The Ever-Expanding Star Trek Universe

By  · Published on July 20th, 2016

Why Size and Scope Have Always Been the Franchise’s Best Friends.

Earlier this week, I was talking to someone about the upcoming Star Trek Beyond when a half-forgotten memory came tumbling from the dusty corners of my mind. It is of me and my brother, still children, sprawled out on the floor of the First National Bank in our small hometown. To help make ends meet, my parents took on several shifts as the overnight cleaning crew for the local branch; they would begin every shift by rolling the break room television into the manager’s office so my brother and I could watch old episodes of Star Trek they’d picked up from the nearby Blockbuster. As my family did not own a television until years later, these episodes of Star Trek, dated as they may have seemed, were a Big Deal for the two of us. I was pretty much hooked.

As it played out, Star Trek would never be my favorite science-fiction franchise – that honor would go to the special effects and high soap of the Star Wars films— but I remember being in awe of the sense of scale present in the Star Trek universe. Star Wars was a movie franchise made entirely of set pieces; Han Solo would chart a course to a strange and distant planet, and by the time we’d finished listening to Peter Cushing’s dialogue, the ship would come crashing out of hyperspace into some new firefight or chase sequence. By contrast, entire episodes of Star Trek can and did take place in the time it took the Enterprise to get from Point A to Point B. When critics point to the “small universe” problems faced by the Star Wars films, this is it the kind of contrast they are making.

And while I do not mean to artificially inflate the Star Wars/Star Trek debate for any fans reading this, it does make for an interesting comparison. Even as the former rose to unparalleled heights this last weekend, I find myself more bullish on the narrative potential of the latter. There are plenty of reasons to love Star Trek in the year 2016; our own Danny Bowes did a great job pointing out the undying optimism of the original Star Trek series yesterday, and there is still the Bryan Fuller series headed to CBS in January 2017. But even more surprising is how little credit we give to Gene Roddenberry’s franchise for diving into perhaps the most sprawling and ambitious cinematic universe property in the history of the medium. Star Trek has allowed itself to change and expand with the times, never settling for comfortable territory or familiar storylines. It is a lesson that many franchises, Star Trek included, would do well to learn.

If you want a specific example, think about the difference between Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. In the former, we are re-introduced to the prototypical Star Trek villains in both the Klingon and Romulan races. Only instead of open hostility, there is now a fragile peace between the three empires, and it is a brand new species – the Borg – who pose perhaps the biggest threat to the galaxy of the entire Star Trek canon. When the time came for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to pick up the story, the showrunners also choose new races rather than the old standbys. Here the Federation is in open conflict with the Cardassians and the Dominion, one race barely introduced in The Next Generation and the other a brand new creation for the show. The writers also take a literal approach towards expansion by setting their show on the fringes of the known Star Trek universe; it is a trend they will continue by flinging Star Trek: Voyager’s titular ship to the far reaches of the galaxy.

What The World Needs Now Is Star Trek

In each instance, Star Trek offers a few pieces of connective tissue so as not to leave the audience behind entirely. The show moves a second-tier character from one show to the other – Colm Meaney’s Chief O’Brien, for example – or introduces a paramilitary force such as the Marquis with a plan in mind to make them the focal point of an upcoming spin-off. This interest in expanding narratives isn’t limited just to the television series, however. Many of the movies have introduced new races, planets, and conflicts as a means to keep to the spirit of the original Star Trek mission statement. Whether you enjoy Star Trek: Insurrection or not, there is no denying it is an almost wholesale departure from the aspects of both horror films and military thrillers present in Star Trek: First Contact. That was a story that had already been told; it was time for Star Trek to move onto something new.

And perhaps it is this resistance to explore strange new worlds that has been the most frustrating thing about the rebooted Star Trek trilogy. At a time when the gap between television and cinema is all-but narrowed, and the demand for original stories is rising, the one property that spend four decades pushing the boundaries of both media has ground itself to a standstill. Like many other Hollywood blockbusters, Star Trek Into Darkness tried to re-purpose the major reveals of a past franchise without earning those moments on its own, but it commits one sin unique to the Star Trek franchise: it completely overestimates its audience’s interest in returning to familiar ground. The true fans of Star Trek have followed the show as it moved away from the Enterprise, into the deepest regions of space, and back to a time before the original series even began. The modern concept of the rebootquel – bringing an audience through the paces so as to start the process over again – is anathema to the very audience the filmmakers hoped to reach.

There are signs that the ship may be righting itself. However you feel about the return of Chris Hemsworth to the Star Trek universe and the inevitable time travel headaches it will cause, the teasers for Star Trek Beyond and the early reviews suggest that the filmmakers have learned the value of creating original stories. The best case scenario for the new film and television series is that they keep fans reminded of the grand scale and adventure that caused them to fall in love with the franchise in the first place. How fitting, then, that the one thing the Star Trek franchise needs most is the one thing it has always done best.

Related Topics: , ,

Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)