For more than half of his life, actor William Shatner has been on a mythical mission "to boldly go where no man has gone before." Though he no longer commands the Starship Enterprise, the 82-year-old poet and TV pitchman is still visiting bizarre worlds. His most recent? That oddball realm of prog rock.
His concept album, "Ponder the Mystery," finds the man formerly known as Capt. James T. Kirk supported by a new crew that wields musical instruments rather than phasers. They include former members of the band Yes — Tony Kaye, Billy Sherwood and Rick Wakeman.
Shatner's reason for the new journey is quite simple: He wanted to find a fresh forum in which to showcase his poetry. Apparently, others beyond Yes thought it was a good idea too. The record includes appearances by country guitar ace Vince Gill, arena rocker Mick Jones of Foreigner and jazz fusion keyboardist George Duke.
"The spoken word, I've always felt, is music," said Shatner, his speech punctuated with the same dramatically rhythmic pauses that have made him instantly recognizable, regardless of the role. Capt. Kirk, police Sgt. T.J. Hooker, lawyer Denny Crane on "Boston Legal" and the celebrated Priceline.com pitchman all share that same halting cadence with Shatner the Poet.
Shatner has recorded before, sometimes just for the fun of it, as on his 1968 camp classic album "Transformer Man," and sometimes with a more serious musical agenda, as with his 2004 collaboration with musician-composer Ben Folds for their album "Has Been."
He's even had fun "recording cover songs where the lyric wasn't appropriate, like when I did [Color Me Badd's 1991 pop-R&B hit] 'I Wanna Sex You Up' on the [MTV] Video Music Awards. All I did was recite the lyrics," he said.
"But that's the ambition. I know I can't sustain the note to actually sing. But I have music in my soul, and I'm attempting to bring it out within the language, and along with the music."
"Ponder the Mystery," released Tuesday, is a concept album revolving around, as Shatner describes it, "a guy in despair who is living on a beach, and it takes him through the last hour of the day at sunset through twilight, into darkness and the sounds of the night in which he regains his fervor, his love of life based on the beauty of what he's seeing around him."
Unlike "Has Been," for which Shatner and Folds worked together as a songwriting team, Shatner wrote all the lyrics for the piece then handed them off to Sherwood, who composed the music.
In lining up the guest artists to flesh out the performance, Sherwood worked closely with Cleopatra Records chief Brian Perera, who invited Shatner to create a follow-up to "Seeking Major Tom," the label's 2011 album in which he recited lyrics to outer space-themed rock songs.
"We didn't want to put out another William Shatner record just for the sake of putting out a William Shatner record," Perera said in a separate interview. "But he's such a wonderful artist and creative person to work with, we wanted to figure out what we could do next.
"When you take an actor or musician and put them in a different situation," Perera said, "they react differently, and it's like they become new to the game."
For Shatner, coming up with lyrics intended for songs is a different process than writing poetry.
"I sort of lurched into a method of writing everything that comes into my head, just spewing it out," he said of his old writing method. "Then along the way, I would discover a phrase, an attitude or a word that resonates, that captures what it is I think I'm writing about. I use that word, that phrase, that line to become the entity of the song."
The story on Shatner's new album begins with the central character in something of an existential crisis as he examines the fabric of his life for some meaning. It's punctuated by Shatner's dark, heavily dramatic and angsty voice. By the end of the song cycle, however, the tone becomes considerably lighter, even joyful.
"I keep saying to people, 'I hope it's as good as I say it is.' I need the audience to tell me that. It's one thing to think you're good," he said, "but the public tells you whether you're any good."
He'll get the chance with three live performances he'll give in Southern California venues at the end of the month: Oct. 23 at Saint Rocke in Hermosa Beach, Oct. 24 at the Canyon Club in Agoura Hills and Oct. 25 at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano. He'll be accompanied by Circa, the prog-rock band that includes Sherwood and Kaye along with bassist Rick Tierney and drummer Scott Connor. They plan to perform the "Ponder the Mystery" album in its entirety, all 15 songs from start to finish.
"It's a whole new venture," he said, sounding like a certain starship commander once again on the prowl for new life and new civilizations. "I have no idea what to expect."
William Shatner & Circa
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 23
Where: Sainte Rocke, 142 Pacific Coast Highway, Hermosa Beach
Information: Saintrocke.com; (310) 372-0035
Also: 9 p.m. Oct 24
Where: Canyon Club, Agoura Hills
Information: http://www.canyonclub.net; (818) 879-5016
Also 9 p.m. Oct. 25
Where: The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano
Information: http://www.thecoachhouse.com; (949) 496-8930