Does Star Trek need its old fans?

As Paramount hunts for a director to replace Roberto Orci on the next Star Trek movie, is it time to win back more core fans?

The departure of Roberto Orci as director of the as-yet-untitled third film in JJ Abram’s rebooted Star Trek continuity has cast a little doubt on the future of a franchise that has already spent a lot of time on unsure footing. Although Star Trek‘s new cast is undeniably packed with talent and the look of the films has been both technically and aesthetically stunning, the stories have arguably failed to capture the same newly-invigorated feeling. Both movies have been watchable blockbusters by current standards, but for all their budget and star power, neither has arguably been close to reaching the iconic heights of Star Trek at its best.

Admittedly, that may be a biased assessment. If you grew up with the original series, or Star Trek: The Next Generation, or even latter spin-offs like Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise, then of course Abrams’ take on the franchise – one that explicitly sweeps aside old continuity – faces an uphill struggle. One might argue that it’s not just acceptable to alienate the existing audience when attempting to court a larger one, it’s actively necessary.

Despite its attempts to link the old continuity with the new one, Abrams’ Trek was never primarily aimed at the franchise’s hardcore fans, but at general audiences who needed only the baseline levels of cultural familiarity with Star Trek to enjoy it. Rather than being aimed at existing viewers, it was aimed at those who wanted to see a big name director doing a big name sci-fi blockbuster. The same audience who’d see Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, or James Cameron’s Avatar.

And there’s the big problem. What happens when a director-led franchise loses its director? JJ Abrams is gone, lured away by his the opportunity to direct his childhood favourite, Star Wars. His replacement, Roberto Orci, has handed back the keys to the franchise, moving (for reasons we’ve not yet been told) from director back to producer. It looks very much as though no-one quite knows what to do now that the driving creative force has bigger fish to fry.

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[related article: Is the Star Trek Franchise in Trouble?]

And why should they? The reboot was sold as much on Abrams’ involvement as anything, and a shaky – if successful – sequel means that audiences are going to need reassurance before backing a third film by a different, probably less tested director. There’s the danger that with Abrams gone, the mainstream interest he fostered will disappear with him, after Trek‘s existing fanbase has already been left behind.

The thing is, if the sub-standard creative directions of great chunks of both Voyager and Enterprise prove anything, it’s that fans of Star Trek will always be loyal to Star Trek. The problem with Abrams’ movies is than once you take him out of the equation, what’s left isn’t really that interesting, nor is it really Star Trek in anything other than name.

That’s because, for its hardcore fans, Star Trek doesn’t have to be about a specific crew, or certain aliens, or a particular starship. At its core, it has to be about how the application of reason, knowledge and understanding in the face of the unknown can make the universe a better place. Whatever you think of Abrams’ movies, they weren’t about that. If longtime fans don’t like the current incarnation of Star Trek, it’s because the current incarnation doesn’t resemble Star Trek.

Whoever takes over the next movie is going to have to fight an uphill battle to keep up the reboot’s momentum, and if Marvel Studios’ seemingly unstoppable success has shown us anything, it’s that it’s possible to please the hardcore fans and the wider audience. Indeed, it’s shown us that contrary to popular belief, the hardcore audience might even know best: if you can please them, you’re doing justice to the property, and a larger audience will follow.

If any proof were needed that the audience is there, you only have to look at the franchise’s past performance. Star Trek: Generations was a film that teamed up Kirk and Picard. By its nature, it could only possibly have been of interest to those who were reasonably familiar with Star Trek – and yet it made almost four times its money back. Abrams’ reboot made little over twice its budget, and the sequel two and a half times its budget. Dollar-for-dollar, that makes the first about as good as the widely maligned Star Trek: Insurrection, and the sequel as good as the continuity-heavy, fan-servicing Star Trek: First Contact. A question, then: what’s the use in chasing a new audience if you can’t capture enough to make it worthwhile?

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Indeed, contrary to conventional wisdom, Star Trek‘s critical and commercial slump (at least, cinematically speaking) was caused by Insurrection and Nemesis – two films that were intended to be significantly more accessible to a wider audience than the two successes that preceded them. Similarly, Abrams’ films used scale and spectacle to reach people who didn’t like Star Trek, but in doing so they alienated a good chunk of those who did. Another question, then: why is Star Trek spending so much time trying to capture viewers who don’t like Star Trek?

For all the common sense that said Star Trek needed to find a new audience, perhaps the problem was that it wasn’t spending enough time pleasing the audience it had. Star Trek is, after all, one of the biggest sci-fi franchises in history, with decades of success evident in countries across the globe. Almost everyone knows someone who’s into Star Trek. In many ways, it’s the template for modern fandom.

To any other franchise, several generations of devotees would be a gift. Whatever happens with the next film, we can only hope that the person in charge remembers that there’s a huge audience of dormant fans just waiting for the right movie to reawaken their interest. The best way to make any new Trek a success? It might just be to give them what they want. The same thing that made them fans in the first place: nothing more complicated than good Star Trek.

UPDATE: 5 new director names have emerged for the next Star Trek movie. Details here.