It’s been a while since 2016’s Star Trek Beyond, but the Kelvin timeline cast will start shooting a new instalment later this year – so, what’s taken so long?.

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Starting with J.J. Abrams’ 2009 film, the latest big-screen incarnation of Star Trek has enjoyed one of the best ensemble casts going. It’s not merely that Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, John Cho, Simon Pegg, and the late great Anton Yelchin have great chemistry – they’re all popular updates of familiar characters as well. It also feels as though we should have had more than three films in the rebooted “Kelvin timeline” (as Abrams and home media releases call it) by now.

Coming a few years after James Bond and Doctor Who capitalised on their respective golden anniversaries with big event films that played in cinemas worldwide, Star Trek Beyond wasn’t especially well marketed for a release that coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Original Series’ debut on US TV. Summer 2016 was something of a meat grinder for big-budget tentpoles anyway, but Justin Lin’s Kelvin threequel wound up disappearing at the box office in the mix of other July releases in subsequent weeks.

Accordingly, the film performed a little beneath Paramount’s expectations and below what the two Abrams-directed instalments had brought in. Talk of Star Trek 4 had arisen on the press tour for Beyond, with Abrams talking about a script by writers J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay that involved time travel and the return of Chris Hemsworth as Captain Kirk’s father George.

In the months that followed, that buzz cooled off slightly. For context, all three of the Bad Robot-backed Star Trek movies were subject to delays too – the first to fill out the summer 2009 release schedule after the Writers’ Guild of America strike of 2007-8, the second so that Abrams could finish making 2011’s Super 8, and the third after writer-director Roberto Orci departed the project, later to be replaced by Lin.

But in this case, the delay has come from several different approaches to what a Beyond follow-up might look like, with assorted directors and writers coming and going. And as Simon wrote yesterday, the just-confirmed sequel project has already hit something of a buffer with its cast and the state of its script.

Read more: There’s trouble already with the new Star Trek film

But there’s also the question of what a Star Trek movie needs to look like nowadays. In the background of all this arrested development, the franchise has had a significant small-screen renaissance thanks to various streaming services, including Paramount’s own streamer. There’s clearly an appetite for a film, but also, there’s never been more Star Trek on TV at any given time as there will be in the next 12 months.

To put it another way, these are the voyages of the big-screen Star Trek franchise. Its five year mission (and counting) – to get another film made…

 

Back to Beyond

Of the main ensemble, Pine and Quinto were already signed for a fourth film as Kirk and Spock respectively, as part of contract negotiations with the regular cast before the filming of Beyond in June 2015. Abrams and Paramount subsequently confirmed that the cast would return and that the character of Ensign Chekov would not be recast after the tragic death of Anton Yelchin just a few weeks before the third film reached cinemas.

In the meantime, Abrams and Paramount were keen on finding a female director and selected S.J. Clarkson to direct the fourth film in April 2018. The film was set to start shooting in early 2019, but negotiations with Pine and Hemsworth stalled in August. The underperformance of Star Trek Beyond had given Paramount pause about the budget and when the studio proposed lowering the cast’s salaries, both Chrises walked away from the table. Star Trek 4 was subsequently put on hold and Clarkson moved on to other projects.

Simultaneously with the announcement of Clarkson, the studio also confirmed that none other than Quentin Tarantino had pitched a Star Trek movie, and this was in development in parallel with the Beyond sequel and would also feature the Kelvin cast.

This story is reportedly an update of an Original Series episode called “A Piece Of The Action”, which sees the Enterprise crew land on a planet with a 1920s-style gangster culture. Throughout the following year, Tarantino was busy completing Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, (the ninth of the ten movies he has said he’ll make before retirement) so Abrams and Paramount convened a writer’s room for the project led by Mark L. Smith (The Revenant), and a script was written by the time Hollywood hit cinemas a year later.

On the 2019 press tour for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Tarantino said the Star Trek sequel would be “Pulp Fiction in space”, (older readers may remember that a similar label was nonsensically applied to the notorious John Travolta sci-fi vehicle Battlefield Earth) prompting speculation that the film would be R-rated like his other movies. Towards the end of the year, the filmmaker conceded that he was unlikely to direct the film as his tenth and final offering, but it was still in development.

There were a few other potential pitches in the mix thereafter. Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley was hired in December 2019 to write and direct a Star Trek project. Old-testament Trek movie director Nicholas Meyer and his producing partner Steven Charles-Jaffe submitted a treatment involving new characters too, and Discovery writer Kalinda Vazquez also pitched to the studio.

For a while though, Hawley’s take was the priority, although he said in interviews that the story only loosely related to the established canon, much like Fargo the TV show and Fargo the movie. It’s also thought that the plot involved a deadly virus, which proved untimely in the wake of that whole global pandemic thing.

After a couple of changes of the top brass at Paramount, the plan reverted back to a fourth film produced by Skydance and Bad Robot, starring the original cast, with the Hawley and Tarantino scripts being held back as potential spin-offs. There’s another script, written by Lindsay Beer and Geneva Robertson-Dworet, and per last week’s announcement, that script is currently being rewritten by Josh Friedman and Cameron Squires.

WandaVision’s Matt Shakman is in the director’s chair this time around, and as mentioned in the above news piece, the only problem seems to be that they haven’t actually locked in Pine, Quinto et al before announcing them. We’d suspect that further pay negotiations are in order before things can properly get moving.

All of this is what the last five-or-so years of development has yielded, and whether Star Trek 4 holds onto its currently scheduled release date of December 22nd 2023 or not, it will have been at least seven-and-a-half years between films. Of course, a lot of other stuff has been going on in the franchise since then…

 

The voyage home?

While Star Trek has made big money for Paramount in its big-screen incarnations, its TV roots have come back in the time the film franchise has been mired in behind-the-scenes development. Just over a year after Beyond hit cinemas, the fifth spin-off series, Star Trek: Discovery, became the flagship show of Paramount’s budding streamer, CBS All Access.

Created by Bryan Fuller, Discovery marked the return of Trek to the small screen after more than a decade. It’s currently in its fourth season as part of an “expanded Star Trek universe” overseen by Alex Kurtzman. Since then, there’s also the Next Generation spin-off Picard, the animated half-hour sitcom Lower Decks and the Nickelodeon children’s series Prodigy. This year will also see the start of a new prequel series called Strange New Worlds.

While CBS All Access has been rebranded as Paramount+, these shows have found fans worldwide through international streaming deals with Netflix (for Discovery) and Prime Video (for Picard). As Paramount gears up to launch its own platform around the world later this year, there’s scope for new Star Trek of some sort almost every week by this December.

So, where does a film fit into this? One of the big successes of the Kelvin movies is welcoming new fans – despite the obligatory cavalcade of Easter eggs that Abrams and his ilk have made essential in the scramble to revive IP for new audiences, they’re accessible without having watched a single episode of any of the previous TV incarnations.

(Except for Star Trek Into Darkness, where the portentous, pretentious story is either lost on you if you haven’t seen 1980’s Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, or insultingly daft if you have.)

It’s possible that the film franchise’s fans haven’t watched any new Star Trek at all since Beyond came out and a fourth film is probably being tailored for the same mainstream audience. All logistical issues aside, the downward box-office trend of the third film has probably been another big reason why Paramount has taken its time pushing forward with a fourth instalment.

Consequently, it’s arriving in a global movie market where fan service reigns supreme, and there will be various fans watching Star Trek do completely different things across several different shows on their tellies and tablets at home by the time this is in cinemas. And off the back of Beyond, a strong international box-office showing will be essential for Star Trek 4 as far as Paramount is concerned.

Much as Into Darkness mirrored the original second Star Trek movie, maybe this fourth one will mirror 1986’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. The prevalence of time travel in various incarnations of the script would seem to suggest as much, but it will be a small miracle if it has anything like the same lightness of touch.

Getting the popular cast back is a no-brainer, which we suspect will make salary negotiations a little stronger on the actors’ behalf this time around. There’s form for other Starfleet crews meeting already, so maybe the crew of the Discovery or even Patrick Stewart’s Picard will pop up.

On top of that, if there’s ever going to be a point where this version of the franchise stops skirting around resurrecting William Shatner’s Captain Kirk, this is definitely it. Heck, the Kelvin movies arguably pioneered the multiverse character cameo that’s so popular nowadays with Leonard Nimoy’s Spock in the 2009 film, so they’re probably not above leaning on it now.

On sheer volume of content and subscribers alone, Star Trek on TV must currently be more valuable to Paramount than Star Trek at the movies. Even with the attendant continuity, the various spin-offs can boldly go wherever they like within its broad range of demographics, but the challenge for a sequel to this particular trilogy of Star Trek movies is to sell as many cinema tickets and discs as other big franchise entries that have embraced pop-culture nostalgia on an near-industrial scale.

So, if the first teaser trailer for one of these has Shatner’s Kirk popping out through the standard fan-service delivery system of a glowing orange hole to chat with a bewildered Chris Pine, we won’t be too surprised…

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