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Star Trek (DC Comics, 1989) Annual #2 – Starfleet Academy!

This August, to celebrate the upcoming release of Star Trek: Into Darkness on DVD and blu ray, we’re taking a look at the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast. Movie reviews are every Tuesday and Thursday.

We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the movies with tie-ins around (and related to) the films. We’ll be doing one of these every week day. This is one such article.

Multimedia franchises tend to have very strange lives. These iconic pop culture characters rarely seem to ride off into the sunset in any real way. Their story might end, but there’s always a new beginning just waiting for them. When veteran Star Trek writer Ronald D. Moore took charge of the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, he even wove the idea into the fabric of the show. “All of this has happened before and will happen again,” the characters repeated.

It’s been a Hollywood fad for the last decade, with high-budget reboots like Batman Begins and The Amazing Spider-Man suggesting that icons never die, they just get reinvented. However, it has always been a feature of the pop culture landscape. Think of how many adaptations of Batman have run their course, or how many times in how many different media Sherlock Holmes has played out his game of wits. Life for these iconic properties is something of a spinning wheel. It seems that no sooner are you off one side than you are back on the other.

So, with the release of Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country in 1991, it seemed the ideal time for Star Trek author Peter David to venture back to the very beginning, and to explore Kirk’s time at Starfleet Academy!

"By the way, I like David as a name..."

“By the way, I like David as a name…”

“First time anywhere!” the cover boasts, almost giddy at the prospect of offering the reader a rare glimpse into Kirk’s early academic career. To be fair, fascination about history of these iconic characters had been building for quite some time. Where No Man Has Gone Before opened with the crew already assembled – barring McCoy or a few other supporting members. So some curiosity about where it all began is understandable. There’s a huge gap in the histories of these characters.

And Starfleet Academy! is hardly the first to acknowledge this gap. In 1985, a team of top talent produced All Those Years Ago… as the first DC Star Trek annual, teasing the story of Kirk’s first voyage. Vonda McIntyre wrote Enterprise: The First Adventure only a year later. It was released as the first “giant” novel and a celebration of the show’s twentieth anniversary, just so the reader appreciated the importance of this jaunt into the history of the most famous Federation starship.

Nerd!

Nerd!

While the novels had always balanced a desire to tell new stories unfolding concurrently with the on-going chronology, the tie-in books had never been afraid to flash back to the original five-year mission depicted on the television show. Still, with the film franchise winding down, and focusing on how old these characters were, it seemed natural that the focus would shift to earlier adventures.

DC’s first comic book series had taken bizarre twists in order to try to keep in step with the movie continuity, even when cliffhangers between movies lasted two years – leading to strange scenarios like Kirk commanding the Excelsior and Spock in charge of his own science vessel in the gap between Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. However, once The Undiscovered Country had been released, the comic’s attention drifted backwards in time.

Packing it in...

Packing it in…

First these were flashback stories, anchored in the movie continuity – Chekov reflecting on his past in No Compromise, Kirk, McCoy, and Spock reminiscing in The Alone – but eventually no such framework was needed. Indeed, it’s telling that classic Star Trek line is really the only line of tie-in novels that isn’t anchored to its own continuity. While modern Voyager or The Next Generation novels tend to unfold in the interwoven continuity beyond Star Trek: Nemesis, those featuring Kirk and his crew tend to be allowed to slot anywhere in the crew’s chronology.

Released as an annual in the same year as The Undiscovered CountryPeter David’s Starfleet Academy! seems to suggest that the only true direction is backwards. Offering a tantalising glimpse into Kirk’s past, it suggests that Kirk’s Academy days could be the fodder for exciting drama. The cover’s proud promise seems evidence of this, as does the subsequent fixation on Kirk’s academic career. Having completed his cycle of post-Star Trek: Generations novels based around Kirk, William Shatner and his co-authors ventured back to Kirk’s early years for Academy: Collision Course in 2007. Two years later, JJ Abrams and his collaborators would explore similar ground in Star Trek.

Never too far afield...

Never too far afield…

Each approach to the character is different, each drawing on separate parts of the canon and the franchise to fashion their own version of Kirk’s formative period. Indeed, the fact that these stories are so radically different points to the sheer diversity in fandom opinion over Kirk’s time at Starfleet Academy. Everybody has their own theory about what those years were like. Shatner and the Reeves-Stevens draw heavily on Kirk’s traumatic past alluded to in The Conscience of the King. JJ Abrams and his writers emphasised the notion of Kirk as a charming rogue, as seen in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, enterprising and assertive.

Peter David, on the other hand, actually draws quite early on the portrayal of Kirk’s time at the Academy from the first season of the show, before Star Trek moulded the character of Kirk into this larger-than-life heroic figure. David draws on Gary Mitchell’s references to Kirk’s nerdishness in Where No Man Has Gone Before and Kirk’s history with bullies in Shore Leave, creating the impression of a nerd trying to find his confidence rather than a rebel searching for his niche.

Look, if this was the worst moment between kirk and Decker, everybody would be a lot happier...

Look, if this was the worst moment between kirk and Decker, everybody would be a lot happier…

It’s amazing how you can draw on so many details and produce results that are so radically different. Reading Starfleet Academy!, for example, it’s easy to reconcile Peter David’s account of Kirk’s training with the more grounded and human character seen in the show’s first season. In contrast, Shatner and Abrams both play up the iconic and free-spirited playboy, appealing to a somewhat broader depiction of Kirk in pop culture. While David’s version of Kirk fits with what the early episodes tell us about Kirk’s time at the Academy, it’s strange how it doesn’t fit with the popular depiction of Kirk.

Confronted by an idol on his first day, Kirk is lost for words. “No, sir. I mean, yes, I–“ This version of Kirk is worlds apart from the reckless seat-of-his-pants version that many audience members would recognise. He is, to be honest, a nerd. Writing home, he assures his parents, “When the professors ask questions, I’m always in there with the answers. I can tell the other students respect that.” Far from the charming Casanova that we know and love, this version of Kirk has no time for the ladies. “I’m not interested in women,” he tells Gary Mitchell.

Kirk's on a roll...

Kirk’s on a roll…

Indeed, David makes a point to feature Carol Marcus – cleverly suggesting that she’s the blonde referenced in Where No Man Has Gone Before. However, he plays against audience expectations. Far from making Kirk seem footloose and fancy-free, it’s Carol Marcus who suggests that they have no future. Kirk seems actively invested in their success as a couple, responding, “I don’t know if I agree.” David seems to be having a great deal of fun playing both against type, and yet into canon – something quite rare given how obsessive Star Trek fans tend to be about their minutiae.

There’s a wry self-aware irony to all of this, with David even having Matt Decker advise Kirk to pay no heed to superiors who don’t know what they’re talking about. “You’ll be told things by your superiors that you disagree with throughout your career, Kirk… presuming you have a career. You have to take a stand for what you believe in.”  Given how many corrupt and insane admirals and commodores cross Kirk’s path – including Decker – it seems strangely prescient.

Gary's Seven hours of sleep...

Gary’s Seven hours of sleep…

David overloads the story with continuity and references and in-jokes. Ben Finney is a member of the staff. Kirk’s lessons cover the work of Garth. Even Pike’s helmsman Kelso is a member of staff on Finnegan’s Kobayashi Maru exam. These references are occasionally distracting or overwhelming, feeling more like a collection of trivia than a fully-formed supporting cast, but it works reasonably well. Interestingly, David steers clear of having Kirk encounter too many of his crew at the Academy. Despite the suggestions of The Wrath of Khan or the long association hinted at in episodes like Amok Time, Spock does not appear. Uhura appears only fleetingly.

Still, even if it’s not exceptional, it’s still a Peter David script. This means there are more than a few little moments of brilliance to be found for those looking in the right places. For example, in the middle of a romantic conversation between Kirk and Carol, David manages to hone right in on what is so appealing about Star Trek. There’s something incredibly romantic about the notion of exploring space, and venturing to strange new worlds. There’s something so optimistic and hopeful about it.

Kirk of fate...

Kirk of fate…

“I wonder if someone on a far-off world is staring at the dimly flickering dot that’s our star and is curious about who might live nearby it,” Kirk confesses. “And I want to go and meet him, and talk to him.” Carol Marcus intrudes with some harsh reality. “You can’t. By the time the lights of your star reach each other, you’d both be long dead.” If this were reality, she’d have a point. But her friend Uhura would argue that “this isn’t reality – this is fantasy.” And so Kirk’s romantic notions are not constrained by harsh and unwavering laws of the universe. “Not if I travel faster than light, Carol,” he counters, making for a lovely exchange that manages to sum up Kirk perfectly.

The rest of the comic can’t quite measure up to that one perfect moment, but it’s still an interesting look at how Star Trek began to look backwards even as the reign of the original crew came to an end.

Check out our reviews of JJ Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek series:

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One Response

  1. I wonder if they let David write this to test the waters for an Academy film or series or did they let him write it after deciding not to make ‘The First Adventure’ movie.
    I have not read this comic yet but it sounds very interesting. I like Kirk the rebel but I never saw him as much of one while at the Academy but rather he grew into one.

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