Is the Star Trek Franchise in Trouble?

After the second installment underperformed and with the next film suddenly without a director, we might worry about Star Trek.

Star Trek 3 is in the midst of some upheaval. The next installment of the most financially successful version of the Star Trek franchise has found itself without a director after the sudden exit of Roberto Orci from the Captain’s chair. While Orci is apparently staying on as a producer, indicating less acrimony than these splits usually do, it’s still another disturbing sign from a franchise that may be in the midst of an identity crisis.

Financial success aside, even the most casual Trek fan would probably agree that, brand name and a few coincidental similarities aside, the last two Star Trek films bore little actual resemblance to the concepts and ideals of Gene Roddenberry’s vision. JJ Abrams’ first Star Trek film borrowed the pacing and humor usually associated with Star Wars to tell a slick, pretty Enterprise adventure on a larger scale than we had become accustomed to…at least in the wake of previous Trek entries like the disappointingly dull Star Trek: Insurrection and the claustrophobic Star Trek: Nemesis. It worked, as the film rode Warp 7 to an over $250 million US box-office take, an unheard of success for a Trek film.

Star Trek Into Darkness, on the other hand was a relatively charmless affair, borrowing the worst blockbuster tropes to tell a surprisingly earthbound story with some ugly and unnecessary 9/11 truther undertones. Into Darkness still managed to take in $228 million in the US. Again, exceptional by Trek standards, but an immediate indicator of diminishing returns on the newly-rebooted series. It’s doubtful that hardcore Trek fans really factored into this, as the first film’s success was built almost entirely on the fact that people who had never paid much attention to the brand suddenly were buying tickets. But if they couldn’t be enticed back in the same numbers, and there were fewer repeat viewings, that’s not the kind of trend that makes Paramount executives happy.

Nevertheless, Star Trek 3 has never really been in doubt, with a rather firm plan to get it into theaters in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the franchise in 2016. This would have been Mr. Orci’s most high profile gig since he and writing partner Alex Kurtzman went their separate ways. If reports are true, it’s script difficulties that have lowered shields on Star Trek 3. There are reports of a “go home, start over” situation for the film. This isn’t good. 

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I should point out that Mr. Orci’s sudden departure doesn’t necessarily spell doom, or even delay. Just look at Marvel’s Ant-Man, which saw director Edgar Wright depart on the eve of principal photography a mere six months ago, only to wrap essentially on schedule and on target for its July 2015 release date. It’s possible.

Ironically, it’s Edgar Wright’s name that has surfaced at the top of Paramount’s shortlist for potential Star Trek 3 directors (along with Attack the Block‘s Joe Cornish, who at one point was rumored to direct this installment anyway before Mr. Orci sat in the captain’s chair). Wright already works well with current Scotty Simon Pegg, and I’d certainly allow myself a smile if Mr. Wright managed to find his way to runaway blockbuster success, even without the Marvel Studios juggernaut. However, you’ll forgive me if I don’t see this as a match made in heaven, particularly given Wright’s recent bristling at handling a studio-mandated franchise, not to mention his other commitments.

There’s already a small but vocal section of the fanbase trying to push Star Trek: First Contact director Jonathan Frakes into the director’s chair, but somthing tells me that appeasing fans of pre-boot Trek isn’t at the top of Paramount’s list of priorities. That’s fine, as Star Trek really should stop looking backwards. After two appearances by Leonard Nimoy as Trek‘s most iconic figure, and plans reportedly afoot to let Chris Pine and William Shatner share screen time as Captain Kirk in the next one, I have to wonder about the sustainability of a franchise that feels the need to trade solely on its most recognizable moments and characters, especially when the Trek brand was, historically, always about exploration.

In the unlikely event that this is a full “back to the drawing board” scenario for Star Trek, this might not be such a bad thing. Even if you’re a fan of the current incarnation (and I should freely admit that I’m not), there’s little denying that something didn’t gel with the last installment, and early troubles on what should be a fiftieth anniversary celebration seem like a bad omen. If Trek’s future doesn’t lie in films (unlikely as this may sound), where does it?

The Star Trek movies that truly worked (for this writer, that’s all six of the “classic” films, minus Final Frontier, plus First Contact and the usually reviled Nemesis…but that’s an argument for another article) mostly did so because the necessary investment in the characters was already handled by years of television and decades of syndicated reruns. New Star Trek movies instead seem to think that all heavy lifting has already been done, and that we should just accept these characters via pop culture osmosis. This is fine when you’re dealing with characters like Superman or Sherlock Holmes, who have supported multiple interpretations across media for decades, but not when you’re “reinventing” characters that had previously only been brought to life by one actor.

So, what’s next?

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I’m not advocating for a return to the timeline of “classic” Star Trek. However, it might be a good idea for Paramount to take a long look at what made Star Trek such an enduring success in the first place, and build the franchise around that instead of whatever else it is that they’re trying to accomplish. In order for Star Trek to really reach its ideals, in order for it to “seek out new life and new civilizations,” it shouldn’t only do it every three years on a big screen. With one or two notable exceptions, Trek has always worked as episodic fiction doled out in weekly doses. A new Trek series that has learned the lessons of, for example, Battlestar Galactica, would probably do more to re-establish the hopes of fans than another $250 million in ticket sales.

Worth noting are two of the more interesting Star Trek pitches of the last decade or so. The first was a proposed animated series called Star Trek: Final Frontier. While existing in the “pre-boot” Trek continuity, this one moved things forward several decades beyond Star Trek: The Next Generation, introduced a host of new characters, but retained all of the classic Star Trek design elements that, when you really think about it, are as essential to the brand’s marketability as the names of any of the characters. Perhaps moreso. You can read much more about that, including some storyboards, right here.

And then there’s the Bryan Singer series. Perhaps a victim of that director’s notoriously short attention span (still glad to see him back in the fold for X-Men movies, though!), Star Trek: Federation was a pitch he commissioned from Free Enterprise director Robert Meyer Burnett and writer Geoffrey Thorne. That’s a fun read, and once again, seemingly more true to the ideals of Star Trek than anything we’re likely going to see on the big screen in the next few years. It even has the all important name of “Kirk” in it.

I don’t expect either of these projects to miraculously return to life, of course, nor do I truly expect Star Trek 3 to fade into development hell. But if Star Trek is actually going to survive to see the 23rd century, it would do well to look to the stars, and not to the past. Whether it does this on the big screen or the small screen, a broadcast network or Netflix, is incidental.

Make it so.

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Mike Cecchini probably isn’t going where no man has gone before. He hardly ever leaves New York City. Show him the error of his ways on Twitter.