was looking at a picture of a newborn baby curled up against its mother's chest, looking at the mother's face. Now, the baby was days old; I don't even know whether it could see or not. But what it was looking like, to me, was that the baby was looking at his mother's face with fascination. 'What is that? What is the mystery of this, the warm skin?' The baby wasn't frightened; it was just looking with awe at the mother's face. And I think that awe of the mysteries of life stay with us, all of us. There are many of us who live in awe of the mystery of everything. That's what this show pertains to.

Across all of The UnXplained's episodes that have aired so far, the show has delved into myriad mysteries involving prophecies, weather phenomena, extreme tales of survival, "evil" locations and much more. Rather than trying to deliver hardline answers and explanations, however, the History series prefers to keep things ambiguous, allowing interview subjects to share their opinions and theories without holding them up as "right" or "wrong." Unlike other more fantastical shows of this nature, or even some of History's scripted series, The UnXplained (thankfully) stays rooted in reality in its approach, while still holding onto the idea there is so much about this world and its inhabitants that humans just haven't figured out yet.

I asked William Shatner if he formulates his own theories about situations and events that get covered on The UnXplained, or if he prefers to enjoy the mystery of it all. Perhaps unsurprisingly, here's how he answered:

Yes, that's lovely. It's exactly right. You can offer possible explanations... But there needs to be – not worship – but there needs to be a glory that gives our life its spice. The spice of life is the mystery of life. First of all, the fact that you're alive. Second of all, that you can apprehend the glory of nature and the glory of your body. And then third, that these mystical things like the universe mean something so strange, that there's another entity out there. It doesn't have to be God, but something happened! What is that mystery? You've got to live life on the edge of awe and wonder.

During our talk, William Shatner referred to two books he'd recently been reading that served as perfect examples for how much is still unknown about the world we live in. For one, he cited Robert Macfarlane's 2019 work Underland: A Deep Time Journey, which dives below the surface (metaphorically and literally) for an extensive look back at the history of the human-impacted world beneath our feet, touching upon mysteries involving cave-writings, sub-glacial climates, mines, the Paris catacombs and more. As well, Shatner spoke highly of Patrick Svensson's highly acclaimed and recently published The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creatures in the Natural World, which explores the centuries-old yearning to understand a creature that seems ostensibly simple, though is anything but that.

For a more specific exampled tied to The UnXplained itself, William Shatner talked about one of the central topics within the "Greatest Escapes" episode: the infamous 1962 prisoner escape from Alcatraz island. (No, not the short-lived Fox series.) While it's largely known how the escapees – Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin – went about planning their escape attempt, seemingly no one knows what happened to them after they made it into the cold waters of the San Francisco Bay. But their eventual fates aren't what captivates Shatner the most about the case. In his words:

The UnXplained hovers over these things, like the escape from Alcatraz and whether they escaped or not. But it isn't so much the escape, and whether they did it or not. What, to me, is the mystery is they're in this jail, they're getting two meals a day, and it can't be unspeakable whatever happens to them. What is unspeakable is their desire to get away, so much so that they'll risk being eaten by a shark. Can you imagine anything more monstrous? The stuff of nightmares when this thing opens its jaw and doesn't take your head off right away so you're unconscious, but it takes your arm off. And you're trying to swim without your arm, bleeding, and you're screaming, and then it comes back and takes your leg off. Now you can't skip, you can't move your [body], and then it comes back and you see it, and your last moment is seeing these teeth as it wrings your head from off your body. What could be more monstrous? You tell somebody that, and they'll say, 'Shit, I'm not gonna go and jump in the water.'

William Shatner's eloquently gory description of a shark attack is just one hazardous fate that Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers had to know they could potentially face by going through with their escape plans. (Not to mention the thought of getting caught and facing presumably severe punishments within the already brutal penitentiary.) Before they could even get to sharks, though, they had to face the concept of a 1.25-mile swim through harsh conditions. Shatner spoke to that idea as well, saying:

And it's not like you're going across the desert, and you think, 'Well, if I could just survive without water long enough, I'll get to the other end.' This is a thing nobody has ever escaped, and they know the reasons why: it's cold and there are sharks and currents which, we now know, sweep you under the bridge because of the lay of the land. There are canyons underneath the bridge that focus the water from the Bay upon either the tides coming in or the tides going out. There are ferocious ten-miles-an-hour currents you can't swim against. We now know that to be the case. What could they be thinking? . . . They look at their raincoats that had glue on them to put them together, and they say, 'Well this should work. Or maybe this won't, and if this comes apart when we get in the water, what do we do?' It's crazy.

To that end, even if researchers did ascertain what happened to the three Alcatraz escapees, it wouldn't make their decisions and mind frames any less baffling. In a similar sense, it probably wouldn't make for a blockbuster experience for the next Sherlock Holmes movie to focus on the world-famous detective trying to figure out the truth behind Harry Houdini's waterfall escapes, or the various unknowns involving eels and other sea creatures, but that definitely doesn't make those subjects any less intriguing. There are mysteries everywhere if you know where to look, and The UnXplained is here to guide you to them.

Stay tuned to CinemaBlend for more from my interview with William Shatner, and be sure to catch new episodes of The UnXplained airing on History Channel every Saturday night at 9:00 ET. It's no mystery what other new and returning shows will be popping up on TV in the near future though, since those can be found in our Summer 2020 TV schedule and our Fall 2020 TV premiere guide.

Nick Venable
Assistant Managing Editor

Nick is a Cajun Country native and an Assistant Managing Editor with a focus on TV and features. His humble origin story with CinemaBlend began all the way back in the pre-streaming era, circa 2009, as a freelancing DVD reviewer and TV recapper.  Nick leapfrogged over to the small screen to cover more and more television news and interviews, eventually taking over the section for the current era and covering topics like Yellowstone, The Walking Dead and horror. Born in Louisiana and currently living in Texas — Who Dat Nation over America’s Team all day, all night — Nick spent several years in the hospitality industry, and also worked as a 911 operator. If you ever happened to hear his music or read his comics/short stories, you have his sympathy.