Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Origins of the Starfleet Academy Rumor

by Jared B.

Although and other sites have repeatedly dismissed the rumor that Star Trek XI will focus on Kirk and Spock's early days at Starfleet Academy, this piece of gossip continues to circulate the web, sometimes even making its appearance in the mainstream press. In an effort to finally put this rumor to rest, Trekdom examines the origins of Harve Bennett's Star Trek: The Academy Years.

In 1984-85, the Star Trek franchise was preparing to celebrate its 20th anniversary, and the future looked bright. Following the box office successes of the first two films, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock had opened to eager audiences, displacing Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom from its top spot while raking in Paramount's largest weekend box-office gross of $34.9 million. Star Trek had truly entered the mainstream, and talk of a fourth feature film began immediately.

Yet, beneath the surface, trouble brewed. Although Leonard Nimoy enjoyed resurrecting the character of Spock during his feature film directorial debut in The Search for Spock, he continued to emphasize the finality of Spock's death as a regular member of the Enterprise crew.

"He's in the box," Nimoy told the New York Times in late 1984, adding, "I'm calling it death, dead, finished." Apparently, Nimoy believed that Spock's rehabilitation on the planet Vulcan would become a permanent exile from the adventures of the Enterprise. After all, Nimoy had only agreed to return as Spock if Paramount let him direct the movie and contract him to direct other non-Trek films, such as Three Men and a Baby.

Paramount was forced into an familier predicament: How to continue the franchise without the character of Mr. Spock. To make matters worse, William Shatner threatened not to resume his role as Captain Kirk unless the studio granted his demands for a markedly higher salary. After eight months of negotiation, Shatner and Paramount had reached a standstill, leaving Paramount to now ask, "How can we do this without Shatner or Nimoy?"

Executive Producer Harve Bennett proposed an ingenious solution: Why not examine the lives and trials of Kirk, Spock, and Bones during their early days at the academy? With younger (and cheaper) actors, the franchise could continue, keeping the icons of Kirk and Spock alive while dismissing the expensive actors entirely.

When Harve Bennett began writing a script titled Star Trek: The Academy Years, the fans, the cast, and Gene Roddenberry voiced their outrage at the idea of a new Spock and Kirk. Yet, Bennett remained committed to the idea, and, for a brief period of time, Paramount seriously considered its merits. In her autobiography Beyond Uhura, Nichelle Nichols recalls:

From the studio's point of view, the beauty of Starfleet Academy [sic]
was not how it would add to Trek lore, but how it would eliminate the original cast, and, most important, the large paychecks Bill and Leonard commanded.

Also, the pitched outline satisfied Paramount's demand that the fourth film be less serious and more comedic.

It is possible that the studio entertained Bennett's proposal as a way to bring Shatner and Nimoy back into the fold. It is of course an old Hollywood trick: Stifle an actor's egregious demands by threatening to recast the role. In this instance, it worked, and both Shatner and Nimoy came to terms. The studio had Bennett shelve his script for the time being, although they secretly promised him that it would become a movie at some point, possibly the next film.

However, following the extraordinary box office success of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Paramount suddenly cooled to the idea of a recast. Bennett still hoped that his script would be filmed after the lukewarm performance of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Thankfully, the studio decided instead to celebrate the 25th anniversary with one last hurrah for the original cast (Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country). They also began preliminary discussions with Rick Berman regarding a Next Generation film. When TUC began preproduction, there was no longer any interest in Bennett's script. It was precisely at this point that Harve Bennett left the franchise.

During the original cast's last years in feature films, the rumor of a recast continued to haunt the sets. Undoubtedly, Paramount insiders stoked the rumor from time to time, because it gave the studio tremendous leverage when dealing with contract negotiations and actor egos. By the sixth feature film, Spock was not alone in wondering insecurely, "Is it possible that we have grown so old, that we have outlived our usefulness?"

Given the history of Bennett's project, it was not surprising that the Academy rumor resurfaced when word of a prequel series circulated during the last season of Star Trek: Voyager. And, indeed, it is not surprising that the rumor has resurfaced now, when most reliable evidence indicates that Star Trek XI will not be Kirk and Spock: The Wonder Years. If Paramount had any intention of reviving Harve Bennett's concept, then they would not be letting Shatner co-write a novel about Kirk and Spock's academy days (with no studio supervision!).

Yet, the rumor continues to circulate, and the "show that will never die" will long be accompanied by a rumor with a vampire's lifespan.

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