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Does Star Trek have a future on the big screen?

The launch of the most recent Star Trek series, Strange New Worlds, marks the sixth new Star Trek show to drop in the last five years — as many as there were during the first 40 years of the franchise. Given that the streaming service Paramount + is using Star Trek as a flagship brand as it grows and develops its service (it launches in the U.K. and South Korea in June), it makes sense that it would lean into more Star Trek television.

But Trek has as much history in the movies as on television. And since J.J. Abrams’ splashy “Kelvin Timeline” reboot dropped out of warp after three movies made between 2009-2016, no new big-screen adventures have been definitively announced. Does Star Trek have a future on-screen? As we await word, we recap the multi-decade legacy of Star Trek in the movies.

The cast assembles in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The original movie series is classic Star Trek

Star Trek had one of the earliest and most vocal modern fan communities, whick organized some of the first fan conventions and ‘zines and clamored for the show to return after its cancellation in 1969 (not an easy thing to achieve pre-internet). Star Trek: The Animated Series appeared in 1973 and lasted for two seasons, and though it featured voice acting by much of the original cast, it was hardly enough to sate fans’ appetites. There was also talk of the franchise returning to television in the form of Star Trek: Phase 2, but the success of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (both 1977), combined with the new era of blockbuster grosses, compelled Paramount to pilot Trek onto the big screen. The result, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979, directed by The Sound of Music helmer, Robert Wise), was a financial success, featuring top-notch production values and special effects. But it was also somewhat of a bore and Paramount knew it needed an early “reboot” well before that term even existed to describe updating IPs.

Thus, producer Harve Bennett, writer/director Nicholas Meyer, and writer/director Leonard Nimoy came together to produce the (mostly) beloved Trek films of the 1980s. The stories were solid, as were the special effects (George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic took over), but the movies really found their groove by leaning into the “found family” aspect of the USS Enterprise crew, making Kirk (William Shatner) and his fellow officers into a tight-knit bunch whose commitment to one another trumped their duty to Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets.

Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner star in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

“Trekkies” (at this time still nobly struggling to be referred to as “Trekkers”) loved the world of Trek, but what they really loved were the characters (see 8 billion fan/fiction stories and counting). Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982, directed by Meyer) highlighted the characters and featured one of the most nakedly emotional endings of any science-fiction film ever, one that celebrated the love between Kirk and Spock (Leonard Nimoy). Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984, directed by Nimoy, then free from his on-screen duties) was poignant verging on maudlin as it doubled down on the Spock love by having the crew risk their lives and careers to preserve Spock’s soul in death, thus allowing him to be (spoiler!) reborn for future stories.

The series reached a critical and commercial high point with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986, also directed by Nimoy), a time-travel story sending the crew to San Francisco circa 1986 in a Klingon “Bird of Prey,” which was threatening to overtake the Enterprise as the most popular ship in the franchise. The “save the whales” story succeeded with general audiences through laugh-out-loud comedy and by foregrounding the characters and relationships while muting the sci-fi vibe.

William Shatner and DeForest Kelly star in Star Trek VI.

Riding high, the series stumbled with Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), a cheap-looking movie (the production used a new special effects house) directed by Shatner. Shatner evidently believed that anything Nimoy could do behind the camera he could do just as well, only for everyone to discover that he was very, very wrong. Paramount knew it couldn’t exit the series with the Final Frontier — especially with the burgeoning popularity of Star Trek: The Next Generation on television — and so it brought back Wrath of Khan writer/director Meyer (along with Industrial Light and Magic) to craft an elegy for the original crew that also concluded its long-running Cold War allegory. The exciting and elegant Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) brought the franchise back into the good graces of critics and fans while also handing Star Trek off for good to The Next Generation.

Tom Hardy and Patrick Stewart star in Star Trek: Nemesis

The Next Generation was better on TV

By 1991, The Next Generation, which had had a rocky start in terms of quality and fan appreciation, had warped into galactic success. Paramount decided in 1987 to sell the show into first-run syndication, rather than taking a chance on a major broadcast network, and it was the right choice, allowing TNG to find its footing in the early seasons without fear of cancellation. Paramount also funded the series with budgets unheard of for a syndicated show at the time, upwards of $2 million an episode by the end of its run. All that care and attention paid off, and by the time TNG bowed out in the spring of 1994, it was one of the most beloved and critically acclaimed shows on television. It ran for 178 episodes over seven years and easily could have run years longer. Paramount had other plans though: Launching new Trek shows on TV (Deep Space Nine, Voyager) and graduating The Next Generation to the big screen.

As with the original series, The Next Generation movie series got off to an inauspicious start with the underwhelming Star Trek: Generations (1994). The big idea was to pair Kirk with Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) as a way of transitioning one series to the next. Unfortunately, audiences found the plot uninvolving and Kirk’s (spoiler) on-screen death one of the lamest ever. Star Trek producers found themselves in the same position they had been in 15 years earlier — needing to come back with a sequel that had a lot more juice.

Patrick Stewart and Alice Krige star in Star Trek: First Contact.

Which they did, with Star Trek: First Contact. Directed by Jonathan Frakes (Commander Will Riker on The Next Generation), who had successfully helmed a number of the TV episodes, First Contact enlisted the wildly popular “Borg” as its villain, as well as upped the action and the quality of the special effects. The results were a financial and critical success, yielding an entry that is still considered one of the best of all the Trek movies.

Here, the fates of the two franchises diverged, however. Whereas the original series kept humming along in cinemas with popular entries, The Next Generation lost its footing for good. The follow-up to First Contact, Insurrection (1998), again directed by Frakes, played like a mediocre episode of the show. The final entry, Star Trek: Nemesis (2002), tried to go for a darker, edgier tone, with a more intimidating villain (a young Tom Hardy playing a Romulan), but still didn’t find the narrative it needed. Nemesis ended Star Trek on-screen for the better part of a decade.

Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, and Sofia Boutella star in Star Trek Beyond.

J.J. Abrams’ reboot series was thrilling but problematic

Looking to reboot the franchise with fresh energy, Paramount reached out to J.J. Abrams, who understood the appeal of television with hit shows like Alias and Lost, and had also established his movie franchise bona fides by directing Mission Impossible III for Paramount. The idea was to update the original series with a young cast and cutting-edge visual effects, while preserving the Technicolor aesthetic and ’60s-era optimism of the original. Star Trek (2009) was a big hit, with audiences and reviewers praising Abrams’ slick production, as well as the tone-perfect casting of hot young actors (Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, etc.) in the original roles of Kirk, Spock, Uhura and the rest of the crew. Two somewhat successful sequels followed: Star Trek into Darkness in 2013 and Star Trek Beyond in 2016.

Despite Abrams’ accomplishments with the material, the series was dogged by problems. Some of these involved content. While fans and critics enjoyed the first movie’s origin story, many Trekkers were not thrilled by the way the series’ alternate “Kelvin timeline” led to unwelcome changes from the original stories. Fans especially took issue with the way that Into Darkness repurposed Khan from Star Trek II (played by Ricardo Montalbán in the original and Benedict Cumberbatch in the reboot). Viewers also grumbled about the prevalence of action[ and special effects-driven stories over the character- and theme-driven stories that constitute classic Trek. Of course, Star Trek had always featured action and violence, but viewers felt the reboots skewed too heavily toward Star Wars, and debates raged over over whether the new movies constituted “real” Trek.

There was also constant hand wringing by studio executives over the box office performance of the movies, which, though they did well, weren’t bringing in top-tier global grosses in the vein of Star Wars, Batman, and the MCU.  Finally, the production (and fans) took a hit when Anton Yelchin, who played Chekov, died in a tragic car-related accident. How to replace him became an issue and his death cast a pall over the franchise.

The Enterprise is damaged in Star Trek into Darkness.

Does Star Trek have a future on the big screen?

These issues and others have led to doubts about the continuation of the Kelvin franchise in particular and Star Trek on the big screen in general. In the years since Star Trek Beyond, rumors and false starts have proliferated in the media about new big-screen entries. There was endlessly reported news about Quentin Tarantino’s interest in making a Star Trek film, which seemed to grain traction for a hot minute, but has since retreated into the realm of the highly unlikely. Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley was attached to a film for a while, as was Chris Hemsworth, who was going to return in a time-travel plot as his George Kirk character from Abrams’ first film.

The cast has proclaimed their willingness to return — though there have been public squabbles over salary and scheduling issues with the in-demand stars, especially Zoe Saldana, who may be tied up making Avatar and Guardians of the Galaxy movies for the foreseeable future. If the cast manages to get back together and shoot a another film after almost 20 years, they will have become the middle-aged stalwarts that Paramount tried to reboot in the first place.

Finally, given the way that cinematic distribution and exhibition has changed, leading to the ever-growing dominance of streaming, it might not make sense for Paramount to try to enter the cutthroat global box office competition with a franchise that has historically underperformed, especially globally. If there are new Star Trek films in the offing, it’s likely they won’t be special effects extravaganzas like Abrams’ entries, and that they will be made with smaller budgets and new voices in front of and behind the camera. And perhaps that’s exactly what the franchise needs to boldly go where no Trek films have gone before.

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