The Two Titans Of Science Fiction
Let's begin by giving credit where credit is due; 1977's Star Wars is perhaps the perfect film. Never before and never since - with the possible exception of 1999's The Matrix - has the hero's journey been so perfectly captured by a movie. As far as film franchises go, Star Wars has it all over Star Trek - even taking into account the oft-reviled Star Wars prequels, the Star Wars films still manage to come out ahead. If we were to limit our discussion to film, Star Wars wins, hands-down. However, the Star Trek universe was never really suited to silver-screen adaptation, and thus any discussion neglecting the original (and subsequent) television series would be dishonest at best, and borderline criminal at worst.
In one corner we have action, excitement, adrenaline, sword-fighting, dogfights, iconic villains and timeless heroes. In the other, we have philosophy, strategy, diplomacy, phasers, fencing, technology, leadership, exploration, teamwork, and humanity. These two franchises encapsulate the best of humanity - not just our hopes, dreams, and shared history, but also our sense of responsibility and duty. Is one really better than the other?
The Star Wars universe is predicated upon the idea of good vs evil, the light side vs the dark, and like many religions, this is presented in a yin & yang, non-absolutist sort-of-way. Mace Windu speaks of the "Prophecy of the Chosen One" bringing "balance" to the force, as opposed to say, waging total war against the dark side. Granted the Jedis are always talking about needing to seek-out and destroy the Sith, but the underlying mythology here seems to mirror that of heaven vs hell; a never ending struggle between the forces of good and evil. Star Wars borrows heavily from our most ancient religions and mythologies, in order to construct a world that is at once both familiar and otherworldly. Essentially, Star Wars is a fairy tale, and the proof lies in the opening prologue of every Star Wars film, "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away." With these few choice words, George Lucas lets us in on the secret that, although what we'll be watching seems like science fiction, it is in actuality monomyth, and our hero's tale is not much different from that of Odysseus or Gilgamesh. Lucas openly cites Joseph Campbell's 1949 book The Hero With a Thousand Faces as a source of inspiration for Star Wars.
Fairy tales can be entertaining, magical, and inspirational, but they are seldom nuanced. The narratives that underpin mythologies often necessitate simplicity, in order to facilitate comprehension by the widest possible audience, and Star Wars in no exception. Star Wars is regarded by many as "a children's film," a really good children's film, but a children's film nonetheless. This isn't as evident in the first two entries, but by the time we reach Return of the Jedi, and The Phantom Menace, it becomes painfully clear. Not to denigrate children's films, but much like a child's reality, we are dealing in a world of black and white, with little-to-no gray area.
There are few, if any, nuanced characters in the Star Wars universe. Some might point to Han Solo as a somewhat gradated character, but then, why does he return to help Luke at the end of Episode IV, instead of taking the money and running, as a truly self-interested smuggler would most likely do? Because he is not a gray character at all but rather, a slightly flawed hero. Boba Fett? Bounty hunters typically pledge their allegience to the highest bidder, but in Star Wars, this sublte distinction is never explored, as bounty hunters always seem to err on the darkside. By contrast, the Ferengi of Star Trek are presented as an entire race that are neither truly good nor truly evil, just greedy and narcissistic - some of the most annoying human traits personified.
In the original trilogy, the Star Wars narrative can easily be summed up as "an epic struggle between the forces of good and evil involving the rebels and the empire, who represent the light and dark side, respectively." As we move onto the prequels, and things become more nuanced and political, we see this narrative collapse as the story attempts to refashion itself as a humanity tale. The further Star Wars moves away from it's simplistic mythological origins, the less appealing it tends to become. From The Phantom Menace opening crawl:
"Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute. Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo."
Are these children's films are not? Even the most ardent Star Wars fan surely doesn't following galactic politics that closely. There is a good parallel we can draw here with Star Trek; the more the Star Trek films diverge from the philosophical nuance of the original series and attempt to re-brand themselves as blockbuster action spectacles, the worse they become. Actually, that's not entirely true, as the recent Star Trek J.J Abrams movie reboots have shown, you can fundamentally re-brand something as something else, and enjoy critical and commercial success...yet you still run the risk of alienating your core audience - just because a gamble happens to pays off doesn't mean that it was any less of a gamble. By turning Star Trek into a slightly less profitable version of Star Wars, Abrams has managed to pump new commercial viability into a franchise that was never quite home on the big screen well muddying the waters of Star Trek for a whole new generation.
Reboots aside, the world of Star Trek is brimming with nuance. The main characters in Star Trek are not heroes in the traditional sense, as their mission focuses on exploration, discovery, and the pursuit of knowledge. "To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before." This is the perfect premise on which to hang science fiction, and thus why Star Trek will probably always be more respected by hardcore science fiction fans. The great science fiction writers of the past few centuries didn't just treat science fiction as a loom on which to spin extraordinary technological tales, they often wove stories that addressed the human condition. Where are we going? Why are we here? What makes us human? A good episode of Star Trek can rival some of the best stories told by Dick, Asimov, Clarke, and Wells. For extra-special existential goodness, I refer you to the Star Trek:The Next Generation episode "The Inner Light."
Existing primarily as a television series, Star Trek can afford to take more time developing characters and interpersonal dynamics. On the surface, Star Trek revolves around captains Kirk, Picard, Janeway, ect, but like any good series, individual episodes would shift focus to other characters. The original series often uses Spock's half-Vulcan/half-Human lineage to explore the theme of what it means to be human, and this idea is further tested by the character of Data in Star Trek:The Next Generation. By contrast, Star Wars droids elicit little more than chuckles and childhood wonder. Again we see that Star Wars isn't science fiction in the purest sense, but rather, a traditional mythology set against a futuristic backdrop. Lightsabers are fancy-cool swords, but swords nonetheless. Technology takes a back seat in the Star Wars universe; it simply exists, without needing to be explained. As an example, let us compare phasers and blasters. Star Trek's phasers serve a practical purpose; they have replaced traditional guns as humanity's primary weapons because they can be lethal or non-lethal, depending on what the situation warrants. The weapons in Star Wars exist because they look and sound cool, not because they are the most deadly weapons anyone could devise. Maybe no one ever got around to inventing firearms in the Star Wars universe, or maybe lightsabers and energy weapons with slow-velocities are analogous to traditional swords and bows? Again, Star Wars proudly displays its fantasy origins. Much effort is made in Star Trek to explore the pitfalls and advantages of technological advancement. Often times technology itself becomes a problem, and only through clever thinking and decision making can catastrophe be narrowly avoided. Entire characters are devoted to solving particular problems (engineers Geordi La Forge and Montgomery Scott) whereas Luke Skywalker simply tells R2-D2 to "See what he can do" when his ship takes damage. The concept of warp drive alone serves as a springboard for an incredible number of plots. In the Star Trek:TNG episode "Force of Nature," we are exposed to the idea that warp drives are damaging subspace. In the film Star Trek:First Contact we are transported back in time to meet the inventor of the warp drive Zefram Cochrane, only to discover that this man, so idolized and revered in later centuries by people like Geordi La Forge, was actually quite flawed, and thus we are left with the impression that time tends to colour our historical perspective in less than desirable ways. Hell, the prime directive itself deals with the non-interference of pre-warp civilizations. Great pains were taken by Roddenberry et al. to flesh out a complex, plausible universe. Yet one can't really complain about the lack of world-building in Star Wars, because given the time constraints inherent to film, it does a remarkably convincing job.
Star Wars is more comfortable with spirituality and the supernatural. Jedis are essentially superheroes, it's just that their super powers come from spirituality, rather than being bitten by a radioactive spider or through a failed laboratory experiment. This is a wise distinction, because here Lucas can toy with the idea of willingly becoming a hero and having your destiny thrust upon you. From the very beginning Luke wants to be a hero, but it is slowly revealed that becoming one is also his destiny. These are the kinds of subtle philosophical ideas Star Wars touches upon but never really delves into. Much like many of the world's religions, the ideas presented in Star Wars are somewhat left open to interpretation, thus preserving their mystical qualities. Older Jedi also serve as shaman, ushering our hero (and the audience) into a quasi-mystical world. People identify so much with the spiritual and mystical side of Star Wars that when Lucas tried to explain the force scientifically by evoking "midi-chlorians," the entire world collectively groan. That's not to say Star Trek never broaches the mysterious - one need look no further than the characters of Guinan and Q - but in terms of world-building, Star Trek is a slightly more grounded affair. When Star Trek does veer-off into the realm of incredulity, it's never really about the fantastic things we are seeing, it's more about the reaction of the characters, and how they deal with such events.
Characters in Star Trek often face unpredictable situations wherein the "correct" choice isn't always clear, and where consequences aren't always certain. Conflict often arises from peculiar circumstances, and as such, must be countered with more than just brute force. Strategy, leadership, and diplomacy often win-out over action. By contrast, conflict in Star Wars is nearly always a result of a satisfying action duel or space-battle. Sometimes a character must put their faith in the "force," as Luke Skywalker does at the end of Episode IV, switching off his targeting system and putting his trust in the divine when taking his crucial shot. This is a thinly veiled statement about the power of nature and humanity triumphing over the seduction of technology, a theme that is revisited often in Star Wars. Obi-Wan Kenobi says that Darth Vader is "More machine now than man. Twisted and Evil." Similarly, Star Trek examines the loss of humanity via technology with the Borg, a collective of cyborgs who have assimilated individual consciousness into a hive-mind. Situations in Star Trek demand cooperation and coordination across a team of skilled individuals. A Captain is nothing without his or her crew, and must rely on the strengths of others to make up for their own shortcomings. This creates a dynamic which is nearly completely absent in theStar Wars saga - the concept of leadership and hierarchy. In Return of The Jedi, we witness a large-scale battle with dozens of ships, admirals, and commanders, but still the actions of Luke, Leia, Solo, and Lando trump what everyone else is doing.
The stakes in both franchises are high, but it is only in Star Trek that the prospect of total annihilation is present. The Borg are a formidable foe, perfectly capable of assimilating entire species, yet when given the opportunity to completely destroy the Borg in the Star Trek:TNG episode "I, Borg," for various reasons, Picard relents. It's subtle moments like these that reveal the humanity running through Star Trek.
This being Adam Monroe Music, we simply can not overlook the prominent role music plays in both Star Trek and Star Wars. The theme from the Original Star Trek series (composed by Alexander Courage) as well as the themes from The Next Generation and Voyager (composed by Jerry Goldsmith) are on a short list of television music that I never skip, because each one serves as the perfect precursor to what you are about to witness. The theme from The Original Series, goes from the sparse strings and brass we typically associate with sounding like "space" to an upbeat, jazzy, kitschy second-half, complete with congas and pizzicato bass. This theme sounds somewhat dated now, as dated as the mini-skirts and gogo-boots worn by female crew members of the 60's era enterprise. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it helps tie the original Star Trek series to a specific time in our history when we were just waking up to the possibilities of modern civilization. A time when we thought anything possible, a time of moon-missions, celebration, and great social and political change. The Next Generation Theme is slightly less dated, although a few synths have crept into the otherwise orchestral score. This theme benefits from advances in recording technology - the french horns sound bigger, the strings richer, and all-around, it is probably my favorite Star Trek theme. The same austere motif used in The Original Series explodes into a noble blend of exploration, excitement, and grandeur. The Voyager theme manages to impart a sense of wonder, but it is not as bombastic or enthused as The Next Generation, but more restrained, and one is left with a sense of perseverance and hope.
The Star Wars theme is truly something special, one of the most recognizable themes in television and film history. With the title theme to Star Wars, John Williams gives it his all. Beginning on the right note, with nearly every instrument in the orchestra playing, Williams immediately snaps everyone's attention to what is happening on screen, which is somewhat uninspired - a text crawl - but the music serves as a grandiose overture for what will happen over the next 2 hours or so, both musically and thematically. The music itself it exhilarating. Few people truly grasp just what an important role William's score plays in Star Wars, I'd go so far as to say that without this music, there would be no Star Wars, or at least, Star Wars wouldn't be the multi-billion dollar, world-wide, cultural phenomenon that it is. In much the same way that George Lucas inspired a new generation of film makers with Star Wars, John Williams did the same thing with his score, and it's a testament to Williams as a composer that he's one of the few people in Hollywood that are still allowed to score films using melody and harmony. Film scores have since moved on from the Williams era into the Hans Zimmer "epic" era; heavy percussion, simple repeating ostinato phrases that slowly build, electronic noises, ect. The score to the film Gravity is beyond excellent, but it is more of an exercise in sound design than composition. Thirty plus years later, the theme to Star Wars still manages to ground us in much the way that Lucas originally intended, it's just that now we aren't used to hearing sweeping, melodic, orchestral scores in film, and this further reinforces our pavlovian response to this magical theme. Some people will point to the Star Wars score and say it sounds a bit like "Kings Row," or that Williams borrowed too heavily from Holst, but the fact is that Star Wars simply sounds like Star Wars - big, bombastic, romantic, mysterious, and hopeful. If it ever sounded too much like something else, it sounds completely different from film scores now. Musically Star Wars has the upper hand over Star Trek, given the fact that despite spanning nearly four decades, each Star Wars film has been scored by the same person, tying entries together in a way that Star Trek never could.
Given our current political climate and the fact that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is days away from release, and the film seems to prominently feature two female leads, we would be remiss if we didn't touch upon gender and race. The original Star Trek series came out in the 1960's, smack-dab in the middle of America's feminist and civil rights movements. Nichelle Nichols played communications officer Lieutenant Uhura, one of the first major roles for an African American woman on television. The Enterprise's crew consisted of people with Scottish, Russian, and Asian backgrounds (Scotty, Chekov, and Sulu respectively) and women were featured in prominent roles of leadership. In the Original Series episode, "The Menagerie," Captain Pike's second-in-command was a woman, and later films and series would feature women as talented engineers, captains, and even admirals. But here's the thing; Star Trek never made a big fuss over any of this. In the 23rd century, this is simply how society had evolved. Roddenberry wanted to create a world were humanity had moved beyond focusing on trivial differences like race and gender - and even species, as the characters of Spock, Worf, and Data so clearly demonstrate - and into a world of spirited cooperation. Star Trek's United Federation Of Planets seems to even eschew politics and competitive self-interest in favour of voluntary cooperation.
Star Trek's characters have not achieved equality by subverting their feminine or masculine traits. James T. Kirk is something of a womanizer. Beverly Crusher is a talented doctor, but also a woman, and there exists an unrequited romantic relationship between her and Captain Picard. Deanna Troi and Will Riker also have a complex relationship. Sometimes emotions get the better of crew members. Star Trek does not neuter the humanity or gender of its characters, it just makes it possible for Denise Crosby to be Chief of Security aboard the Enterprise without making a big stink about it. Like other shows of the time - most notably The Twilight Zone - Star Trek's stories would often deal with themes of prejudice and discrimination, but in an indirect way.
The Star Wars universe was never as concerned with these issues because again, Star Wars is a traditional fairy tale, replete with traditional fairy tale roles; hero, princess, villain, ect. In the original films, only three women seem to exist in the entire galaxy, and they don't even seem to know each other. No female pilots, stormtroopers, or commanders are anywhere to be seen, and the women who do exist are typically clad in virginal white. Is this a problem? Hardly, as Star Wars was designed primarily to appeal to children and, let's face it, mostly male nerds, both groups who couldn't care less about identity politics. Still, Star Wars seems to resonate fairly well with both genders, and I suspect you'd be hard-pressed to find a woman that didn't have a crush on Han-Solo or who never pretended to be a princess as a little girl. I wouldn't even bother criticizing Star Wars on this point, but we are about to bear witness to a new Star Wars trilogy with strong female leads shoe-horned in, and this runs somewhat counter to the narrative of the first six films. Whether identity politics has crept into Star Wars (there's a Star Wars/Wal-Mart commercial out right now with a six year old girl stating that the princess is a "modern empowered woman unfettered by the antiquated gender roles of a bygone era") or whether Disney realized it can only grow the Star Wars brand by appealing more to females, and opening up brand new markets like Star Wars cosmetics, I can not say, but I do acknowledge that this seems like something of a departure from the traditional fantasy narrative for which Star Wars is known. Of course given the new ownership by Disney, it shouldn't really surprise anyone that Star Wars is being given the "Disney Princess" makeover, so to speak. And of course, there are things like Jar-Jar Binks, Watto, the Neimoidians, and Nien Nunb - I leave it up to the individual to determine if these are thinly-veiled racial stereotypes masquerading as aliens, and whether or not that's something worth getting pissed-off about. Perhaps we read too much into this sort of thing?
Make no mistake, Star Wars is the most successful movie franchise ever, and has generated billions of dollars in revenue from marketing alone. I think this is a testament to its universal appeal, its ability to tap into our collective consciousness and capture the imagination of both children and adults alike. It is one of the worlds oldest and most common stories, told in a most superb way. So too has Star Trek been immensely successful, but by an entirely different measure. The Original Series laid the groundwork for not only subsequent spin-offs and films, but also much of modern science fiction. There is an entire channel (SyFy) comprised of many science fiction dramas that share much more with Star Trek than they do Star Wars. Beloved series like Battlestar Galactica have come and gone, but Star Trek was the first modern science fiction program, and yes, the best. It pulled us up from the camp-and-muck of 50's science fiction, and showed us that television could be a serious medium for the genre. A decade later, Star Wars would pull us back into camp and fun, but perfect it in a way that 1950's serials never thought possible.
There will never be another science fiction film franchise like Star Wars and neither will there be a television series like Star Trek. Which one is better? I'd argue neither, because they are two heads of the same coin. Star Trek is the thinking-man's Star Wars and Star Wars is the swash-buckler's Star Trek. They perfectly compliment each other; one plays the role of grand inquisitor, the other, of action-hero. Star Trek holds a mirror up to humanity, and shows us what we are, and what we can aspire to be. Star Wars shows us what we wish we were, and grants us a temporary reprieve into a fantasy-world we know could never exist, but in which we wish we could live. Star Trek is the ultimate science fiction universe, and Star Wars is the ultimate fantasy world - it's as simple as that.