Where are the Star Trek Movies?
For Trekkies with a Paramount Plus subscription it is clear we are in a new golden age for the franchise. The streaming service hitched its wagon from the start to one of the studio’s biggest intellectual properties in Star Trek: Discovery which after a divisive start eventually found its footing. Though it is sadly ending after five seasons, Disco is ending on a high note. Likewise, the third and final season of Picard is firing on all cylinders to give fans a beautiful final voyage for the Next Generation characters we fell in love with years ago. The animated Lower Decks has become a fan favorite in bringing hilarity to the final frontier. Last year the current run of Trek shows finally found its crowned jewel with the critical and commercial smash hit Star Trek: Strange New Worlds a prequel to the original series which balances the episodic nature of classic Trek with the long form arcs of the current era.
While Gene Rodenberry’s brainchild has found success on its traditional home of the small screen, Star Trek has largely been absent from its secondary home at the cinema. In 1979, a combination of a renewed interest in the original series and a boom in science fiction led to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which gave fans the continued adventures of the Enterprise crew. Three years later Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan proved that Trek was perfectly capable of giving audiences a grand spectacle worthy of the big screen. Once Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the others were ready to return to docking, the torch was passed to Captain Jean Luc Picard and the next generation (pun intended) in Star Trek: Generations. Through Borg attacks and Picard clones, the new Enterprise crew continued on in theaters until some studio suit decided to release Star Trek: Nemesis at the same time as Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and dubbed the expected result a financial failure bringing the film series to an undignified end.
For a number of years Trekkies were in their own “Wilderness Years” like the their colleagues in fandom the Whovians. Following the end of Star Trek Enterprise the franchise had no shows on the air for the first time in 18 years and there were no films in development and it seemed like we had arrived at a place where no man has gone before and it sucked. But in 2009 JJ Abrams gave Star Trek a new life on film with his slick and action-packed reboot set in the alternate Kelvin timeline. The trilogy which followed may have ended with the underrated Star Trek Beyond but the fandom was reinvigorated. It was clear in the first season of Discovery the impact these flicks had made on Trek as a whole. Now it seems this series has stalled as a Star Trek 4 has been bandied about for quite a while with nothing to show for it while Paramount Plus has shown that Trek is as popular as ever among the core fanbase. Even if a story is concocted and a director hired, the then-young ensemble of these films have all gone on to be big time players in the business so being able to schedule and pay them all will no doubt be much more challenging.
This has led many to wonder what is going on and why the people who make the successful TV shows have not taken over the film aspect of Star Trek. It is only logical as this is how things have been done in the past. Actors from the show in William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and Jonathan Frakes have all directed the Enterprise‘s big screen adventures. And writers and producers from the various shows Ronald D. Moore, Brannon Braga, Michael Piller and Rick Berman have all scripted and produced films for the series. Even if they do not continue in the current film series, perhaps it is time for the Prime Timeline to once again assert its dominance with mainstream audiences. The problem is since the time of Nemesis the business side of the film industry has changed. First Contact was nothing short of a success in 1996 pulling in a grand total of $146 million on a $45 million budget. But now, $146 million would be the proposed starting budget of a big genre film from a popular IP. And it had better have a big opening weekend from the start, anything less will be dubbed a failure and movies in general are no longer truly allowed to see if they have legs to last. It should go without saying the Paramount would expect nothing less than a Borg Cube filled with cash as profit for a big blockbuster Star Trek film.
Finding this kind of success for a Star Trek film means that they must field an audience beyond us passionate, established fans. Let us be honest, to get the most out of Wrath of Khan it helps if you were familiar with the episode “Space Seed” which set the stage for Kirk’s confrontation with the villainous super solider. Likewise, those who truly appreciated First Contact were those who watched with bated breath as Riker issued the order “Mr. Worf, fire at will!” at Locutus of Borg. This is a large part as to why the rebooted Kelvin timeline films have been so successful. Lay people who do not know a Tribble from phaser, much less a Romulan from a Vulcan can get just as much enjoyment from the movies as someone who has been there since William Shatner’s monologue opened the first episode. Finding such a balance is trickier than dealing with a trial administered by Q, but somehow JJ Abrams and crew did just that and it would be wise for the powers that be at Paramount Studios to keep going in that direction.
I for one can not wait to once again sit in a theater chair and see the USS Enterprise onscreen but I also realize it may be quite a while before this happens. As things stand right now, the suits have strangely found a perfect balance and there is no need to upset it. For the die-hard fans well-versed in Trek lore there are plenty of offerings on Paramount Plus to choose from. But for a big budget blockbuster that brings in casual moviegoers, the Kelvin timeline is truly the way to go giving people a continuity free popcorn flick. It only makes perfect sense and can be seen across other genre film franchises. How successful would Batman films be if you had to stop by the comic shop and read the entirety of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s run on the way to the theater? Would the Lord of the Rings trilogy been successful if audiences had to know how Eregion was an established Elven smith before being deceived by Sauron? This may be easier said than done as finding a script and director that gel while ensuring Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban and the rest have free time is not small task. There have been rumors that a Star Trek 4 should be the passing of the torch to a Kelvin equivalent of the Next Generation characters which is an interesting idea. Then again I could be completely wrong, and a sharp writer could come up with a smart script set squarely in the Prime Timeline but is still easily accessible to the laypeople. Either way, once Star Trek inevitably returns to moviedom, I will beam myself to those comfy seats the theater near my house has installed now and get ready for some fun.