STAR TREK is at a cinematic crossroads – which path should it take?

Though we may have entered a second possible ‘golden age’ for Star Trek on television, the same cannot be said for the iconic franchise at the movies.

Forbes writer and movie critic Scott Mendelson, in a recent article, decried that Paramount’s experiment to transform Star Trek into a franchise worth of rivalling Star Wars, the MCU, even Pirates of the Caribbean or Transformers, is dead in the water after the box office failure in 2016 of Star Trek Beyond. He points out that while Star Trek 2009 and Star Trek Into Darkness both made a profit and are in the higher percentile of Star Trek films in financial terms, neither of them came anywhere close to making the profits witnessed in franchise films such as The Dark Knight or Skyfall over the last fifteen years. In all of these summations, he is arguably quite correct.

This topic has reared its head once again following two recent news stories. First, that the reputed movie script being worked on by Fargo and Legion scribe Noah Hawley has for now been shelved, on account of the story revolving around a topical killer virus. Secondly, that Quentin Tarantino’s much speculated film idea would be set heavily in the 1920’s gangster era. Paramount are reputed to be weighing a decision on which path to take for Star Trek at the movies – either of these options, or the fourth intended ‘Kelvinverse’ film for the reboot crew. If not three scripts ready to film, then three very different ideas. All of which place Star Trek at a fascinating crossroads.

The question is simple… which road should the franchise take?

In order to at least ponder an answer to this question, it’s worth considering cinematic Star Trek in a historical context.

Star Trek began on television and while spawning numerous iconic motion pictures, the small screen has always principally been where the franchise has thrived. Granted, The Motion Picture helped rescue Star Trek from the fallow 70’s but the philosophical mood espoused by Robert Wise’s film was very quickly replaced by an action adventure/comedic bent for the subsequent sequels across the ’80s. In fairness, this was never entirely out of step with The Original Series in the ’60s, which balanced morality plays with a fair dose of kitsch action silliness, but arguably from The Wrath of Khan onwards the cinematic Star Trek franchise divorced itself from what we would subsequently see on television with The Next Generation, whereby Gene Roddenberry returned his saga to a sedate exploration of humanity in the utopian 24th century.

Even when Star Trek films of the ’90s hemmed closer to the TV series, as Captain Picard & crew graduated to the big screen and films such as First Contact actively threaded in elements from sequel series Deep Space Nine, they nonetheless remained their own unique beasts. Ironically, at the time in 1998, Insurrection was castigated because it felt like a two-part episode of The Next Generation, rather than the kind of big budget adventure of Picard & crew fighting the Borg. In truth, Insurrection could be the most honest and TNG of all of those ’90s films (even if First Contact remains the best), because it could have worked on the small screen. Nevertheless, there was a clear dividing line between cinematic Star Trek spectacle and television Star Trek style, though they did begin to blur as time went on. Voyager’s Dark Frontier as a 90-minute special episode has all the aspirations of a TV movie, for instance.

In truth, though, Star Trek films were never at the top end of Hollywood budgets, in the same way none of the films ever grossed anywhere near the kind of revenue franchises such as Star Wars or James Bond achieved in those days. Insurrection cost a fraction of 1999’s Star Wars prequel The Phantom Menace, and didn’t come close to achieving the same kind of hype. Budget wise, this only changed in 2009 when Paramount brought in Abrams, fresh off revitalising the Mission Impossible franchise, and threw a huge amount of money into trying to turn Star Trek into a modern day family adventure spectacle. Many fans to this day refuse to engage with Abrams’ ‘Kelvinverse’ films precisely because, while staying true to many of the wholesome precepts of Star Trek and for the most part its continuity, they eschew the measured pontification on issues, themes and morality TV Star Trek had often delivered. For many, Star Trek ‘09, Star Trek Into Darkness and Beyond are just empty efforts to turn Star Trek into a vague approximation of Star Wars.

This has always struck me as somewhat unfair. As I said earlier, even going back to The Wrath of Khan, the beloved films of the original series crew are decidedly of a different tone and style to Star Trek on television. They may lack the heavy CGI and lens flare of the Abrams stable, and arguably are better written with fewer narrative plot holes, but they are just as much designed for a broader audience who go to the cinema for entertainment as they are for Star Trek fans seeking to explore the human condition. They are films with similar aspirations produced in different ages.

The Abrams movies have struggled not because of how they have been made, which is entirely in step with what modern audiences often demand of their big budget blockbusters (or the system has curated them to demand, if you want to be more cynical), but rather that they, as Mendelson says in his article, just simply don’t appeal to the mass kind of audience who will go and watch Star Wars or a Marvel movie. To my mind, there remains an awkwardness about Star Trek, which has always lacked the swashbuckling brio of Star Wars or the ironic cool of the MCU. It’s nerdier, it’s more niche, and it’s harder to pin down as one, easy to package thing.

I love it for all of these reasons. Look at what happens when you try and force a square peg into a round hole in this regard – you end up with a Star Trek Nemesis. I quite enjoy that last outing for The Next Generation crew on some levels but there is such a whiff of desperation about it. Everything about that film is both trying to recapture the greatness of The Wrath of Khan while simultaneously trying to appeal to a grittier, post-9/11 audience who that same year embraced The Bourne Identity as the kind of stripped back, 21st century action thriller that appealed to a gloomier, more uncertain landscape.

Nemesis ends up with its increasingly middle-aged crew being allowed to have no fun—in marked contrast to the light tone of Insurrection four years earlier—and drearily treading through a universe-threatening plot the subsequent Star Trek-era would end up creating an entire series in Picard to effectively apologise for. This isn’t meant to rag on Nemesis, because it’s not a terrible movie, but it’s absolutely an example of what Star Trek at its heart isn’t. Abrams at least returned to the colourful joie de vivre of the 1960s for his pictures (Into Darkness maybe notwithstanding, which was often grim). His films make sense in the Age of Marvel, even if they will never be as popular.

So, back to the original question we go – based on all of these points, what road should the franchise take?

Ultimately, first and foremost, we should be grateful that Star Trek is back on television where it truly belongs and, separate from the subjective quality of the shows being made, is currently thriving on CBS who are building their entire streaming service around it as the key franchise. That’s brilliant and it’s no less than Star Trek deserves. The big screen adventures should simply augment rather than replace Star Trek on television, as they did under the Abrams films. The lack of strong international interest in Star Trek on the big screen in lucrative Chinese markets, for instance, suggests to me that Paramount would be wiser to align with the CBS All Access shows—which now have the budgets to look like high-end modern television—than produce the occasional film. They are loosely connected entities as of fairly recently but it would make sense for them to work together for the future of the Star Trek franchise. The lack of financial return on the Abrams pictures points to the next movie aiming lower. A smaller budget denoting a smaller return, and less pressure on the franchise to make Star Wars-sized numbers it is never likely to get.

This approach could rule out another sequel for the Kelvinverse crew along standard lines. Those films were expensive in part because of the cast. Chris Pine is now an A-list actor, with Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban & Simon Pegg not far behind. The supposed plot of ‘Star Trek IV’ would see Chris Hemsworth, a bigger name than all of them thanks to the MCU, playing a major role as Kirk’s father George Kirk (who he played, pre-Thor, in the 2009 movie very briefly) as part of a time-travel story.

Hemsworth was indeed announced as returning before he and Pine reputedly put the brakes on the sequel, at one point to be helmed by S.J. Clarkson, via a dispute about pay. Presumably Paramount wanted to cut their packet knowing Beyond had lost money. Despite the fact Kirk meeting his father could provide a neat tie-back to the 2009 film and is entirely in step with his character arc over the first three movies, this feels like a project that needs money thrown at it that Paramount aren’t likely to feel is justified. If the previous films had fared better, we probably would have this film by now. The delay of a picture that you feel could be made in its sleep speaks volumes about the financial realities underpinning it.

One might think the Tarantino project could have the prestige warranting such a budget. His idea has now been revealed to seemingly be a remake, or at least a play on, the 1960s Original Series episode A Piece of the Action, in which Kirk, Spock & co discover an alien planet where the populous have replicated the 1920s gangster aesthetic of Prohibition-era America. This makes huge sense for Tarantino, tapping into his penchant for twisting American cultural history into an exploitative style and covering an era he hasn’t yet touched in his own pictures. The script is apparently written too, by The Revenant scribe Mark L. Smith.

The problem is that Tarantino has now backed away from directing it – probably because he’s always said he’d only make ten films (a debated number) and a Star Trek sequel, featuring the Abrams cast, was always unlikely to be his last. While he would remain a producer, his name as a director carries far more weight in box office terms and could have encouraged Paramount to take a gamble on what would have been a fascinating, if risky, project for the fourth Kelvinverse film. Many fans already despise the idea of a ‘Pulp-Fictioned’ Star Trek (not that I believe this would be the case), and without QT at the helm, this feels like it could end up alongside Philip Kaufman’s ‘Planet of the Titans’ or the Erik Jendresen written ‘The Beginning’ as one of the most intriguing Star Trek projects never made.

The third option is just as much of an outlier. Noah Hawley is a respected showrunner on television and clearly a skilled, inventive writer with an understanding of cultural history, but he is untested in terms of cinema. Would he direct the picture? That too is a gamble because sometimes you can end up with an Alan Taylor – brilliant on the small screen, a car crash on the big. Paramount have also (correctly) calculated that Hawley’s plot about a deadly virus spreading across the universe is not going to drag punters into cinemas when they’re experiencing Covid-19 as a daily reality.

The other factor is that Hawley’s script revolves around, it appears, entirely new characters, and not one Star Trek film has ever had the courage to try this. They have always stuck with recognisable characters and situations. It feels like they would much prefer to make a fourth Kelvinverse film with Kirk, Spock et al and the famous crew of actors, if the costs were less prohibitive. While Hawley’s option was perhaps commissioned because it could be produced much more cheaply, it comes with its own inherent risks. What about it gets people into the cinema? Why, especially right now, would they spend more money for a Star Trek movie when CBS are aspiring to give us Star Trek on TV all year round?

Which brings me to the unspoken option four. Don’t make a movie at all, at least not yet.

A movie made sense in 1979, when fans desperately wanted Kirk & co back in some way. It made sense in 1994 when The Next Generation crew levelled up to continue their adventures on the big screen after the show ended. It even made some sense in 2009 to rescue the ailing franchise from the doldrums, in an attempt to transform it into a modern, exciting, going concern. It does not make much sense in 2020. Star Trek is alive and well on TV, with multiple shows in development and with money clearly on screen. Audiences are growing attached to the casts of Discovery, Picard and now Lower Decks. A whole new era is unfolding for the franchise which is exciting and teeming with possibility.

So why throw in a film, either based on a series fans have never entirely clamoured for or featuring new characters who could just as well appear on a smaller canvas? Why not wait, work with CBS and develop a big screen adventure for Discovery when the time is right, or even a Patrick Stewart-led Picard movie down the line? Why not organically take the TV universe and build a smaller, less cost-prohibitive movie franchise in step with it, in a similar fashion to the 1990s, rather than chase a billion dollar return that Star Trek just is not capable of? Sure, the mid-budget movie no longer exists but Covid-19 could well see that change, and models of production and distribution involving lower costs demanding lower returns come back in force. Star Trek would be well advised to take advantage of that, if indeed it now seeks to think of itself as a ‘universe’.

Time will tell as to what route Paramount chooses. I just hope it’s one that continues to see Star Trek live long and prosper at the movies.

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Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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