Star Trek Guide

Why Star Trek Is Weakest As A Movie Franchise

With the Star Trek film franchise once again in limbo, it's time to face a harsh reality: the final frontier works better on the small screen. TheTrek film from Noah Hawley is on pause at Paramount, with new leadership at the studio reassessing their plans for the franchise. Still in the mix are Quentin Tarantino's proposed script — apparently a spin on the classic Star Trek: The Original Series episode "A Piece Of The Action" — and a time travel story that would bring back the cast of the Kelvin timeline films, as well as Chris Hemsworth as George Kirk, the late father of Chris Pine's Captain James T. Kirk.

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Yet, none of these film projects feel like formulas for box office success for Star Trek. Each one of the modern Trek films has made less money than the previous installment, suggesting a level of fatigue with that version of the franchise, and Tarantino's version has lost much of its appeal since he's pulled out of directing his version, instead wanting to simply be a producer.

The answer to Star Trek's movie problems is simple — stop making Star Trek movies for the foreseeable future. The TV side of the franchise is going strong, with three new Star Trek shows in production, and three more currently on-air.

Star Trek Started (And Works Best) As a TV Series

Star Trek, of course, began its life as a beloved (if ratings challenged) television series in 1966. It ran for 3 seasons before being cancelled, but gained a cult following in syndication, becoming one of the more unique success stories in TV history. Fans were not only drawn to characters like Kirk and Spock, but to the morality plays and social commentary that made the show a trailblazer. By the late '70s, Paramount had planned on creating a sequel series, Star Trek: Phase II, but the success of Star Wars led Paramount to develop a feature film instead, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. While a box office success, that film was met with lukewarm reviews and was an expensive calamity behind the scenes.

The TOS films would right themselves with the second installment, but overall, more Star Trek films are considered misses than hits. Star Trek films — certainly the contemporary ones — tend to be meat and potatoes action films, replacing the cerebral, deliberate storytelling that is so fundamental to the appeal of the franchise for the sake of more explosions and space battles. Those movies are occasionally satisfying, but they lack the enduring power of episodes like TOS' "City On The Edge Of Forever," Star Trek: The Next Generation's "The Best Of Both Worlds," or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's "Far Beyond The Stars." Those stories work because of the episodic format, not in spite of it, a format the movies can't match by their very nature.

Star Trek Movies Don't Work Without The TV Shows

Even the best Star Trek films have a hard time standing on their own. Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan is generally held up as the best Star Trek film, and with good reason; masterfully directed by Nicholas Meyer, it's a story of aging heroes facing the harsh realities they've been avoiding their entire lives, culminating in the death of Spock, which rocks Kirk to his very core. It also features a stupendously over the top performance by Ricardo Montalban as Khan, a role he originated on the TOS episode "Space Seed." The Wrath Of Khan would likely still work without that episode, but its epic scope is implied because this is the continuation of a story the audience was already invested in.

Similarly, Star Trek: First Contact — far and away the best film starring the TNG cast — is the culmination of several episodes of that series. Picard's uncharacteristic rage and unsteadiness in the face of Borg really only works if the audience is aware of "The Best Of Both Worlds," in which Picard was captured and assimilated into the Borg collective as Locutus. The pathos of the film makes little sense without that background. Some of the other successful Star Trek films — like Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and Star Trek Beyond — are simply feature length episodes of the series, barely justifying their existence as films when they'd be better suited to television stories.

Star Trek Doesn't Fit In The Current Movie Franchise Landscape

Beyond the inherent problems of making Star Trek films — which can occasionally be overcome — the current landscape of big budget franchise filmmaking simply makes the whole enterprise (no pun intended) an uphill battle. Dominated by the likes of Marvel and Star Wars, current movie audiences want spectacle and escapism, which are both present in Star Trek, but are not the main appeal. The best of Star Trek is more thoughtful, deliberative, and yes, political than the things modern moviegoing audiences tend to gravitate toward. J.J. Abrams stripped out most of those elements for his Trek films, making them more akin to Star Wars adventure films than Star Trek stories. That resulted in one stone cold classic — Abrams' first entry simply called Star Trek — and a couple of amiable sequels, but it lost some of what makes Star Trek unique. Perhaps even worse, it simply couldn't compete with the likes of the Avengers and Batman, with the very good Star Trek Beyond flaming out at the box office, leaving the film franchise in its current state.

Nobody really expects Paramount to stop making Star Trek movies. It's a science fiction institution with universal name recognition, and when the movies  work, they make the studio plenty of money. But it hasn't worked in quite awhile, certainly not in a form that's identifiably Star Trek. The franchise is enjoying a renaissance on CBS All Access, with Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and Star Trek: Lower Decks all showcasing different angles of the franchise on the small screen and, perhaps most intriguing, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds promises a more episodic format similar to the 20th century Star Trek series. The best move Paramount could make for the overall health of the Star Trek franchise would be to let the film arm take a nice long rest, and only bring it back when they have the sort of talent and script that warrants a magnificent return.