Star Trek is a tricky franchise to get right. Known for its TV shows, the Trek films have never been the flagship of the franchise, despite iconic movies like Wrath of Khan. J.J. Abrams' plan to reboot the storyline completely by setting 2009's Star Trek movie in a new timeline was bold, and for the most part it paid off: new fans weren't bogged down by the weight of decades of plot, and old fans were intrigued by the new setting.
The film's financial success was good enough to merit a sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, which Paramount hoped would be the franchise's crowning glory, boosting Trek to new heights. Unfortunately the film failed to really resonate with fans. Plagued with overwrought drama and a shaky plot, Into Darkness was a decent film but it fell short of pretty much everyone's expectations.
Yet it was successful enough for another sequel to be ordered: 2016's Star Trek Beyond. So far, what we've heard of the new film is extremely hopeful, as Simon Pegg prepares to take us on the thrilling Five Year Mission. But can Star Trek 3 restore fan faith in the franchise and overcome Into Darkness' problems?
The Shadow Of Into Darkness
Marketed as a dark and gritty sci fi thriller, Into Darkness was supposed to be the Star Trek franchise's answer to Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight.
One of Into Darkness' crucial flaws was poking holes in Starfleet, in an era when the Federation was maybe at its most utopian.
"This is clearly a military operation. Is that what we are now? Because I thought we were explorers."
Critiquing Starfleet's militaristic aspects is not new: Nicholas Meyer definitely intended to do this when he wrote Wrath Of Khan, and Deep Space Nine also examined the Federation at war. The problem of Into Darkness is that it presents a Federation that is already riddled with corruption. Abrams even dropped in Section 31, despite the fact that this corrupt branch of Starfleet wasn't even known about until far far later in the Federation's history. Into Darkness may have missed the point of Star Trek as an optimistic and aspirational look at humanity's future, a perspective that is desperately needed in this era of dystopian scifi.
Perhaps the gloomier aspect is why Into Darkness failed to bring in a younger audience: only 25% of Into Darkness viewers were under 25. However, io9 theorised that Into Darkness ultimately failed because it moved too far from the essential Trekkiness of the story, and became just another gritty action movie...
"This movie didn't market itself in a way that explained to people why they should see a Star Trek film instead of Iron Man 3, if they want to see shit blow up. Both movies had almost identical trailers, with shit blowing up and a villain voiceover that explains we're not safe and heroes fail. So if you're only going to see one of those two movies, why Trek?"
So that was Into Darkness' crucial flaw: forgetting the Trek brand. Star Trek is known for whacky gadgets and silly space anomalies, and despite the fact that Paramount seems to want to move away from this, if the success of The Martian proved nothing else it's that audiences want to see a feel good, optimistic view of the future. Luckily, Star Trek 3: Beyond seems set to give us just that!
Bright New Future
Star Trek Beyond will definitely mark a shift in Trek storytelling, which is mostly due to Simon Pegg penning the script.
The marketing for Star Trek 3 has been minimal so far (which really doesn't bode well for the film), but the few quotes we've had certainly imply that both Pegg and director Justin Lin are aiming to get back to the joy of The Original Series...
"We just want to take it forward with the spirit of the TV show. It’s a story about frontierism and adventure and optimism and fun, and that’s where we want to take it, you know."
So far so good, but Paramount are also supposedly pushing a "genre shift" along the lines of Guardians of the Galaxy to reinvigorate the franchise. This could go either way, depending on which genre Beyond emulates: clearly terrorist thrillers didn't work for Into Darkness, but Guardians' frontieristic space opera style would be perfect for Trek. On a more grounded note, Lin is also hoping to explore some character development for the tragically underused crew members.
"There's still a lot to be mined from these characters, and the mission sets up an opportunity for exploration and the deeper you go, the more you are examining humanity. Those are the things that I absorbed as a kid and hope to tap into and embrace and celebrate."
Trek at its best is about the crew dynamic, developing the relationships between the characters in order to give the story a whole lot of heart. Hopefully we'll see Sulu and Bones get more screentime, as their dry wit provides a lot of the humour of Trek. With any luck, we'll be getting some badass new female characters too, as these set leaks revealed.
So will the film win back fans? From quality alone it's likely to, as Beyond seems to hark back to a more adventurous, fun Star Trek. The problem is whether fans will be persuaded to see the film: it will be released in July of 2016, and due to the fact that it's only just finished filming, there have been no trailers released as of yet. In comparison, Suicide Squad, which won't be released until August next year, has already released one trailer and has heavily featured in the latest issue of Empire magazine, which helps to build excitement for the film. Simon Pegg has also been very vocal about his dislike of spoiler culture...
"These days there's a culture of spoiler-ism that exists because people want to get their websites traffic... it's a little selfish."
While he makes a salient point, this means we're probably not going to see much marketing for the film until sometime next year. With any luck, the trailer and publicity for Star Trek 3: Beyond will reflect the film well enough to ensure audiences give the franchise another chance. But we're confident that Beyond will herald a return to what made Star Trek great!
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