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?

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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.

Please, no Star Trek Cinematic Universe

(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.

Please, no Star Trek Cinematic Universe

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.

Please, no Star Trek Cinematic Universe

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.

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  • Well, there’s always Interstellar.

  • SithSmurf

    I agree with all the above, but more. I’ve seen all the Star Trek movies and enjoyed them all — to different degrees, of course and on occasion in Star Trek V, I felt sorry for the actors involved. Until Star Trek Into Darkness. I have no plans to see Orci’s next release. I still see that one as a ham-fisted polemic on the evils of drone strikes.

    I don’t think there’s enough interest left in the franchise to fund a Trek movieverse, and I don’t think the people currently in charge of the films could pull it off. I’d rather see no new Trek than something that makes me rather I was watching someone steal Spock’s brain.

  • jbwarner86

    I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of the cinematic universe concept in general. I wanted to watch The Avengers, because everyone was saying how great it is, but then I realized that everyone who said that had been watching all the Marvel movies that came before it and I hadn’t, so this supposedly amazing movie won’t make a shred of sense to me unless I watch seven other movies first. I don’t want to have to deal with that every time I try to see the latest summer blockbuster.

    • The Avengers was actually the first Phase 1 movie that I really liked, and I think it was the first or second that I actually watched. Phase 2 on the other hand…

      • Chris Palmer

        It’s three movies I had seen plus Thor and some new guy as Hulk. All that you really need to know is there’s some guy called Phil who ranks high in SHIELD.

  • Muthsarah

    A Marvel/DC cinematic universe makes sense, because it’s already existed on the page for decades; it’s a proven formula, it works for lots of people, and there are decades’ worth of material to pilf— draw inspiration from.

    But a cinematic universe where you have to make up most of the stuff yourself (as you say, Trek doesn’t have a long list of strong action-y moments, and the number of Trek references the general populace would know and could find interesting is very, very small. Hence why they keep ripping off WoK; aside from Star Trek: The One With the Whales, that’s all they have that they KNOW would be recognizable.

    There are very, very few properties that lend themselves to a “cinematic universe”, really. Not that anyone in Hollywood cares. It’s the new silver bullet. The new surefire, can’t-miss philosopher’s stone of money-printing. Cinematic Universe = Money, so any cinematic universe is better than none at all. Supposedly.

    Remember Star Wars (one of the few properties that could sustain a cinematic universe, BTW/duh)? Of course you do. Remember all the Star Wars clones that came out in the years afterwards? “Space adventure with lasers” used to be in the same position “cinematic universe” is today. But how many “space adventures with lasers” actually made money? Or earned enough long-term success to have been profitable? Flash Gordon, for the latter, at least. And….uhhh… include Star Trek: TMP or Alien seems far-fetched, even if they MAY have gotten a lot of help being green-lit because of Star Wars. But, seriously, did any of the others do as well as expected?

    On that note, remember Pulp Fiction? Remember how, in the years following 1994, there were a ton of quirky/dark/cool/obscene/adolescent/savvy crime dramas released? How many did well?

    Remember Avatar? How many HUGE-budget SFX-full sci-fi-ish adventures made money after that one?

    How many Transformers follow-ups did well at the box office? Yeah, I’m including Pacific Rim here; even if it doesn’t really deserve to be so included, I think it’s clear the production studios were treating it same as any other.

    What about the Twilight follow-ups? Aside from Hunger Games (not even really a clone, just a movie that targeted a similar audience), weren’t they all bombs?

    Playing copycat requires no brain power, no creativity. Produces nothing lasting. And it rarely pays off financially either.

    • The issue there is producers and financiers are still the gatekeepers to big blockbuster films. TONS of fresh creative ideas are pitched to them every single day (and shot down) but when they hear “it’s just like [insert film that happens to be popular that week] but better!” they’re more willing to greenlight it. The thing is when it comes to moving millions of butts into theater seats, factors like brand recognition and familiar-sounding titles/names do matter. It’s easy to look back and know what movies we don’t like, but hard to say what completely new original thing we would like (not without referencing an existing property, just like in that pitch to the producers.)

  • I have no problem with a Star Trek cinematic universe…but I agree that the current team are not the ones to give it to us. I’ve been able to muster up enthusiasm about each Star Trek movie with years of separation, but if they started coming out more frequently you can best believe I would stop caring unless the quality increased. Star Trek’s best place is TV, though, and if they brought us, say…TOS Remix, Star Trek’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., maybe a time travel show borrowing from the mythology of all the Trek that came before, and something that’s a surprise, I’d watch them and probably enjoy them.

  • Jason

    They should give the series a rest for a few years and then try again in 2020. Perhaps then it will work.

  • Gallen Dugall

    Cinematic Universe concept is a fad. It’s something new that will be experimented with in Hollywood until they gain a better understanding of its limitations. Like all fads it will fade, but it will never truly go away.
    “I honestly can’t think of anyone else who actually believes that.” I do simply because the first two didn’t set a high bar. If the next movie can have a coherent plot and avoid filling most of its running time with fan service it’ll have done well.
    “franchise fatigue” “mediocre Trek” I’m going to suggest that the reason for a lot of fan interest in the franchise evaporating is that the shows were very clearly not Trek. It’s unpopular but true to say that the JJ Trek films were a continuation of what Trek had become and not something utterly new.
    “TV allows sci-fi to tell thoughtful, character-based stories” Sci-Fi is not about character based stories which is a big part of why DS9 was not Trek. Sci-Fi is speculative fiction not fantasy futurism. It’s “What If” and not “Who’s Sleeping With Who” based stories. Sci-Fi is about ideas, not setting. In an industry that is anti-new ideas and pro marketing survey generated fan pandering, no. Show runner doesn’t matter if the writers entrenched into the TV/Hollywood system are horrible hacks churning out formulaic crap extruded through demographic targeting lenses the product won’t be Trek.
    The whole franchise has become gutless fantasy futurism. You want to talk about a Trek episode that would never get made today try “A Taste of Armageddon” an episode about how rules of war actually do nothing to make war better but do allow war to go on forever. As pertinent today as it was in the mid ’60s. It took a topical concept and exaggerated it into the future. What topical concept is TV or Hollywood willing to approach today in anything except the most limp, non-confrontational and pandering manner possible? Have you seen the recent abortion episode of Doctor Who “Kill the Moon”? Gah!

    • Muthsarah

      “Sci-Fi is not about character based stories which is a big part of why DS9 was
      not Trek. Sci-Fi is speculative fiction not fantasy futurism. It’s
      “What If” and not “Who’s Sleeping With Who” based stories. Sci-Fi is
      about ideas, not setting.”

      To ask most people, anything with spaceships or lasers or aliens is “sci-fi”. Like Star Wars is sci-fi. And Independence Day is sci-fi. Not to me, but I’m outnumbered. Sci-fi and futurism are treated as the same thing, and both are also identical to anything futuristic (which =/= futurism, to me), when really, they are three distinct genres. Same reason why anything with swords and magic and/or dragons is “fantasy”, whether it’s “low fantasy” (human mythology) or “high fantasy” (invented worlds with invented rules, and likely dragons). And where these genres mix – dragons in space – they’re labelled “sci-fi fantasy”. Even though that really doesn’t make sense using the traditional definitions of the words.

      Like it or not, there’s more than one working definition of “sci-fi”. It’s not either-or. Just…gotta accept different grades of it. There’s Asimov and Heinlein on one end, and Lucas on the other. Star Trek’s between them, starting closer to the former and, today, indistinguishable from the latter. Lucasian sci-fi has become so popular and lucrative that there’s no reason for anyone dealing in the big-budget arena of blockbuster films (and they own all the copyrights) to do anything else. Not if spectacle-laded film budgets start at $80 million. It sucks, it does.

      “[Trek] has become
      gutless fantasy futurism. You want to talk about a Trek episode that
      would never get made today try “A Taste of Armageddon” an episode about
      how rules of war actually do nothing to make war better but do allow war
      to go on forever. As pertinent today as it was in the mid ’60s. It took
      a topical concept and exaggerated it into the future. What topical
      concept is TV or Hollywood willing to approach today in anything except
      the most limp, non-confrontational and pandering manner possible?”

      I’ve mentioned it to you before (when again you brought up “Armageddon”), but there several recent Trek episodes that deal with deeper themes like this:

      DS9’s “In the Pale Moonlight” – Do the ends justify the means? Would you murder innocent people and consort with criminals to help your side win a ruinous war?

      VOY’s “Living Witness” – Is it worthwhile to uncover long-buried historical truths if it risks creating new problems?

      Yeah, most Trek episodes deal with character relationships or political intrigue or threats to peace or other matters that aren’t especially “deep”. But that includes TOS as well. Trek didn’t start out nothing-but-deep and then become completely shallow. Even ENT had its moments. Rarely stretched out to episode-length, but there was SOME thought put into it. So I think there’s still potential for the franchise to return to more thoughtful stories if its expectations for viewership numbers get dialed back down to TV levels.

      But movies….are bereft of any “deep thoughts” these days. Well….some of the smaller ones still try and succeed. But any brand-name franchise is….just too big to accommodate any thematic depth. It’s harder to make, and most moviegoers don’t want that.

      • Gallen Dugall

        Yes, you can call whatever you like whatever you like. Co-opting labels is so common these days that labels are virtually meaningless.
        Put simply.
        Trek was about ideas.
        The new stuff is about fantasy futurism.
        This is why the new stuff doesn’t have an audience.

        • Muthsarah

          I doubt that heavy-handed parables would find much of an audience these days either. Trek died because the writing sucked, not because it embraced continuity, and thus, started to place more focus on character development. And if you don’t have flash (or can’t somehow find the right frequency of stupid), you can’t survive without good writing.

          Obviously, the movies went with flash.

          • Gallen Dugall

            Good writing is built on ideas.

          • Muthsarah

            Uhhh…yeah, but you don’t have to have a clear political message to create good drama. It’s one route, of course, but a series based entirely on preachiness just wouldn’t go over today. The best route is probably to sprinkle these more traditional sci-fi elements amongst the episodes – every now and then have an episode that deals directly with some parallel to modern issues. But don’t make your whole show about that. It wouldn’t work. Even TOS knew that; half of their episodes didn’t really have a message. They knew the importance of just cutting loose and having a bit of fun every now and then, or basing plots around more classical dramatic hooks.

          • E.Buzz Miller

            Star Trek died on TV because they’d basically run out of ideas that didn’t feel like something done before and because Berman and Braga took a great idea and just butchered in on Enterprise.

  • Cameron Vale

    I have yet to see one of these Marvel-inspired cinematic universes in action (I think?) so I can’t quite wrap my head around this idea. A horror movie where denizens of a remote planet struggle hopelessly against mysterious Klingon conquerors? A comedy about a wacky pair of tribble exterminators? Hell, even the comparatively simple job of rebooting the pre-existing Universal Monsters cinematic universe seems to have run into a wall, so what hope does the new Trek have?

    • CaptainCalvinCat

      Well, I see that quite simple:
      Different Starships in action, different crews doing stuff – and that would have the positive side effect, that the fleet would be shown as vast and we would not need to rely on the trope that the Enterprise would be the only ship in the area.

      Next: you could show us different “Jobs” in Starfleet – there are novels featuring the “Starfleet Corps of Engineers”, for example.

      If you want to do crime-drama you can use the Starfleets version of JAG and NCIS (called SCIS),

      You have the opportunity to peek in the “Prime”-Universe again – so, yeah, there are possibilities.

      • Cameron Vale

        I’m doubtful that stuff from the novels or the shows would work in Abrams’ Trek (assuming they even worked in the first place).

  • mamba

    I think you touched on the 2 major problems with the combined universe already, but to make it clear:

    1) Star Trek has already had this and always has. That’s why things are “cannon” in the stories and the like…”cannon” only has meaning IF you’re talking about a shared universe for the different media/franchises, and Star Trek definitely conformed to that mould better than any other show. Heck, the moment that one show mentioned something that went against established facts, the fan base went nuts…even between movies, books and “separate” tv series. Heck, the only reason Kingon is an actual language as opposed to gibberish is because some fan’s comparing words between shows and movies to see if they match.

    2) Star Trek has nothing new to offer. I know, it’s INSANE to think of it that way, given the literal infinite possibilities in the world they created. (impossible tech, space exploration infinitely, time and parallell dimentions if things get too normal, etc…) but the problem is how they’ve structured the world.

    In Star Trek everything’s stable. I don’t mean there’s no wars or stuff, but I mean in the WORLD of Star Trek WATCHING, you know that everything will be almost flawless by the end of it. Nothing will ever be changed radically, and it’s SO utopian a society that there’s almost no chance of permanent upheavel even from outside alien forces. The writers never ventured too far outside controversy, which is really ironic when you consider how much social commentary is in each episode.

    THAT’S the problem you see. Star Trek is great for making every episode a commentary on current events. This is great of course, but once you’ve covered them all, what’s left? Star Trek has tackled everything from hippies to sexuality to corruption to ethics all over the map, but it’s done so always within the safe envelope of “not too wild, not too radical, keep things the same be later on, the ship must still fly and the main case must remain to cannon”. Given that framework, one episode per topis was usually enough becasue they were stretching things too far anyway at 45 minutes.

    So then what? In Star Trek, if you remove social commentary and you’re not going to change anything, you got nothing. JJ Abrams found that out the hard way…the first movie was Star Wars retold, and the second was Wrath of Khan retold. Every character was basically the same…their motivations the same, and nothing changed by the end of the movie from any expectation anyone had. (except Vulcan being destroyed, but seriously, it being gone didn’t seem to change much in the Trek universe by the 2nd movie compared to other Trek pro-vulcan stories, did it).

    JJ simply has nothing to SAY in the universe he’s now helming that hasn’t been said before, and the moment he tries, the producers and fans will push him right back into the Trek lore. That amkes even a single episode difficult, now stretch across a universe? Like the author said best…give us ONE decent story, and then we’ll talk, but for my reasons above, I don’t; think that will ever happen anymore.

  • Clu Gulager Alert!

    I think a Star Trek Cinematic Universe could work, but it would have to be built in the exact opposite way as the MCU. The Marvel movies took a variety of characters, all with decades of well-established lore, and built a universe to fit them all. Star Trek would have to build characters to fit the universe. The ensemble casts we’ve had don’t lend themselves to Marvel-style treatment unless every movie is built like Guardians of the Galaxy, so new characters would be needed, and they would need to suit a variety of genres (a human character could carry a sci-fi movie, a Bajoran character fantasy, Klingon war film, and so on).

    Star Wars could pilot this idea. If Disney is really planning “one movie per year,” plus innumerable TV spinoffs and other media tie-ins, they’re going to have to expand beyond the well-known characters and try to build successful properties on original creations (or attempt to reimagine Expanded Universe characters for general audiences). If it can be done with Star Wars, it could be done with Star Trek.

  • JD

    So a completely new set of non rehashed characters would never work for star trek?
    Don’t know about anyone else but that’s what i want to see.
    Wonder if a True Detectives approach would work for Star Trek

    • Muthsarah

      “So a completely new set of non rehashed characters would never work for star trek?”

      Not in current Hollywood, no. Originality is too risky. Save that for the smaller premium cable TV shows.

      • JD

        I still think it could work like True Detective.
        new ship, new crew one long 8 episode story line

  • Tim Thomason

    The only way to have a “cinematic universe” for Star Trek, as opposed to just spin-offs featuring the Enterprise crew or even another starship crew, would be to expand to other people/cultures/style. I’d personally like to see a Klingon film, or a DTI time travel thriller, or just a funny comedy set on some Federation colony world. But beyond me and a few thousand other people, who would that appeal to? It would have to be a well-written-enough film to become a Summer/Winter/Spring blockbuster, and I don’t know if there are any top-notch writers willing to write side stories in the Star Trek universe (as opposed to ones willing to write for Captain America or Frankenstein or Wonder Woman, popular properties independent of their shared universes).