Please, no Star Trek Cinematic Universe
Last week, an article posted on io9 generated some buzz among Star Trek fans. Mark A. Altman, the writer of the Trek-inspired comedy Free Enterprise, suggested that CBS and Paramount could potentially turn the Star Trek franchise into its own Cinematic Universe, with multiple Star Trek movies and TV spin-offs and VOD releases to compete with the likes of Marvel and DC’s shared superhero continuities.
This is a bad idea, for a number of reasons.
Whenever I see an article like this one loaded up with marketing speak like “transmedia strategy” and suggesting Star Trek needs to be treated “like a business”, I have to wonder: are fans getting to the point where they so self-identify with their favorite franchises that they forget that what’s good for a movie studio is not necessarily what’s good for us, the people who actually pay to see the movies?
I can sort of see where Altman is coming from: He’s a huge Star Trek fan, and he wants to see Trek achieve the kind of massive ongoing success and cultural relevance that Marvel is experiencing with its superhero films. And being a producer and understanding the business side of things, it’s natural for him to want to express himself in those terms.
But between this article, Universal Studios’ plans for a “classic monster-verse”, and the truly mind-boggling possibility of a Robin Hood Cinematic Universe, at some point the question needs to be asked: How does it benefit us, the audience, for every property to be turned into a sprawling mega-franchise? Does there really have to be the promise of multiple sequels and spin-offs to make a movie worth seeing? Have fans reached a point where they can’t even enjoy a good, solid, standalone adventure? Or even worse, have they reached the point where they don’t even demand stories that stand on their own?
We’re now two films into this new, J.J. Abrams-rebooted Star Trek, and have yet to get even one good story out of it. Altman insists the two movies are “critically acclaimed”, but a quick perusal of the heavily qualified positive reviews for Star Trek Into Darkness on Rotten Tomatoes (“It’s generally a lot of fun, but it’s exhausting” … “a terminally perfunctory follow-up that just barely gets the job done” … “a good deal of fun if you like things crashing violently into each other”) reveals “accolades” that won’t find their way onto a DVD back cover any time soon.
(And if you need more of a reason to take the original article with a grain of salt, the author insists the next Star Trek film, directed by Roberto Orci, “has the potential to be the best one yet”. I honestly can’t think of anyone else—Abramsverse hater, lover, or none of the above—who actually believes that.)
I think I speak for many when I say: let the people currently in charge of Star Trek figure out how to tell just one great story. Then we can discuss building a multi-pronged media empire around their efforts.
Because we’ve been down this road before. Star Trek kind of already had its own Cinematic Universe back in the 1990s, with not only a movie series starring the original series cast dovetailing into another movie series starring the cast of The Next Generation, but also two Star Trek shows on the air at the same time. It was arguably as big of a cash cow for Paramount then as what Marvel is experiencing now.
But we know how that ended up. Next Generation ended its run with stellar ratings, but none of the other spin-offs could ever match that success, and interest in the TNG movies waned. Nemesis tanked at the box office, Enterprise hit rock bottom in the ratings, and Rick Berman-led Star Trek was finally put out of its misery. And all justifications from the top usually contained some variation on the phrase “franchise fatigue”.
In the article, Altman insists people weren’t necessarily tired of Star Trek; they were just tired of mediocre Star Trek. But is that really true? If you look at TV ratings for the franchise, viewership declined pretty steadily after TNG, regardless of the supposed “quality” of any particular season. More people watched the “boring” first three seasons of Deep Space Nine than the remaining four; And the much heralded fourth season of Enterprise saw no significant uptick in ratings from the previous year. When it comes to the (temporary) demise of the franchise, I think a far more important factor was that the shows and the movies had become mostly indistinguishable.
Imagine if instead of giving us Agents of SHIELD, Marvel had given us a Captain America TV show airing in parallel with the Captain America movies. How excited would most of us have been about Winter Soldier in that scenario? And yet, that’s more or less the situation Star Trek was in during the early 2000s. Despite there being limitless types of stories to be told in the Star Trek universe, the shows and movies have uniformly (with the exception of Deep Space Nine) been about a crew of explorers on a starship either discovering spatial anomalies or trying to save Earth (or occasionally, an alien planet) from getting blown up.
With the starship-based Voyager and Enterprise running concurrently with the starship-based TNG movies, and with the TNG movies feeling like two-part TV episodes anyway, it’s no surprise that people opted out of going to the theater to pay to see the same crap they could watch every week on UPN for free.
(Though, there is late breaking word that Warner Brothers plans to produce a Flash movie running concurrently with their Flash series on the CW, with a totally different actor playing the Flash. I suppose that, just like with the other dozen or so superhero movies WB has on their rather fanciful schedule, we’ll see if that actually comes to fruition, because right now it sounds like a monumentally stupid idea.)
The article also insists that Star Trek needs to come back to television, and to a degree, that makes sense. Because it appears only TV allows sci-fi to tell thoughtful, character-based stories without having to shoehorn in obligatory space battles every twenty minutes. Sure, Trek on TV always had its fair share of action, but that was never its entire reason for being. And looking back upon its very best episodes, the vast majority of them would never work as movies: “The City on the Edge of Forever”? “Tapestry”? “The Visitor”? Not nearly enough explosions.
In an ideal world, I’d love to see Star Trek come back to TV. In an ideal world, the movies would be responsible for giving audiences all the exploding-planet action they crave, leaving a TV spinoff free to take its time exploring the rest of the Star Trek universe. Imagine an Earth-based show focused on Federation politics. Or a show about young cadets trying to survive the stresses of Starfleet Academy. Or an espionage drama involving Section 31, Starfleet’s covert operations branch.
But in the real world, I fear a new Star Trek TV show would mean another TNG rehash where a boring, vanilla crew stumbles onto weird phenomena every week. It seems likely, because every time a fresh, novel Star Trek premise is floated, it’s met with heavy resistance from both the studio and the fans. And the one time Trek did attempt to do something slightly different by producing a more politically-oriented series set on a space station, the ratings were never more than lackluster.
Is CBS or Paramount really going to sink millions into a Section 31 series? (“You mean, that building that Khan blew up in the last movie? You want to make a whole show about that?”) Doubtful. And the Starfleet Academy idea has received nothing but scorn since it was first pitched back in the ‘90s, with many fans referring to it as “Star Trek 90210” ever since.
It’s possible a TOS-style exploration-type show could work in the right hands, but whose hands would that be, exactly? A showrunner handpicked by the current creative team? The same team that gave us a movie that recycled all the character beats from the previous film, and when they ran out of those, began liberally borrowing plot points from Wrath of Khan? I’m not optimistic.
This is why I’m perfectly fine with a Star Trek movie coming out every few years or so. It feels like more of an event when there’s new Trek, as opposed to the deluge of content we were experiencing circa 1994. Maybe this means I’m not a true fan, but I don’t see a need to produce more Star Trek simply for the sake of having more Star Trek.
If the movie franchise is only going to be about delivering big, empty spectacle during summer blockbuster season, there are plenty of other action/sci-fi films that can fill the void. And if a potential TV series is only going to be about a starship crew discovering anomalies every week, there’s already over 500 hours of that on Netflix Instant to occupy my time.
We’re still years away from finding out if any movie studio besides Marvel can make the Cinematic Universe concept work, but I must admit I’m already beginning to feel Cinematic Universe Fatigue. More than anything, I just want to see good movies (and TV shows) that work on their own terms. I don’t want to feel obligated to watch mediocre product simply out of fear of missing out on a larger story. Instead of a “Star Trek Cinematic Universe”, I’d rather see sci-fi movies and shows that do what Star Trek used to do: capture a sense of mystery and wonder and the vastness of space, while using the genre as an allegory to explore the human condition. And if these movies and shows happen to be released under the Star Trek name, that really should be seen as just a bonus.