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.