There’s always been this weird rivalry between Star Trek and Star Wars I’ve never completely understood. I’ve always liked both, mostly because they are both quite different. And, for the most part, neither tries to be much like the other one. They live in their own separate worlds: one in the future and one in the past. But, when the classifications get handed out, you can only pick one. It’s kind of like how a person can’t be both a Mets fan and a Yankees fan (even though some people secretly are) — it just doesn’t work that way.
Star Trek will always hold claim to the fact it came first, beating Star Wars by a full 11 years. Star Trek has been around for 50 years. That’s remarkable. When Star Trek premiered on NBC in 1966, it followed Daniel Boone and was followed later in the night by The Dean Martin Show. (And people wonder why Star Trek was never a hit on television. I’d love to see the Venn diagram overlap of Star Trek fans and Dean Martin fans.)
But Trek also now owes a lot to Star Wars. It was the success of Star Wars that got Star Trek: The Motion Picture into theaters. Before The Motion Picture, Trek had been mostly dormant, except for an animated series (that has the voices of most of the original cast and is pretty great). There had been talk of a new television show called Phase II, with the original cast returning, sans Nimoy, that was far enough into production that models had been built. But after Star Wars, everyone involved started to think bigger and turned one of the Phase II scripts into Star Trek: The Motion Picture. But did they try to make Trek into Star Wars? Bless ‘em, they made basically the opposite of Star Wars: a slow-moving meditation on humanity. It’s kind of amazing Star Trek: The Motion Picture exists.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released on December 7, 1979 — just over five months before The Empire Strikes Back. This is the closest Star Trek and Star Wars would come to going head-to-head at the box office. They’d come close again in 2002 when Attack of the Clones was released in May and Star Trek: Nemesis was released in December, but The Next Generation cast was finishing up and Nemesis wasn’t a particularly good movie, or representation of Star Trek. (And, to be fair, Attack of the Clones wasn’t a good representation of Star Wars, either, but Attack of the Clones made a lot of money.) My point is, Star Wars and Star Trek were never really going after the same crowd.
Well, until now.
In 2005, Star Wars movies were dead. George Lucas said that after Revenge of the Sith, that was it. The story was over. Lucasfilm started concentrating on television: The Clone Wars and an ultimately untitled live action series that never happened, even though scripts were written. (See, with a never-made television show, Star Wars and Star Trek have something in common.) So Star Trek, on life support since Enterprise went off the air in 2005, saw an opening; basically: With Star Wars gone, what if we became Star Wars?
The two franchises really did trade places for a little bit there. Star Wars became a television property with a million different stories going every which way and mixed results, while Star Trek rebooted its entire universe, tidied everything up, and concentrated on huge movies that only came out once every few years — a real “event,” just like the Star Wars movies used to be. And that’s not even pointing out that J.J. Abrams supercharged the franchise with so much action that, yes, it had more of a Star Wars feel to it.
And say what you will about the whole “John Harrison is Khan” nonsense, but people did care. It got a lot of attention and gave Star Trek Into Darkness a sense of mystery. (Of course, that helped lead to the disappointing reactions, because non-stop mystery and hype has a way of doing that.)
But then a funny thing happened: Disney bought Lucasfilm and there were Star Wars movies again. Lucasfilm even poached Abrams to direct The Force Awakens. A couple of months ago, I was out with a group of friends and they asked me what the big summer movies were. When I mentioned Star Trek Beyond, they all pretty much said in unison, “Wait that’s this year?” Star Trek Beyond had no buzz, which is really strange when you think of the intense buzz that the first two films in this new series had.
In 2009, Star Trek made $75 million its opening weekend. Star Trek Into Darkness made $70 million. Now, Star Trek Beyond — a very good movie that’s hovering around 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes — is tracking at around $55 million. What’s changed? I can’t help but think that a lot of casual Star Wars fans drifted over to Trek because, frankly, Trek was doing Star Wars better than Star Wars was at the time. But now that Star Wars is back, and will probably have a movie every year for the rest of our lives? Well, these Star Trek movies that come every three years or so just can’t maintain the same footprint — it’s not like it used to be even seven years ago, people forget about them.
I posed this question to Star Trek überfan and host of Engage: The Official Star Trek Podcast, Jordan Hoffman, and he answered in probably the nerdiest way possible. “I’m extremely bullish on Star Trek’s future,” says Hoffman, “and so is Paramount and CBS.” He continues, “Even though Viacom is undergoing a breakdown not seen since Sarek succumbed to Bendii Syndrome, Paramount has announced a fourth film for the Kelvin Timeline, a deal with Netflix is in place worldwide for the entire Trek catalogue and CBS, the first of the four networks to do so, is throwing its hat into the ring with original programming on a streaming platform — CBS All Access — following Trek’s warp signature. You don’t do that with any old property. Maybe Star Trek movies don’t make as much money opening weekend as Star Wars, but its cultural footprint is just as strong.”
Hoffman is correct, Star Trek‘s footprint is in better shape right now than it’s been in 15 years. The new television show has everyone excited, Star Trek Beyond is getting great reviews, and a fourth film has been announced. But, on the film side alone, the buzz is gone and we have to assume the next movie will be the last with this cast.
But from 2009 until 2013, Star Trek had upended Star Wars as the sci-fi movie franchise. It was kind of fun to see. But Star Wars is back. Balance is restored, I guess, and now the buzziest thing about Trek is its new television series. But I like these movies and I wish there were a way for Trek and Star Wars to coexist at the theaters, but it doesn’t look like that will happen. For whatever reason, these two franchises just can’t be mega-popular at the same time. In 2009, Trek hit the true mass mainstream, but mainstream audiences are fickle and there’s only so much room. I’m just glad Paramount thinks there’s room for one more movie.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.