Star Trek Guide

Is a Star Trek Universe ViacomCBS's Answer to the MCU? Not So Fast...

One of the more interesting results of the announced merger of CBS and Viacom is the reunion of the television and film components of the Star Trek franchise under a single company for the first time in 13 years. While that suggests the new ViacomCBS now possesses a shared universe to potentially rival the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this is may not actually be the case.

During a conference call with investors, ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish specifically cited Star Trek and Mission: Impossible as two franchises that could be  positioned across all platforms, including film, Viacom's cable networks, CBS's broadcast network, and the company's premium streaming service CBS All Access. That led to speculation that ViacomCBS might build a shared universe across television and film to expand the Star Trek brand. While that integrated multimedia strategy may not be off the table, there are important considerations and obstacles the franchise faces for such an expansion to be a bona fide success.

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For years, the cinematic future of the franchise has been uncertain following the lukewarm commercial and critical reception to 2016's Star Trek Beyond. The film earned significantly less at the worldwide box office than either of its predecessors in the rebooted timeline, which led Viacom subsidiary Paramount Pictures to reduce the budget for a planned sequel, resulting in stars Chris Pine and Chris Hemsworth leaving the project amid salary disputes.

After director S.J. Clarkson similarly dropped out, Paramount quietly shelved plans for a sequel and began mulling a pitch from acclaimed filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, unsure of how best to proceed with the cinematic property.

Perhaps a unified vision under the franchise's current television overseer, Alex Kurtzman, could provide the direction the big-screen adventures of Star Trek sorely needs, but there is no guarantee he would be the one up for the job, even after his success with Star Trek: Discovery. And while Kurtzman has experience with the cinematic franchise, co-writing and producing the 2009 reboot and its 2013 sequel Star Trek Into Darkness, Star Trek films have never performed well with the overseas market.

None of the classic films starring the casts of the original series and Star Trek: The Next Generation performed well at the foreign box office. The 2009 reboot earned $127.7 million overseas, a franchise-best at the time, which accounted for 31 percent of the film's total box office.

Into Darkness surpassed that, with $238 million internationally, while Beyond grossed $184.6 million, but meteoric drops after the opening weekends triggered studio concerns about the franchise's cinematic viability overseas as it rethought its strategy. Despite an extensive marketing campaign in China -- it's the world's second-largest film market -- Beyond earned only $65 million there, significantly below the studio's expectations.

The other consideration is that it is still relatively early days for the franchise's revival on television. While CBS has touted Star Trek: Discovery as a streaming success, specifics in regard to total viewers remain undisclosed. The first season divided fans initially because of its darker depiction of the future, and complaints about its meandering direction. Response to the second season was noticeably better as classic tropes and characters were added to the series, but, with the third season taking place in the far-future, its upward trend in favorable reception is hardly guaranteed.

Similarly, while CBS is steadily expanding its new wave of Star Trek programming, including a live-action series starring Patrick Stewart in his fan-favorite role as Jean-Luc Picard, and an animated series titled Lower Decks, it's unknown if any of these new series will be a success. Expectations are great for Star Trek: Picard, and while this will likely translate to strong viewing performance out the gate, the bar has been also set relatively high; nothing can kill a series' long-term viability worse than an especially soured fanbase.

Star Trek has largely been fueled by nostalgia, and when it leans into its own past, either by showcasing the early Starfleet days of Spock or continuing adventures of Picard, it generates widespread excitement. Even so, audiences really only appear to be engaged within the English-speaking world; foreign markets still haven't quite warmed up to Star Trek to the level Paramount had hoped, certainly on the big screen.

The integration of Star Trek cinematically and on television certainly is a good thing for the property overall but it has a long way to go to even approach a fraction of the success and ubiquity of the MCU.