The arrival of Star Trek Into Darkness makes one thing absolutely clear: Even after 47 years, you cannot kill this franchise.
Oh, you can hurt it with bad creative decisions. You can put it on hiatuses that stretch for years. You can move to different places along its time line, or throw the time line out entirely. You can recast, rethink, reinvent — and wonder if there are no ideas left.
But creative exhaustion is a funny thing with Star Trek. More than once, it has made itself new with old ideas — ones that often seem better than the new ones.
When 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture brought to the big screen the saga that had ended a prime-time network run a decade earlier, it proved a cumbersome disappointment. The true revival of Trek came three years later when Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan reached into the TV series for a great villain (Khan, played both times by Ricardo Montalban) — and fresh energy. When TV’s Enterprise was struggling to find and keep an audience, executive producer Rick Berman said they reinvented it after looking at the fourth and eighth movies, The Voyage Home and First Contact. And when J.J. Abrams and his team revived the Trek franchise in 2009, they went back and forth in time — showing us the younger versions of Kirk, Spock and friends; bringing back the old Spock, and balancing their elaborate, contemporary special effects with nods to vintage Trek elements like Christopher Pike and the Kobayashi Maru.
The result was at once an adventure young viewers could come to without needing any background, a prolonged “hello, old friends,” to people steeped in Trek lore AND — because its events changed the Trek time line — a guarantee that, even for diehard fans, wonderful surprises could await. No wonder that Abrams is now central to the revival of another fantasy franchise, Star Wars. Or that, based on published reports (and a fabulous trailer), Into Darkness appears ready to base its structure on both the excitement and the melancholy of the previous movie, down to reintroducing a remarkable character from the past. (No spoilers here.)
Of course, every Trek, even one coming after the delights of the 2009 film, is at risk of faltering. Through at least the first eight movies (Into Darkness is the 12th), the even-numbered ones were good and the odd numbers not. And there have been times when it looked as if, indeed, the whole Trek franchise was close to death.
About a decade ago, former Canton resident (and then-Trek producer) Brannon Braga was facing questions about whether Star Trek had hit the end of the road In 2002, the big-screen Star Trek: Nemesis, featuring the cast from the Next Generation series, did more poorly at the box office than any of the nine previous Trek movies. On television, 2001 saw the end of Star Trek: Voyager; at the time I said the series had been “about missed opportunities almost from the beginning.” That same year brought the premiere of Enterprise (later renamed Star Trek: Enterprise), an attempt to revive the show by taking the story back a century before Kirk and Spock. While it had some interesting flourishes — such as linking itself to the events in the movie Star Trek: First Contact — it was overhauled after two seasons of declining numbers. And it would end after four seasons in 2005, the shortest run of any live-action Trek series since the first one. The cancellation of Enterprise meant there was no Star Trek TV series for the first time in 18 years, and the tally of movies had stopped with Nemesis.
As much as Abrams’ Trek brought new life to the series, risks remain. For one thing, Star Trek is a largely American phenomenon even as the biggest movies aim for a global audience. Iron Man 3 has taken in close to a billion dollars already thanks to early showings in foreign countries, which have provided about two thirds of the total take. The 2009 Trek gathered about one third of its revenues overseas, according to Box Office Mojo; that same year, Avatar made almost three times in foreign theaters as it did in the United States.
At the same time, it’s Star Trek. Its long, if occasionally stumbling, life has generated enormous reserves of affection across generations. TV shows including Community and The Big Bang Theory have paid tribute. A recent ESPN column about a British soccer legend had one rival manager comparing him to the Borg: “You blast them with your phasers, they stagger back, take the hit and then evolve and come right back at you, except this time your weapon is useless, because they’ve adapted to it. So you need to come up with something new.”
The magic of Star Trek, as with other screen icons from Bond to Batman and beyond, is that it has found a way to feel new while honoring the old. As Braga said during the troubles a decade ago, “Is the franchise waning? Probably somewhat. But it’s been around for a long time. Is it going away? I personally don’t think so.”
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.