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.

Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Identity

At the time of this writing, it is Sunday evening. I am still excited over the announcement of Peter Capaldi being cast as the twelfth actor to play the lead role in Doctor Who. The night air is flush with possibility.

Peter Capaldi on Doctor Who Live. Copyright © 2013 by BBC.

As I think back about Doctor Who, I start to wonder (as I’m wont to do when I have too much free time) about the whole genre of Science Fiction and Fantasy. It’s easy to get caught up in the common sights of lasers and starships, or enchanted swords and dragons. And as many stories have proven, that’s what bad SF&F can be: a recyclable plot to showcase special effects.

But the best stuff isn’t about how its concept of time travel is different from all the rest, or how their vampires and elves are a deconstruction of previous models. The best that SF&F has to offer is this:

A new idea about the human race and the world we presently live in.

When H.G. Wells wrote about a machine that could travel through time, he put his socialism front and center with a future Earth inhabited by child-like elites and savage workers. When J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about hobbits going on a grand adventure with wizards and Dark Lords, he was still reeling from two World Wars and the new face of British society. And when the showrunners for Star Trek and Doctor Who set forth their new stories, they were less concerned with traveling through space-time and more focused on telling stories about oppression, racism, and the Cold War. In each case, we can see that the best SF&F material isn’t about the details on future technology or the nuances of a fictional race.

It’s always been about us. About the creators and their audience.

I suppose the reason I’m thinking about this has something to do with today’s news about Peter Capaldi. I hope he’ll do well in the part and wish him the best, but the attention that my fellow fans and I are putting on him says something about the Doctor. He’s just alien enough to seem bizarre, but there is something fundamentally human about him that demands respect and friendship, both in the show and in the real world.

French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan once proposed that every human being undergoes a “mirror stage” in childhood–the point at which we first see a reflection of ourselves and begin to think of ourselves as an object. From here, we enter the world of the Symbolic and the Other, where we perceive and judge things in relation to our Self. I bring this up because the Doctor–like so many other fictional heroes–is a mirror for the human race. Like Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter, the Doctor and his Companions are the sort of people we want to be and occasionally are. We use these characters and their constructed worlds not only to entertain ourselves, but as a lens for looking at our own world in our own time.

I can speak to this from personal experience. When I started my teen years, I had a turn toward the philosophical. I used the mysticism of the Jedi Knights from Star Wars as a foundation for my studies of real-world philosophies: Taoism, Buddhism, Judaism, and my native Catholicism. If I didn’t have concepts like the Force and the Jedi Code as a mirror, I would never have learned the right questions to ask about faith and human nature. And I would never have taken the path to being a more critical thinker as I am today.

Life imitates art, and vice versa.

So I say “Congratulations” to Peter Capaldi. It’s an honor and a privilege to be chosen to play the Doctor, but he’s going to have to be more than a beloved TV character. He’ll have to shoulder the equally hard task of being our mirror for life in the 2010s and beyond…

…And even though it’s years away, I’m still hoping for Emma Thompson as the first female Doctor, because that’s a type of Mirror we need to see more.

America’s Answer To Doctor Who

Copyright © 2005 by BBC.

Doctor Who is a genuine marvel of a show.  Easily one of the longest-running television shows in history, it’s popular across multiple generations and has kept up a certain mainstream appeal to science fiction.  And because of its cherished place at the BBC, with a current total of eleven different actors to have portrayed the Doctor himself, it is a landmark of modern UK culture.

Like many of my generation, I’ve become a fan of the show thanks to its revival in 2005.  I was entranced with the likes of Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant, and continue to enjoy the show in its Matt Smith era.  By far, Donna Noble, Amy Pond, and Rory Williams have to be my favorite Companions.  The show has stayed sharp and I love it whenever I get the chance to actually watch it (having access to BBC America not as often as I would like).

But having seen so much of the show, I’m always aware of the fact that it is a clearly British production, deeply rooted in UK culture and history.  The Doctor himself is an English archetype similar to Sherlock Holmes, an energetic genius with a stiff upper lip.  It does make me wonder what, if anything, could possibly compare to the programs we have in the US.

I think I have the answer, and appropriately enough, it’s been on the air in one form or another almost as long as Doctor Who.  I’m speaking, of course, about Star Trek.

Copyright © 2009 by Paramount Pictures.

Like Doctor Who, Star Trek is known for its cheap sets and action scenes, its formulaic episodes, and its over-the-top performances.  Star Trek is also frequently used to discuss relevant issues of the day like racism and war, using its eternal conflict with Klingons and Romulans in the same way that the Doctor is always up against the Daleks and the Cybermen.  And while the Doctor is a quintessential British gentleman who travels through time, the Captain of the Enterprise is a bold and inventive American leader in a show that’s essentially a Western dressed up like science fiction.

It must also be noted that both shows are science fiction stories that don’t feature a pessimistic view of the future.  Whereas humanity’s fate is bleak or uncertain in stories like 1984, Battlestar Galactica, or any number of post-apocalyptic films, both Doctor Who and Star Trek are always trying to affirm something decent and inspiring about the human race.  The Doctor is always protecting Earth from other aliens or helping other civilizations grow, just as the starship Enterprise is on a mission to seek out new life and open relations between the Federation and other worlds.  There may always be a Klingon Bird of Prey on the prowl or yet another Dalek plot to “EX-TER-MINATE!” life as we know it, but there’ll always be a Doctor or a Starfleet Captain ready to stand between them and the destruction of what makes life worth living.

In the end, both shows are a new breed of science fiction.  Whereas most SF centers on the exploration of new ideas and technologies, Doctor Who and Star Trek focus on the exploration of everything that means being human.

They’re Not Here To Entertain You: “Redshirts” by John Scalzi

Copyright © 2012 by John Scalzi.

I have to confess that I don’t know much about science fiction writer John Scalzi.  I do know he’s an acquaintance of my favorite author, Matt Stover, and has a pretty cool blog here on WordPress, but until a few months ago, I’d never read a single one of his books.

Then, in July, I ordered a copy of his latest novel, Redshirts.

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, a “redshirt” is slang for a minor character whose only job is to get killed in the middle of a story, allowing the main characters to survive while also raising the dramatic tension.  The term was coined for the common frequency of crew members getting killed on Star Trek, especially because they wore red uniforms.  The same can be said for just about any minor character getting killed onscreen, but in this case, it’s the main focus of Mr. Scalzi’s novel.

So, the story follows Ensign Andrew Dahl, a new recruit to the Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union.  However, within moments of boarding the ship with other “redshirts,” he discovers several unusual factors, like the fact that so many crew members get killed on away missions and that the laws of physics seem to warp just for the benefit of Captain Abernathy and the other prominent officers.  He and his fellow recruits try to get to the bottom of this mystery, especially when it seems like events are conspiring to bring them all to a premature death.  The twist of the story is that they discover they’re living in a fictional universe that was created for a bad Star Trek ripoff in 2010.  With their knowledge of genre conventions, Dahl and his friends have to get to this alternate Earth in the past and convince the show’s producers to stop this senseless slaughter.

I have to say, I really enjoyed this story.  It’s got some very clever dialogue all throughout, a nice treatment of redshirts and their contributions to the show, and a surprisingly emotional climax.  It’s not an action-packed climax, but a soul-searching one, as real-world actors and writers have to confront their fictional counterparts in a manner reminiscent of The Purple Rose of Cairo or Stranger Than Fiction.  I liked the “three codas” (read: extra endings) that serve to deepen the story, giving the real-world implications a little more weight after all the black comedy we got from the world of Ensign Dahl and Company.

If there’s one complaint, it’s that there isn’t a lot of description in this story, but it’s not a huge complaint.  You don’t need to know how the starship Intrepid looks or know what kind of alien Science Officer Q’eeng is.  Just picture the Enterprise during its Original Series run and The Next Generation, and you should be fine.  Above all else, this book is wonderfully witty and deserves to be read by Star Trek fans, science fiction TV fans, and anyone who wants to do a better job at writing characters.

Bibliography: Scalzi, John.  Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas.  New York: Tor Books, 2012.

Redesigning The Starship Enterprise: The Reimagining Of Star Trek

Star Trek.  Just the name alone conjures up a thousand fantastic images–of heroic diplomats and captains, encountering new races and charting the Great Unknown; of brutish Klingons and pointy-eared Vulcans; of the millions upon millions of fans who gather at a thousand different conventions to share their love of this story.

Personally, I can’t say I share their enthusiasm (Star Wars has been and always will be my first love, thank you very much).  I certainly liked the films of Star Trek I-VI and even some of The Next Generation.

And then I saw the 2009 reboot, simply titled Star Trek.  And it was good.

It’s a prequel to Star Trek: The Original Series, featuring younger versions of the first crew from the Starship Enterprise, as they are introduced to one another and the ship that will earn them great renown.  However, J.J. Abrams decided to play around with this story, using time travel, retroactive continuity, and alternate reality to establish his own take on the saga.  Abrams is taking what we, the audience, already know about Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest, and using future threats to bring their teamwork into full bloom.

Chris Pine does an excellent job as a young James T. Kirk, capturing both his cocky persona and his quiet determination to never lose. Zachary Quinto provides an excellent rendition of Spock, maintaining eloquent stoicism but occasionally cracking to reveal his true emotional pain.  Eric Bana makes for a good tragic villain in the form of Nero, both serious and mocking in the same breath.  And hands down, my favorite performance was Simon Pegg as Scotty, who doesn’t have a single unfunny moment in the film.

Whether you’re a Trekkie or new to the franchise, Star Trek is a film that will both entertain and… engage.

Photo by Photo Credit: Industrial Light a – © TM & Copyright2009 by Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Bibliography: Star Trek (film).  Directed by J.J. Abrams.  Produced by J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindlelof.  Perf. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Eric Bana, Zoe Saldana, Bruce Greenwood, Leonard Nimoy.  Paramount Pictures, 2009.