[Analysis] – Why Isn’t A Bigger Deal Being Made Out Of The Star Trek 50th

In which we examine why no one seems particularly interested in boldly going anymore.

In 2013, Doctor Who turned 50. And it was a big deal. The BBC spent a good chunk of time and a good chunk of money paying tribute to the science fiction juggernaut. On top of an internationally broadcast special anniversary episode, there was a made for TV movie about the creation of the show, documentaries about the show, its science and the influence it has had on British culture, and specially created digital episodes. All this on top of a normal series of episodes, which acted as a lead up to the grand celebration. Daleks took to the streets, former cast members reunited, there was a three day long celebration at ExCEL, and basically any show on the BBC that could reasonably make a reference about the Time Lord and his big blue time box did. All this for a science fiction series that began in the sixties, featured dodgy acting, questionable special effects, was cancelled but kept alive by the rabid fan base (and considerable non-canon material), only to return to greater success decades later, embraced by a new generation of viewers across the globe.

This year, in 2016,  there is another science fiction series that began in the sixties, featured dodgy acting, questionable special effects, was cancelled but kept alive by the rabid fan base (and considerable non-canon material), only to return to greater success decades later, embraced by a new generation of viewers across the globe turning 50. And yet, barely a finger has been raised to celebrate that fact. In fact, despite the fact that a new film of this franchise is being released in the 50th anniversary year, it almost seems accidental, considering how completely the film’s (meager) marketing has avoided at all costs drawing attention to the history of the franchise. So, why has Star Trek, arguably the most influential television series ever, nearly had its golden jubilee pass it by with little fan fair?   

In short: money. The longer answer is, of course, a bit more complex, but it largely boils down to two separate issues: Star Wars, and a weird corporate civil war. We'll start with the latter.

Star Trek has a somewhat complicated ownership history. The original television series, which is where all the future rights originate from, was produced by Lucile Ball under her Desilu Studios banner. Desilu was purchased by Gulf+Western in 1967, which renamed it Paramount Television after the film studio they had purchased the year before. It is important to note that despite sharing a name, Paramount Pictures and Paramount Television (later Communications) remained separate entities. The television end produced the series, beginning with Next Generation in 1987, while the movie side handled the films beginning in 1979. In 1994, Viacom purchased Paramount Communications, and 2000 purchased CBS. In 2005 Viacom and CBS split, but CBS took the Star Trek television and merchandising rights with them. Paramount Studios still produces the movies, and can merchandise each film in question, but licences the brand from CBS. Speaking earlier this year, Les Moonves said that Star Trek was a big sticking point in the split, as both sides wanted complete control. In the end, the compromise was this: any series would have to wait six months to broadcast after the release of any film, to "avoid confusion in the marketplace."

This split played a part in deciding to reboot the film series and place it in it's own distinct timeline. Now, the films can take one approach in line with whatever they want, and any series can stay in line with what has already been established by the five previous TV series. Much like DC, there is now a TV-verse and a Movie-verse, and never the twain shall meet. But because CBS still maintains the general merchandise rights to the brand, the films can only release merchandise for a specific film, and only include the likenesses of the actors involved in that particular film, in the quarters surrounding it's release. However, CBS is free to market the general brand with the likenesses of the original casts anytime they want. The result is after the release of the 2009 reboot film, there was a significant amount of action figures, movie props, costumes and other toys made based on the new Kirk, Spock and crew. At the same time, CBS flooded the market with swag and toys featuring the likes of Shatner and Nimoy. The film merch quickly went to the discount bins, while CBS has ridden the nostalgia wave with the much more well known original versions of the characters.  For the release of Star Trek Into Darkness and Star Trek Beyond, Paramount hasn't bothered to merchandise the films at all (or at least, nothing outside of the adult collector market).

This means that for Paramount Pictures, the only money they stand to make off the franchise lies solely on the box office of the films. CBS meanwhile can sit back and watch the money roll in off brand association alone. This is all the more incentive for Paramount to make the films as profitable as they can be. This leads us to the former problem: Star Wars. Star Trek had never been and will never be Star Wars. Folk like to make a lot of comparisons and draw dividing lines between the camps of fans, but the only thing they really share in common is the word Star in their names. Despite this, Star Trek has long been considered the also-ran of the two franchises. Despite appearing 11 years before Wars, Trek lives in the shadow of the Empire, as it were. It was the immense success of Wars and 2001 that got Star Trek: The Motion Picture made in 1979, as Paramount wanted to get in on some of that sweet space money, and already had the franchise rights on the books going to waste. Wrath of Khan changed it's original title from Revenge because the third Wars installment was going to use it too (though it was later changed to Return). It was only after Star Wars stopped releasing films in 1983 that Star Trek emerged as a viable and profitable film series, with 1986's The Voyage Home placing 5th at the overall box office for 1986 and remains the high-water mark for the original series of films. And yet even at it's strongest, Trek's profits have always been minor compared to Lucas' films.

In the early 2000's, the reputation of Star Trek began to wane as the series failed and the films continued to rely on the popular but aging Next Generation cast. The franchised died an ignoble death with the 2002 failure of Nemesis and the 2005 cancellation of Enterprise. At the same time, Star Wars had returned to cinemas with the maligned but extremely profitable prequel trilogy. 2005 is the last time these two franchises were on equal footing, as they both ended, seemingly forever, that year. Both were relegated to the domain of the basement dwelling, parent living-with, bad mustache, detail obsessed, obese nerd, and yet Trek garnered far more disdain than Star Wars. Perhaps the most obvious reason for this was Trek's volume of success. Before the Prequels, Star Wars could still be considered a niche fandom. Three films from the eighties, running at a little under seven hours total. Vader's misquoted "Luke, I am your father," line was the most recognizable thing about them. Trek meanwhile, up to 1999, had 553 episodes and 9 movies to it's credit. It was a cultural staple, beyond osmosis and veering into over saturation, and arguably the most influential TV series ever, shaping the technological direction of humanity for the next fifty years. If you don't believe me, then I would say take a look at the laptops you used ten years ago, the cellphones you used five years ago, the iPad you use today, the Skype you use to talk to people half way around the world, the Bluetooth wireless communication devices you use not to die in car accidents and to look like a jackass in the line at Whole Foods, the voice activated tech in most vehicles, and Siri, and tell me that the seed for the form if not function wasn't inspired from Star Trek.

And then a strange thing happened. It became OK to like Star Wars. Somewhere in the mid 2000's, the Age of the Geek set in, as a fresh batch of twenty and thirty-somethings became the focus of the market, and what had long been dismissed as the realm of pimple-infested virgins suddenly dictated the yearly schedules of every movie studio, comic-cons became huge money makers, cosplay became a socially acceptable activity instead of the desperate act of loners and losers. And yet, Star Trek seems oddly immune to this social acceptability. Perhaps it was because of the over saturation from the nighties especially. Perhaps there had been so much Trek for so long it never felt like something that people had missed out on and were playing catch up. While it was more than likely that a lay person wouldn't know who Yoda was, everyone had heard of Mr. Spock. This was the environment in which Paramount decided to remount the franchise. Bring in J.J. Abrams, a self confessed Star Wars addict and Star Trek newbie to give a reboot a Star Wars touch. To be more inclusive, and more like Star Wars was the marching order (what they really meant was, be something that a non-nerd could watch rather than rely on anything from those half-thousand episodes). Even with Star Trek Beyond, Simon Pegg's instructions on writing the new draft was to be less "Star Trek-y."

And it seemed to work, at first. The first reboot film made a quarter of a million dollars, despite being very tied to the original series. It worked enough for the studio to pour more money into the sequel, hire the most popular actor of the day as the villain, and wrap a strangle hold of marketing around the internet's throat for months and months. But that backfired. They alienated the long time fans and the passive audience by making a poor film, and the result was $25 million less on a film that cost $40 million more to make, and considerably more than that to market. And then the old foe reared it's head again, and Star Wars came back into theatres in a big way. Abrams jumped ship in favour of his first love, and based on the sheer inertia of nostalgia, the movie made a billion dollars, with the promise of another billion dollars for each film every year from now until the world runs out of money. Star Trek Beyond however, had it's budget slashed. No marketing, or at least, hardly any at all outside of a month prior to release, a cheap shoot in Vancouver, and a skimp-and-save roll out in order to make the back end as big as possible. And it still didn't work, if the first weekend is any indication. Ticket sales were down 13% from Into Darkness, even with better critical response and word of mouth. Paramount isn't interested in giving up on the franchise, and has already announced that a fourth movie starring Chris Hemsworth will happen... at some point, so they are clearly hoping that some of that Thor/Ghostbusters mass market appeal rubs off on Kirk and co.

The fact is, Star Trek will never make a billion dollars, and to think otherwise is self delusion. By rights, Star Wars should never have made a billion dollars, and how it did I honestly believe involves some very high level magicks (it certainly wasn't based on quality). A lot of people make that the claim that Trek is first and foremost a television series, and doesn't work on film, but I don't buy that. The series were never long-form-story-format shows, at least the ones not DS9. I would argue that the films are a much better representation of what Star Trek is and can be than the shows. For all the 726 episodes (from 28 combined season) there is probably one or two seasons of top level television at best. What Trek really did well, and did better on TV because TV gives you more time, is character. Star Trek has very well created characters. And those characters carried over to the films because they were so well defined. The ideas that Star Trek presented were so appealing and endearing because they had appealing and endearing character to embody them. Star Wars has no grand philosophical ideas; they have space wizards and laser duels. And that's exciting, and fun and earns you a billion dollars. But it doesn't change the world. I suppose Trek is winning the long game, if nothing else.

So, why isn't a bigger deal being made of the 50th anniversary? Well, there isn't just one entity to spearhead such a celebration. Unlike Doctor Who and the BBC, the companies invested in Star Trek are at odds with one another, and neither wants to give the other any free publicity. That they got the movie out in time for the 50th year is a miracle at all, and all we'll get out of the movie division. CBS will likely do a bit more in terms of celebration later in the year, once the movie is out of theatres and the coast is clear, but by then the year will be mostly over and the new series, Discovery, doesn't premiere until next year. So, it falls to unaffiliated parties to pick up the slack. Events like the Star Fleet Experience, or Canada putting the original cast on both money and stamps. At Comic-con, new showrunner Bryan Fuller hosted a panel featuring a representative from each of the series to talk about the show's legacy. But it still feels like we're coming up short. Only four primary cast members from any iteration of the show have died; all five Captains are still working actors and have participated in celebrations before. It seems like there should be more being done for a story as big as Star Trek. The problem is, it isn't clear who would profit from such an effort, and how much they would profit from it, so there just isn't an interest in doing anything.

Starting in 1966, Star Trek gave the world a vision of the future in which greed, hate, intolerance and selfishness had been replaced by an overwhelming sense of discovery, duty, honour and sacrifice. It seems to me, in 2016, that kind of message is needed more than ever. 
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


  1. Library Hobo26 July 2016 at 15:47

    Thank you for answering my question! Sheesh, I wish I hadn't asked. I was sort of hoping the reason was some sort of general incompetence, not a baked in system that all but encourages what comes across as apathy. I've always found I was able to compartmentalize my Star Wars and Star Trek fandom -- being a fan of one never got in the way of enjoying the other. They were different animals. As was Stargate (the shows, anyway - the movie sucked) - the Star modifier didn't cause problems for me as long as the end output was good. Fascinating, though sad, to see how corporate interests play such a significant role, to the point that the IP itself is of secondary importance in the end consumer experience.

    1. MR. Clark26 July 2016 at 20:12

      It is immensely sad, but as the more callous will often say, it's the movie business, not the movie make-the-audience-feel-good. When those two very separate interests align, you can get gold. But more often than not, they don't. And someone goes home hurting.

      As for Trek and Wars, to me they aren't even worth comparing. Like apples and chesterfields, they are entirely different beasts. Star Trek is, or was in its original form, a very fifties influenced low science fiction show. It was about the "science" and the technology and the people who used both. The later series wobbled a little, but never ventured too far off that mark. Star Wars meanwhile is a fantasy that happens to be set in space. It involves space wizards (Jedi) using space magic (the Force) and space magic wands (lightsabers) to rescue a space princess (Leai) from a space dragon (Vader/Death Star) while occasionally space goblins and space trolls (Jawas, Yoda, other aliens) show up. They each make use of those genre's tropes and don't invade each others territory. Spaceships aside, they are not comparable. The same goes for Firefly, which is as obviously a western as Star Wars is a fantasy. Or, using your example, Stargate is a war story (though Stargate waffled over every genre line at some point).

    2. Library Hobo27 July 2016 at 09:54

      Oh, there's no question, I prefer chesterfields.

    3. MR. Clark27 July 2016 at 10:07

      Much higher in fiber, at the very least.