King of the Mountain: A Comparison Between Star Wars and Star Trek
I am a lover of good sci-fi. Their stories can be told from new and unconventional angles, while still employing old ideas as well. The range of environments can incorporate everything from current scientific knowledge, to those same notions being exaggerated, and even into fantasy. Science fiction also has the unique ability to both inspire the human imagination of what maybe, and speak to the current issues of the real world but easier to digest. There are many great franchises that fill one or all these parameters, but two by far represent the top echelon: Star Wars and Star Trek.
In most ways, the two worlds represents contrasting views of sci-fi, but in others ways they also overlap each other. Currently, it’s Star Wars that is in the driver’s seat thanks to the recent releases of The Force Awakens and Rogue One in theaters. Meanwhile, Star Trek’s future on the big screen is uncertain, but it is returning to the TV screen with Star Trek: Discovery.
I want to discuss the appeals of both genres.
Wizards and Wookies
The Starwars franchise, birthed in 1977 by George Lucas, leans towards the fantasy end of sci-fi. The beginning of the opening crawl says it all: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”
There is no familiar historical setting that the audience can relate it to. Even when fans eventually created a timeline through its expanded universe, it still had no relation to real time. The franchise revolved around a fictional group of monastic warriors called Jedi Knights, a galactic-spanning political body only referred to as the Empire, and a small resistance group called the Rebel Alliance.
Their ship designs were created to sub-consciously reinforce to the audience what their universe was about. Going back again to the opening sequence, there was the image of the small rebel corvette running from the dominating, pale, wedged shaped star destroyer. And later in the film, Imperial tie fighters with their stark, gray colors and unimaginative design, versus the rebel’s sleek and multi colored X and Y-wings. Every visual aspect served to deliver subliminal ideas to the audience about good and evil in order to create a modern mythology.
But perhaps the most iconic feature of the franchise and indeed of all sci-fi was the lightsaber. This sword made of contained, intense light and with the ability to cut through anything captured our imaginations in one scene of the cantina brawl. To this day, lightsabers continue to remain fascinating even forty years later. It is a plot device unique to Star Wars alone and any other franchise that tried to borrow it inevitably finds itself compared to Star Wars.
However, none of it was actually rooted in scientific fact. Ships don’t move through space like airplanes. How do they maintain their artificial gravity? What power source do they use to go to hyperspace? Clearly there were no concerns about scientific accuracy.
Purposeful design elements, coupled with Lucas’ story telling and attempt to create a modern mythology, and a generation craving escapism made Star wars the king of fantasy science fiction. Even though the technological elements made no sense, the story and the effects inspired generations to think about a universe separate from their own where ideals and hope carried the day, unburdened by the complexities of reality.
It is inspiration that made Star Wars not only one of the most successful franchises of all time, but continually relevant to multiple generations of fans. Now it is even starting to cross over into the scientific realm as fans, inventors, and scientist alike try to recreate what they see on screen. And what they can’t create, like the Death Star, they imagine what it would take for them to become real, applying real world physics and economics.
To Boldly Go…
Star Trek is in fact older than Star Wars, created by Gene Roddenberry back in 1966. Unlike Lucas’s vision, Roddenberry used his creation to inspire people to look past the epidemic problems that were chronic across the nation and the world during that era. Vietnam, cultural and political revolutions, and wars across East Asia and the Middle East left many feeling like humanity had no hope of ever ridding itself of its violent nature. It had even gotten to the point for some that the species’ greatest creations were not even of human origin, but taught by alien visitors. Hope was a dwindling element in the human spirit.
So Roddenberry created a futuristic world that was tied to our own, but set some three hundred years from our era. In this future, he presented a human race that had struggled with war, poverty, and corruption, and had overcome them to become a truly Utopian world: at least within itself. The cast was the first display of diversity on the American TV screen with alien officers, crew members of other races, and even a Russian, bridging politics into Star Trek’s Utopian frame work as well. All of this was to say that the human race had a future, despite its current strife.
Though initially not strong on scientific fact, it presented enough of it that it became a major, unofficial promoter of active, scientific development in the space race and the future space shuttle programs. William Shatner, who played Capt. Kirk, said during an interview that when he was asked to visit the NASA center to see the space capsule that was to go to the moon, the scientist actually built a replica of the USS Enterprise to fly across the view port as the actor looked through it when he was inside it.
However, the main goal of Star Trek was always to present stories of the human condition with its struggles and how it interacted with the unknown. It tackled problems like racism and war, which were at the forefront of American life at the time. It introduced popular elements of counter-culture with traditional society values in a way as to not promote one over the other. In this way, it inspired a generation in the real world to reach for the stars and that the future did not have to be a dark one, though it seemed inevitable at the time.
Unlike Star Wars, Star Trek began as the aforementioned TV series, and a short-lived one at that. Yet it proved so popular that it was syndicated in reruns years afterwards. This helped solidify its status as a media and global icon. Using its upstart rival’s success, the franchise made the jump into the movies with Star Trek The Motion Picture in 1979, with five more movies following the adventures of the original crew over the next few years.
The 1989- 1994 follow up series, Start Trek the Next Generation returned the franchise to its television roots and continued its story telling of the human condition, but updated for a more modern context. Two other successful spin offs followed, Deep Space Nine and Voyager, as well as its own set of movies.
A total rehash of the franchise was done in 2009 with Star Trek, telling the origin stories of the original crew through a slick, new face lift. Though many approved, other long time Trekkies were not fans of the upgrade, accusing it of trying to copy Star Wars and even nitpicking small things like the updated Enterprise’s appearance was too gaudy.
Star Trek also has its own fan base that continues to keep the franchise alive through art work and cosplay. Though perhaps not as loud as their peers, they are just as loyal. I have even read comments by fans who design their own Trek-based starships that while smaller compared to other franchise ships like Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek designs were better looking while more advanced and realistic.
Because they are the ruling royalty of sci-fi, fans of both have been popularized as having a rivalry. I was recently told at work that my sci-fi wallpaper, which had a mix of ships from different shows, wouldn’t gain much respect among either community, though this was said in jest. For the most part, it’s friendly and many openly mock the stereotype and each other light-heartedly.
Star Wars does seem to have taken the front seat to the public’s popularity in the last few years, though both franchises have put out content. Much of this is not the fault of Star Trek as much as the state of the collective public mindset. During the seventies and eighties, there was more patience for Star Trek’s brand of story telling. The success of Wrath of Khan in 1982 is a prime example, with its tight and U-boat-esque environments being a far cry from the ‘whooshing’ of starfighters and clashing of lightsabers.
Since the beginning of this century, our attention spans have shortened. Many have argued that the new millennial generation does not have an appreciation for little nuances of story telling, preferring flash and explosions instead. Star Wars definitely has that. If you asked a kid or collector which they would choose: a replica phaser or a lightsaber, nine times out of ten they’re going for the saber. It’s just more charismatic. It has even been suggested that Star Trek needs to borrow some of its peer’s flare for the dramatic if it wants to remain a successful franchise.
That’s where the primary differences between the two lie. Both tell stories, but Star Wars, being grounded more in fantasy, relies more on the charisma of the presentation than Star Trek, which largely relied on nostalgia and long time fans. This makes it almost tailor fit for the current era. The new Star Trek movie series has struggled to find its successful footing, though they still put butts in seats. With studios more green-eyed and focused on the billion dollar kickback, they want Star Trek to replicate the success of a resurgent Star Wars. This reality has upset many fans who feel that it has made Star Trek less original and turned it into another, generic action movie. This in turn conflicts with the casual movie goers who have no real loyalty to the original ideas of the franchise and just want to be entertained.
OG’s in a Changing Neighborhood
This doesn’t mean though that Star Trek is dead. Star Wars went through its own rough period with the prequel trilogy, often vilified and only now becoming more appreciated by many in the long-term fan base. Star Wars also runs the risk of beating a dead horse replicating familiar beats form the original trilogy, and is one of the few criticisms that carry weight. There is also stiffer competition now from newer franchises, ironically inspired by them and alternative media to watch them on like Netflix and Youtube. The Battlestar Galactica remake took a more realistic approach to its science but still maintained the powerful story telling elements, with awesome battles. Firefly gained a reputation for its originality and story telling. And the Stargate movie-to-TV franchise was another blending of science and fantasy-based sci-fi.
The future of the science fiction royals is going to depend on relying on originality and adaptation. Even now despite its success, Star Wars-like space battles have been seen before on other shows or Youtube. And you can only swing a lightsaber so much before it becomes “been there, done that”. Some people are already becoming wary over the prospect of a Star Wars movie every year.
The fan bases of both franchises are going to have to accept that how they grew up with their idols is not how future generations will relate to it. For both to survive, it’s going to have to be inclusive with that reality. As long as the franchises can maintain the tight rope act between adaption and original spirit, Star Wars and Star Trek should continue to stay relevant.