Where Star Trek dropped the ball

For the past, I don’t know, let’s say two or even three years, the entire world has been enamored over Star Wars fever renewed thanks to TFA. That is to say if Star Wars fever ever subsided - even before Disney purchased the franchise Star Wars-themed events became major draws at Disney theme parks, including frequent participation by the “501st Legion” fan group (at this point practically a volunteer force of event-ready extras readily at Disney’s disposal); meanwhile, both Family Guy and Robot Chicken had their turns at imaging the Star Wars universe in their cartoonish images. Star Wars was alive and well during the valley in between the final prequel and Disney’s purchase announcement, a period many people had pegged as the franchise’s nadir. Meanwhile, the other “Star” franchise has made equally grandiose promises only to deliver with at best enthusiasm much more muted. What happened?

For various reasons that are beyond the scope of this essay, Star Wars has been able to impart a massive cultural imprint from the very first movie. Although movie franchises had existed before (including Star Trek’s), never before had a franchise cut its own ties with such an incredible strong market demand for more, more, more. At a time when people were already making jokes about Jaws and Rocky launching movies deep into the 21st century, it seemed clear that Return of the Jedi would be it; the franchise would be finito from that point on and people would have to deal with it. But market forces being market forces, the movie franchise had to continue, even if more in spirit than in actual film. The Kenner/Playmates toyline pushed for LucasFilm Licensing for some sort of opportunity to justify a new toy line or, barring that, allowing LFL to allow Kenner/Playmates to take the reigns entirely on their own which they would eventually do. The the “Expanded Universe” was born, culminating in one of the earliest “multi-media” mass-launch efforts, Shadows of the Empire. Although lacking a movie release, the “event” would see a highly anticipated Nintendo 64 game, novel, and comic book releases that, along with the re-release of the original trilogy helped the franchise maintain steam until the prequels could be announced to deafening fanfare. A classic anecdote of late in the last millennium is that the vast majority of ticket sales for the mediocre-at-best Wing Commander movie were for people who just wanted to see The Phantom Menace trailer and then promptly walked out, largely emptying theaters before the title screen appeared.

Star Wars was, at that time, a franchise that refused to be forgotten because its cultural memory was so strong, but at the same time Star Trek had experienced perhaps its greatest heyday. Star Trek had gone from a franchise once thought truly left for dead and to be as forgotten as Lost in Space and Forbidden Planet - classics, yes, but remembered only by true sci-fi aficionados trading trivia at Bay-area cons - to a legitimate cultural force capable of rivaling Star Wars. Like Fox Pictures, Paramount had taken a massive gamble that a movie based on the Trek franchise would pan out - and their first attempt had been a near-spectacular failure. However, after a number of significant shake-ups (not the least of which was a massive power struggle with series creator Gene Roddenberry) Paramount Pictures put out The Wrath of Kahn, a movie that managed to marry the type of special effects-laden space battles that wowed audiences with Star Wars with storytelling that has had many call TWoK one of the greatest sci-fi stories ever told. Star Wars was, arguably, little more than an adaptation of the lessons learned from the earliest, most basic and most fundamental mythos of human history - which has also arguably allowed it to resonate nearly universally with every culture on the planet and achieve instant timelessness, firing up the imaginations of nearly every viewing individual and creating the demand for its continued existence. But sci-fi authors and storytellers had already been aware of these fundamental lessons for decades, whether or not by intention or if they’ve ever heard of Joseph Campbell’s mythic compilations. Roddenberry was a believer in the fundamental inalienable “being” of humanity and that fictional alien races could serve as reflections of humanity itself, allowing us to see both our own ugliness and our own beauty through make-up and rubber bits pasted onto actors’ foreheads. The first Star Trek picture, simple titled The Motion Picture, tried to tap into this fundamental storytelling that Star Wars successfully exploited and Star Trek had all along. Perhaps too hard, and critics and moviegoers walked away from TMP feeling it a boredom-laden mess. TWoK sought to more blatantly mine classical Shakespearian themes of revenge and pain, down to unapologetically quoting the Bard as freely as it pleased. It also worked like a charm and allowed the franchise to continue on to a total of ten movies before the “reboot,” with a total of six featuring the “classic” Original Series crew.


Fast forward to the final years of Bush the Second’s second term and the beginning of the Obama administration. After two generously subpar prequels, George Lucas was finally able to deliver on a more or less satisfactory bow-out, and just when people were finally convinced that the franchise had been given a rest, the EU worked overtime giving us a highly praised CGI cartoon series and enough in the way of video games ranging from adequate to top-notch quality (or at least credible rumors thereof) to keep the franchise’s heartbeat healthy until Disney’s purchase. Meanwhile, Star Trek on TV finally gave up the ghost after season three of Enterprise - just as with TMP, the final season had been given a massive overhaul to stop the hemorrhage of viewership but the changeover wasn’t enough. Paramount would beat Lucas/Disney to a franchise relaunch with 2009's Star Trek; the film was outright incoherent in places and obviously suffered from the infamous writer’s strike of the period, but it was successful enough and managed to generate enough buzz to keep fans either satisfied or eager for a sequel that would finally have all the bugs worked out.

Then Star Trek Into Darkness happened, and while it avoided being an outright bomb it failed to live up to the promises made at the end of 2008's reboot. And now we have Beyond and...other than that, silence.

So what happened?

Whatever the specific reasons, it’s clear Paramount had simply dropped the ball. They had all the opportunity in the world to ride on and rival Star Wars’ success with a ready-made franchise with built-in cultural touchstones...and they’re struggling to keep their efforts from being completely squandered. A lot of it will have to be chalked up to a lack of clear vision on management’s part. There has also been accusation that director J.J. Abrams essentially outright sabotaged the franchise with Into Darkness, fueled by claims that “he’d rather be directing Star Wars” based on the stylistic direction he took both Trek movies and the rather coincidental timing of his departure straight to direct rival The Force Awakens. Either way, Paramount desperately needs to not just take a few pages from Disney’s playbook, but outright steal it and start ripping out sections wholesale and pin them to their marketing boards. This is the time when one franchise can mutually benefit the other, and Paramount needs to wake up to the possibilities.

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