Forget Star Trek 4, the Franchise’s Future Lies With TV

Star Trek franchise

Fans were undoubtedly disappointed to read this week that a fourth planned Star Trek film may have been shelved by Paramount Pictures. While certainly a blow, the report isn't entirely surprising, as a sequel to 2016's Star Trek Beyond has been in doubt since the August departures of Chris Pine and Chris Hemsworth in a pay dispute. But the truth is, the franchise is better suited for television, with its episodic storytelling, than it is for the big screen.

That's not to say there aren't any good Star Trek films, of course. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan won acclaim from fans and critics alike, and earned $97 million in 1982. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was similarly well-received, becoming a surprise success and earning $133 million worldwide. 1996's Star Trek: First Contact was both the most critically acclaimed and highest-earning film in the franchise until J.J. Abrams' 2009 reboot. But over the decades, the franchise's big-screen fortunes have ebbed and flowed, criticized for uneven quality -- the "odd-numbered" movie rule -- for straying too far from the spirit of the original television series, or for not being cinematic enough.

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But on the small screen, Star Trek is beginning a renaissance. In September 2017, Star Trek: Discovery, the first new Star Trek television series since 2005, debuted as the flagship of the new CBS All Access streaming service. While some fans grumbled about the show's availability outside the United States, and about the darker tone of the first season, the high production values and the exploration of a previously unseen time period led to largely positive receptions, and a record number of new subscriptions on the digital platform.

Original showrunners were fired by the network in June, and series co-creator Alex Kurtzman signed a five-year contract extension that placed him in the captain's chair for Discovery's second season while developing new original Star Trek series for the platform, in live-action and in animation.

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The first of the new series is a follow-up to Star Trek: The Next Generation, featuring the eagerly anticipated return of actor Patrick Stewart to the role of Jean-Luc Picard. Announced in August, the project will reportedly take place about 20 years after the events of 2002's Star Trek Nemesis, with Picard's life radically changed by the dissolution of the Romulan Empire.

Picard sticks to his guns

Other projects include the a series of live-action shorts, Star Trek: Short Treks, which streamed in the lead-up to Discovery's second season, and the animated Star Trek: Lower Decks. Created by Rick and Morty writer Mike McMahan, the animated series will follow a Starfleet freighter undertaking menial, low-priority missions across the galaxy from a comedy perspective. Finally, an unnamed second animated series was revealed last week as as being in development for an all-ages audience.

RELATED: Star Trek: Discovery's Ethan Peck Teases Spock's 'Emotional' Turn

With Star Trek 4 in development alongside a planned film by longtime fan and auteur filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, it is increasingly clear that Paramount was unsure what to do with the franchise on the big screen, caught between trying to appeal to mass audiences without alienating its vocal fan base. CBS, which controls the property's TV rights, clearly has no such problems.

While Star Trek is likely to fly again on the big screen some day, the franchise is poised to flourish again on television, where it can reach longtime fans and new ones alike. While its accessibility on yet another premium streaming service may be a slightly restrictive concern, it has already proved a popular draw, and remains available for purchase on other platforms and is available overseas on Netflix. For more than 50 years, Star Trek's characters have declared they will venture where no one has gone before and, for the venerable franchise, the undiscovered country appears to be on CBS All Access rather than on the big screen.

Returning on Thursday, Jan. 17, on CBS All Access, Star Trek: Discovery stars Sonequa Martin-Green, Doug Jones, Anthony Rapp, Mary Wiseman, Wilson Cruz and Anson Mount.

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