Star Trek | Where should the film franchise boldly go next?

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The Star Trek franchise has found renewed success on television, but what about films? We look at its uncertain but exciting cinematic future.

It has now been almost a decade since Star Trek boldly went on the big screen with 2016’s Star Trek Beyond, a film everyone expected to be the latest in a series of adventures based around the JJ Abrams led reboot crew of The Original Series. It didn’t quite turn out that way.

In those intervening years, plans for a fourth reboot crew adventure have come and gone, with projects and directors announced, casting declared, and reported behind the scenes issues around payment and contracts. Speak to Chris Pine, Zoë Saldana, Simon Pegg and such like, and none seem to know when or even if Star Trek IV will be made. It has long seemed that Paramount, the studio behind Star Trek, hasn’t decided either.

Last month, we had the latest of many Star Trek film announcements with ‘Origin Story’, on which I speculated about a little more in terms of what that title might mean for the series’ direction. It almost certainly suggests a further reboot crew adventure is not a priority, or at least not arriving first. I still would not bet against a further, wrap up picture for Pine’s Captain Kirk and company down the road.

The question that becomes apparent, through all of these announcements and dead ends, is this: what should the next Star Trek film look like?

On the face of it, the answer might be fairly simple. Take a crew of Starfleet officers, put them on a Starship Enterprise, and have them embark on a spacefaring adventure of some kind. That’s the basic template of Star Trek since day one back in 1966. Every single film, from The Motion Picture in 1979 onwards, has followed this template, even if the movies themselves have alternated in tone and style over the decades. Pitches for movies that differed from this approach, many of which I chronicle in my book Lost Federations: The Unmade History Of Star Trek, were put forward but never came to pass.

Star Trek The Motion Picture
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). Credit: Paramount Pictures.

The essence of Star Trek is ultimately about telling stories about present day humanity via galactic exploration and tales about heroes, villains and adventure. Each of the movies to date represents that, whether The Motion Picture’s fairly arch attempt to marry technology and divinity, The Voyage Home dabbling in time travel to explore environmentalism, or Into Darkness tackling post-9/11 terrorism anxiety. Each film crucially balances that storytelling essence with an eye for the bigger, blockbuster narrative as befits a big screen.

By that logic, Star Trek surely should double down on telling a story on an epic canvas. Most of the films contain a villain bent on galactic or universal domination, be they lone agents such as Nero in Star Trek 2009 or the Borg Queen in First Contact representing an entire hive race. There will be traditionally great space battles between starships – usually the Enterprise against a bigger, scarier vessel. Our protagonist, thus far only Kirk, Spock or Jean-Luc Picard, will square off mano-a-mano against the bad guy. The crew will then warp off for another adventure.

Star Trek as a franchise, however, is evolving.

Since its return to television in 2017, the Alex Kurtzman-ran era has eschewed conventional approaches to making Star Trek. Discovery began with a mutineer protagonist where the heroic Captain turned out to be the bad guy. Picard initially made Starfleet a shady organisation, with our aged Enterprise legend joining a disparate crew of outsiders on the ship of a Han Solo facsimile. Lower Decks and Prodigy both feature youthful, plucky upstarts nowhere near the conventional command structure of their ships, with concepts that invert or satirise 1990s approaches to Star Trek.

Star Trek Lower Decks
Star Trek Lower Decks is to end with its fifth season, due to air in late 2024. Credit: Paramount+.

In other words, the traditional Star Trek approaches are only now one mechanism of telling stories in this universe. Strange New Worlds holds true to the 1960s model, largely, but that’s about it. If we are to apply those same conventions to a cinematic canvas, should Star Trek not fall in line and convey a storyline on screen that avoids the usual ship and crew? That could be what ‘Origin Story’ is doing, but unlike ever before there is now space for Star Trek to reinvent what a movie adventure means for the franchise. Do they repeat the historical formula, only on a bigger scale? Or opt for something more unusual?

One of the arguments against the former option, frankly, is the box office. Star Trek films have always been solid winners for American audiences, indeed Star Trek 2009 and Into Darkness were the closest the franchise ever came to serious receipts, pushing toward or over the half a billion mark (though this tailed off significantly for Beyond).

Outside of the US, however, Star Trek films do not significantly perform. This isn’t to say there isn’t a global Star Trek fanbase, because there is, but it comes nowhere near to global numbers achieved by other legacy franchises such as Star Wars, Marvel or even James Bond, suggesting that attempting to chase an ever bigger box office with larger budgets and higher concepts narratives is a fool’s errand.

In which case, Star Trek should perhaps begin to reduce its cinematic vision. Rather than making $200m-plus blockbusters, chasing the tail of far bigger pop culture behemoths, spend closer to $100m on a project that doesn’t require the same level of expenditure or, crucially, return. The recent films traded on star names in the main cast, rather than legacy figures who became 1960s icons, but fans who want to see a Star Trek movie will turn up even if there aren’t any A-list cast members in the crew. If Star Trek primarily works for existing fans, those people are turning up for story and world-building, not stars or action or budgets.

Star Trek Beyond
The starry cast of Star Trek Beyond. Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Star Trek clearly cannot survive in such a fiscal atmosphere anyway. As the streaming era begins a process of reduction, with corporations aware spending billions isn’t leading to a greater return from audiences, Star Trek on television is already scaling down. Paramount badly mangled the cancellation of Prodigy after just two seasons, of which one has yet to even air. The popular Lower Decks has just been rather bizarrely given a Season 5 end point, when theoretically it could run a la Family Guy or South Park in animated perpetuity. Discovery was hobbled in its fifth season and put out to pasture, with Kurtzman now talking about five seasons being the natural cut off point for modern Star Trek series.

This to me points to financial rather than creative decisions. TV Star Trek is filmed in Toronto on cavernous soundstages with cutting edge technology which reduces location shooting costs, but no doubt is expensive to maintain. Rather than the original CBS All Access plan to keep TV Star Trek on air all year round, we are now likely heading – much like the MCU on television – to events once or twice a year. Some of which will no doubt now be TV movies, in the vein of the Michelle Yeoh-fronted Section 31, planned initially as a series but scaled back thanks to the schedule of the Oscar-winning in demand star.

That’s an odd case study as in theory, Yeoh would be the kind of star who might pull in audiences who wouldn’t traditionally show up for Star Trek. However, the concept of Section 31 sounds more akin to Guardians Of The Galaxy than what audiences recognise as Star Trek. Oddly enough, if we are to assume mainly Star Trek fans show up for Star Trek movies, and they don’t appeal often beyond that core, then a project like Section 31 over which fans are incredibly dubious (for a lot of reasons that would take another article…), backed by Yeoh, could theoretically work in the franchise’s favour when it comes to commercial appeal.

Michelle Yeoh Star Trek Section 31
Michelle Yeoh, star of the upcoming Star Trek: Section 31. Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Section 31 has never to my knowledge been considered as a theatrical event, but it again raises questions as to whether Star Trek should make a big screen feature that doubles down on fan appeal or strives to find a wider audience. That previous films have relied on familiar characters suggests the former has always been the intention. The original six films traded on love for the middle-aged William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and such like, while the following four saw Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes and their crew ‘graduate’ from The Next Generation on television to movie adventures.

Could that be the route? Could you take Discovery or Strange New Worlds and make a movie from them? The method of ‘graduating’, far more common in the 1980s and 1990s than today, now seems a trifle quaint. Audiences are too fractured. The Next Generation was never pulling in ER style TV ratings, but there was enough pop culture awareness of Picard, Riker, Data and so on for them to appeal, even in limited fashion, on the big screen. Can the same be said for Michael Burnham or Saru or Paul Stamets? Or even Christopher Pike and Number One? I doubt it. Unless you watch Star Trek, it’s unlikely you’ll have heard of these characters beyond the show.

If we take ‘graduating’ off the table, what are we left with? Star Trek either having to maintain a focus on catching up with Star Wars and Marvel, employing A-list actors, chasing huge tentpole releases and bombastic storylines. Potentially crafting something cheaper, smaller in scale, yet bigger than what the already strong production values on television can provide. Or if you put ‘graduating’ back on the table, could it copy Dave Filoni and Jon Favreau’s work on Star Wars, bringing characters together for a big screen event akin to The Mandalorian And Grogu? Could you bring Discovery, Picard and Strange New Worlds characters – all playing in different centuries currently – together for an Avengers-style Star Trek event?

All of these are possibilities. There might yet be others we haven’t considered. The consensus among Star Trek fans is that we just want to see a film made by this point. Yet the franchise is now at a crossroads it has never quite faced before. When Star Trek 2009 returned, it revived the entire property from dormancy. Star Trek on television is, whether you appreciate the quality or not, currently successful to a degree not seen for around 30 years. A film launches from a position of Star Trek cemented in the streaming firmament, but without a clear, natural cinematic path to follow. That’s as much exciting as it is scary.

Perhaps for the first time in years, Star Trek at the movies will dare to boldly go where it has never been before.

You can find A J. on social media, including links to his podcasting and books, via here.

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