How 'Star Trek' Accidentally Created the Marvel Model 20 Years Earlier

Multiple TV shows, movies, comics and novels — everything was connected for 'Trek' years before the Marvel Cinematic Universe existed.
Courtesy of Tom Sutton/DC Entertainment

Today, Marvel Studios is considered to be the model for cross-media success; the comic books provide the source material for the movies, which interrelate with television shows, leading to the kind of brand loyalty that, the story goes, no one has ever seen before. Except that the Marvel model isn't actually a new thing — Star Trek was doing it two decades ago.

For a franchise based around the concept of exploration, it should come as little surprise that Star Trek has been as innovative in the real world as in the fictional galaxies above. While much has been made of the technological advances predicted by the series — yes, smartphones are like tricorders, we get it — less has been said about the fact that the franchise predicted the dominant model of genre entertainment years ahead of its ascendance, and did it essentially accidentally.

In the 1990s, Trek was arguably at its peak of popularity. Between 1993 and 1999, there were two television series on the air simultaneously (initially, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, then Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager), three movies released (Star Trek: Generations, Star Trek: First Contact and Star Trek: Insurrection) and numerous spinoff comic books and novels hitting the shelves each year.

Admittedly, the focus of the franchise differed from Marvel's. With '90s Trek, the TV shows were the central product, with the movies — which, as with the Marvel model, shared a continuity and would include Easter egg references and cameos from the TV shows — an ancillary and the comics and novels a further step removed. But the overall effect was the same: a multitude of Trek options available to fans on a regular basis, feeding all but the most insatiable need and then some.

The cross-media franchise grew up almost accidentally, and incrementally. The first Star Trek comics ran from 1967 through 1978, with publisher Gold Key taking very little inspiration from — and making equally little reference to — the source material beyond character names and occasionally likenesses. (This was hardly unusual; the comics industry of the time was filled with licensed material that seemed removed from its origin, including comics starring Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis and the Monkees.) A second series, from Marvel, was equally disconnected from the show's larger mythology thanks to a contractual obligation that allowed it only to reference the events of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

It wasn't until 1984's Star Trek, a monthly series from DC Comics, that the full force of the Trek mythology was harnessed in comics. Stories would feature obscure characters from the original series as well as the animated series and movies, and occasionally dip into straight-up sequels to onscreen adventures or flashbacks filling in moments fans had longed to see (The final mission of the original Enterprise, the crew in Starfleet Academy as kids) or didn't even know existed (The story of Scotty's one true love — and, no, it's not the starship).

The success of this series — which was relaunched in 1989 — would lead to the launch of similar series for Star Trek: The Next Generation and, later and from different publishers, Deep Space Nine and Voyager. By the 1990s, there was a framework firmly in place in which the comics were a venue for fan service of a level the movies and TV shows would offer.

Not the only venue, however; Star Trek had also been boldly going as a prose property since Bantam Books started releasing anthologies of adaptations of TV episodes in 1967, with a series of original stories launching in 1970. By the time Trek moved to the big screen, Simon & Schuster's Pocket Books imprint had picked up the rights for the franchise and launched a publishing program that grew rapidly as the success of the movies, and later, the TV shows increased. By 1989, new novels were being released on a near-monthly basis. As with the comics, stories in the prose line alternated between original concepts and revisiting old friends.

The result was a tiered model of media where audience engagement was as deep as each individual audience desired. The core product might have lacked the level of fan service and self-referentiality that Marvel excels in — for a while, The Next Generation even shied away from referring to the original series, afraid that it required too much involvement from casual viewers — but that could be found to a lesser extent in the movies, and to a far greater extent in the comics and novels.

Each piece of the puzzle, however, was part of a grander whole, and fed into the larger mythology of the fictional 23rd and 24th centuries. Long before Marvel taught the world that everything was connected, Star Trek was doing the same thing with far less fanfare. After all, the catchphrase is boldly going, not loudly.

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