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Star Trek’s next five years will go boldly where Marvel can’t follow

The next five years of Trek are coming into focus with Alex Kurtzman's new deal.

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In 1996, the film Star Trek: First Contact featured crossovers from two different Star Trek TV series — Voyager and Deep Space Nine — while rebooting a character from The Original Series in the context of a Next Generation movie. Before creating a shared TV and movie continuity was commonplace, Star Trek was boldly going where few had gone before.

When one considers sprawling TV and movie franchises, Star Trek may never be thought of as the biggest. Historically, though, it’s been a courageous trailblazer. And yet, the series’ most recent expansions have generally appeared small-scale next to a powerhouse like Marvel, with its lucrative cinematic universe and Disney+ expansions.

Still, in terms of taking risks and maintaining variety across its titles, Star Trek is just getting started. News recently emerged that executive producer Alex Kurtzman has signed a new five-year deal with ViacomCBS to expand the Final Frontier on Paramount+, and details of his upcoming projects there suggest the expanding Trekverse will make the Marvel Cinematic Universe look conventional by comparison. In other words, even if Star Trek won’t become bigger than Marvel, it will certainly get weirder and more adventurous with its offerings. Here’s why.

Apparently, Kurtzman has been holding back. Speaking to the New York Times, Trek’s equivalent of Kevin Feige said this:

“If it were up to me only, I would be pushing the boundaries much further than I think most people would want.”

Following the announcement that Kurtzman’s deal with ViacomCBS will extend for at least five more years (into 2026) the Times writer Nicole Sperling noted that Kurtzman’s vision for the Trek franchise is “to get much weirder,” compared to what we’ve seen thus far.

While comparisons to Marvel essentially write themselves at this point, a look down Trek’s transwarp pipeline makes it clear there’s little similarity between the MCU and the expanding Trek galaxy — other than both are shared multi-media universes with a rich history.

The cast and crew of Star Trek: DiscoveryPacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images

Why Star Trek is nothing like the MCU

While Marvel stans will tell you that Loki and Wandavision are as different as it gets, both series led up to similar endings and, aesthetically, ended up looking very similar to each other. A certain “template” feel abounds across the MCU, and while visuals and tones can vary from film to film (Thor: The Dark World versus Thor: Ragnarok, for example) each film and series has thus far been built to appeal to the same core audience.

Star Trek is the opposite. Lower Decks viewers might overlap with the audiences for the other Trek series, but it’s easier to imagine people who solely watch Picard or newer recruits mainly invested in Discovery. Marvel’s not really like this, telling audiences repeatedly how important it is that they watch every successive film and series.

Star Trek locks its audience into no such implicit contract: you can watch whatever you want, and you’re not going to feel hopelessly confused if you skip a show or two. As Kurtzman said earlier this year, “Our goal is not to make it so insular that if you haven’t seen the show you’re lost when you watch another show.”

Star Trek also has one weapon at its disposal that the MCU can’t match: a vast library of about 800 hours of various shows that precede the newer 21st-century push. From 1966 to 2005, across six different series, exists a wellspring of talent in front of and behind the screen. Though Star Trek is currently unified as one “brand” like Marvel, it’s taken more risks, because it’s had to in order to flourish across different decades. Star Trek is scrappier than the DCEU or the MCU because it’s been around longer and is still looking for ways to expand and enrich its universe.

Alex Kurtzman and the cast of Star Trek: Picard in early 2020.Tristar Media/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Star Trek canon isn’t that big of a deal

Although continuity is important to a certain group of fans, what the newer shows are proving is the elasticity of Trek’s canon. In the new Times story, president of CBS Studios David Stapf said:

“Anything goes, as long as it can fit into the ‘Star Trek’ ethos of inspiration, optimism and the general idea that humankind is good. So comedy, adult animation, kids’ animation — you name the genre, and there’s probably a ‘Star Trek’ version of it.”

This elasticity is key to differentiating Star Trek from the MCU or Star Wars. At the end of the day, Marvel stories have to be about superheroes and supervillains; and even when that trope is subverted, it still feels pretty much the same.

Star Trek has a 55-year-track record of striking out in fresh directions. Deep Space Nine wasn’t set on a space station and featured little trekking in its early seasons. Discovery didn’t focus on a captain. Outside of its more conventionally heroic narrative arcs, Star Trek: Picard is mostly centered on characters who are everyday civilians.

Star Trek’s brand is bigger than canon and continuity; it’s even bigger than established characters. As expansive as the MCU can feel, the majority of its characters are adapted from pre-existing comic books. Star Trek, on the other hand, has invented over 40 new characters in the past five years alone.

Worf (Micahel Dorn) in TNG’s famous Robin Hood episode, “Q-Pid.”CBS/Paramount/StarTrek.com

Even Stranger Treks — Now With More Worf?

So, what are the new, weird iterations of Star Trek coming in the next five years? Here’s a glimpse at the road ahead:

  • 2021: Lower Decks Season 2, Discovery Season 4, Prodigy Season 1
  • 2022: Strange New Worlds Season 1, Picard Season 2
  • 2023: Some kind of new feature film, possibly Section 31, probably Discovery Season 5
  • 2024 and beyond: A Starfleet Academy series and, interestingly, a series about Worf?

Toward the end of the Times profile, Kurtzman brings up a recent pitch from Graham Wagner (Portlandia, Silicon Valley), centered on the character Worf, that he calls “incredibly funny, poignant and touching.”

In addition to all the other disparate Trek projects, a Portlandia writer wants to do some kind of comedy series about Worf. Whether or not this will happen is unclear, but the fact that the Trek franchise is even thinking along these lines is shocking. And the franchise isn’t being built in a vacuum: WandaVision director Matt Shakman is reportedly directing the next Star Trek movie.

In Star Trek: The Next Generation’s final episode, Captain Picard sat down at a poker table and said, “the sky’s the limit.” If you’re placing bets on which geek franchise will still be strong, stable, and wacky as hell 50 years from now, history tells us that the smart money is on Trek.

Most of the Star Trek franchise is streaming now on Paramount+.

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