Star Wars vs. Star Trek

I finally got around to checking out the Solo movie on Netflix, though I haven’t finished watching. This time something about the Star Wars universe hit me, something obvious that probably everyone else in the universe already grasped: Star Wars is a dystopia.

I mean, bad back stories are way more common than good ones. Exploitation of people happens everywhere. It’s obvious going back to the very beginning. I missed it then because I saw the first movie as the kid from Podunk and the crook with a heart of gold meeting up with the high class woman with a social conscience. That is, they were all familiar stereotypes.

Over the course of the next two movies, they won big, so for some reason I thought they would continue winning. That’s why I was so surprised when The Force Awakens came out and turned out to be the very first movie (which I still think of as Star Wars, but which I believe is called A New Hope) with different characters. That is to say, the evil empire is back running things some thirty or forty years after the big victory by the rebels. 

I skipped out on the second trilogy after the first movie, which bored the crap out of me, so I never got all the back story. It’s only been in watching the most recent ones that I’ve begun to understand the whole universe. And, as a I said, it’s an ugly place.

I figured that once the empire was defeated, the good guys would proceed to build a better democratic galactic government. Instead, they’re back to fighting the same bad guys, because apparently things are so fucked up you have to keep fighting evil. That might make it a good metaphor for our times.

But anyway, what my late enlightenment came down to is a real understanding of the difference between Star Trek and Star Wars.

Now, truth be told, while I liked the original Star Trek, I was never a huge fan. It was 1960s television and it had all the flaws of 1960s television. (And, in fact, having tried to watch Star Trek: Enterprise the other night, some versions of it still have those flaws. I am very tired of stories about aggressive white men throwing things around and getting their way.) However, it did do a lot of things that other television wasn’t doing at the time, including addressing racism and other social issues. It just did it within the confines of 60s television built around a certain kind of male star.

Star Wars, on the other hand, upended movie making. The special effects were spectacular and all of a sudden science fiction movies weren’t cheesy. The story was nothing new — not even close to something new — but the movie experience was powerful, especially in 1977.

So I’ll confess to having been more of a Star Wars fan than a Trek fan. Now, though, I’m not so sure.

Star Trek takes place in a world in which human beings are making some progress at becoming civilized. And while it often falls into some simplistic versions of that, the underlying theme of the Federation and the prime directive and working with aliens is much more interesting science fiction.

Star Wars is built on the assumption that no matter what we do, people will be basically horrible to each other, and the few who have a greater vision will always lose even if they win at the end of the movie, because they’re going to have to come back and fight the same battle again. It might as well be set a thousand years ago: it’s the same story. It doesn’t assume any human progress except tech.

Star Trek assumes human beings can get better, that we can grow and evolve, and that we will do so despite some of the crises currently starring us in the face. Most days, I agree with that and most of the fiction I write assumes it, too. I don’t think human nature is fixed and I don’t believe in original sin.

So these days, while I enjoy the spectacle of Star Wars movies and have appreciated the development of women characters in the most recent ones, I find myself falling more on the Star Trek side of the debate. I think Gene Roddenberry had a more interesting underlying story vision than George Lucas, though Lucas certainly figured out how to do more with the visual medium.

We can enjoy both and I do. But what I really want from science fiction is some speculation on how we can build better futures. On that point, Star Trek wins hands down.

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Star Wars vs. Star Trek — 17 Comments

  1. Another difference is that Star Trek is genuinely science fiction, which might be why it’s better able to imagine humankind growing and evolving. Star Wars is essentially a fantasy set in space — if you ignore the setting, it’s basically a story with wizards, funny capes, sword fights, a princess, a farmboy and a rogue.

    • Yeah, I knew that. I probably expect more out of space opera than most people. But I really didn’t understand how dystopic the Star Wars universe was, probably because I can still remember the awe I felt seeing that first movie in theaters in 1977. Interesting that someone developing television in the 1960s had a much greater vision of the possibilities of the future than a person making movies in the 1970s, even though the movie maker did see ways to open up movies.

    • It isn’t just that it’s fantasy; it’s that the original trilogy (and the original film especially) were explicitly mythic. Very much Good vs. Evil, as opposed to more of a flawed “both of our approaches have merits and downsides and we should negotiate to build something better.”

      And the thing about myths is . . . they aren’t really built for sequels. The evil is vanquished, the good guys live happily ever after, THE END. Other myths rarely if ever try to build on what came before in the way modern fiction does. So if you try to create a modern-style sequel, you’ve got to do something to make space for that. And in this particular case, you’ve got to do that while also convincing everybody who felt burned by the prequel trilogy that no, really, you’ve still got the magic — so really changing the game and making it more of a Star Trek-esque “this is a good society but now they face some challenges in winning the peace” story would be a very perilous gamble.

      Me? I like The Force Awakens. Yes, it echoes a lot of elements from the first movie . . . but it does so in a very deliberate, structured fashion, inverting some things (the opening shot of the Star Destroyer’s shadow eclipsing a planet makes that point visually at the outset) and recombining others, so that Poe is simultaneously part Han and part Leia, etc. And it does it all much better than the prequel movies ever did, those poor, sad, train wrecks.

      For me, where it gets interesting is with The Last Jedi. Because to my eye, that’s where the main strand of movies (as opposed to the “anthology” films like Solo and Rogue One) are steering the story away from the purely mythic. I posted afterward about it being dark but not grimdark, and recognizing the sacrifice of ordinary people in a way the original trilogy never did. Half the fans were speculating about how it was going to turn out to be another Chosen One narrative, but it isn’t. And I really like that.

      Which still won’t make the new Star Wars everybody’s cuppa, certainly. It really is a more dystopian universe than Star Trek — though Nancy Jane, I’m curious what you would think of Star Trek: Discovery, which to my eye is doing similar things to new SW in terms of being dark but not grimdark (i.e. bad things happen and the Federation is distinctly imperfect, but the narrative is hopeful instead of cynical).

      • I’d like to see Star Trek: Discovery, but alas it is not on Netflix and I’m too lazy to figure out how to watch it just yet. I don’t watch enough TV/movies to subscribe to more than one streaming service.

        I like your idea about the original movies as myth. I think you’re onto something, and you’re right: that doesn’t leave much room for a sequel.

        And I also found a lot to like in The Last Jedi, especially the part that made it clear that the lone male hero breaking all the rules may be screwing things up instead of saving the world.

  2. I too gave up on the 2nd trilogy of Star Wars–which was really the first. It was more YA and spent far too much time on the actual speeder race than the plot warranted. In many ways I felt that that movie borrowed too much from Gene Roddenberry’s vision of film making– take a script that only has enough story to fill a 1 hour TV episode, which is really only 44 minutes allowing for commercials, and spend 90% of the money on special effects to stretch it all to two hours. Watch the first Star Trek movie and you’ll see. Roddenberry eventually got it right. I’m not certain Lucas did.

    • The initial Star Trek movies were a commercial enterprise launched to compete with Star Wars. I don’t think the same sort of thinking went into them that went into the TV shows. But I’m beginning to realize that all Lucas got right was what you can do with technology to make better movies. But then, I’m tired of dystopias. Coming up with a possible positive future that doesn’t ignore the difficulties we face is more difficult, but makes better stories in the long run.

  3. I loved TFA because of that single moment where Leia walks out of the ship and *she is still me*. I was 15 when she was 19, and they let her age gracefully, they let her become a woman of a certain age right there alongside me. Leia was still – will always be – MY princess. THey had me, there. TLJ I loved for different reasons (I think the porgs stole the show, and Luke finally redeems himself from being that wet-blanket nerd in the first whiny incarnation all those many years ago…) I think the two new movies enlarge and deepen the original Star Wars vision. And I love them for it.

  4. The big thing that Star Wars had was its mythic properties. What hurts it is that sequels mean that nothing was resolved. The bad guys are still around. And when the bad guys are Nazis, this is intolerable.

  5. Thanks, Nancy Jane and everyone for a fruitful discussion. I loved the original Star Trek series, as well as some of the films, including the first of the new ones. And I agree that a hopeful vision of the future is a plus. A model of tolerance is especially appreciated these days!