Earlier this week , the fabulous genre website, io9.com, ran an article I wrote regarding how Paramount is missing out on a unique opportunity to develop Star Trek as a blockbuster multi-media property. After reading the article, your jocular webmaster Anthony Pascale, reached out to me and discussed expanding my article (or, as Charles Foster Kane might say, Declaration of Principals) for the Trek Movie audience with some additional and more Trek-specific thoughts to help facilitate a continued debate on the future of the Star Trek universe. As such, I hope you’ll find the revised, expanded, director’s cut version of my article (ne: manifesto) thought-provoking and worthy of further discussion as what I’m sure will be the first of many opinion pieces on how the studio should be treating the franchise as we approach its 50th anniversary in 2016. Now onwards, first star to the right and straight on till morning…
CREATING A STAR TREK MCU
For anyone who has followed the film and television business in the last few years, they know one thing is true: franchises are king. Whether it’s a remake, a reimagining, a book series or a comic book, this is the political capital that gets projects greenlit. Having a great script is only a small part of the equation (too small, regrettably). What marketable element is going to allow the film or series to open in China, Russia, Germany, Latin America and other territories around the world in a universe in which stars mean virtually nothing anymore, but the cartoon you watched when you were seven can easily get a $200 million budget is what’s important. It’s one reason that Paramount has been so aggressive about marketing Star Trek overseas given its lackluster performance abroad in previous incarnations (Star Trek IV was called only The Voyage Home in Europe and even opened with a brief Star Trek primer to get fans up-to-warp speed.
It didn’t help).
Every studio wants and needs its franchises (much like Captain Kirk needed his pain). Disney not only has the Marvel films, but Star Wars and the Theme Park spin-off’s like Pirates of the Caribbean, Warner Bros. has the DC Comics heroes and Harry Potter franchises, Fox has X-Men and, now, Apes, Sony is laboring under the delusion that Spider-Man and its associated spin-off’s is a vital franchise (although if anyone can pull it off, Drew Goddard probably can) and Universal which only had Fast & The Furious and Jason Bourne is doing a full court press to revive its moribund Universal Monsters into a 21st century mega-franchise. And while Paramount has the critically reviled, but box-office behemoth Transformers, they have another franchise that potentially can rule them all: Star Trek.
And yet you would never know it from the way in which the brand has been shabbily developed over the last ten years. Since the cancellation of Enterprise, Star Trek went into a semi-permanent state of hibernation until it was revived successfully by J.J. Abrams introducing the iconic characters to a new generation of fans around the world. Whether you love or loathe the films (or just enjoy them a helluva lot), one thing that is disappointing is the fact that it took four years between the first two films and, at least, another three until the next sequel. In movie years, this is an eternity. And there is literally nothing else to fill the void in between unless you’re one of the 12 people that still reads the novels. The fact is it’s time for Paramount and CBS to start treating Star Trek like a business and not just an annuity they can cash in every few years. They have their own Marvel, their own Star Wars, their own Guardians of the Galaxy, but it’s time to start treating Star Trek like Marvel and DC and devise, dare I say it, a transmedia strategy that delivers on the promise of this franchise which will not only satisfy the millions of fans craving more Star Trek but also fill the studio coffers many times over.
MGM’s 50th anniversary celebration of James Bond was a textbook marketing strategy executed with incredible finesse in which they revisited the catalog, introduced new licensing programs which culminated in the release of one of the best and most successful films in the series, Skyfall and created a new generation of Bond fans. It’s also worth noting that Skyfall was helmed by a director who loved James Bond. And with the impending 50th anniversary of Star Trek, the time for Paramount to get its act together when it comes to Trek is now.
Years ago, the failure of the TV series, Enterprise, was erroneously attributed by deposed Trek overlord Rick Berman to the preponderance of too much Star Trek. The fact is anyone who knew anything about Star Trek knew at the time that the eroding ratings and declining box-office of films like Insurrection and Nemesis had nothing to do with a lack of interest in Star Trek, they had to do with the fact people weren’t interested in seeing bad Star Trek. They were abandoning a Star Trek that had become dull and formulaic and mired in old-fashioned storytelling whereas Star Trek always succeeded best when it was audacious and forward-thinking. Star Trek was at its best when it boldly went.
But how do you overcome the internal problems at the studio with bifurcated ownership between Paramount Pictures and CBS Television with feuding fiefdoms unable to cooperate until now, living in mutual fear and loathing of each other? Well, I’m glad you asked, here’s some thoughts…
Star Trek needs its Kevin Feige…
So what does it mean to turn Star Trek into Marvel? The first thing Marvel decided to do when they chose to finance and produce their own properties was they hired someone who knew and loved Marvel, Kevin Feige. And Kevin put together a team of
writers and producers who functioned much as John Lasseter and his team did at Pixar insuring quality control over the films and TV series (what Jeph Loeb is doing with Netflix is nothing short of Marvel-ous, yes, I love the puns, or as the Brits might say, brilliant) which is why, with the exception of Iron Man 2 which was still a financial success, Marvel hasn’t produced a clunker yet. And what was dubbed its most off-concept and riskiest venture yet has turned out to boast the biggest R.O.I., the medium-budgeted Guardians of the Galaxy. Yes, they’ve still been tentative in some regards, not greenlighting a $30 million R-rated Black Widow film and where’s my Moon Knight TV series, for instance, instead continuing to focus on mega-budget pictures which inevitably involve powerful crystals that can enslave the universe as their macguffin, but their films continue to get better and better each time and out-gross each film before it. And, in television, despite the mixed reception earned by S.H.I.E.L.D. the show has revived creatively and new series like the World War II-set Agent Carter (yes!) and the Netflix shows like Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Daredevil seem even more promising.
And even if the studio can find its own Kevin Feige (and, I for one, would love to see Rod Roddenberry involved as a consultant in some capacity in this process as man who’s protective, but not slavish, to his family legacy) which is essential to overseeing the Star Trek media empire which currently has no strategic plan at all (or as Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now might say, “I don’t see any method at all”), who’d be the showrunners tasked with making the new films and series? It’d be easy to offer up familiar names like Ron Moore and Bryan Fuller, who could both do a remarkable job in the Trek trenches again unencumbered by their previous restraints and putting all they’ve learned in the intervening years to good use. But both are probably more Captain Kirk’s than Admiral Nogura’s, they’d want to be making the shows and not just overlording them. And I strongly suggest one or both of these television auteurs should get the helm of a Trek series. Hell, wouldn’t it even be fascinating to see the erudite Nick Meyer take a crack at reinterpreting the Holy Scripture. But there’s also some huge Trek fans out there who you’d never associate with the franchise and whose end result I couldn’t begin to imagine which would make it even more exciting. Some of the names that come to mind are the man behind “The Negron Factor,” Mad Men’s Matt Weiner (who used to hang out with the Star Trek writers back when he was on the lot doing Becker) and uber fan Seth McFarlane as well as filmmakers like Bryan Singer. But you’d be shocked to know how many established TV showrunners and Co-Ep’s are major Trekkers who would do virtually anything (and work for less than their quote) to shepherd a new Star Trek to the screen. Much like AMC’s infamous bake-off’s, it’d be great for CBS Studios to hear a myriad pitches from some of the town’s most accomplished writers to hear their thoughts on new directions for the franchise we couldn’t even begin to contemplate. Star Trek doesn’t just have to be a captain and his crew sitting on the bridge of a starship going where no one has gone before, but it might help to start off with this. But before that can happen, Paramount and CBS need to put together a brain trust to focus as consultants and their very own in-house Tom Hagen consigliore’s to help them understand, exploit and manage (in the best sense of the word) their crown jewel with a phaser-proof five year plan to start.
Star Trek needs to come back to television…
The biggest problem with Star Trek’s return to television remains the nature of the rights split between Paramount and CBS. While Paramount controls the movie rights, CBS owns television and most of the consumer products licensing.
And you have two ten-ton gorillas with whom the franchise’s fate rests: Brad Grey and Les Moonves. Now the fact is in today’s TV environment, CBS is not going to allow one of their most valuable properties to be produced for a network they don’t own and this is the biggest problem. For everyone who thinks Netflix is going to step in and be a savior here, there’s very little chance of that happening (or rather be allowed). If Star Trek is going to come back, it’s going to be on a CBS-controlled entity, perhaps with a Netflix or Amazon streaming component to offset the costs. The problem here is Star Trek does not fit CBS profile at all, it skews younger and doesn’t fit the CBS demo. NCIS: Vulcan is not in the cards. But here’s the good news, you know where it could work? Showtime, which is also owned by CBS. And here’s where it gets better; you know what almost every cable channel has been looking for this development season: a sci-fi Game of Thrones. True that. And guess what fits those parameters? Star Trek. And I’m not talking about the old teaser plus five act and a tag Star Trek, but Star Trek in the 21st century. A Star Trek that goes back to world-building, boldly going and intergalactic geo-politics. A Star Trek that is sophisticated and boasts cutting edge visual effects and storytelling. That’s the kind of Star Trek series, with perhaps a 10 or 13 episode order that Showtime might air. And, if not, Paramount is also a partner in EPIX so it’s possible, and maybe even probable, if CBS were the studio partner, they might be willing to produce it for EPIX which has so little market penetration with such a low-bar for success, it might be the equivalent of what first-run syndication was for Next Generation 25 years ago.
But, you know, that’s not the only channel CBS is a partner in with Warner Bros. They also own, gulp, the CW. Now, I know what you’re thinking? No way. But, for those of you who haven’t noticed lately CW has sort of turned into Syfy Channel, Jr. Now why is that? Because in the age of diminished ratings, genre fans are some of the most loyal fans out there and sci-fi also is one of the few genres that still repeats so it’s perfect for streaming and home video. But what would Star Trek on the CW look like. Obviously, it’s a very different show that on Showtime or EPIX. The obvious answer is the dreaded Starfleet Academy which instantly evokes groans from most fans. But that doesn’t have to be the case. One of the finest episodes of The Next Generation was “The First Duty,” which almost entirely takes place at Starfleet Academy. I’ve always thought that a Starfleet Academy show which is more akin to The Paper Chase than Beverly Hills 90210 could be a terrific show. College is the crucible in which one’s adult life and worldview is often formed so a sophisticated and smart Starfleet Academy could absolutely work and it would certainly be a good companion series to a Star Trek set on a starship on another outlet (we’re one big happy fleet, you know), perhaps targeting a younger demo than another series and serve as a gateway drug, much as the J.J. movies did, for non-Trekkers.
Color Me Mine
So we’ve already talked about continuing the movie series, adding at least two new television series. What else? Perhaps a re-imagination of Next Generation in the way J.J. handled Classic Trek in the new universe. Perhaps not. A new animated series is long overdue and is an opportunity to revisit absent friends whether it’s new voyages of the original starship Enterprise or Next Generation or other seminal moments in the Star Trek universe. But as they say with the ginsu knife, that’s not all. It’s been a few years since Direct-To-Video was a real business which has largely been supplanted by VOD, but there’s no reason you can’t do at least one, if not more, MOW or direct-to-VOD films a year that focus on the more “inside baseball” elements of the franchise and work like the old NBC mystery wheel; an all-Klingon movie, Section 31, a Harry Mudd film, a retro throwback to “The Cage” (which is what Enterprise should have been) back when space was dangerous and unknown and, if there’s a Shak’ari, a final adventure for Bill Shatner as Captain Kirk. These would be the equivalent of what the fan films are doing now which are clearly filling a void for Trekkers, but would be done with first-rate production values, acting and special effects in the actual Star Trek universe. They’d be relatively inexpensive to produce and extremely lucrative for the studio as well as create new licensing revenue. And rather than detract from interest in the feature film series, they would help sustain interest in the interim.
A Wise Decision, Captain
And last but not least, to prove you value the fans, it is essential to remaster all the Trek films for the 50th anniversary with new bonus materials, including both the theatrical releases and the TV cuts of most of the films. And this is the time to spend the money to revisit the Robert Wise Director’s Edition of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in hi-def which deserves to see its Blu-Ray debut (and while you’re at it, throw some money at Star Trek V and fix those atrocious Bran Ferren visual effects and give Shatner a chance to revisit his original Rockman ending. It won’t save the film, but it’ll help). Ultimately, MGM treated Bond with respect and the Lowry 4K restorations were stunning and the packaging was elegant and respectful of an august five decade history and its significance in pop culture history. It is imperative that Star Trek be treated this way instead of as some kitschy refuge from an SNL skit which is far too often how the franchise has been dubiously treated by its studio overlords (remember The Star Trek Honors on UPN, the equivalent of the Star Wars Holiday Special for Trek). Too often the perception that dominates studio thinking is Trek fans are a bunch of freaks, the one’s that more often than not show up in the documentaries about Trek fans that grok Spock, but are only a small part of the rich tapestry of Trekkers who love the Trek universe and are fairly well-adjusted individuals (you know, the people we made Free Enterprise about).
In addition, it’s unlikely CBS will incur the costs involved in re-creating the visual effects for Deep Space Nine and Voyager the way they did for Star Trek: The Next Generation given its anemic sales (which is a shame because they were beautifully produced), but it should strongly consider take two for Deep Space Nine which was the last great Trek show made. In the case of Voyager, it’s unlikely there would be much value in either syndication or home video for this title so upconversion is a, granted, inferior option. This would allow the series, shot on film to be presented in hi-definition, with the quality of the visual effects somewhat diminished since they can’t be bumped up to true 1080p. It’s an option that was employed somewhat effectively for Farscape and would allow the studio to, at least, release the show on Blu-Ray at lesser quality than a true 1080 transfer without revisiting the visual effects which may not be financially feasible. Even if CBS chooses to upconvert both titles rather than do a costly visual effects restoration, the creation of new bonus materials on par with the superb material produced for both Enterprise and ST: TNG is a must.
Keep on Trekking….
And none of this precludes the continued success of Bad Robot’s movie franchise. Both films under the aegis of J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk have been hugely successful and critically acclaimed (despite the damning protestations of some die-hard Trekkers) and with Roberto Orci at the helm of the next film, an avowed and passionate Trek fan himself, there’s no reason to believe the next movie will be any less successful than its two predecessors and certainly has the potential to be the best one yet. The brain trust behind these films made a very smart decision early on which was that these films exist in an alternate universe to the original movies and TV series so neither needs to preclude either from continuing to live long and prosper in tandem. Clearly, Bob Orci will have a prominent role in the new Trek order and as a fan and uber successful screenwriter and TV producer his contributions to the future of Trek are essential. While I would’ve said a few months ago that it’s time to take off the training wheels and let the new series continue without the participation of previous Trek stars, the prospect of Shatner and Nimoy re-uniting for the 50th anniversary is too thrilling a prospect to ignore and I certainly hope that they do a find a way to make it so.
And if Marvel isn’t the perfect template for you, look no further than what Disney is already doing with Star Wars. They’ve made a quick succession of extremely forward-thinking decisions about the future of the franchise. They hired the smart and creative producer Kathleen Kennedy to run Lucasfilm, quickly greenlit a series of films, hired a succession of brilliant filmmakers including J.J. Abrams, Rian Johnson and the great Lawrence Kasdan, put a charming animated series into production and hired writers to develop several spin-off films. Disney never looked down on Star Wars, they conceived a plan and implemented it while hiring filmmakers who are devoted fans of the source material. Every scrap of information I’ve seen on Episode 7 has filled me with a new hope for Star Wars after the debacle of the prequels.
Admittedly, Star Trek is a dramatically different franchise than Star Wars, but the template remains just as applicable. While at its heart Star Wars is a movie franchise, Trek is a television franchise with a motion picture component. The sense of wonder and exploration at the heart of Star Trek can only be served best in an episodic series. There’s a reason that Star Trek inspired a generation of fans to become scientists, astronomers, engineers, doctors and bricklayers. While Star Wars is elevated pulp in the best sense of the word, Star Trek is something else entirely. At its heart have always been characters who are a family who are united by friendship, loyalty and an insatiable curiosity about the unknown. In a culture in which cynicism and fatalism are the currency of the day whether it be because of political gridlock, economic depression, famine, the horror of disease, even our best television series such as Breaking Bad plumb the darkness of man. What makes Star Trek so great is that even when it goes into darkness – it still manages to come out the other side extolling the human adventure which is a palpable sense of optimism and hope for the future. It’s a progressive, liberal vision that is to be lauded and not deconstructed or replaced with the fashionable pessimism that permeates the zeitgeist of today. I don’t think optimism needs to be old school, but it needs to be earned. In the end, it’s harder to write characters that aspire and situations that inspire without being hokey and, dare I say, old-fashioned, which is why it’s so important that the creative team be chosen wisely and rise to the challenge before them. It also doesn’t mean there can’t be conflict, both inter-personal and inter-stellar, there must be both in order for Star Trek to be good drama, but humanity united has always been at the very heart of Star Trek rather than humanity divided. Star Trek at its best is space opera writ large with something to say about the human condition.
So there you go. This is what should and, quite frankly, needs to happen. Much like the plot of many a great Star Trek episode, the Eminians and the Vendikans, um, I mean Paramount and CBS need to find a way to work together harmoniously. It’s a recipe for success, honoring the past, and insuring the future longevity of a beloved and important franchise for many decades to come. May your way be as pleasant.
MARK A. ALTMAN who the Los Angeles Times once called “the world’s foremost Trekspert” is the writer/producer of the film, Free Enterprise, starring William Shatner and Eric McCormack. He has been a writer/producer on numerous television series including Castle, Necessary Roughness, Femme Fatales and is co-author of the upcoming oral history of Star Trek, The Fifty Year Mission, from St. Martin’s Press. You can follow him on Twitter at @markaaltman.
Mark will also be moderating a panel on “50 Years of Trek: From The Cage to Today” at 7 PM on Saturday, October 11th at New York Comic Con featuring Scott Mantz (Access Hollywood), Chase Masterson (Deep Space Nine), David Mack (Star Trek author), Edward Gross (The 50 Year Mission author) and Vic Mignona (Star Trek Continues).