30 Years Ago, An Unmade Movie Laid The Path For Star Trek: Starfleet Academy

In the lore of "Star Trek," Starfleet Academy is located on Earth, just on the other side of the still-standing Golden Gate Bridge on San Francisco Bay. Any Starfleet officer on any "Star Trek" show has attended Starfleet Academy for several years, learning everything there is to know about diplomacy, tactics, xenolinguistics, starship engineering, history, and piloting. By the franchise's description, it's the most rigorous and intense college the future has to offer. Starfleet Academy is open to anyone aged over 16 years (or their home planet's equivalent) and not everyone makes it all the way through. Numerous stories in "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" centered specifically on Starfleet Academy.. 

Non-Trekkies may recall Starfleet Academy being mentioned in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," and the school's notoriously unwinnable Kobayashi Maru test. Cadets are meant to fail to gauge their character and their command skills. It is a test that every cadet must take to graduate (Of course, if cadets know it's unwinnable, how is it an effective test anymore?).

Yesterday, Paramount announced a new TV series called "Star Trek: Starfleet Academy," due for streaming in 2024. It will be a live-action show set at the Academy, and it will feature a brand-new cast of characters. Setting a Trek series at Starfleet Academy is a brilliant idea for a "Star Trek" series, and one that authors of expanded universe novels and video games have been exploring idly for decades. Indeed the late 1990s, there was a series of YA tie-in novels set at the Academy, as well as a 1997 CD-ROM video game, featuring roles from "Trek" actors William Shatner, Walter Koenig, and George Takei. 

There was also, circa 1991, a plan to make a "Starfleet Academy" feature film. In 2023, those plans are finally coming to fruition, albeit as a TV show instead. 

The original concept

Back in 1996, "Star Trek" producer Harve Bennett spoke with the Los Angeles Times about the history of the franchise at a time when a second "Next Generation" movie had become a hit, and "Star Trek: Voyager" was entering its third season. The Times dutifully reported several stalled "Star Trek" movie and show ideas, including the famed "Star Trek: Phase II," the series that eventually mutated into "Star Trek: The Motion Picture." The Times also made mention of an unmade "Star Trek" script wherein the crew of the Enterprise was able to skip merrily through time, meeting famous historical figures. Evidently, Spock would have assassinated JFK in that film. 

There was also a script that would have been set prior to the events of the original series, featuring Spock, Kirk, and Dr. McCoy while they were attending Starfleet Academy. Ideas from this script have been floating through Trek lore ever since. 

Bennett served as producer and occasional writer on the franchise from "Star Trek II" through "Star Trek V," and had access to many of the Trek concepts that never came to pass, and he recalls one project well. After "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier" disappointed fans and critics alike, one of Bennett's original ideas for a follow-up was going to be "Star Trek VI: The Early Years." Set at Starfleet Academy, "The Early Years" would have seen how Kirk and Spock met, how Kirk had his heart broken for the first time, and how McCoy fled a dark past. 

I'd like to thank the Academy

According to Bennett, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy would have narrated the film, but the young Kirk was ideally going to be played by Ethan Hawke, and a young Spock would have been played by John Cusack. Never mind that Hawke was already 26 in 1996, and Cusack was already 30. 

"The Early Years" was eventually abandoned, as 1991 was the 25th anniversary of the franchise, and Paramount decided they wanted one final adventure with the show's original cast over a reboot. Bennett never lost fondness for the project, however, saying "I'd make it in a minute if I had the chance." Sadly, his ideas never came to be. In a 2006 interview with TrekNation, Bennett recalled that a "Star Trek" film without Shatner, Nimoy, and the rest of the cast wouldn't be accepted at the time. Bennett was offered "Starfleet Academy" as a potential seventh Trek movie, but he decided to leave Paramount instead, saying that he didn't have any good story ideas beyond a broad pitch.

But the idea of a "Star Trek" drama set at Starfleet Academy never left people's minds. In 1993, the writers of "Star Trek" tie-in novels began a series that followed every notable "Star Trek" character during their individual times at the Academy, beginning with Worf. These followed the 1989 Julia Ecklar novel "The Kobayashi Maru," wherein several characters recalled their experiences with the eponymous test. And then there was the aforementioned 1997 CD-ROM game which featured several fully filmed — and super cheap — cinematic cut scenes. The footage doesn't just look corny by today's standards. They were corny at the time. 

The Pine Years

In 2009, J.J. Abrams rebooted the "Star Trek" timeline in a popular feature film, and, yes, that film took a great number of ideas from "The Early Years." The 2009 "Star Trek" was about all the characters as youths, each one attending Starfleet Academy for the first time and going on their first mission on the U.S.S. Enterprise. The 2009 film featured multiple moments when characters met, and the Kobayashi Maru test played a big part in early scenes. 

While many at Paramount objected to a Kirk-free "Star Trek" movie in 1991, by 2009, enough time had passed that a new cast could be brought on board without much objection. Also, Abrams set his film in a parallel timeline, so its canonical value is up for debate. The first half of the 2009 "Star Trek" film was essentially what "The Early Years" would have been. 

In 2024, 33 years after the initial pitch — and nine years after Bennett's passing — it seems that a "Starfleet Academy" series will finally be part of Trek's official canon. At this early date, no details are yet known about "Star Trek: Starfleet Academy"; its setting, characters will be, and specific premise will be revealed as production continues. But it does feel like a puzzle is finally being completed. In order to prepare, Trekkies should buy up all the old Starfleet Academy books that they can from eBay, drive to Van Nuys, California, and have a book club meeting at the water reclamation center, which has served as the filming location for Starfleet Academy in the past. Maybe then, we can all appreciate that, well, it's been a long road getting from there to here.

Ex Astris, Scientia.