The 'Star Trek' Universe's Future on the Big Screen

Star Trek: First Contact (1996) Patrick Stewart -Photofest - H 2019
The CBS-Viacom merger will bring the sci-fi franchise's movies and TV shows under one roof for the first time since 2005, but does that mean it should try to return to its transmedia glory days of the 1980s and '90s?

The final frontier is once again within reach. This week CBS and Viacom merged back together, meaning that the totality of Star Trek, as both film and television entities, are under one roof for the first time since 2005 and the conclusion of Star Trek: Enterprise. In the 14 years since, Star Trek has regained its television footing and found success on the streaming platform CBS All Access with Star Trek: Discovery, which along with the upcoming Star Trek: Picard, follows the canon established by Gene Roddenberry's original series, Star Trek, and furthered by Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek: Enterprise, and a series of films that concluded in 2002 with Star Trek: Nemesis.

Since then, the film side of the Trekverse has remained separate within its alternate reality "Kelvin timeline," established by J.J. Abrams in Paramount's 2009 Star Trek. It's been three years since the last Star Trek film, Star Trek Beyond (2016), and after talks fell through with Chris Pine and Chris Hemsworth, there's been little traction on the sequel that would have seen S.J. Clarkson take the helm as the franchise's first female director and unite Pine's James T. Kirk and Hemsworth's George Kirk. While Quentin Tarantino is developing an R-rated Star Trek film, Paramount's plans for the sci-fi franchise appear to be in flux. But with this new merger, that state of Trek could change very soon.

The CBS-Viacom merger could reenergize the property's warp core, but an over-calculation could bring the whole thing crashing down quicker than the companies can yell "Khaaan!" Viacom, with both CBS and Paramount on board, has a chance to connect its film and television series as it did in the '80s and '90s, well before the term "cinematic universe" held any weight in Hollywood. Observers may be quick to compare the potential of Star Trek to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but setting up Trek as a contender to the MCU is a disservice to the property, one that it cannot hope to match in terms of audience size or box office. Star Trek doesn't need to chase Disney's success in order to expand, it simply needs to succeed on its own terms.

But what might those terms be in this new era of Trek? With two continuities and the landscape of blockbusters significantly changed since the days of TNG and the start of the Kelvin timeline, is reconnecting the film and television sides of the Trekverse the right way to go? And perhaps more to the point, is an intricately connected film and TV universe of interest to anyone but the most devoted of Trekkies?

When J.J. Abrams resuscitated the franchise in 2009 with a clever reboot that didn't erase the past but instead offered a slick and shiny entry point for new fans, Star Trek felt essential to the theatrical experience once again. Its release came seven months before Avatar, five years before Guardians of the Galaxy and six years before The Force Awakens, and it was the heir apparent to the big-budget sci-fi spectacle we'd missed. As is surely the case with a significant number of novice Trek fans, it was Abrams' reboot that got me into Star Trek, led me to check out the original series on Netflix and parse my way through a canon that had long seemed impenetrable as a result of its many series and films. Yet even now, as a fan of the property, I've only scratched the surface of this universe, which to become a proper Trekkie requires a time commitment that seems daunting.

There's long been a debate over the preference between Star Trek and Star Wars, and while the two properties are too different to warrant any real argument, Star Wars does have the benefit of requiring only a film knowledge to seal a viewer's status as a fan. Animated series, comics and video games do exist within that canon, but they don't feel anywhere near as necessary as watching several seasons of TNG in order to appreciate Star Trek: Generations (1994). Abrams made Star Trek inviting, welcoming enough for first timers who didn't have to worry about the baggage of previous entries, and reference-heavy enough to support a deep dive into the canon for those willing and invested.

Ten years removed from Abrams' reboot and the landscape is entirely different. While Star Trek Into Darkness broke out in the crowded summer of 2013, Star Trek Beyond (2016), despite its release during the franchise's 50th anniversary year, disappointed at the box office, in part because Paramount never got a handle on marketing it, and in part because Star Trek just didn't carry the same weight in a cineplex that had been dominated by Star Wars months earlier and was hooked on superhero showdowns. While the promise of a time travel-centric fourth film that would bring together Hemsworth and Pine, both having grown in stardom thanks to their own parts in the superhero movie canon, seemed too good to pass up, financial disputes and creative differences led to the project falling apart. In the interim, Star Trek found new life on CBS All Access, back within its original timeline.

While I haven't had a chance to catch up for myself, Star Trek: Discovery has proven to be well-liked among Trekkies, both classic and contemporary. But on a small streaming service like All Access, Discovery is more of the equivalent of a cult hit than a breakout water-cooler series along the lines of Netflix's Stranger Things. While ratings info is scarce, its place on the streaming service rather than the CBS network suggests that it's not a show that could survive long-term in the network ratings battle. Discovery, despite taking place before the original series and being new-viewer friendly, is reliant on the franchise's past, an established order that will lead to familiar events. And this situation will be even more the case with the upcoming Picard, which will undoubtedly be more of a highlight for those familiar with TNG and the movies it spawned. While there's certainly a desire to see Discovery's Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) make her way into a film, or to see Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner take on another cinematic mission as Picard and Data, a wide theatrical release for characters centralized within a streaming service seems like a doomed prospect, regardless of how good those films could be creatively. Perhaps it's pessimistic but I can't imagine more than a handful of those who don't watch the streaming series showing up to see a big-screen crossover in this day and age.

As cinematic universes expand, the notion of connecting film and television is undoubtedly attractive. But television spinning off into theatrical releases seems like a thing of the past. The Walking Dead will soon be giving it a shot, but I have my doubts it'll manage to replicate the success that Star Trek had doing the same in the '90s. Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm are spinning their movies off into Disney+ series, but they're doing so with blockbuster-level budgets and actors from the movies. Sure, ABC has managed to get seven seasons out of Agents of SHIELD, while never being a ratings darling and tying only loosely to the movies, but that's a tall order to expect from Star Trek. And unlike Marvel and Star Wars, there doesn't seem to be a big enough audience to support a multimedia, #itsallconnected Trekverse that Viacom will consider worth the money. Plus, asking non-Treksperts to sort through the continuity of two universes seems like a big ask.

There's an understandable desire to bring Star Trek back to its glory days, when it could support three shows and movie tie-ins every couple of years. But keeping film and television separate may still be the best option for now. CBS All Access has a good plan in motion, and it's a safe bet that the service will host more Trek series in the coming years. It already has a Lower Decks animated series in the works, as well as a Michelle Yeoh-led Discovery spinoff.

And on the film side of things, regardless of whether Tarantino's film pans out, it's hard to imagine the Enterprise away from movie screens for too long. Even if we don't get to see the cast of Abrams' film, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, John Cho and Simon Pegg, reprise their roles, which would be a real shame, that doesn't mean it's curtains for the Kelvin universe. If we take into account how Star Trek (2009) drew people back to The Original Series, then there's certainly potential in jumping forward a few decades within the Kelvin timeline, and introducing a Next Generation-based reboot with a new cast as Picard, Data, Riker, Worf, Deanna, Geordi and the rest of the Enterprise-D. That way forward, in terms of big-screen Star Trek, sounds more viable and perhaps more rewarding in terms of growing a fan base than expecting Star Trek: Picard to launch a big-budget film.

There's certainly room for CBS All Access' Star Trek series to lead to a couple of streaming movies that get limited fan event releases, but the best thing for Star Trek may be to let the original canon dominate the streaming sphere and continue on with the spectacle of the Kelvin timeline on the theatrical front. With Star Wars taking a brief big-screen hiatus following The Rise of Skywalker, it may be the perfect time for Paramount to double its efforts and seize the space-adventure landscape once more. As with any merger, there's an expectation to go bigger and release more content. But not every property can work under the same format, and if we're being honest, then what works for Disney won't work for Viacom. I want CBS and Paramount to seize the opportunity of their new union, but when it comes to Star Trek, the best move yet may be in considering the strength of two separate timelines, divided by two separate mediums, each able to boldly go where no one has gone before.