Since 2009, Disney has dominated summer blockbusters with their Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, their project isn’t the first to play with stories across television and film: television shows such as Star Trek and Stargate helped to pave the way for complicated worlds with multiple ongoing narratives.
Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek is arguably one of the first such crossover franchises, even if its success wasn’t immediately apparent from the start. When the show debuted in 1966, it was notable for its focus on social issues, and gathered a passionate fan base that lasted beyond the show’s end three years later. 1973’s Star Trek: The Animated Series reunited the cast and drew on the same story bible, and a proposed sequel series, Star Trek: Phase II, began pre-production in 1977, eventually morphing into Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
The continued success well into the 1980s prompted Paramount to look into reviving the franchise for additional entries. Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise each drew on the increasingly detailed world, but each taking place in a distinct time and location that largely separated them from one another.
The successes of Star Trek: The Next Generation as a television show prompted Paramount to expand the franchise into film, beginning in 1994 with Star Trek Generations, which featured the casts of Star Trek: The Original Series and The Next Generation, connecting the shows directly together. Followup entries into the franchise continued with Star Trek: First Contact (1996), Star Trek: Insurrection (1998) and Star Trek: Nemesis (2002). In other instances, characters from the films made appearances in the shows, or vice versa, further strengthening the franchise’s canon.
Another space television show makes for a good example of a cinematic universe: Stargate. Inspired by the 1994 Roland Emmerich film, Brad Wright and Jonathan Glassner developed the story into an ongoing television show, taking place after the film. Stargate took the concept of inter-connected franchises even further than Star Trek. Following the success of the show on Showtime and then SciFi, the channel commissioned Stargate: Atlantis and later, Stargate Universe, using the same building blocks. Each of its shows fit together in a single continuity, at times sharing characters and even episode arcs.
Building out a television universe has since worked well for Paramount and MGM Television: while individual shows have their own lifecycles, the larger story franchise continues to move forward. While Stargate has since ended, a reboot of the universe has been in the cards for a while know, but Star Trek has continued, with new life injected into the property since 2009’s Star Trek reboot and subsequent followup, Star Trek Into Darkness.
The concept of a television universe seems to be going strong: CW’s show Arrow inspired a partner, The Flash, introducing the character in a backdoor pilot episode, and several crossover episodes. A third show, Legends of Tomorrow, will add to the franchise, incorporating characters from its predecessor shows.
With the release of Iron Man in 2008, Marvel seemed to recognize the potential for an interconnected Cinematic Universe, especially now that they had access to Disney’s capital after their 2009 sale. Individual franchises could certainly be put together, but woven together into a single, cohesive universe, the staying power of individual characters could be lengthened.
However, huge movie cinematic universes are major productions, requiring an enormous amount of resources and characters in order to function, if they work in the first place. Thus far, Marvel has been the only studio to successfully pull it off. Television, on the other hand, has more airtime to work with, allowing show-runners to invest more heavily in their characters and stories for the long run.