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As Star Trek Beyond arrives in theaters this summer, the popular sci-fi franchise will celebrate its half-century birthday with its own version of a midlife crisis: Now that Star Wars has returned to dominate popular culture — and, in particular, the science fiction space inside popular culture — where does Star Trek go next?
In one respect, it’s a strange question to ask. After all, there are multiple superhero franchises in theaters currently, with Marvel’s multi-movie monolith co-existing relatively peacefully with Warner Bros.’ nascent DC movie universe and Fox’s growing X-Men universe; why can’t two competing sci-fi franchises share the screen? (Well, three, if James Cameron’s Avatar returns in 2018 and doesn’t get pushed back again, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.)
Part of the problem lies in the sheer scale of Star Wars‘ impact; both the release of The Force Awakens and subsequent excitement over both Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Star Wars: Episode VIII demonstrate just how easily a galaxy far, far away fills the mind when asked to think about movies set in space right now; not since the release of the original trilogy has that seemed quite so true.
But there’s also the issue of Star Trek‘s position inside the genre since its 2009 reboot in J.J. Abrams’ first entry in the series.
In his attempts to bring more personal stakes and character-based stories to the franchise, he arguably moved it closer to Star Wars and diluted the more nuanced, difficult to describe appeal of the series as a whole. In other words, recent Star Trek has seemed more like Star Wars, and who needs that when the real thing is back and already on everyone’s minds?
The obvious solution — and one which may already be chosen by Beyond, judging by recent comments by co-writer Simon Pegg and director Justin Lin — is to return the franchise to its roots as a vehicle for stories that are as intellectual as they are visceral, and embrace everything that makes Star Trek different from Star Wars. To go not towards the final frontier, but back to the series’ roots, so to speak.
At its core, Star Trek is a procedural, not a character piece (despite having such great characters as Kirk, Spock, McCoy — and, in later incarnations, Picard, Data, Worf et al; the one exception to that rule is spinoff series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which broke many of the rules of the franchise). It’s a series of stories intended to make commentary and ask questions about the world around us today through metaphor and allegory, and the majority of the most fondly remembered episodes of the various TV series do exactly that.
Despite the Abrams movies pivoting away from that core appeal — arguably building on something that has been part of the Trek movies since 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan — it’s the ability of Star Trek to look outwards that won the hearts of fans originally, and remains the franchise’s unique selling point.
At its best, Star Trek does what literary sci-fi does so easily, but so much of TV and movie sci-fi stumbles with: It changes the way that its audience interacts with the world.
Whereas Star Wars is a series that speaks to the heart — it is, after all, inherently a story about relationships and families, both inherited and constructed — Star Trek is arguably at its best when it speaks to the brain, asking questions and introducing ideas that challenge the status quo. Viewed in that light, not only can the two co-exist, alternating between the two seems like a well-balanced diet of sorts.
If Star Trek Beyond can push further than the action-oriented take of the previous two movies and remember what the series is capable of, it will not only be a fun summer movie, it’ll be an ideal way to launch the next 50 years of the franchise, and ensure that it’ll live long, and perhaps even prosper, no matter what other space-age movies are out there.
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