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The Star Trek Franchise Just Can’t Catch a Break These Days

Last weekend at Wizard World in Tulsa, Oklahoma there was a special panel called “The State of Star Trek 2016: Star Trek Turns 50.” Sadly, I was unable to attend, but the description for the panel on the Wizard World website perfectly summed up what it feels like to be a Star Trek fan in 2016:

2016 is the 50th anniversary of one of the most beloved franchises in fandom and so far, many hardcore Trek fans have felt…underwhelmed… by the “celebration.” This panel is an attempt to discuss, with Trek Fans, the current – and possibly lacking – state of the Star Trek franchise. Does it work better on TV? Is it an untapped “Mega-Franchise” a-la Marvel, or has Trek’s time essentially past in the wake of “hipper and glossier” sci-fi. We hope to zero in on the successes and failures of the recent Trek efforts as well as state our hopes for the upcoming series “Star Trek: Discovery.”

Of course, within days of that panel Star Trek: Discovery lost its showrunner. As first reported by Variety, Bryan Fuller has stepped down to focus on his two other TV shows, Starz’ upcoming American Gods and an Amazing Stories reboot for NBC. The news is not actually as bad as it sounds. Fuller’s already written the scripts for Discovery‘s first two episodes, mapped out a season long story arc and thus established all of the new characters in such a way that his replacements Gretchen Berg and Aaron Harbert, whom he hired to his writing staff in the first place and has worked with many times before, can easily follow his lead. Moreover, word is Fuller will still be involved as an executive producer, although that is quite often just a ceremonial title.

But, still, the optics here don’t look good. Fuller’s one of us, a lifelong Star Trek fan, except unlike us he gained access to the Next Generation set, slid his spec scripts under the doors of the producers after hours and kept doing that until they’d hire him. Cut to today and he’s a superstar showrunner with a loyal fanbase who’ll follow him from one ratings-challenged critical darling (Pushing Daisies) to another (Hannibal) and will probably get Starz, if they don’t already have it, just to see American Gods. His involvement with Discovery, officially co-creating it with Alex Kurtzman, was supposed to be his big homecoming and exactly the thing needed to pacify those Trekkies who’ve never quite warmed to the JJ Abrams Trek movies. Bummed that the new movies were made by an outsider who had no deep love for the material (and it showed)? Well, now here’s a new TV show made by a lifelong fan, and it’s even set in the old Original Series-Next Gen-DS9-Voyager-Enterprise timeline.

Except, of course, Fuller overcommitted, stretched himself too thin and now has too many spinning plates to do Discovery justice. In that sense, him stepping down as showrunner could actually be considered a break for the show, kind of a “finally the show might move forward now that it has people in charge who actually have the time to work on it” moment. That is, of course, assuming the feet-dragging is Fuller’s fault. For all we know, the network, CBS, could bear some of the blame.

star-trek-discoverys-picEither way, Fuller’s involvement was like 60% of the reason to be excited about the show, the other 40% being “lead character will be female,” “one crew member will be openly gay,” “Nicholas Meyer is on the writing staff,” and “it’s Star Trek!”. Moreover, this is just another behind the scenes complication for a show which has already been delayed 5 months (from Jan. ’17 to May ’17) and seemed so strapped for ideas that Fuller turned a San Diego Comic Con panel into a glorified focus group (instead of sharing any concrete details about Discovery he simply asked the crowd and panelists to talk about what they love most about Star Trek). All of this despite the fact that the show’s budget has already been 100% bought and paid for thanks to Netflix, which is paying a lot of money to be the exclusive worldwide home of the show, except in the U.S where we’ll all have to subscribe to CBS All Acess to see it.

star-trek-beyond-bannerNone of this means Discovery will be a disappointment, but it does contribute to the larger narrative that all Star Trek projects must struggle to get out of the gate these days. We had to wait four years (with multiple release date changes) for Into Darkness because that’s how long it took them to come up with a script they liked as well as sufficient free time in J.J. Abrams’ schedule. The wait was cut down to just three years for Star Trek Beyond, but it, too, underwent multiple release date changes and a leadership change halfway through pre-production when would-be director and co-screenwriter Roberto Orci was effectively fired when no one else wanted to film the script he’d come up with. They had to throw together a completely new script in record time, yet hired two writers, series star Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, with no blockbuster movie writing experience whatsoever. Orci’s replacement in the director’s chair, Justin Lin, later admitted he’d never heard of a movie of the scale of Beyond being so rushed.

It’s thus a miracle that Beyond is as good as it is, but it underperformed at the box office, failing to at least double its production budget ($185m) in worldwide gross ($340.6m). Paramount’s still committed to a sequel, though, one which will return most of the same cast and producers while also somehow returning Chris Hemsworth as Kirk’s (dead) dad.

Thus it is that in this, the 50th Anniversary of Star Trek, the highlights of the year for the franchise have been the relatively recent BBC America marathon of the best Original Series episodes, an insanely under advertized “The Music of Star Trek” symphony tour and the release of two unofficial oral history books. Plus, anyone lucky enough to attend the Comic Con premiere of Beyond will probably never forget the experience. Hey, that’s at least something, but it’s not as strong as it could have been.

I wonder what the people in Tulsa argued last weekend. I’ll answer some of their questions:

Is it better as a TV show? – Probably, but we all seemed cool with Star Trek II-IV being like a three-part episode with multi-year long breaks in-between installments.

Is it an untapped “Mega-Franchise”? – No. Paramount has tried to make this happen for three straight films, and it just isn’t in the cards. The future for Star Trek should be smaller, not bigger, more manageable budgets and all that.

Has Trek’s time essentially past in the wake of “hipper and glossier” sci-fi? – Yes. The zeitgeist has been yielded to other properties, but that doesn’t mean Discovery and/or a future film sequel couldn’t move the needle again.

Our hopes for Star Trek: Discovery? – That it actually airs. We can get into specifics once we actually see a trailer or the first cast announcement, but at this point let’s keep our aims low and hope they actually finish this thing.


  1. I disagree on a few points but think this a good informative, and well-considered evaluation of all things currently-ST. ( One disagreement: I think the two films Abrams directed clearly demonstrated that ST cinema could be successful, artistically and commercially, as large scale, big budget entertainments, not on the level of the tiresome Marvel movies and comic book pictures in general, which no one gets excited about anymore but still make tons of money, particularly in foreign markets, but certainly on a level a galaxy away from the dreadful TNG movies; also, I generally liked BEYOND quite a bit but it wasn’t really in the same league as the first two, particularly INTO DARKNESS – – which may be divisive but I think it is a genuinely great movie, and one which set up the style and even content of the follow up I both expected and hoped for – – an inevitable, decisive war with the Klingons, a tumultuous love between Kirk and Carol Marcus, Spock and Uhura taking their relationship a step further and dealing with their cultural differences and the problems of a “mixed” marriage…. I could go on ….)

    1. Thanks for reading and responding.

      Allow me to clarify: I’m not disputing the financial gains made by the two Abrams films nor am I necessarily advocating for a return to the small scale doldrums of TNG movies. Star Trek and Into Darkness were box office hits unrivaled in Trek history because even if you do the ole “Well, tickets used to be so much cheaper back then” inflation adjustment that still can’t account for the international market which is available to new Star Trek in ways it never was in the 80s and 90s. On top of that, even with Beyond’s underperformance we are still just 1 movie and 3 years removed from a franchise installment which grossed over $200m domestic and then bested that total at the international market.

      The problem, though, is that’s not good enough, not when Paramount and Skydance reportedly spent somewhere in the $200m range (production budget) on each of the last two films and God knows how much on marketing. They so nakedly want to turn this into a mega-franchise, and it just hasn’t happened, not even when they went and got the Fast & Furious guy to replace Abrams. They are spending Marvel/Fast & Furious-sized money to make these things, but in return they’re getting G.I. Joe-sized hits (well, a little better than that, but not by much). On the plus side, they made some financing deals with Chinese companies for Beyond, but then Beyond barely managed to outgross Into Darkness ($64m vs. $57m) in China.

      After Into Darkness, I could see the argument for Star Trek possibly being on the cusp of a box office break through. However, Beyond was such a severe regression in that department that for the long term health and profitability of the franchise they’d better slash the budget of the next film (assuming they still make it) or else this will probably be it for a while.

      All that being said, I actually saw Star Trek Beyond twice in theaters, and it was even better the second time. I like it quite a bit, but it’s more “episode of the week” structure prevented me from truly loving it. As you pointed out at the end of your comment, love or hate Star Trek and Into Darkness Beyond clearly dropped the ball in regards to being the sequel those first two films seemed to be promising (e.g., Where the heck did Carol Marcus go? What happened to that looming war with the Klingons?).

      1. Thanks for the quick reply.

        I agree with your primary point regarding the budgets and marketing costs of the first two films compared with box-office grosses and the fact that so many companies in addition to Paramount are invested in the Star Trek “franchise,” and each expects a return on that profit. (It was somewhat more comforting, if that’s the right choice of word, when you knew that ST: The Motion Picture, and Khan and The Voyage Home etc., were brought to you “simply” by Paramount, a “Gulf and Western Corporation”). But still, I will, after so many Hollywood money scandals over the years, always be dubious when studios claim to never see returns even on big hits (and, in addition to being financially and critically well received both were also movies that people talked about all summer long, in ’09 and ’13; indeed Into Darkness still provokes arguments, and not just in nutty Trekkie corners). For instance, to this day (or when I saw the interview two or three years ago), at least one highly placed 20th Century Fox executive still claims he’s got their accountants’ reports to prove that Ridley Scott’s original ALIEN, while it made an initial splash at the box office, never in fact made the studio (which owns it) a single penny — which is clearly bullshit; it came in with a final budget similar to the original STAR WARS, 9-10 million, and according to most objective reports , made at the very least around 70 million on its original domestic run.

        As for BEYOND, I liked it more my 2nd viewing as well, though largely because of the cast and some of the visuals and Giacchino’s score, and less so for the story and the direction by Justin Lin (which ranged from great and inspired in the Enterprise destruction to outright film school bad in his coverage of many of the character-dialog scenes; again, the cast made it work but those actors had and still have a better working relationship to J.J. Abrams). But I think that BEYOND’s limited success (in and of itself, I wouldn’t consider it a bomb) has largely to do with another very poor job done by Paramount publicity. I had friends who loved INTO DARKNESS and were eager for the follow-up, asking me a week or two after it had been released, when BEYOND was coming out. As you touched upon in the main article, the studio seems to have had little interest into promoting STAR TREK by using the natural jumping off point of the 50th anniversary. It is strange, if not incompetent the way they’ve barely used what is, really, a milestone in the entertainment industry across the board. Basically, in terms of being long-lasting and still a viable “product,” you’ve got Mickey Mouse, Star Trek then Star Wars (ten years younger than Trek, more or less).

        And I’m glad you can see where I’m coming from in terms of the sequel’s lost opportunities (in fact, one of my two big problems with BEYOND is the basic set-up; sure it can begin 2 and a half years into the 5 year mission — but the movie should have been about one of those fun/serious rip-roaring mission-adventures, not Captain Kirk becoming bored with his assignment (that we haven’t seen) to the point of unrealistically seeking promotion away from the ship – – Chris Pine is so good in the role, he made it sort of work and it sort of allowed for the 50th anniversary to creep in metaphorically – – as that simply is not true to the hero “arc” of his character re-imagined in this alternate universe). I’m currently, in my spare time (I’m a filmmaker, a screenwriter and director) deep into writing a serialized chapter by chapter novel set in the Abrams’ Star Trek galaxy, the “Kelvin-timeline” (its amassed quite an audience of really dedicated readers on the sites where it is published ). And it deals with Kirk and Carol’s romance (I liked the idea that in an alternate universe, they could have a happy life together in the end) and a Klingon war. It started as an unsolicited screenplay.

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