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Merrick Explores STAR TREK: THE ACADEMY YEARS!!

You are now receiving a communique from Merrick, sent during his eternal quest for the perfect tag line…

Before we go any further, you should be warned that…unless you’re a pretty serious STAR TREK fan…or you’re seriously into the “what could have beens” of big Hollywood projects that were once on the drawing board but never got made…this article is almost certainly not for you. CLICKING HERE will return you to AICN’s main page.

Also, this article is really, really long. "My fingers are numb with pain" kind of long. You can still be returned to AICN's main page by CLICKING HERE.

With that out of the way, here’s a look at a frequently referenced STAR TREK theatrical project whose very premise inspires ridicule and hatred whenever it’s mentioned. By now, this production is almost certainly defunct. Note I said “ALMOST” certainly. As recently as a few years ago, it was still being bandied about. This script has been repeatedly proposed and, for a variety of logistical or political reasons, repeatedly rejected. But this is Hollywood, and stranger rebirths have happened, so never say never.

With this vague possibility in mind…


KNOW YE THAT THERE BE EXTREME SPOILERS AHEAD!!! TURN BACK NOW, OR FOREVER HOLD YOUR PEACE!!!


OK. Here we go…


WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT, MERRICK?

Firstly, this is not the recently commissioned (and rejected) screenplay by BAND OF BROTHERS’ Erik Jendersen. I’ve been trying to get my hands on that one for some time, and all roads lead to nowhere. The script we’re talking about here has been around for quite a while.

Its concept is broadly referred to by fans as “STARFLEET ACADEMY”, but this moniker is not accurate. The script is called STAR TREK: THE ACADEMY YEARS.

Back in the late 1980s, THE ACADEMY YEARS was written by David Loughery (STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER) for then TREK overlord Harve Bennett.

Bennett produced TREK movies II, III, IV, and V – and is credited (as a writer) on TREKs III and IV (although he did some uncredited work on THE WRATH OF KAHN as well, if memory serves).

STAR TREK V is a film whose ambitions were undercut by Paramount’s increasing lack for support for the “Classic” TREK franchise (with greater attention being afforded the then white-hot NEXT GENERATION.) Budget cuts and conceptual dampening burdened the movie with a decidedly clunky quality. Ironically, TREK V also represents what many fans believe to be the truest expression of the Classic Era characters. It was very much a mixed bag; TREK at both its weakest and strongest.

Recognizing a need for “reinvention”, Bennett approached Paramount with a proposal: Prequelize the original STAR TREK series via THE ACADEMY YEARS concept. Dramatize how the “Classic” characters, and the universe they occupy, became what we saw in THE ORIGINAL SERIES. This concept was green lighted, but scuttled during a regime change at Paramount.

Bennett stepped away. A different sequel, STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (the final film to feature the entire original cast), was mastered by other producers. The theatrical franchise was subsequently inherited by the controversial Rick Berman.


ISN’T THIS THE BEAUTIFUL TEENS, “TOP GUN”’ STAR TREK EVERYONE IS SO AFRAID OF?

Yes, it is. But THE ACADEMY YEARS isn’t about posing hunks, teens cavorting, or rock music blaring. It has certain TOP GUN elements, but no more so than any of the numerous military training/coming of age movies that have been made.

It most closely resembles TOP GUN in structure: Brash young loose cannon (Kirk) goes to the academy, meets a girl, gets into trouble, whips up a few shenanigans, is pressed into unexpected action, and proves his value to the system via a trial by fire.

Despite such conceits, this is VERY much a “true” STAR TREK script – throwing the hard core series philosophy into settings we’ve never seen fully realized before. Indeed, THE ACADEMY YEARS is about STAR TREK becoming STAR TREK, and heroes becoming the heroes they don’t consider themselves to be.


WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

STAR TREK: THE ACADEMY YEARS begins as TOS (movie) era McCoy addresses a Starfleet commencement. After his speech, several cadets corner the good doctor, who is standing alone, gazing into a reflecting pool. They nervously ask him about Kirk and Spock.

SECOND CADET: What were they like?

FIRST CADET: Were they friends?

McCOY: FRIENDS? I never met two less likely candidates for friendship in my entire life. That surprises you, doesn’t it? Well, it’s the gospel truth. They were as different as night and day. As Vulcan…and Iowa.

WOSH! We flashback to IOWA, which feels a lot like Smallville, where Sam Kirk is mortified by his brother Jim’s reckless shenanigans in a futuristic crop duster.

JIM: You worry too much!

SAM: That’s because you don’t worry at all!

Young Jim Kirk is the reckless son of a reckless father. Jim has little interested in an Earthbound existence, and yearns to attend Starfleet Academy. This doesn’t seem likely though – he’s scheduled to attend Agricultural school soon.

But he gets a message from Starfleet…he’s been accepted! One of 100 recruits. He leaves for the Academy without the blessings of his mother or brother, who are afraid Jim will get swept up in a brewing galactic conflict (more on this below), or meet with the same fate as his father (more on this below, too.) Kirk leaves Iowa, walking alone into a bigger world.

ON VULCAN: Young Spock is being confronted by an associate named Shardik, who is trying to convince him to decline his acceptance to Starfleet Academy on Earth. No Vulcan has ever gone through Starfleet. He’ll be alone. But he’s already alone…

SHARDIK: Your decision in this matter is not logical.

SPOCK: On the contrary. It is logic that tells me I do not belong here.

Kirk arrives in San Francisco (home of Starfleet Academy), and immediately gets lost. A country boy with a ruck sack on his shoulder, the big city folk dismiss him out of hand. He can’t even get directions to the Academy. He finally manages to get there, via a speeder bike ride from a fiery chick named CASSANDRA HIGHTOWER, who becomes a love interest later in the film.

Kirk makes it to the Academy, instantly gets into a dust-up with a dude named KALIBAR.

KALIBAR: We wouldn’t want to get into a fight on our first day.

KIRK: What would we have to look forward to?

This is a prophetic exchange; Kirk and Kalibar will eventually clash. Bigtime.

Kirk’s room mate in the academy is an older inductee named Leonard McCoy. Kirk hates the name Leonard, sticks him with the name “Bones”.

Also hanging around the Academy: An Engineering Officer who has been consigned to teaching, over his rather loud objections. The guy’s name is Montgomery Scott. “Scotty”. He’s been part of a Starfleet propulsion program for years – aimed at utilizing Dilithium crystals in Warp engines. Seems contemporary Warp speed takes hours to attain. Dilithium makes Warp speed instantaneous.

Scotty knew Kirk’s father.

SCOTTY: Are you any relation to George Kirk?

JIM: George Kirk was my father.

SCOTTY: I dinna know George had a family.

JIM: Neither did George.

Turns out, George Kirk was also working on the Dilithium project with Scotty – he piloted a test ship, called Bonaventure, which disappeared without a trace during its first Dilithium-fueled Warp jump. Scotty shows Kirk his stash of Dilithuim, which is sitting around unused, and useless. All of this will be important in the script’s finale.

Academy “settling in” antics ensue. Pushy drill instructors, Kirk gets busted and cleans toilets, etc. But there’s a problem at the Academy – the same problem which threatens to catapult the galaxy into civil war. Seems the “enlightenment” exalted by characters in THE ORIGINAL SERIES hasn’t come about just yet (evidence of this exists in several TOS episodes, including “Balance of Terror”, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”, and “Bread and Circuses”)

Racism, bigotry, and slavery are still powerful forces across the galaxy in this time. “Red bloods”, “Green bloods”, etc. are delineations that are not only still noted, but acted upon by many. They are differences that are still feared.

Some believe it’s up to the Federation to impose more sophisticated values (opposing slavery, etc.) on worlds that haven’t “caught up”. Others believe that it’s no one’s place to push morality on anyone, and that upsetting such social constructs will cause shockwaves of socio-economic repercussions that will destabilize the galaxy. Treaties are in the works…the Federation is involved…ambassadors are in town for meetings…military intervention is in the air. What will happen is anyone’s guess.

As such, Spock arrives at the Academy with no particular amount of acceptance. He came to find a place he belongs. Instead, he is no more at home here than he was back on Vulcan. Spock even finds himself abducted and brutally mutilated by HOODED CADETS. He is rescued by Kirk, who never really thought about issues like equality, bigotry, and freedom – but is now being forced to confront them head on. He’s being forced to grow. They all are.

Turns out, Kalibar (the guy who Kirk bumped into when he got to Starfleet) is a prince from an alien world whose economy is driven by slavery. He’s one of the guys who kidnapped and messed up Spock. As punishment, he’s expelled from the Academy, leaving in a flourish. At roughly the same time, Kalibar learns that his father, the King, was killed in an uprising back home. Everything in Kalibar’s universe is falling apart. Or, perhaps it’s going just the way he wants it to…

ELSEWHERE: KODARIS, an alien ambassador from Kalibar’s world, signs an anti-slavery proclamation! No one at Starfleet is sure how to react. But Kalibar is pissed.

STARFLEET. Kirk and Cassandra make love, silhouetted against the stars in a zero-gravity space simulator. A weightless dance. We learn that Cassandra is also a cadet, gunning for captaincy like Kirk.

“Cuts” are coming up soon. Grade and character based evaluations are being made, only 20 of the initial 100 inductees will continue to be midshipmen. And Kirk’s in trouble: His Quantum Mechanics suck and he’s close to washing out.

Quantum Mechanics being one of his better subjects, Spock mind melds with Kirk -- teaching him all he needs to know to pass the test. Kirk scores 100. So does Spock. They make the cut! Two of the 20. Cassandra get through as well.

Starfleet realizes Kirk and Spock’s essays are word-for-word identical. They confess to cheating and are confined to quarters, while Cassandra and the other new midshipmen are sent to their first training assignment.

EARTH ORBIT: Cassandra, the midshipmen, and McCoy rendezvous with their ship: “An old ship of the line, a war horse, battered and patched. Its design may not be familiar, but its name is. U.S.S. Enterprise.”

They break orbit, heading off to their training mission. But it’s not a training mission at all. In order to attract as little attention as possible, Ambassador Kodaris…the guy who signed the treaty abolishing slavery on Kalibar’s world…has been spirited aboard the currently low-profile Enterprise, commanded by CAPTAIN GEOFFREY THORPE. Their “training” is to take him home. The crew is apprehensive as hell. So many things could go wrong. And everything does.

KALIBAR ATTACKS, immediately disabling Enterprise. Cutting her off from communications with Earth. Kalibar wants to kill the Ambassador – he blames him for screwing up the way of life back home. If Enterprise gives up the Ambassador, Kalibar will let the ship go free. Thorpe tells him no way.

EARTH: Kirk is sick of being confined to quarters and is packing to leave Starfleet altogether. He’s going to join the “merchant fleet”. As he leaves, Spock is standing in the doorway.

SPOCK: This merchant fleet – does it accept Vulcans?

They’re on the way to hand in their resignations when they hear that Enterprise has dropped communications and may be under attack. She’s a sitting duck; no way to talk to her and no way to physically reach her in time.

But Kirk has an idea…

Kirk, Scotty, and Spock steal a prototype Warp ship from the Starfleet Museum. The Bonaventure II, the sequel ship to the ship Kirk’s dad disappeared in. They load it up with Scotty’s Dilithium and fly it out of the museum. They’re off to warn Enterprise she may be attacked. But to do it in time, they’ll have to make the first successful Dilithium- Warp jump. They all doubt the sanity of this undertaking , but they do it anyway.

They arrive at Enterprise! But it’s too late. Thorpe is dead, the ship is smashed, and Cassandra is in command. Things aren’t going well. Enterprise, and her crew, are dying.

Kirk, Scotty, and Spock jump into action. If Scotty can get those damn Dilithium crystals into Enterprise’s engines…they can change the ship into a fast, maneuverable vessel Kalibar won’t, and couldn’t, expect. They might have a fighting chance.

A mammoth battle ensues, as Enterprise and Kalibar clash in a high-speed fight amongst the rings of a giant world. Dodging some ice chunks, smashing into others. Kirk chances into command of Enterprise…with Scotty in engineering, Spock feeding him information, and Bones tending to the wounded in sickbay (Nurse Chapel at his side). A new era has begun!

But not for long…

The script goes through a great deal of effort to bring the “classic” characters together, but it doesn’t take the easy way out. As the flashback concludes, the “classic” guys go their separate ways…to other ships and other adventures…fated to meet again. “Jim and Spock walk way in opposite directions, headed for a common destiny.”

BACK WITH TOS (MOVIE) ERA McCoy. His communicator beeps. It’s Scotty, asking if he’s ready to beam up now. Seems the captain’s eager to move out. McCoy excuses himself, takes one last look around.

McCOY: Beam me up, Scotty.

SPACE: The TOS (movie) era Enterprise warps away to distant stars.


SO, HOW IS IT?

The script is surprisingly solid. Frequently, it’s extremely involving. Unlike many recent permutations of STAR TREK, it has a tremendously vibrant heart and soul. It’s even genuinely moving on a few occasions.

The characters, and “vibe”, of THE ORIGINAL SERIES are unequivocally nailed here. That energy is just…there. It’s in the way the characters speak, in the cadence of their dialogue, and the flow of the story.

There’s a great deal of passion here, and a great deal of sweetness. We’ve previously been told a bit about what these characters were like in their early years, and the script nicely upholds these perceptions.

But there’s also a surprising amount of pathos. THE ACADEMY YEARS isn’t about learning the ins & outs of space adventuring as much as it’s a journey of self-discovery. It’s about growing beyond the boxes we put ourselves in, or the boxes that other people put us in. It also pile drives one of the most sublime human truths: Sometimes, the best friends we can have are the people we’d least hope to, or expect to, be our friends.

To paraphrase THE ABYSS, THE ACADEMY YEARS is about looking “with better eyes than that.”


WHAT IMPRESSES YOU MOST ABOUT THE SCRIPT?

Besides hitting the mark by creating the feel of THE ORIGINAL SERIES (and movies), what strikes me the most is the amount of time Bennett and Loughery spend exploring what makes these icons tick.

We see that ‘brash and confident’ Kirk also carries with him a certain amount of self doubt, instilled by a family who was afraid he’d meet the unfortunate fate of his father. Also, early on, he turns away from the people he loved (thus the people who love him) in order to follow his dreams. His cockiness, to some extent, seems to be his forcing past his own internal discomforts and apprehensions.

The super-logical Spock is equally flawed: Throughout THE ORIGINAL SERIES, we saw his struggle to fit in. This is poignantly illustrated in THE ACADEMY YEARS, most notably through shots of Spock sitting alone in the Starfleet cafeteria, and by a scene in which he struggles to dictate…and re-dictate…a message to his mother. After starting, stopping, over-stating his popularity, and downright lying, he deletes all versions of the message and simply sends: “I am fine” (an allusion to his “Tell her I feel fine” line in STAR TREK IV).


IF THE GUY WHO WROTE STAR TREK V WROTE THIS, WHAT KIND OF PROBLEMS DOES IT HAVE?

In general, THE ACADEMY YEARS is a much more fully realized script than THE FINAL FRONTIER. TREK V feels only partially realized…a smattering of fantastic moments that never expand to an entirety of greatness. By comparison, THE ACADEMY YEARS is more “hit” than “miss”.

Most of the “misses” rise from unfortunate doses of broad humor; the same kind of buffoonery that felt so jarring in STAR TREK V. Most of this isn’t worth nitpicking herein, but it hurts. Sometimes it hurts badly.

Fortunately, there are also a few moments of genuine comedic inspiration, as in cutaway to a slightly tipsy Spock trying to pick up a girl in a bar. ”It’s called Pon Far” he tells her. The same girl is later seen doing the Pon Far finger caress with Spock, but she’s wearing a latex glove on the hand she’s using. Awesome.

Loughery’s treatment of personality and characters is staggering, often stirring. If any subsequent drafts of this script are ever generated, all of his character material should be maintained…but someone with a little less broadness should re-approach the sillier slapstick asides. ‘Twould make a solid script truly GREAT.


SOME OF THIS PLOTLINE SOUNDS FAMILIAR! WHAT GIVES?

Many elements of THE ACADEMY YEARS seem to have been pillaged by later TREK iterations. I have no direct knowledge of this, but it’s hard to escape certain parallels between the content of this script and critical elements that popped up in later installments.

Kirk in the shadow of his father is, more or less, the same dynamic played out in ENTERPRISE (Captain Archer assuming the legacy of his daddy). Kalibar’s suicidal preoccupation with preventing change from coming to his world equals General Chang’s Machiavellian resistance in STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY. The fate of the future hinging on a successful Warp jump is, of course, a notion utilized in FIRST CONTACT.

Sure, these could all be cases of legitimate parallel development. But…

If THE ACADEMY YEARS concept is ever re-approached, some changes will have to be made so that this project doesn’t appear to be boosting other TREK endeavors (which, in actuality, may have been influenced by it!). Sigh.


WHAT IS THE STATUS OF THIS PROJECT?

As recently as a few years ago, Bennett approached Paramount about THE ACADEMY YEARS. Sherri Lancing (head of Paramount) was ready to do the project, but was asked not to by Paramount Television…who figured ENTERPRISE should be the only TREK prequel in the game.

You can read more about the history of this project (both ancient and recent) HERE.

The decision not to move forward with THE ACADEMY YEARS is terribly unfortunate. For my money, the obstacles facing the currently in-stasis franchise have nothing to do with the presence of “too much STAR TREK”, as some believe.

TREK’s diminishing audience happened because fans and laymen alike were sick of lifeless, bland, and safe storytelling that took no chances, and never came to life. Series and movies became visually flat, kinetically dull, and aurally muted (compare the way music is used in THE WRATH OF KAHN to any “sonic wallpaper” score in VOYAGER or ENTERPRISE). The camera became increasingly locked down...colors became more and more drab.

Above all, TREK derailed when it ceased to be about “all of us”, and became insular in its scope and ambition. It looked in on itself for inspiration, instead of reaching out to our world. And, most importantly, reaching out to our spirits.

People are not perfect, yet characters stopped making mistakes. Life is vibrant, yet shows were edited like news casts. Adventure is waiting, and limitless, yet how long has it been since STAR TREK took us “Where no one has gone before”?

Some people say there are no more good TREK stories to tell. I submit that it hasn’t even touched the tip of the iceberg. It’s just a matter of approaching the concept from the right angle, and telling stories that challenge viewers. Take a look at BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, or the re-launched DOCTOR WHO. Both of them took chances, both dared to soar beyond the expected in narrative and style. Both are commercially and critically successful.

Despite its occasionally uneven (but adjustable) nature, THE ACADEMY YEARS drives itself hard, and reaches for maximum impact – narrative in the script states it was gunning for a PG-13 rating. It takes chances, but stays true to where it came from.

Perhaps more than any other TREK producer so far, Bennett seems to understand what makes STAR TREK work, and…above all…he understands why it works. In THE ACADEMY YEARS, he and Loughery deftly walk that nearly impossible tightrope between familiar-yet-fresh. And that’s the exact tightrope someone needs to walk for this critically damaged franchise to live again.

Merrick's transmission ends NOW!


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