The Future of The Future – Star Trek: Phase 4

The Star Trek franchise is near and dear to my heart. In the early 90’s, I fancied myself a super-fan. I voraciously consumed episodes of the television series, I repeatedly watched the films, I collected all sorts of Trek-themed stuff (but especially action figures) and even went to a Star Trek convention with my dad (not in costume, thankfully). If you think about it, Star Trek had a “cinematic universe” going before Marvel ever fired up their money-making engine. Really, the mid 80’s to mid 90’s was the franchise’s heyday. But the studio heads overplayed their hand, as often happens, and burned out their fanbase with over-saturation and diminished quality. By the time Star Trek: Enterprise reached TV screens, many of even the most ardent fans rejected it. And then, the parent company that owned Trek split into two separate entities and each took part of the franchise with them. Now the rights to Star Trek films are owned by one corporation and the rights to Star Trek television series are owned by a different corporation. And this legal knot set the stage for the recent developments in the franchise and complicated things for the fans who remember the good old days. The franchise turned 50 last year, so what does the future look like anyway?


FILMS

Once the rights to Trek were split up between two parent companies, it was probably a good idea to let the franchise rest a bit before figuring out what to do with it. Among the fans, it was widely believe that Star Trek really belonged on television. That’s where it had all started, that where you could do the kind of sci-fi/social commentary that creator Gene Roddenberry had held so dear. But with the failure of Enterprise still hanging in the air, CBS Television was reluctant to invest in a risk like that. Viacom/Paramount (who owns the movie rights) was also risk-averse, but then JJ Abrams showed up with an interest in re-booting the Trek universe. And when JJ Abrams shows interest, you back up the money truck. So Abrams made three films: two very good ones with a mediocre (to be kind) film in the middle.

I, for one, like a lot about these films. The first film was a great introduction to a very young Kirk, something we had never seen before in Star Trek canon. It spun some interesting techobabble about why these stories are happening and how they relate to the original universe of films and TV. It brought back Leonard Nimoy!

Abrams returned to direct the sequel, which went off the rails a bit. For one thing, they insisted on trying to misdirect the audience about the identity of Benedict Cumberbatch’s villain character, which didn’t go over well when the truth was revealed. Even Abrams admitted that it was a mistake to go that route. Furthermore, they stooped to a gratuitous underwear scene for a female character, they parodied a touchstone moment from the original film series and used “magic” technology to tie up loose ends. It had some cool moments and the plot was fine at the core, but they just tried to get too cute with it or something.

A third film was planned, but Abrams would not direct (he was called away to reboot another sci-fi franchise). Star Trek Beyond, under the direction of Justin Lin, was far from perfect, but it did much better at using the cast well and crafting a plot that felt much more like an episode of the original series. Sadly, the film under-performed at the box office and threw the whole future of the film series up in the air.

Now, Star Trek fans are notoriously hard to please. The common complaint with these movies was that they were too action oriented and not enough like the TV series, which tackled philosophical questions and used sci-fi stories to comment on current cultural and political ideas. War, racism, humanity itself, etc. These were all examined in interesting ways on TV screens through the lens of a diverse crew of space explorers. What fans often forget is that there’s always been a fundamental difference between the TV series and the film series. Star Trek films have always been bigger, more action-oriented affairs with some ideology thrown in too. In fact, the films that almost everyone considers the best are very action heavy (Wrath of Khan and First Contact) with one fan favorite being a comedic curveball (The Voyage Home). The new films do a good job capturing the spirit of the original MOVIES and don’t worry too much about trying to be a TV show on the big screen. Plus, the recasting of iconic characters is mostly impossible, but they did a great job finding young actors to reprise these roles. The new movies are good.

Still, the crabby fans and the lower financial returns leave the film series in a state of limbo today. A fourth film has been talked about and an reappearance of Chris Hemsworth has been teased, but nothing is certain. The longer they wait, the harder it will be to get this film off the ground. Hemsworth is busy with Marvel movies and Zoe Saldana (who is great as Uhura) is tied up with Marvel AND with the planned series of Avatar sequels (blah). This are only going to get more complicated. If they’re going to continue this series, they need to get their act together.

I thought Star Trek Beyond was great and I really want to see another film with this crew. But I fear that the next step the studio will take to blow it up and try something new again. In the shadow of the new Star Wars universe movies and the continuing Marvel juggernaut, they can’t let a franchise like this lie fallow for too long, can they?


“TELEVISION”

As the film franchise sputtered a bit, the fans grew more and more adamant: “We want Star Trek on TV! That’s where it belongs!” Soon, there were rumblings that CBS was actually putting a new series together called Star Trek: Discovery that would premiere in time for the 50th anniversary in the fall of 2016! They even dropped a teaser trailer in July 2016!

Then the wild rollercoaster ride began.

There was joy and fear from the fans as they wondered what form this new show would take and who would run it. CBS said it would be an online-only show. Netflix? No, a proprietary CBS service no one had heard of (in the US, Netflix abroad). Just as fans struggled with the implications of that, it was announced that the celebrated Bryan Fuller would run the show! Great news! Then the premiere was pushed to January ’17 and then Fuller quit and the premiere was delayed yet again. It was becoming increasingly clear that this production was very, very troubled.

Finally, just last month, the first real trailer emerged:

 

So we’re finally seeing this new vision of the future of the franchise. It’s all very, very cryptic to begin with, but a few things are pretty clear:

  • There’s a female lead and more female representation overall, which is a good thing.
  • The cast is more diverse, which is a good thing and has always been part of the fabric of Roddenberry’s vision.
  • Star Wars and the Abrams-verse movies are being heavily borrowed from for the design and look of the show.

So depending on how you feel about those 3 things, your opinion on the trailer will vary. I think it looks very promising. I think what I’m most excited about for the show is the fact that it will be a “peak TV” version of the Trek universe. We’ll get a single storyline for the season, which will allow for some world-building and some good drama and character development.  The creators have already dropped a few clues about those things. Plus, they’ve said that the 15 episodes will be split into 2 mini-seasons as some prestige shows have done lately. I like it. As rocky as the production has been, I’m cautiously optimistic and will be excited to see the show.

The future of the franchise is still being written and this show will play a very large role in what that future looks like. The film franchise may well depend on how this show is received. Even though the two prongs of the franchise are split right now, you can bet the producers are Paramount will gauge the fan response to the show and project the value of continuing the film series based on that data. Only one thing is certain: the next year will be a very interesting time for the Star Trek franchise as a whole.


The first episode of Star Trek: Discovery is set to premiere on CBS and CBS All Access (in the US) on September 24, 2017.

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