There's a new Star Trek movie coming ... again

Let's see if this one sticks?

There's a new Star Trek movie coming ... again
Image: Paramount

Restart the clock: Paramount has announced that it has a new Star Trek film in the works, with Andor's Toby Haynes set to direct. It's being described as a prequel to J.J. Abrams' 2009 film Star Trek, which rebooted the franchise in a new timeline (known as the Kelvin universe), and that it'll be something of an origin story for the world. Also in the announcement was word that the long-in-the-works Star Trek 4, a sequel to 2016's Star Trek Beyond, was still in development and now being billed as the "final" installment of that series.

Stop me if you've heard this before: in the eight years since the studio released Beyond, Paramount has struggled to put into production a follow up project, something made all the more difficult by a competitive theatrical environment where major franchise films are routinely expected to cross the $1 billion box office mark.

At the same time, it's complicated matters by building out an impressive television universe on its streaming service, Paramount+, which has steadily added shows that have revitalized the franchise in its original medium.

That split in focus has led to a messy decade and-a-half for Star Trek: competing storylines, casts, and canons, all of which seems to have made it difficult for the studio to figure out what story to tell to keep the exploits of Starfleet in theaters.

I've written a number of these updates over the years, but it's worth laying everything out in a timeline to see just how complicated and sprawling this effort has been.

Here's the saga of Star Trek's Kelvin timeline franchise:

  • A prequel to the original Star Trek series had long been in the works, but after Star Trek: Nemesis (a spinoff of Star Trek: The Next Generation) bombed in 2002, the franchise sort of went on the back burner.
  • Paramount hired director J.J. Abrams for a franchise reboot, Star Trek in 2007. The film is set in an alternate timeline from the rest of the main franchise, thanks to some handwaving, which allowed Abrams and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman to sidestep some of the canon baggage that came with the rest of the franchise. The film was a pretty big success when it was released in 2009. The main cast (Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, John Cho, Karl Urban, and Anton Yelchin) sign up for two sequels.
  • Abrams is tapped to direct a sequel after the success of the first film, Star Trek Into Darkness, which comes out in 2013. The film featured Benedict Cumberbatch as a character named "John Harrison" who turned out to be an alternate version of Khan Noonien Singh, the principal villain in Star Trek: Wrath of Khan. The film was heavily criticized for this and a bunch of other things, like its darker tone, some gratuitous scenes, and generally underwhelmed with fans and critics.
  • Because Hollywood likes trilogies, Paramount started working on a third film. Abrams opted not to direct (having been tapped to direct Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and eventually, Justin Lin is hired. The film, Star Trek Beyond hits theaters in 2016 and underperformed at the box office, but was generally well received.

This is where things start to get fun.

  • The original cast has signed on for a trio of films, and in 2015, Pine and Quinto had scored some raises in renegotiations for another installment. They and the other cast members are starting to see their stars rise. Tragically, Yelchin dies in a car accident in the summer of 2016. Pegg later explained that his death put a damper on the cast's enthusiasm to return.
  • A month later, Paramount announced that it had greenlit Star Trek 4, which would bring back Chris Hemsworth as Kirk's father (who died in the opening of the 2009 film.)
  • In November 2015, Paramount gets in on the streaming game by announcing an original Star Trek series for its streaming service, CBS All Access, Star Trek: Discovery, which would be set a decade or so to the original series, but would remain in the franchise's main storyline, rather than the Kelvin universe.
  • In 2017, word breaks that Abrams and director Quentin Tarantino were developing a Star Trek film, one unconnected to the Kelvin franchise.
  • In April 2018, Paramount announced that it had hired S.J. Clarkson to helm Star Trek 4, reiterating that it would feature Hemsworth.
  • June 2018: Alex Kurtzman signs a five-year deal to oversee Paramount+'s Star Trek efforts, which includes some word of a handful of shows, including one about Starfleet Academy, a Wrath of Khan story, an animated series (eventually Lower Decks), and a limited series (eventually Picard?)
  • Just a couple of months later in August, word breaks that contract talks between Pine and Quinto broke down and the pair walked away. Clarkson moves on to direct a Game of Thrones prequel series pilot for HBO.
  • November 2018, the first season of Star Trek: Discovery is released.
  • January 2019, Paramount announces that it's developing a Discovery spinoff series featuring Michelle Yeoh called Section 31, about a secretive branch of Starfleet.
  • Paramount hasn't given up on Star Trek, and in November 2019, taps Noah Hawley to write and direct a new film. The film would reportedly feature a new cast and would be about them confronting a deadly virus, but would be set in the Kelvin timeline.
  • Tarantino noted in an interview that he was "steering away" from his Star Trek project.
  • January 2020: Paramount releases the first season of Star Trek: Picard, a Next Generation followup for its streaming service Paramount+. In August 2020, it debuts an animated series, Star Trek: Lower Decks, set during the TNG era.
  • That project is short-lived, however. In August 2020, Paramount tapped the brakes after bringing in a new executive, Emma Watts, to oversee its film slate. One of her priorities was to figure out what the future of Star Trek would be for the studio, especially with the success of other franchises like Star Wars and Marvel. As a result, Hawley's film (and presumably other projects) was paused.
  • March 2021: Paramount announces development of a new film, this one to be written by Star Trek: Discovery writer Kalinda Vazquez. It's not known where this one would fit into the larger scheme of things.
  • April 2021: word breaks that Paramount has put another Star Trek film on the schedule for 2023, something that was apparently completely new, and it wasn't based on the script that Vazquez had just begun working on.
  • In July 2021, Paramount announces that it has hired Matt Shakman (WandaVision, Always Sunny in Philadelphia) to direct a new Star Trek film, possibly the one that was announced in April of that year.
  • October 2021, Paramount releases an animated series set during the Voyager era, Star Trek: Prodigy, which is aimed at younger audiences.
  • November 2021, the studio reshuffles its slate of films: the film scheduled for 2023 was bumped from June to December.
  • January 2022, Paramount announces a bunch of updates for its streaming shows (lots of renewals) and in February, it revealed that it was developing a new series, Starfleet Academy, an idea that had been kicking around for years.
  • Later in February 2022, Abrams reveals at a presentation that Star Trek 4 is back in the works, with the original cast slated to return. This might be the secret film destined for 2023? There's also a hitch: apparently nobody told stars of the Kelvin films that this was happening. Pine later notes that the film feels "cursed" and that he hadn't heard anything about it as of March 2023.
  • Also in February 2022, we get confirmation that Picard would end with its third season.
  • May 2022: Strange New Worlds, a direct prequel to the original series debuts on Paramount+.
  • Director Matt Shakman departs his Star Trek film in favor of Marvel's Fantastic Four in August 2022. Shortly thereafter, Paramount removes the film from its release calendar.
  • March 2023: Paramount officially greenlights Starfleet Academy, with production slated for sometime in 2024. We also learn that Star Trek: Discovery will come to an end with Season 5. In April, Paramount announces a long-in-the-works spinoff, Section 31 starring Michelle Yoeh will be a straight-to-streaming film rather than a series.
  • June 2023: Paramount cancels Star Trek: Prodigy, of which production had largely been completed for its second season. In October, Netflix announces that it's picked up the show's second season, which would debut in 2024.
  • January 2024: the news arrives that Paramount has put a new Star Trek film into development, with Andor's Toby Haynes tapped to direct and Seth Grahame-Smith set to write. The film will be set years prior to the 2009 film and serve as an origin story for Starfleet. Along with that announcement came confirmation that Star Trek 4 was also still in development, with it now being described as the "final" Kelvin film.

Got all that?

In one way, this entire saga is illustrative when you look at the economics and drama of Hollywood productions. Most of the actors involved in Kelvin films have been doing pretty well, career-wise. Chris Pine has been landing roles in films like Wonder Woman and Dungeons & Dragons, Zoe Saldana has been a big part of Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy films and James Cameron's Avatar films, and Simon Pegg has been doing pretty well for himself in the Mission Impossible films. The talent is just getting more and more expensive to retain in a series of films that haven't exactly been doing gangbusters at the box office.

Pine himself observed that in an interview with Esquire last year: “I’m not sure Star Trek was ever built to do that [Avengers-class box office amounts] kind of business. I always thought, 'Why aren’t we just appealing to this really rabid fan group and making the movie for a good price and going on our merry way, instead of trying to compete with the Marvels of the world?'”

That's a question that comes up a lot, especially with the recent waves of news about studios cutting back on streaming ambitions, and seeing major blockbusters struggle to make a profit. At the same time, films like Gareth Edwards' The Creator made headlines for delivering a slick-looking film at a fraction of the price of other films, showing that it is possible to produce big films without the $300-$400 million dollar price tags. The bigger those budgets, the higher the expectations of a bigger return at the box office.

This is something that Disney has stumbled into in recent years: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Thor: Love and Thunder, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, and The Marvels all roughly fell into the $200-$250 million dollar range, while the various new Star Wars films cost anywhere from the $250-$500 million dollar range. Most of those have done pretty well, but when they miss, they really miss.

The various Kelvin films came in under those numbers: they ranged between $150-$190 million, but weren't able to translate those smaller (!) costs into much greater gains.

Compare these franchise blockbusters with the economics of horror films. Back in 2015, NPR's Planet Money aired an excellent episode that pointed out that these films get the most bang for their buck for studios because these films can be made fairly cheaply and can go on to really earn a considerable amount of money.

Star Trek has a huge, multi-generational fan base, so on paper, you'd assume that these types of films would be capable of pulling in those sorts of numbers: cheaper films = better profit margin, yes?

An element here is that Star Trek has always been a story that aspired to intelligent storytelling over big-screen spectacle, and that's hard to pull off in a four-quadrant movie that has to feature plenty of action and special effects. In a lot of ways, Abram's Star Trek was a huge boost to a franchise that had gotten fairly stale by the end of the 1990s / early 2000s, and it did really well because it was a return to theaters after a significant break. We saw the same thing happen when Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out: there was a lot of pent-up demand and excitement for the franchise to return to theaters and a huge box office return.

But Abrams' approach to the world remains somewhat controversial. Plenty of long-time fans were displeased at how out of step it felt with the rest of the franchise – blockbuster sci-fi epic over cerebral space thriller, and I've heard more than one Trek fan describe it as a Star Wars film in a Starfleet uniform, and I think it highlights an interesting point for diverging away from an existing continuity that's been around for decades.

I think the relative success (critically, not financially) of the streaming shows comes from the fact that the franchise is a bit more at home as a television show: its strengths are as an ongoing character drama that untangles all sorts of mysteries and cosmic conundrums that work better on a weekly basis rather than an action-packed 2 hours. Those TV shows also tend to budget in at around or under $10 million an episode, which means you get quite a bit more story for $100 million than the bigger budgets that films command. The shows have also been helped by the lack of need to prove that they're bringing in globs of money, although I suspect that'll be shifting.

Paramount hasn't done itself any favors by essentially building out two competing franchises: one in theaters, with lengthy gaps between installments with a cast and story that fans aren't bonding with as strongly as their streaming counterparts. Under Alex Kurtzman, Paramount has built out a big plan for its TV franchise and provided something of a roadmap for the future. On the film side of things, there's a sense that they aren't really sure where to take the franchise next, other than the idea that they need one more installment.

This isn't anything terribly new: plenty of franchises have build their stories installment by installment, but in a world where Marvel's demonstrated the ability to build out an impressive, interconnected world with the MCU, there's more of an expectation from fans that these successive films will build on one another and continue to grow – much like the TV shows have operated for a long time. (Marvel also makes it look super easy, even though they've gotten lucky more often than not.)

There's been some promising developments along the way: Paramount taking the time to step back and evaluate its film strategy and seemingly taking the steps to cap off the Kelvin franchise with a finale would help end that bifurcated franchise, and maybe get back to a point where they're able to take those popular television shows and see if audiences will follow from their TVs to films.

Of course, this could all be moot: Paramount and its various holdings are about to go up for auction, and there's been some speculation that Warner Bros. is interested in acquiring the studio, as is studio Skydance. Another change in owners / leaders will undoubtably bring about some changes for the future of the franchise and its other properties, meaning that everything that's happened could change again, and the handful of film that are on the books or in development could be taken back off when the creators decide they're wasting their time and move onto other things.

So: we'll see. Star Trek's greatest legacy has been its inspirational and optimistic view of the future, and hopefully, the studio will figure out some sort of cohesive plan that ensures that the franchise sticks around in a meaningful way.

An aside: after I wrote this, Charlie Jane Anders sent out a new issue of her newsletter Happy Dancing yesterday, making the case for Star Wars to be completely rebooted, and that sort of ties in with these thoughts about the troubles that Star Trek has experienced.

It's worth a read, although it's not a take that I agree with: that it would be a good opportunity to recenter some focus on character journeys and inconsistencies that exist throughout the original trilogy. I don't think these longer-running franchises can easily be rebooted from ground up like a superhero story, but I do think that it's preferable to simply reinvent them.

It got me thinking a little about the idea of building on these big foundations or just razing them to the ground to reboot them, and I think that's sort of why we've seen diminishing returns for Abrams' Kelvin films: the films gave Trek a new look, but lost something in the translation.

In his book Phasers on Stun!, Ryan Britt makes a compelling argument for Star Trek's continued relevance coming down to different creators coming up with new takes on the world. When you go back to the well for a new take on those original characters, you don't always come away with the same emotional weight. I love Abrams' 2009 Star Trek, but I don't think it has the same resonance as the characters that it's imitating. At the same time, Strange New Worlds is playing some of the same characters, but it's got a slightly different approach, and it's not quite aiming to replicate what came before, but put a new spin on it.

For Star Wars, I'd say that we've seen something similar: Abrams' The Force Awakens acts as a sort of soft reboot of the world and characters, and that trilogy only occasionally doe something interesting with the characters. But: look at the approach that Tony Gilroy took with Andor: he was able to look at the world in some completely different ways, and the result of that differing approach is a very compelling story, yet in a way that adheres to the same continuity.

So: I think long-term planning is a good thing for any sort of franchise, with enough allowance for creators to take it in interesting places when the opportunity arises. (We've had a good chat about this in #movies-tv-streaming in the Slack channel – join us!)