After the last shot of the Enterprise shooting off into space at the end of 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture the screen flashed “The Human Adventure is Just Beginning.” Thirty-seven years and 13 movies later, that is looking like an understatement.
Putting aside the numerous TV Treks (next year’s Star Trek: Discovery will be the seventh), the cinematic Treks are starting to demonstrate James Bond-style staying power. But just like their ‘70s and ‘80s forebears, the contemporary Star Trek films face the challenge of figuring out how to stay relevant and popular in a world dominated by ongoing superhero clashes and the revamped dominance of Star Wars. The latest film, Star Trek Beyond, has been largely met with positive reviews and decent box office return. With a 14th film (or 4th, depending on how you look at it) already in pre-production, what should the Trek films do next?
Mild Spoilers for Star Trek Beyond ahead
According to official press material released studios Paramount, Bad Robot and Skydance Productions, we already know Captain Kirk’s (Chris Pine) father, George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth) is set to return in the next Star Trek movie. Why? I’d say the safe money here is on the production wanting to benefit from the marquee value of Chris Hemsworth becoming something of a superstar since his brief appearance in the prologue of the 2009 movie. Whether this shoe-horning of star power into the next Trek is to your liking or not is beside the point: it’s happening! The more important question is how will the writing and directing team incorporate George Kirk into the next film?
A lot of fans would probably be alarmed by the notion of a time-travel story featuring Captain Kirk and his deceased father, but the notion of morality and mortality bending time paradoxes are some of Star Trek’s best dramatic bread and butter. The beloved episode “The City on the Edge of Forever, featured Kirk grappling with saving the life of 1930s social worker Edith Keeler (Joan Collins).
In Kirk’s original timeline, Keeler died in a street accident, but if he, Spock, or Bones choose to save her life, she creates a global peace movement, which in turn changes the course of their history, and in doing so, erases the crew of the Enterprise from existence. Spock and Kirk know Edith Keeler was “right” about “peace,” but at the “wrong time.” But how can they let an innocent person die? There’s a reason why this Star Trek episode is still considered one of the best.
Correlatively, Star Trek: The Next Generation offered the episode “Tapestry,” in which the interdimensional space-god “Q” gave Captain Picard a second chance at avoiding a nearly-fatal bar-fight in his youth. In the regular timeline, Picard has an artificial heart because he was stabbed in this brawl, which will cause him to probably die because of an accident with his fake-heart in the present. And so, Picard changes his past, and in doing so, undoes the cool, confident person he was destined to become. Which was the right decision? To get stabbed through the heart? Or to be yourself? Should anybody mess with changing the past?
The first J.J. Abrams Star Trek film made fairly big deal of trying to convince the audience that the heroic death of Kirk’s dad just prior his birth changed the entire “original” Star Trek timeline. Depending on where you fall on the fan-outrage spectrum this was either a deft way of changing old continuity by honoring it, or a giant slap in the face. If the next Trek movie gives the new Captain Kirk the potential ability to go back in time and save George Kirk from death, the sticky paradoxical conflict is not only in the aforementioned Trek-tradition, but also, deliciously meta. Through time-travel, will the new Captain Kirk destroy his existing biography?
We’ve seen this kind of weird conciliatory retcon predominantly in superhero comic books (like DC’s various iterations of Crisis on Infinite Earths) or even in a weird-time-travel mashup movie like X-Men: Days of Future Past. Here, the plot conflicts can be thought-provoking, but the side effect is that the franchise ends up having a conversation with itself about itself. Again, depending on where you stand, or how it’s executed, this could be either excellent or overly self- consciousness. To put it another way: if the next Star Trek does merge this canon with “old” canon, it could create a really great Back to the Future father-son thing in space. But does that also mean William Shatner will return as “Old Kirk?” Is that something we even want?
By the end of Star Trek Beyond, the crew is given a new U.S.S. Enterprise and each member of the contemporary cast gets to do part of the famous “Space…The Final Frontier” voice-over. Right before this ending , it’s also vaguely instituted that newcomer Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) might join Star Fleet, and maybe even the crew. Everything about this finale has the signs of new beginnings and fresh starts.
And yet, we’ve kind of seen all of this before. In the original run of Star Trek films, the third entry featured the destruction of the Enterprise and the fourth film centered on time-travel. And though Beyond is an original story (as opposed to Into Darkness’s vague Wrath of Khan remake) it still seems to be keeping a few beats from the old films. If Simon Pegg and Doug Jung are back co-writing the screenplay for the next Star Trek, there’s every reason to believe they’ll bring back time-travel to facilitate the return of George Kirk. Meaning that in many ways, it’s possible that the more Star Trek films change, the more they’re desperate to find time travel paradoxes in order to stay the same.