By Hilton Collins
Star Trek Beyond, the latest entry in the long-running Star Trek film franchise from Paramount studios, came to theaters this past weekend, thundering into multiplexes with gritty, action-oriented pomp and circumstance. And sitting currently at the top of the American box office with mostly favorable reviews from Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, the high-octane tone for this Justin Lin-directed project seems to be a fine direction for the film series to go in.
But with all these big explosions and epic, laser filled space dogfights, is the cinematic version of the Star Trek franchise missing the point?
During the Star Trek 50th Anniversary panel at Comic-Con Saturday afternoon, Bryan Fuller, the showrunner for the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery series mentioned how important Star Trek's legacy is in the world today. As the panel moderator, he said that it was crucial in the new series, which will debut on CBS All Access, to "remind the audience about the message of Star Trek."
As a kid growing up who caught the occasional episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and reruns of the original Star Trek show in TV, that message always seemed to be one about a well-meaning crew who explored the depths of space while exemplifying the more diplomatic ideals of Earth. Star Trek was more about cerebral storytelling and cultural, philosophical issues than it was about getting into fights and making Die Hard-style one-liners while bad guys got shot up. However, that seems to be the direction the film franchise has been going in ever since 2009's Star Trek reboot by famed director J. J. Abrams. That film set the course for the current generation of Star Trek films that's less about mental stimulation and more about staying competitive with the crisp, visceral blockbusters of today.
Yet it's possible that the new television show will be the one that's truer to Star Trek's heart, no matter how many millions the movies make on the big screen.
At the Saturday panel in Hall H, Fuller was joined in stage by Star Trek TV titans William Shatner, the original Captain Kirk; Brent Spiner, who played Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation; Jeri Ryan, the iconic Seven of Nine fromVoyager; Michael Dorn, Worf from the Next Generation; and Scott Bakula, who played Captain Archer in Enterprise. The panelists discussed the history of Star Trek and what it meant for a TV show with its high-minded message to exist in a dark world.
Discovery will debut on CBS All Access in January 2017 as a streaming show, and Fuller told the Hall H audience that it won't be episodic like traditional TV, but more like a novel instead. It was unclear what he meant by that, but the more novelistic tone seems like it may facilitate even more high brow storytelling themes than you'd expect. Prose novels are famous for containing sophisticated themes and high-brow storytelling styles.
The panel didn't bring any substantive footage for Discovery, so it's too soon to gauge what the show will be like in any meaningful fashion, but if it's indeed more mentally stimulating than the current crop of films, that may be a welcome change for Star Trek fandom. Although Star Trek Beyond is the number one film this weekend with a nearly $60 million opening weekend, that's less than Star Trek Into Darkness's $70 million opening weekend from a few years back, and it's nowhere near the $80 to $100+ opening weekends that modern mega blockbusters often get.
The Star Trek films aren't in any danger of going away because they're still successful enough to warrant sequels, but they're not bringing people into theaters the way Marvel films do, or even DC ones. They don't need to, mind you, but the comparison is a strong reminder that there are stronger movie brands out there when it comes to action and science fiction adventure.
So it makes one wonder: was Star Trek supposed to be a blockbuster film franchise, or is its true home on television, where it has room to breathe and stretch its legs as a thinking person's adventure story, free of the pressures of Hollywood movie studios and their action movie demands?