Star Trek 2023: Back to the Kelvin Timeline

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.

The USS Enterprise as it appeared in the Kelvin timeline films.

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.

Star Trek: Picard Season 1 greatly expanded the Romulus storyline from 2009’s Star Trek.

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.

The titular USS Kelvin.

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!

Kirk and Spock in Star Trek Into Darkness.

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.

Spock, Kirk, and Dr McCoy (with Uhura in the background).

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.

The Star Trek franchise is complicated, especially for newcomers.

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!

How many Spocks is too many?

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.

Could Captain Kirk soon take on the Borg? Maybe!

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.

The pros and cons of a fourth Kelvin timeline film

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the three Kelvin timeline films and for other iterations of the Star Trek franchise.

A couple of weeks ago it was reported that a fourth Kelvin timeline film, which has supposedly been worked on since at least 2019, was “paused”. That’s usually Hollywood-speak for “cancelled” and “never going to happen”, but there are other potential Star Trek film projects in the works, so the Kelvin timeline may yet be granted a reprieve. While rumours can be all over the place when looking at the production side of Star Trek, two things came up often in discussions around the potential film: the return of Chris Hemsworth’s character of George Kirk being a story point, and the salaries of some of the main cast – including Kirk actor Chris Pine – being a stumbling block. I have no idea whether there’s even a grain of truth to any of these rumours, but the potential for a fourth Kelvin timeline film got me thinking.

What would be the pros and cons of a new film in the alternate reality – especially now that we have prime timeline Star Trek back on the small screen? It’s a big question, and I’ve broken it down into a short list of points for and against making a new film in this series. Let’s look at them in turn.

Pro:
Star Trek Beyond clearly teased a sequel.

The Enterprise-A was seen at the end of Star Trek Beyond.

The Kelvin timeline story hasn’t ended. The crew are back together, and despite the loss of the original USS Enterprise, at the end of Beyond we saw the christening of a new Enterprise-A – the clear implication being that Kirk would assume command and bring his crew with him.

Something similar happened in the prime timeline at the end of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. In 1986, when that film premiered, Star Trek: The Next Generation was in early production, and some may have argued that Star Trek was moving on and didn’t need another Kirk-led film. While the next film in the series, The Final Frontier, was hardly a great success, The Undiscovered Country was – and it was a far better send-off for the original crew. If the Star Trek films had ended with The Voyage Home we’d have missed out on a great story and a more fitting end to Kirk and the crew’s adventures.

If the film series were to end now, it would arguably feel incomplete. The tease at the end of Beyond would still be there, taunting fans with a never-realised continuation to the story.

Con:
And which fans are those?

Look, it’s all of the Kelvin timeline’s hardcore fans.

Despite their popularity with a wider audience – something which we’ll look at in a moment – I’ve never really found that the Kelvin timeline films had much of a following of their own. They’re summer blockbusters in the vein of something like the Transformers series; popcorn flicks that people will happily watch – and then immediately forget about.

Within the Star Trek fan community, the Kelvin timeline films haven’t picked up a following of their own. I’m not even counting the many Trekkies who didn’t see the films because they didn’t like the premise; the Kelvin timeline just doesn’t have its own fandom. People have other iterations of the franchise that they prefer – the Kelvin timeline films are, at best, someone’s second choice.

There are sub-groups of Trekkies – some may like The Original Series, others favour The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine, etc. And the new Star Trek shows since 2017 have fans of their own too. But the Kelvin timeline films don’t seem to have that kind of following; there’s no group of dedicated Trekkies who favour them above everything else in the franchise. People I’ve spoken with are in two camps: they either detest the Kelvin timeline films or they think they’re just okay.

With all that in mind – who would a fourth film even be made for?

Pro:
The films brought in huge numbers of non-Trekkies.

The Kelvin timeline films appealed to a wider audience than any prior Star Trek production.

Though they may lack a hardcore following, the Kelvin timeline films succeeded beyond any other Star Trek project at bringing in huge audiences. 2009’s Star Trek was an overwhelming box office success, bringing in more than double the money of any other film in the series – and Into Darkness did even better, becoming the high-water mark of the entire Star Trek film franchise’s financial success. Beyond was considered a “disappointment” – but it still raked in over $340 million on a $180 million budget, making it hugely profitable for Paramount Pictures. 2009’s Star Trek also won an Academy Award – the only Star Trek film to ever achieve that feat.

So there’s clearly an audience for another film set in the Kelvin timeline, and any such project should be a guaranteed money-maker for Paramount and ViacomCBS. Bringing the crew back together and putting a seasoned director in charge – as they did in 2009 – would generate plenty of buzz, and the aforementioned wider audience that saw and enjoyed the first three films will surely show up for the next entry.

Star Trek isn’t made for Trekkies. That may sound odd, but it’s true. Hardcore fans will only ever be a small portion of any franchise’s audience, and I’ve said countless times that the Star Trek franchise needs to reach out far beyond this small pond if it’s to survive long-term. The new animated series Star Trek: Lower Decks has potential to help in that regard, but so does a new Kelvin timeline film.

Con:
The unique premise of the films no longer exists.

Cadet Kirk.

In 2008-09, during the buildup to the release of Star Trek, one angle that was really interesting was the idea that the films would show “young” Kirk and Spock in their Starfleet Academy years. We’d get to see how all of the characters came to meet one another, and although the films would be recasting the classic characters, we’d see them in their younger days, before Kirk assumed command of the Enterprise and set out on his five-year mission.

That premise no longer exists. The end of Star Trek saw the characters graduate from the Academy, and Beyond explained that Kirk and his crew were engaged in their five-year mission of exploration. That premise is exactly the same as The Original Series, and the unique aspect of the films is gone, replaced by a copy of what came before.

With Strange New Worlds looking to pick up the exploration angle of Star Trek, do we really need a Kelvin timeline film to do the same thing? It’s certainly arguable that we don’t.

Pro:
There’s the possibility for crossovers.

A Pike-Pike story? Heck yes, sign me up!

I mentioned this as one concept that could be fun to see in Strange New Worlds – but how about a crossover? Pike and Spock from the Kelvin timeline and Pike and Spock from the prime timeline working together to achieve some goal or defeat a nefarious villain could be a fascinating story and a great piece of cinema or television.

This concept doesn’t just have to be limited to Pike and Spock either; we could see crossovers with literally any group of characters. The idea of a ship and crew from one side of the divide between parallel realities having to work with others to make it home again is something that could be really fun to watch.

Con:
The Kelvin timeline will be retreading too much ground.

Spock, Kirk, and McCoy during their five-year mission.

Pike and Spock are the leads in their own upcoming series – Strange New Worlds. Do we really need two “young Spocks” in Star Trek? There’s a risk that the two productions will trip over one another, and that the Kelvin timeline film will do nothing for Spock’s character in particular that hasn’t been done in Discovery or Strange New Worlds.

That’s in addition to the point mentioned above – that we’ll be seeing Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest of the crew undertaking the same five-year mission that was depicted in The Original Series. Some fans have argued for a return to Star Trek’s spirit of exploration, but with at least one television show focusing on precisely that, where would a Kelvin timeline film fit in?

Fundamentally this comes down to a couple of characters – most notably Spock. Ethan Peck’s version of the character has gone down very well with fans of Discovery, and I’m just not convinced the franchise has room for two identical characters. If I had to choose only one… I’m sorry to Zachary Quinto but I’d rather keep Ethan Peck’s take on the character.

Pro:
Quentin Tarantino may be working on a script.

Renowned director Quentin Tarantino has supposedly pitched a Star Trek film.
Photo credit: Georges Biard via Wikimedia Commons

Quentin Tarantino has written and directed some of cinema’s recent classics. Titles like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, the Kill Bill duology, Inglorious Basterds, and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood are all hailed as phenomenal works of cinema. His violent style can be controversial – and some may argue a bad fit for Star Trek – but he’s an incredibly talented filmmaker, one that any franchise would love to bring on board.

It’s worth pointing out that there’s no guarantee his pitch – if it even exists and is still being considered – would involve the Kelvin timeline crew. But the timing of the rumour coincided with the Kelvin timeline’s production, so it’s at least a possibility.

I know some people dislike Tarantino’s style. But even they would have to admit that he does what he does very well, and any film that has his name attached draws a lot of attention – which translates into big numbers at the box office.

An R-rated Star Trek film just for the sake of it wouldn’t be my first choice. But if the story works well, I’m not opposed to it either. Recent Star Trek projects have not been shy about trying new things, so Tarantino could be a good fit for an expanded franchise.

Con:
Anton Yelchin’s tragic death means that a major character will be absent.

Anton Yelchin in 2015.
Photo credit: GabboT on Flickr via Wikimedia Commons
Image used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

Anton Yelchin died tragically in 2016, shortly before the premiere of Star Trek Beyond. This is a sensitive topic, and I thought long and hard about including it here, but I think it’s important because it’s hard to imagine another film without him.

Yelchin had taken over the role of Pavel Chekov in 2009’s Star Trek, and while Chekov is arguably less of a “main” character than Kirk, Spock, or McCoy, he was still a big part of all three of the Kelvin timeline films. In 2016, the producers of Star Trek Beyond stated that the role would not be recast for any future films, and it would be very difficult for a new creative team to go back on that promise without the support of Yelchin’s family, the other cast members, and the wider fan community.

Chekov’s absence would be hugely significant and very noticeable; a hole at the heart of the crew. While it’s possible to work around that, as other films have done under similar circumstances, I’m not sure how well it would succeed. Chekov filled a unique role in the crew as its youngest member, and without his occasionally comedic presence, there will be a key element missing from any future story.

Pro:
The alternate reality setting allows for a huge amount of creative license.

Could we see Kirk face off against the Borg? Maybe… but only in the Kelvin timeline.

Now we come to perhaps the biggest point in favour of the alternate reality: nothing after Enterprise happened. Canon is nonexistent – aside from that established by the first three films – so writers and producers have a blank slate to tell any kind of story they want without worrying about treading on the toes of established canon.

Have you always wanted to know how Kirk would fare against the Borg? The Kelvin timeline could do that, as bringing the Borg into a story doesn’t affect prime canon. How about the Dominion War breaking out more than a century earlier? The Kelvin timeline could do that too. Or what if William Shater finally got his wish to reprise the role of Kirk? He mentioned it as recently as a few weeks ago, and the best way to bring back Shatner’s Kirk – who of course died in the prime timeline – could be in the alternate reality.

When considering 2009’s Star Trek as a reboot, one of the best things it did was use an alternate reality setting, because that has opened up endless possibilities for the film franchise going forward. The examples above are just a few options off the top of my head, but there are so many more, including stories that could never work in the prime timeline.

Con:
The Star Trek franchise will be more convoluted than it already is.

The official Star Trek website posted this guide to the franchise’s timeline(s) a few months ago.

It’s only fair to follow the biggest pro with the biggest con, and in my opinion the biggest drawback to continuing the Kelvin timeline films now is that the Star Trek universe is already incredibly complicated. It’s difficult for casual viewers to get the hang of which show is taking place in which time period, but if you throw an alternate reality into the mix as well, the whole thing just becomes convoluted.

Bringing in and retaining new fans is the key challenge for the Star Trek franchise going forward, and one thing that has to be avoided is putting people off. Star Trek has been running for so long and has so many different iterations that it can already feel overwhelming for newcomers; the Kelvin timeline films may draw large crowds, but if those crowds don’t stick around and jump over to other parts of the franchise because it’s too complicated, it’s almost not worth the trouble.

So that’s it.

Some of the pros and cons of making a fourth Kelvin timeline film. As always, the caveat applies that this is just my opinion; I don’t know whether a film will be made or is even under consideration.

Kirk and Spock (with John Harrison in the background) in Star Trek Into Darkness.

If it were left up to me, I think what I’d say is that the Kelvin timeline films have run their course. They achieved what they set out to: rebooting a Star Trek franchise which had become stale after decades in production, and set the stage for a resurgence in the franchise’s wider popularity, which culminated in Discovery, Picard, and Star Trek’s return to the small screen.

While there is certainly scope to use the alternate reality setting to tell more stories, I don’t feel that it’s necessary right now. There are so many other Star Trek projects in various stages of production that the franchise is hardly going to be lacking in content at least through the first half of the 2020s. A Kelvin timeline film would be a complete outlier when compared to the rest of the franchise, simply because of its setting. That’s not to say that there’s no place for a new film and never will be, just that it would be superfluous at the moment.

The Enterprise goes to warp.

Hopefully the Star Trek franchise, having found a new home on CBS All Access, will remain in production for a long time to come. Branching out into different genres, and telling stories in a more modern way has certainly helped build a foundation for future success. I’ll always be grateful for what the Kelvin timeline films did. They took Star Trek from a run-down franchise that was losing fans and viewership and turned it around. Not only that, they modernised the franchise and proved that it still had a huge potential audience. Star Trek’s current success is built on the shoulders of what these three films did. But despite that, I don’t think there’s a need to return to the same setting and the same cast to make another film.

One thing we’ve seen Star Trek attempt to do with Short Treks is tell one-off stories. Take a one-off story and make it last two-and-a-half hours and you’ve got a feature film – and there are so many possibilities within the franchise to tell such stories. With CBS All Access being Star Trek’s new home, the franchise could even experiment with direct-to-streaming films (something that may have to happen if this pandemic drags on), and there are countless possibilities for what kind of films could be made and what kind of stories could be told. There’s no reason why a Kelvin timeline film can’t be part of that… but there’s also no compelling reason that I can see why it needs to be either.

The Star Trek film franchise – including all titles mentioned above – is the copyright of Paramount Pictures and ViacomCBS. Photos and stock images courtesy of Unsplash and Wikimedia Commons. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.