Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 23 September 2019

'Live long and prosper': Could the 'Star Trek' universe be the next Marvel Cinematic Universe?

With the franchise in the hands of one owner for the first time since 2006, could this be a network moneymaker?

Cast members of the television series 'Star Trek: Voyager.' Getty
Cast members of the television series 'Star Trek: Voyager.' Getty

Business commentators and investors may be filled with excitement at the forthcoming merger of TV giant CBS and Viacom, the owner of Comedy Central, MTV and Paramount Pictures. It is the latest media mega-merger as broadcasters and producers attempt to consolidate in an industry increasingly dominated by the behemoth Disney/Fox and Netflix.

There is another group of people who should also be excited by the news, however, and you are unlikely to find them on the pages of the Wall Street Journal: the Trekkies.

That’s right, fans of Star Trek should be thrilled by this latest piece of corporate manoeuvring, because it will finally bring the entire Star Trek universe under a single owner for the first time since 2006.

Paramount has since held the rights to the core characters from the original series and movies for its film spin-off of the show. That is the classic line-up of Kirk, Spock, Scotty and co. CBS, meanwhile, has owned the rights to the TV spin-offs Star Trek: Discovery, which first aired in 2017, the forthcoming Picard, and so on.

The separately owned sets of characters have not crossed paths – until now?

This puts the makers of Star Trek in a position similar to that which Marvel found itself in when it first began rolling out the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in 2008, but only had the rights to half of Marvel’s characters. Spiderman was owned by Sony, The X-Men and Fantastic Four by Fox.

As with the Marvel universe, by and large the separately owned sets of characters have not crossed paths, although there have been exceptions. Disney, for example, did a deal with Sony to introduce Spiderman into the Marvel movies, and this year, the second season of Star Trek: Discovery briefly introduced a young, pre-original series Spock to fans, perhaps in a precursor to what we can expect once the deal goes through.

Leonard Nimoy as Mr Spock, William Shatner as Captain James T Kirk and DeForest Kelley as Dr McCoy in the Star Trek episode, 'Charlie X', in the show's first season in 1966. Getty.
Leonard Nimoy as Mr Spock, William Shatner as Captain James T Kirk and DeForest Kelley as Dr McCoy in the Star Trek episode, 'Charlie X', in the show's first season in 1966. Getty.

Now, in a further parallel, the Viacom-CBS merger looks set to end the Star Trek standoff, just as Disney’s acquisition of Fox ended many of its own MCU-related problems. So could Star Trek be the next MCU?

Star Trek certainly has a loyal and widespread fan base. It sits 17th in a ranking of highest-grossing movie franchises, which while not quite MCU territory, is respectable, and above popular franchises such as Toy Story and Mission Impossible (soon-to-be CBS chief executive Joe Ianniello has also suggested that the MI franchise is another which could be “leveraged across the [unified] companies’ platforms”), and that box office figure does not take into account the incredible popularity of the numerous Star Trek TV series and spin-offs.

'Star Trek' is more well-known than Marvel characters were to begin with

In fact, there is a solid argument to be made that, when it comes to universe building, Star Trek may be in a stronger position than the MCU was when it kicked off back in 2008. Kirk, Spock and Scotty are surely already household names. When Iron Man set the MCU ball rolling, Tony Stark definitely was not. Iron Man was a fairly minor character – the big hitters such as Spiderman were already owned elsewhere.

Brent Spiner, Patrick Stewart, and Michael Dorn in the 1998 film 'Star Trek: Insurrection.' Getty.
Brent Spiner, Patrick Stewart, and Michael Dorn in the 1998 film 'Star Trek: Insurrection.' Getty.

Even the Iron Man comic had previously been scheduled for cancellation before he earned a late reprieve, and none of the characters of the early MCU had the same “brand recognition” of a Superman, a Spiderman, or indeed a Captain Kirk.

With Star Trek: Picard slated for next year, a Michelle Yeoh-led Discovery spin-off in development, talk of animated shows and short movies on the CBS side of the new media entity, and rumours of a Quentin Tarantino-directed, R-rated Star Trek movie on the Paramount side, there is plenty to look forward to for fans. The talk coming from boardroom level about “scale”, “leveraging platforms” and “global footprint” in relation to Star Trek suggests there could be plenty more, now that the licensing barriers are all but eliminated.

The mention of animated shows, in particular, suggests Star Trek’s owners could be set to take another leaf from Disney’s book. That studio has successfully used Star Wars and Marvel cartoons to vastly expand both universes far beyond what we see in cinemas, and also to win over the hearts, minds and pocket money of a new, young audience, even selling toys of characters that have not yet appeared in the main movies.

Its streaming service could take 'Star Trek' stratospheric

As for spin-off shows, Star Trek is already a step ahead of Marvel here. Star Trek’s makers have been churning out spin-offs for decades since the launch of The Next Generation in 1987, long before Marvel’s brief dalliance with Netflix and subsequent move to Disney+.

Streaming service CBS All Access is also likely to play a huge role in the franchise’s development going forward. Unlike Disney, which has had to take back the rights to many of its own Marvel shows and movies and commit to launching the Disney+ streaming service, the newly merged company already has a streamer in place, and with it a space for almost unlimited universe expansion. It also has a hefty batch of free-to-air and cable TV services should it choose to place new Star Trek content here too.

Star Trek still has some way to go before it can be truly said it can rival the MCU, but with characters now united, the foundation stones are there. The first challenge is to create a new set of characters that can equal the popularity of Kirk, Spock, Picard, leverage them into the existing Star Trek universe, which already spans different eras, and capture the imaginations of a whole new generation of converts the way Tony Stark and friends have over at Disney/Marvel.

What seems certain under the ownership of a new company with $28bn in annual revenue is that Star Trek will be boldly going into your local cinema, living room and streaming device of choice, at a star date not too far away.

Updated: August 18, 2019 06:25 PM

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