Spoiler Warning: There are minor spoilers ahead for the Kelvin timeline films, Star Trek: Discovery Season 3, and Star Trek: Picard Season 1.
Though the news got lost due to yet more corporate nonsense from ViacomCBS/Paramount dominating the conversation online, one of the more interesting announcements from yesterday’s investor event was the news that Star Trek 2023 is going to involve a return to the Kelvin timeline. Details are still sparse, with some outlets suggesting that “most” of the main cast will return, but it’s definitely an interesting move for the franchise at this time.
The Kelvin films were what Star Trek needed in the late 2000s and early 2010s. After close to two decades of continuous production, the Star Trek franchise had been losing viewers and fans, something that finally came to a head with the cancellation of Enterprise in 2005. The Kelvin films came along a few years later, and for all of the criticism some levelled at them, they succeeded at completely rebooting – and in some ways reinventing – Star Trek for a whole new audience. Some of the folks whose first contact with the franchise came at the cinema with one of these films have since gone on to become huge Trekkies, and the films’ influence continues today in some respects.
Without the Kelvin films, it’s unlikely that Star Trek would’ve been revived on the small screen in 2017. I regard their legacy as being a bridge between the faltering years of the early 2000s and the new beginning that Discovery gave the franchise, one which ultimately led to Picard, Lower Decks, Prodigy, Strange New Worlds, and everything else that we’ve got coming our way over the next few years. Without the Kelvin films carrying a torch for Star Trek and bringing fresh eyes to the franchise for the first time, it seems likely that Star Trek would’ve stayed dead after 2005.
Practically every Star Trek production has built on the successes of the iterations that came before, and Discovery in particular adopted noticeable visual elements from the Kelvin films. Picard Season 1 expanded on one part of the plot from 2009’s Star Trek, too, giving us much more information about what happened to the Romulans. The Kelvin films’ cinematography was streets ahead of anything Star Trek had done before on the big or small screens, and Into Darkness became the franchise’s highest-grossing film by a country mile. In fact, all three Kelvin films were profitable and made decent money for Paramount Pictures, albeit with the caveat that Beyond was somewhat less successful than its predecessor had been.
We’re lucky that, right now, we’re living through a renaissance for Star Trek. There are different shows catering to wildly different audiences, occupying very different genres and telling very different stories. For the first time, it feels like Star Trek has something to offer to almost everyone, whether they want a tense serialised drama or light-hearted animated comedy. There is a place in that diverse array of content for a new Kelvin film, and hopefully it will succeed in the same way as the first three.
If fans discover Star Trek for the first time thanks to this new film – and some surely will – they will find a much richer, deeper, and more interesting franchise today than they would’ve in 2009. With a plethora of new shows being produced, and Star Trek’s future feeling (fairly) secure, at least in the short-term, there will be plenty of new episodes and series for newbies to jump head-first into.
New fans are the lifeblood of any fan community, and we should welcome the opportunities that a new blockbuster film presents to the Star Trek franchise. With Star Trek continuing to be a major pillar of Paramount+ as the “streaming wars” rumble on, the new film could be important, bringing in new viewers in big numbers for the first time in several years. Shoring up the Star Trek franchise and giving it solid ground going forward are all good reasons to support a project like this one.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t things to criticise with the Kelvin timeline films, of course. I know some Trekkies who have ardently refused to watch any of them for more than a decade now, having been so upset at the decision to re-cast the crew of The Original Series. When I started having these conversations in 2008-09, I tried to put myself in the shoes of a big fan of The Original Series, and ask how I would’ve felt if it were The Next Generation that was being re-cast… ultimately I think I’d be fine with it, but I know not everyone feels the same way!
With the two former companies that came together to form ViacomCBS now working together, presumably there’s one big money pot from which films, television shows, and everything else are bankrolled. I know entertainment finance is way more complex than that, but at a basic level that’s how these big entertainment corporations work. With that in mind, my most significant complaint is that the budget of a feature film could have easily been spent instead on a season or two of television – perhaps even a brand-new show or a couple of miniseries.
Star Trek’s home, for me, will always be the small screen. And with the technological leaps that have been made in recent years, television shows can be just as good – better, in some cases – as anything the world of cinema could ever produce. The undoubtedly vast sum of money being spent on Star Trek 2023 could have been put to better use elsewhere in the franchise, and if it were up to me I’d definitely be arguing for a focus on television shows over films.
There are also some issues with the Kelvin timeline itself, and I looked at some of these in my “pros and cons” list a few months ago. For me, I think the biggest drawback – or potential drawback, at least – to making a new Kelvin timeline film is that it overcomplicates an already convoluted franchise that can be difficult for newbies to get to grips with.
Try to put yourself in the shoes of someone brand-new to Star Trek. Just of the shows currently in production, we have five different time periods on the go. Strange New Worlds is a spin-off to Discovery, but Discovery’s massive time-jump means they no longer share a setting. Picard is a sequel to The Next Generation, which was set almost 100 years after Discovery – or 800 years before where Discovery is now. And Prodigy and Lower Decks are both set in the late 24th Century too… but not at the same time as Picard. Throw an alternate reality into the mix and the timeline situation becomes so convoluted that it’s borderline offputting.
Then there’s the fact that the basic premise underlying the Kelvin films, which was a big part of the original appeal in 2009, no longer exists. A new Kelvin film, arriving fourteen years after the first one, is no longer going to be looking at “young” Kirk and Spock in their early years at Starfleet Academy. With Strange New Worlds following the adventures of the USS Enterprise on its mission of exploration, there’s a risk that a new Kelvin timeline film will seem repetitive or just unnecessary.
Discovery and Strange New Worlds have successfully brought back characters like Spock and Captain Pike, and between now and 2023 we’ll also spend time with the likes of Uhura, too. Different versions of these characters are present in the Kelvin timeline; this adds to both the problem of repetitiveness, with the new film potentially overtreading the same ground in terms of character stories, and also the issue of an unnecessarily complicated franchise. Having to try to explain to a newbie that Kelvin Spock is different from Discovery Spock, who’s also a young version of old Spock who crossed over to the Kelvin timeline… well, let’s just say it isn’t the easiest story to follow!
There’s also a hole in the Kelvin timeline’s cast. The tragic death of Anton Yelchin in 2016, and the promise that the character of Chekov won’t be recast, is a sensitive topic, but from a storytelling point of view it’s absolutely fair to point out that Chekov brought a different perspective and a dash of humour to the three films he appeared in. Of course it’s going to be possible to create a new character to fill that role, but it won’t be the same and his absence will be felt.
There are some advantages to a new Kelvin timeline film, though! For me, the biggest one is the creative freedom that the setting provides, and the opportunity to put Captain Kirk and his crew in very different situations. For example, if fans want to see Captain Kirk versus the Borg, the Kelvin timeline is the place to do it! Free from the constraints of fifty years of canon (well, except for Enterprise) the Kelvin timeline is an open-ended setting. The more it diverges from the prime timeline, the greater the opportunities become to tell radically different stories.
That’s by far the biggest and most significant ace in the hole that the Kelvin timeline has. Its unburdened creative freedom allows it to go in very different directions without treading on the toes of any of the ongoing shows and other projects. In that sense, it’s a self-contained setting perfect for telling one-off stories. My “what if” scenario of Captain Kirk versus the Borg is just one of countless examples that fans have concocted over the years!
So that’s where things sit right now. Star Trek 2023 is planning to bring back the Kelvin timeline for a new adventure, a sequel to 2016’s Beyond. And although it wouldn’t have been my first choice if I was in charge of making the investment in the next Star Trek project, it has merit and it has a lot of potential. I’ll certainly be happy to check it out when it releases in December next year… or rather, a couple of months later when it arrives on a streaming platform! My health, sadly, precludes things like trips to the cinema these days.
Star Trek Beyond clearly teased fans with a sequel in 2016, as the film drew to a close in a very open-ended fashion! It felt for a long time as though we would never get that sequel; that Star Trek had moved on to other projects that were taking the franchise in a different direction. The expanded Star Trek franchise in 2022 feels like it has space for a new Kelvin film, though, so I’ll end by saying that I wish it the best of luck!
The Star Trek franchise – including all films and series mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS/Paramount. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.