I have to admit, I felt some trepidation when I started seeing advertising about The Starfleet Academy Experience. It was vague and nonspecific. It featured cosplayers standing around posters written in Klingon. It featured Klingon-language versions of the front page on local free papers. And nowhere was there any firm description of what it actually was.
In short, it seemed like it was promoting itself the way Star Trek as a whole has been in the past year: poorly.
Still, the Star Wars experience that had rolled through the Canada Aviation and Space Museum some years ago was pretty cool, so understanding that it would probably be a similar sort of thing we bought tickets for Saturday afternoon. Being a maker and a huge fan of Trek and its gadgetry and memorabilia, I definitely went in with a fully-charged camera and a hope that I’d have similarly revelatory nerd-moments, like when I got up close with the Vader costume from A New Hope (and saw the misshaped cheekbones – seriously, one points up and one points down) and with the B-wing model (so awesome).
So, after a full morning and a late brunch, we bundled the whole family into the van and headed off for our 2:00 PM entrance time.
The conceit of the exhibit is that you’re entering Starfleet Academy, and are choosing a career path – medical, communications, navigation, science, engineering, tactical, or command. You go through a condensed academy education in just a couple of hours. Over the course of your time at the Starfleet Academy Experience, you perform medical exams on sick and injured crewmembers, learn Klingon, examine strange new worlds, do target practise with a phaser, and lots more. As you exit, you take the famed Kobiyashi Maru test – the no-win scenario only beaten once, by a cheating James T. Kirk – aboard the bridge of a Galaxy-class starship. Once you’re done, all the interactions you’ve done are crunched by the computer and you’re streamed into a department and given an Academy certificate.
I’ll say up front that every part of the Experience felt lovingly crafted, like a fan film project writ large. (We’ll come back to that concept later.) Everything was carefully written and felt authentic without being inaccessibly self-referential. There were some great in-jokes in the interactive stations and in flavour text, and even if the exhibit itself didn’t necessarily elicit enthusiasm the staff’s wonderful demeanour and palpable glee in being a part of it was infectious. I don’t think I’ve ever seen people so happy to be running an interactive show.
Now, we went on day two, so I imagine they hadn’t worked the bugs out, so take this with that in mind: no Starfleet ship would have been in that level of disrepair. It was a big, complicated machine with a lot of moving parts, and it led to many complications. This may have been a case of overthinking the plumbing, making it very easy to stop up the drain.
It seemed like about half of the high-tech screens and interactive stations were out of commission. There were at least two of almost everything, so if you were trying to do a department test or speak an alien language or plot a course through the gravity wells in a solar system, you were going to be waiting in a line.
I’ll say that one other thing that disappointed were the number and quality of the props and costumes from the show. Because the entire Experience framed the stuff from the show as being in-universe (i.e. a tricorder might be dated in the 2300s rather than the 1990s, when it was made), a lot of the props lacked context. And most of them were hand props from a single collection, and of seriously variable quality – which means that context really would have helped. I’m in the fortunate position that I know a frankly obscene amount of behind-the-scenes stuff; the development and early production of The Next Generation are a particular point of fascination. So I can look at this tricorder prop…
…and understand exactly why it’s just a plastic shell with a black-and-white photocopy glued to it. But I don’t know that it’ll read to anyone else. Or this phaser…
…which I know is probably a foam-rubber stunt prop which wasn’t made to last for 25 years, but in the exhibit it’s just a garbagey-looking thing with a made-up word and date on the label. The “sets” and hand props and original video we were interacting with were a similarly mixed bag, as well: they often felt more like the product of a fan film than the real deal.
That’s not to say everything was underwhelming. There were a few really excellent pieces, too:
Still, even though the behind-the-scenes nerd in me was aching for more, the in-universe nerd in me was delighted, and I felt strangely proud of my performance coming out of it. I scored 47 (of course) out of 50 on my phaser marksman training. I cleaned up in the Kobayashi Maru, saving 205 of 300 of the stranded crew and making off with my ship damaged but intact.
And I came out of the Experience as a Communications/Command officer with a strong tactical bent – basically, I walked away as a mini-Picard in the making. And it felt good.
That’s the main takeaway: It all felt good. It was not as real-science-y as I had been led to believe; it didn’t quite scratch the behind-the-scenes itch that the Star Wars experience did; they didn’t quite tech the tech well enough on that first weekend. It was about 80% of the way to something unmissable, but that missing 20% didn’t make me regret going. It mostly succeeded in making me hungry for more, for another visit, for another shot at the stations I missed, for another run at the Kobiyashi Maru, and for another chance to feel for a while like I was living in that more optimistic future that I grew up watching on TV.
That enthusiasm and joy and confidence in a better shared future for all of us was a feeling that they definitely nailed, and I think that’s the most important thing.