Kirks in Collision:
A Survey of Starfleet Academy Backstories and
Review of the Shatnerverse Collision Course
with Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens
reviewed by D.G. Littleford
Everyone seems to be getting on the "Kirk and Spock at Starfleet Academy" bandwagon these days. Among the latest to turn out their version is William Shatner with his writers Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens in what looks to be the first novel of another trilogy, Star Trek Academy: Collision Course (Pocket Books, 2007).
First, a little history. References from the original Star Trek TV series such as, "In all the years that I've known you..." (Kirk to Spock in "Amok Time") and Spock's knowledge of Kirk's Academy-era acquaintance with Captain Merrick in "Bread and Circuses" opened the door to speculation that the two could have known each other as far back as their Academy days. Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan (1982) contributed to the impression with their conversation about Cadet Kirk's solution to the Kobayashi Maru "No Win" simulator test.
Fans were the first to actually try to describe the legendary Human and half-Vulcan meeting at the Academy in their younger years. Orion Press published the stories, "First Best Destinies" by Rowena G. Warner (1982) and "Victory" by Mark C. Henrie (1984). I was drawn to these early Academy tales, and even then sensed that more could be done with the period, that it would be interesting to flesh out not only the characters as they were at that stage in their lives, but also the Starfleet Academy experience.
Nevertheless, this association of Kirk and Spock in the past was not obvious to everyone. The pro-novel Enterprise: The First Adventure (1986) by Vonda N. McIntyre depicted Kirk and Spock meeting for the first time when Kirk took over command of the starship from Captain Pike.
During early production on Star Trek IV, producer Ralph Winter suggested to Harve Bennett, savior of the movie franchise, that they ought to do an Academy-era Kirk and Spock "origin" story. Bennett liked the idea, and prior to Star Trek VI did quite a bit pre-production work for it before the project was shut down. This movie, according to interviews in Captain's Log (Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman, Little, Brown and Company, 1995), would have covered about a year in Kirk and Spocks Academy education and training, with glimpses of McCoy and Scotty. It would have been a "coming of age" story, where each young man has personal challenges to overcome and ways in which to grow before they eventually can work together as comrades and friends.
Star Trek: The Next Generation fueled interest in Starfleet Academy by airing the excellent "First Duty" in 1992, an episode about Cadet Wesley Crusher and a training accident that caused the fatality of one of his teammates. Thereafter, both Deep Space Nine and Voyager gave us glimpses of 24th century Academy life.
It took a number of years for my own ideas to gel, but I eventually turned out my version of Kirk and Spock becoming acquainted at Starfleet Academy in my Orion Press story "First Contact 101" (2003), as well as its sequel "Adventures in Iowa" (2006). In developing my stories, I also considered what sort of personality traits they may have needed to rein in or overcome in order to become the heroic Starfleet officers we know and love. Kirks temper, for example, and Spocks isolation were two of the challenges I included. Then I sketched out how early encounters and friction between the two in an Academy setting could serve to shape them both for the better.
To my pleasant surprise, Randy Landers' imagination was sparked by my humble submission. Through exchanges with him and other Orion Press writers, the Academy environment, timeline, and Kirks backstory were further fleshed out for purposes of the Orion universe.
So having been through this process of imagining the Academy-era Kirk and Spock myself colors my perceptions about the recent professional efforts.
The well-cast and action-packed Star Trek movie reboot took a very unorthodox approach to Kirk and Spocks first meeting. J.J. Abrams and company cleverly threw out most of the Star Trek canon with their timeline destruction, allowing themselves a mostly blank slate. In their new timeline, Kirk meets Spock in his third year at the Academy, when Spock is already a full commander! Their rivalry and friendship develops almost entirely on the bridge of the Enterprise in the midst of a crisis.
When we first encounter Abrams' twenty-something James T. Kirk, he is an aimless, over-indulging, brawling, underachiever. It might have been interesting to see how their Kirk went from his turbulent beginning to become an officer and a gentleman worthy of command, but that was not the story these filmmakers were interested in telling. Instead, Starfleet Academy is a mere stepping stone, as they are impatient to put Kirk into the "big chair." This leads to the utterly bizarre creative decision to have their Starfleet Command put a barely graduated cadet (I assume he graduated ) in command of a starship with anywhere from 200 to 400 crewmembers!
And then we come to Shatnerverse...
Star Trek Academy: Collision Course is actually a "how Kirk and Spock get to the Academy" story, and the writers undoubtedly will explore their Academy years in subsequent novels. First, the good news. Like the Shatner-Reeves-Stevens novels before it, Collision is full of action and intrigue, and populated with familiar characters from the Star Trek universe, although not nearly so many. This last is a good thing, in my opinion, as the previous novels became so crowded at times that even favorite characters received little more than cameos.
Like in their books before it, the triad takes the characters boldly in directions the other pro novels wouldn't dare to go. That was fine as long as they were playing with the characters in an uncharted 24th century, but now in Collision Course we are in the perilous prequel territory. It is also very odd prequel territory for these writers, since in Captain's Peril, they had already depicted Kirk and Spock as not having met until their service aboard the Enterprise! I guess they don't let a little hobgoblin like consistency stand in the way of income...
The plot of Collision involves a 17-year-old Kirk and 19-year-old Spock, each troubled in their personal lives, and each investigating a separate crime which turn out to be connected to the same band of criminals. Their investigations bring them into contact, and oddly enough, incarcerated together. Their misadventures and struggles with the legal system eventually lead them to working together to solve the mystery as well as work through their personal problems.
Its a little slow in the beginning as you get acclimated to the disorienting behaviors of the characters, but then the novel picks up speed and becomes a fairly wild romp. Particularly interesting to me was the depiction of Kirk and Spock in Starfleet basic training as enlisted recruits. Yes, that's right--enlisted. And these writers DO understand that there is a big difference between enlisted crewmen and Academy midshipmen on their way to becoming commissioned officers, unlike certain screenwriters.
Though Collision Course is an engaging read--and I do look forward to the sequels--I cannot believe it is a logical backstory for the characters. There are too many disconcerting twists to these individuals, too many improbables, and their environment is entirely too dark, in my opinion. I do appreciate Shatners insights into the character which he played for so many years, and his sense of humor, but the convoluted plot as well as Kirks family dysfunction feels like a desperate desire to tell a dramatic action story rather than a realistic path to the Academy.
One of the biggest character twists is that Shatner-Reeves-Stevens has turned Jim's older brother Sam into a n'er-do-well who is hip deep into criminal activities and illegal substances. This is supposed to be the research biologist George Samuel Kirk who saw Jim off on his 5-year mission with his three boys ("What Are Little Girls Made Of?") and is killed along with his wife on Deneva in "Operation: Annihilate!" It is true that Sam's past is wide open for speculation, but somehow the moral wimp of a brother we get here does not ring true for me, and is certainly not appealing.
The writers are faithful to the Roddenberry vision that Earth has made progress towards becoming a paradisiacal planet, but is not yet perfected. Off-world crime and a residual earthly underworld provide us with the required scumbags.
Similarly, the writers walk a fine line with the character of their teenage Jim Kirk. They do their best to convey that Jim is well-intentioned, generally trying to help others and do the right thing, but his dodgy behavior is pretty much just a few steps behind his brother's. When young Kirk plants incriminating evidence on a randomly chosen Spock in order to deflect suspicion from himself and his girlfriend ("sacrificing a pawn" as he justifies it), it does not seem too altruistic to me.
This Jim seems to have an interest in engineering with a knack for overriding security protections. He has followed his brother away from the Iowa farm to San Francisco and both are at odds with their retired Starfleet Master Chief father, who would like for one or both to inherit the Iowa farm that has been in their family for a couple of generations. Theirs is an especially peculiar attitude, considering that neither boy is doing anything with his life anyway. This scenario seems to mimic Shatner's own disagreement with his father over his choice of career, which he has mentioned in his memoirs. The conflict is a bit repetitive, however, in that we already have the father-son career disagreement in Spocks story, and hardly need it again.
This Jim Kirk is also dealing with the trauma and horrific memories from Tarsus IV ("The Conscience of the King"). Shatnerverse has dealt with Kirk's memories of the mass executions on Tarsus IV before, and I applaud the writers for incorporating and developing this strange episode of Kirk's sketchy life canon. Of course, nothing in Trek is ever a finished storythread in Shatnerverse; everything gets somehow connected to a Federation or galaxy-threatening problem.
What is the most puzzling of the twists, however, is Jim Kirks simmering anger and distrust towards Starfleet because they didn't come rescue them soon enough from Tarsus IV! Now, I've heard of theological problems or anger towards an omnipotent God for permitting evil, or for difficult personal challenges, but I've never heard of someone harboring resentment towards limited mortals for not rescuing them to their satisfaction Oh that's right, except in Star Trek the new movie. This seems to be the same syndrome Nero developed towards Ambassador Spock who failed in his attempt to save the Romulan people. Is this a new trendy psychological disorder? No good deed goes unresented?
Curiously, we've seen this resentment towards Starfleet before in the Shatnerverse. The resurrected Kirk living in the 24th century expresses regrets about his lost years of dutiful Starfleet service and the person its made of him. And now they dredge it out again for the young Kirk. One or more of the writers must have issues.
The young Spock's struggles are the more familiar, dealing with his dual heritage, being at odds with his parents and so forth. If you've ever wondered, as I have, why Kirk didnt give Spock a nickname as he did "Bones", Collision corrects the oversight. Throughout the novel, Jim calls Spock "Stretch." The interplay between the two future friends really is the highlight of the novel.
Another nice touch is that they remembered that someone named Mallory was the one who helped Kirk get into the Academy, as was expressed in the episode "The Apple." Here, Mallory is a shadowy, powerful figure from Starfleet Intelligence, who sees connections between the thefts Kirk and Spock are investigating and bigger problems out on an Earth colony. He hovers in the background as a mostly benevolent puppet master who comes to recognize the potential of these two young men, but who needs them to lead him to the bad guys.
Finnegan is another canon character who makes a brief appearance. Remarkably, his portrayal of his pranks as teaching midshipmen to "expect the unexpected" is an amazing coincidence, in that I first gave Finnegan that very statement in "First Contact 101." In another odd parallel, their Kirk and Spock are shown having the same breakfast items as do mine: eggs and ham for Kirk and an apple for Spock. Hmmmm.
The big plotline groaner, in my opinion, is that the Collision Course writers succeed in putting Kirk in command of the U.S.S. Enterprise at an even younger age than Abrams did in the reboot movie. Though it was amusing to see our bright teens and their midshipmen companions trying to figure out how to fly a starship, their success would have been more believable had they "borrowed" a smaller vessel. C'mon guys, there's a reason you need a large crew to man a huge starship like the Enterprise. Scotty had to uniquely rig it in Star Trek III in order to fly it solely from the bridge. Plus I would very much like to think that Starfleet has more ships in its fleet than only the NCC-1701.
Ultimately, the one quality that I truly miss from this and the new movie James T. Kirk is his poetic-philosophical side, his musings about the meaning of life and its component parts, his self-questioning, if only at a teenage or young adult level. Just like the reboot movie, Collision is not your thinking person's Trek. I prefer to imagine Kirk as having had a solid family and community foundation, even a spiritual one if not devoutly religious, that gave him the core strength to endure and thrive in spite of the many challenges and tragedies he faced over the course of his fictional lifes adventure.
In spite of my issues with it, Shatnerverse Academy can be a fun and interesting story as long as you don't take it too seriously. Star Trek stories are all fan fiction nowadays, as far as I'm concerned, including the professional versions. They may be very expensive fanfic, as in the case of the movies, or Paramount-authorized fiction, but its still fanfic. I used to wonder how there came to be so many different versions of individual cultural myths or legends, but now we are seeing the process unfolding right before our eyes. My advice is to enjoy all of the versions of the Kirk and Spock backstories as is your inclination, but choose your own "canon." I'm very happy I was able to get my version out there before the rush.
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