Whether you’re just stepping into Star Trek via the Kelvin Timeline or a long-time fan of the franchise, one thing is clear: J.J. Abrams’ brought Star Trek back in a big way. The latest big screen outing, Star Trek Beyond, packed in tons of the Kelvin universe’s characteristic action, but seasoned it with a little more introspection and characterization. While Justin Lin’s latest high-octane adventure is a welcome addition to the alternative timeline, it seems clear the prevailing winds of mainstream cinema are tacking away from the blend of action and thought-provoking subtext the classic series and films exemplified.
With the distraction of San Diego Comic-Con and tentpole competitors like Suicide Squad, the most recent Trek wasn't exactly a box office smash. However, it did manage to snag enough viewers to keep the franchise going – which is fortunate, because Paramount announced a fourth film just prior to Beyond's release. The next installment will feature the return of James T. Kirk’s (Chris Pine) father George (played by Thor actor Chris Hemsworth), although to what degree and in what way is unknown at present.
Early rumors also purport that the next entry may restore the schism between the two timelines. Whether the fourth rebooted film resets the timeline or sets up the next batch of Kelvin sequels, it promises another romp with the now-familiar neo-classical cast. But just what are we looking for in the next big-screen Star Trek epic?
Just a Dash More Intellect
Crafting a Star Trek film has always been a delicate balancing act, even during the classic era. Blending action and adventure with a thoughtful examination of humanity has always been tricky when most moviegoers are seeking a distraction from the daily grind. The latest offering, Star Trek Beyond, does a solid job exploring Kirk’s restiveness with his five-year mission and Spock’s conflict between his duty and his people. Yet as expected, the overall ethical bent of the series is relegated to buzzwords like unity, honor, and Krall’s (Idris Elba) reductive critique of the Federation.
Three films in, it seems unlikely that Star Trek’s alternate universe will ratchet down the action in favor of the heady blend of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan or The Voyage Home. While Beyond had a handful of character-driven moments, it was also one of the most action-packed movies of the series (and that’s saying something after Khan’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) high-octane turn in Into Darkness). There may be little hope of a major uptick of intellect, but Beyond at least managed to sneak in a little bit of brains.
While the action set pieces will likely get larger and more elaborate, the writers of the fourth film could slip a little more thought-in-motion into the next film. Beyond was a fantastic popcorn flick with lots of fun references (such as Chekov’s insistence that Scotch is a Russian invention), but it also had several lost opportunities for deeper philosophical examination. It would be gratifying for Trek devotees to be able to watch some good old-fashioned Federation principles explored, rather than merely enforced.
Classic Trek films were able to sneak clever moments beneath the surface, such as the ethical dilemma of playing god (Genesis in Wrath of Khan). Also, the heavy-handed message about treating the planet with respect from The Voyage Home seems like quaint bits of common sense now. Beyond did manage to throw in some subtle jabs at extreme libertarianism (Krall as Trump) and re-envision Hikaru Sulu as gay (a move George Takei wasn’t thrilled with).
For the most part, though, the rebooted series has avoided or cribbed its moral quandaries from its predecessors (better than nothing). The writers of Star Trek 4 shouldn’t be afraid to explore current events in allegorical form, either as Pegg and Jung did in as much as they could. Nor should they be unwilling to seek out new worlds for longer than it takes to jump a motorcycle over them.
More Seeking Out New Life
The rebooted Star Trek films have given fans a lot of interesting new places and devious plots, but little of the crew’s actual five year mission. True, their odyssey only began in the falling action of Into Darkness. But for a film and TV series based on space travel, the films have spent a surprisingly large amount of time grounded or in familiar places. Yorktown Station and the uncharted nebula were gorgeous, but it would’ve been fun if they served as more than just set dressing.
While it’s unlikely Paramount will suddenly tell its producers, writers, and directors to dial down the popcorn action and crank up the Star Trek: The Motion Picture elements (which bored many hardcore Trekkies), it would be nice if the next movie explored its surroundings a little more before blowing them up. The Enterprise’s next mission could even kick off with their investigation of a planet, a trip to a familiar world or two (more on that below), charting a star system, or expanding their understanding of human possibilities. And then, yes, a cosmic bad seed can blow something up.
Revenge Is a Leftover Dish
As far as villains go, the rebooted Star Trek series has done fairly well – especially with its caliber of actors. Idris Elba, Benedict Cumberbatch, Eric Bana, and Peter Weller are all extremely talented and capable of great depth and range. However, Elba’s antagonist Krall in Beyond, much like Admiral Marcus in Into Darkness, Nero in the eponymous reboot, the Son’a in Insurrection and, of course, Khan Noonien Singh in the original Wrath of Khan, were all vengeance-oriented adversaries. Sure, Shakespeare’s famous line about revenge food meshes well with Ricardo Montalban’s quip about space temperatures in Wrath, but Trek has been down the vengeance path one time too many.
For the fourth entry, it would be nice to see an adversary who doesn’t feel the need to destroy the Federation or seek comeuppance against Kirk. The next big baddie could simply view the Enterprise or Starfleet as an obstacle or nuisance. Some of the most memorable franchise villains – such as the Borg and V’Ger (arguably), General Chang (despite Christopher Plummer’s deliciously ham-fisted delivery), and the Dominion – antagonized based on their suspicious nature, superiority complex, attachment to order, or were galactic overachievers.
In its next outing, Kelvin-Trek needs to face a more universal threat than Krall or Khan or Nero, as menacing as they were. If the writers can’t invent another modern classic villain, let’s face it, Star Trek is loaded to bear with them.
Bring on the Klingons
While the Klingons made a brief appearance in Into Darkness, few fanatics or casual audiences would mind revisiting their ilk. The aggressive species played heavily into the classic film and television series, but in the reborn timeline, the Empire of Kahless could play a slightly different role.
During Abrams’ re-Wrath of Khan, Kirk managed to stave off a war between the two galactic superpowers. His actions could have altered this timeline’s events to reflect those closer to the progress made in The Undiscovered Country. Naturally, much like General Chang, the Romulans, and Admiral Cartwright, not everyone would be thrilled at the prospect of a Federation-Klingon peace treaty. The next escapade for the Enterprise could explore the battle for peace between the galactic powers – before getting sucked into a temporal anomaly or however Kirk meets up with his father. Of course, the rebooted Trek is pretty action packed, so maybe the Federation will just wind up toe-to-toe with their old adversaries.
If, for some strange reason, the Klingons don’t thrill fans anymore (unlikely), there are other fun adversaries who could rear their ugly heads in the Kelvin timeline. The alternate timeline could also take advantage of interesting Original Series nemeses like the Tholians (who would look really cool with big budget CGI), the curious Sphere Builders, or even the Gorn could make for an entertaining fourth romp into the rebooted realms.
Because honestly, where’s a 23rd century version of Gul Dukat or Q when you need him?
What’s Up with New Vulcan?
While we’re on the subject of Trek nemeses impacting major damage, fans have heard precious little about the remnants of one of the Federation’s core members lately. Since Nero took out Vulcan, the the planet's diminished populace has barely been heard from aside from a few exchanges between Old Spock and New Spock (hanging out with your friends, not the family) and after Spock Prime’s passing. Of course, Spock Kelvin does debate ditching Starfleet to help out the New Vulcan colony. After all, who’s going to dissuade the survivor of an extinction-level event from helping his kinfolk?
The return of George Kirk, though, bodes for an increased focus on the time travel/parallel world angle, as well as a Jim Kirk-oriented tale. The next entry could, nonetheless, explore the remnants of Vulcan as more than an emotional red herring. The plight of his scattered people could also be a powerful motivational factor for a survivor guilt-riddled Spock.
Perhaps, he discovers a way to head back in time to stop the destruction of his home world. A miscalculation or hiccup in the process could lead them back to the beginning of the timeline and Kirk’s father. A little more fan-service about Vulcan could lead the series full circle, or leave it open for the next round of Kelvin-based films.
On the other hand, saving Vulcan would also mean erasing over half a decade of nuTrek history and a lot of great quips.
More Bones and Spock Banter
After two previous entries, the characters' suits have been tailored for their new wearers. Doug Jung and Simon Pegg are also to be commended for their characterization in Star Trek Beyond. Their script refined the team and its dynamic (especially Spock, Bones, Kirk, Chekov, and newcomer Jaylah (played by Sofia Boutella)). During Beyond, though, Karl Urban and Zach Quinto’s dialogue sparkled most when Leonard “Bones” McCoy and Spock “Spock” butted heads.
Jung and Pegg’s fandom was on full display during the scenes where Bones aids an injured Spock. Quinto and Urban’s performances were nuanced, both owning their versions of the beloved characters and paying respect to their dearly departed fore-bearers (DeForest Kelley and Leonard Nimoy, respectively). Despite the surplus of talented actors working on Kelvin Trek, the fourth entry would be foolish to resign their rapport to the background.
Even if the next film winds up as a James T. Kirk story first and foremost, the Spock-Bones connection is a great way to season the poignancy of a Kirk family reunion with some scathing repartee. However, the next film’s writers need to remember that the Bones and Spock dynamic is not a gimmick. It should never be overused and must service the plot in order to maintain its charm and efficacy.
A Proper Farewell for Ensign Chekov
Before Star Trek Beyond even launched, the production was tinged with tragedy by the deaths of Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin. Nimoy passed before production began, while Yelchin lost his life after the film had wrapped. Thankfully, the producers already stated that Pavel Chekov won’t be recast. At the same time, it’s only fitting the character’s absence is acknowledged in the follow up film.
Much like Prime Spock’s death was integrated into Beyond – when Spock Kelvin was handed a datapad bearing news of his alternate self's passing – Chekov also deserves an in-film send off. The producers certainly could determine a different destiny for the young ensign, such as an early departure from Starfleet or a disappearance during a mission. However, the most appropriate course of action would be to record his loss in the line of duty. If so, Chekov deserves to be honored with a full Starfleet funeral much like Spock’s in Wrath of Khan. It would be a fitting tribute to a young actor on the rise and the character he'd recreated in his own image.
The Return of Jaylah
When a character leaves a franchise due to tragic circumstances, they can never be truly replaced. However, Chekov’s departure from the Enterprise does leave an empty chair on the bridge. Rather than filling it with a nameless ensign, it might be appropriate to honor Chekov's memory with a character he shared some of his final on-screen moments with: Jaylah.
Technically, the breakout alien from Beyond wouldn’t graduate Starfleet Academy until well after the Enterprise’s five year mission was over (three years down at the time of the film, and the Academy is a four-year school, generally speaking). At the same time, special circumstances such as war (see Ensign Nog on Deep Space Nine) or a training mission gone awry (see Wrath of Khan) have caused spontaneous movie- and TV-based promotions and crew changes.
Her presence would add another strong female and alien character to the mostly human male cast. Boutella’s character also brings a relatable quality as well as a slightly-tempered-by-Starfleet wildcard element. An innovative thinker and fierce warrior, her presence on the Enterprise would benefit the ship and the fourth film in numerous ways.
Boldly Going Beyond Beyond
Star Trek Beyond showed a lot of promise both within the context of the franchise and the summer blockbuster world. Still more noteworthy for its action set pieces than its mental muscle, it proved that the Kelvin timeline hadn’t weeded out Trek’s philosophical edge entirely. If the rumors are true and the fourth rebooted Star Trek film is the series finale, the next film should go out with a bang and a brain.
With Chris Hemsworth reprising his George Kirk role, it would be too easy for Paramount to bill the next outing as Thor in space. As entertaining as that film would be, the father-son connection and possible time travel angle give Star Trek 4 the potential to be a heady, emotionally rewarding cinematic event. Whether or not Paramount plans to continue its Kelvin timeline, a clever turn for its fourth entry would go a long way towards energizing old school fans and keeping casual audiences engaged as well.
Beyond ought to prove that popcorn tastes best with a sprinkling of smarts. As the rebooted franchise is learning, as long as it keeps the classic series' philosophy at heart, it can maintain its frenetic pace without feeling like an intelligence kudgel (the best films aren’t). A two hour spectacle filled empty calories may sustain Star Trek for a few years, but it won’t keep fans or general viewers interest forever.
Star Trek Beyond is in theaters now.