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 could be and speak to the current issues of the real world. There are many great franchises that fill one or all of these parameters, but two represent the top echelon. Star Wars and Star Trek.
In many ways, the two franchises represent contrasting views of sci-fi. And yet, 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. Meanwhile, the future of Star Trek on the big screen is uncertain, but it is returning to the TV screen with Star Trek: Discovery.
I want to discuss the appeal of both franchises.
Wizards and Wookies
The Star Wars 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 galaxy-spanning political body only referred to as the Empire, and a small resistance group called the Rebel Alliance.
Their ship designs were created to subconsciously 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, wedge-shaped star destroyer. And later in the film, Imperial tie fighters, with their stark, gray colors and unimaginative design, battle 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 compressed and intense light, with the ability to cut through anything, captured our imaginations in its introductory scene in the cantina brawl. Even 40 years laters, lightsabers continue to remain fascinating. The device is an image unique to Star Wars. Any other franchise that tried to borrow it inevitably finds itself compared to Star Wars.
However, nothing in the films are 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, 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. A place where ideals and hope carried the day, unburdened by the complexities of reality.
It is inspiration that made this not only one of the most successful film franchises of all time, but continuously 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. Things that can't be made, like the Death Star, are constantly being examined under real world physics and economics to see if they have potential to exist in the future.
To Boldly Go…
Star Trek is the older of the two, having been created by Gene Roddenberry back in 1966. Unlike Lucas, Roddenberry used his creation to inspire people to look past the epidemic problems that were present across the nation and the world during that era. The Vietnam War, cultural and political revolutions, and conflicts 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 that some believed that our greatest creations were not even of human origin, but that they were built by alien visitors. Hope for the human spirit was dwindling.
Roddenberry created a futuristic world that was tied to our own, set some three hundred years away from our era. In this future, he presented a human race that had overcome war, poverty, and corruption. We had developed a Utopian world. The cast was the first display of diversity on American TV. There were alien officers and crew members of different races. There was even a Russian on the crew during the Cold War. 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 scientific development in the space race and the future space shuttle program. 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. It flew across the view port as the actor looked through it when he was inside.
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 along traditional 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. It showed that the future did not have to be a dark one.
The major difference with Star Trek is that it began as a TV series, and a short-lived one at that. Yet it proved so popular that it was syndicated in reruns for years afterwards. This helped solidify its status as a global media icon. Using its upstart rival’s success, the franchise made the jump into the movies with Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979. Five more movies followed 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. It continued the story 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. They accused it of trying to copy Star Wars and even nitpicked small things. One complaint was the updated appearance of the Enterprise, which was seen as too gaudy.
Star Trek 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, have designs that are better looking while also being more advanced and realistic.
Because they are the ruling royalty of sci-fi, fans of both have been popularized as having a rivalry. For the most part, the communities are friendly and many openly mock the stereotype and each other lightheartedly.
Star Wars does seem to have taken the lead in 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 how receptive an audience is to a type of narrative. During the seventies and eighties, there was more patience for the brand of storytelling seen in Star Trek. The success of Wrath of Khan in 1982 is a prime example. Its tight, U-boat-esque environments were a far cry from the whooshing of star fighters and the clashing of lightsabers.
Since the beginning of this century, our attention spans have shortened. Many have argued that millennials do not have the appreciation for little nuances in storytelling. They prefer flash and explosions. Star Wars definitely has that. If you asked a kid or collector to pick between a replica phaser or a lightsaber, they’re probably 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 and flash of its presentation. Star Trek has largely relied on nostalgia and long time fans. Star Wars is more fitted for the current era. The new Star Trek movie series have struggled to find its footing, though they still put butts in seats. With studios being more green-eyed and focused on the billion dollar kickback, they want Star Trek to replicate the success of its resurgent rival. This idea has upset many fans who feel that it has made the series less original and turned it into another generic action movie. This in turn conflicts with the casual movie goer, who have no real loyalty to the original ideas of the franchise and just want to be entertained.
OGs in a Changing Neighborhood
This doesn’t mean 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 fans. The franchise also runs the risk of beating a dead horse by replicating familiar beats from the original trilogy. This is one of the few criticisms that carry weight. There is also stiffer competition now from newer franchises, ironically inspired by these two. The Battlestar Galactica remake took a more realistic approach to its science but still maintained the powerful storytelling elements along with awesome battles. Firefly gained a reputation for its originality and narrative. And the Stargate franchise was another blending of science and fantasy-based sci-fi.
The future of these iconic science fiction franchises is going to depend on relying on originality and adaptation. Despite its success, space battles like those in Star Wars have been seen before on other shows. And you can only swing a lightsaber so much before it becomes old hat. Some people are already becoming wary over the prospect of a new movie every year.
The fan bases of both franchises are going to have to accept that the characters and stories they grew up with will not be relatable to future audiences. For both to survive, they are going to have to be inclusive with the current reality. As long as they can maintain the tight rope act between adaption and original spirit, Star Wars and Star Trek should continue to stay relevant.