Comparing the Themes of Star Wars and Star Trek

Go into any science fiction forum, or turn any corner inside the labyrinth of Online Geekdom, and you are certain to find a million posts and message threads devoted to that age-old question: “Star Wars vs. Star Trek, who would win in a fight?”

I couldn’t care less about sizing up the firepower of the USS Enterprise (from any era) against that of an Imperial Star Destroyer or Death Star. That’s not why I watched The Next Generation or The Empire Strikes Back as a kid. I wasn’t in it for explosions or space battles (well, ok, maybe a little, but not all of it). What drew me to both franchises were 3 key aspects that they shared in common.

a) A stellar cast (no pun intended)

b) Engaging storylines

c) An immersive and colorful universe

It’s that last point I want to discuss today. Star Trek and Star Wars might both be about heroes struggling to overcome insurmountable obstacles in their path, but they approach the same premise in distinct ways.

Star Trek: The Frontier and the Spread of Civilization

Copyright © 2009 by Paramount Pictures

When you think about it, even in a universe where war with Klingons and the Borg is a reality, Star Trek is an oddly optimistic concept. It’s the future and Earth is actually a great place to live, where money isn’t needed and scarcity is a thing of the past. Science won the day and continues to win, pushing humanity off Earth and into the greater galactic community. There’s always strange new worlds to explore, new cultures to contact, and new forms of life to discover.

In Star Trek, the main conflict is usually between the Federation’s faith in scientific progress and an alien planet’s way of life, hence the plot device of the Prime Directive. Of course, that “rule” often provides captains like Kirk and Picard with ways of subverting the status quo, using negotiation and applied science to solve whatever problem they’re facing. There’s a central theme of going forward, of finding common ground with multiple races, of the hope of peace triumphing over the inevitability of war.

There’s also a recurring dialogue between the power of logic and the power of emotion, expressed most clearly in The Original Series between Spock and McCoy. Compared to the struggle of the light and dark sides of the Force as discussed in Star Wars franchise, where emotion must be contained, the various Captains of the Starship Enterprise have to find a balance between passion and logic, between bold action and rational discourse.

Star Wars: Power Corrupts and Love Redeems

Luke Han Leia
Copyright © 1977 by Lucasfilm Ltd.

By contrast, Star Wars is almost always defined by the occurrence of a war between Good vs. Evil, whether it’s the Rebels against the Empire, the Republic against the Separatists, or the Resistance against the First Order. Most people’s first image of the multi-film saga is that iconic scene of a small Rebel blockade runner trading laser blasts with a massive Star Destroyer over a desert planet in the depths of space. Well, that and lightsabers.

In a way, the lightsaber is the perfect image for Star Wars. It’s a classic sword done in the strongest science fiction style possible. Mythology runs deep in the story, making it less of a typical sci-fi tale than Star Trek. Beyond the Rebels’ fight against the Empire, the heart of the story is a young person seeking to learn the ways of the Jedi, whether they’re called Anakin, Luke, or Rey. Their journey into the mystical realm of the Force stands in stark contrast to the corrupt and faceless enemy forces, who want to unite the galaxy under their technology-driven terror, who let their passions drive their power instead of seeking inner peace and harmony.

Even more importantly, the conflict between the Rebels and the Empire is more about individuals against the collective. It’s not just Luke and Rey trying to bring back the light of the Jedi Order to the galaxy. You also have to consider the place of free-spirited folk like Han Solo and Chewbacca, who can barely earn a living under the Empire’s draconian laws. Not even independent Tibanna gas mines like Cloud City are safe from the Emperor’s reach, as Lando Calrissian sadly discovers.

Final Thoughts

I like both franchises for different reasons, as listed above. And I think that it’s a safe bet that people will continue to find new ways to expand and resurrect these stories in years to come, whether it’s the new slate of Star Wars films put out by Disney or the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery TV show by CBS. I can’t speak for what the quality of these stories will be like, but I’m excited for what direction they’ll take on each franchise’s central theme.

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