Battle Beyond the Stars
Sunday, December 13, 2015
S tar Wars vs. Star Trek. Which is best?
This is an eternal burning question that cannot be answered, seemingly. Do we even need to? For many a geek, both franchises embody a deep love.
It’s as ubiquitous as East Coast vs. West Coast or Ginger vs. Mary Ann. The debate has even spawned such subdebates as The Enterprise vs. an Imperial Star Destroyer. 1
Like that episode of Cheers that argued there’s enough room in this world for fans of The Munsters and The Addams Family, we can always cop out and refuse to make a choice.
One could argue that both are unique in their own way and that fans should just love them both equally. Although anyone with a brother or sister knows “I love you both equally” is a well-intentioned lie.
The problem is exacerbated still further by the fact that both franchises are under the control of the same man: JJ Abrams. Allowing two longtime competing sci-fi franchises to become separate visions of a single creator 2 makes judging their respective qualities all the harder. We’re really just judging him.
And to be fair, he has led Star Trek into a renaissance – of sorts. It’s hard to argue that the 2009 movie isn’t a decided improvement over previous Trek movies. 3
It’s exciting, fast-paced and, more importantly, fun. The film has a sleek and modern production design – the Enterprise bridge looks like an Apple Store. But those alone don’t make for a good Star Trek movie.
Abrams is an avowed Star Wars fan. In the runup to the Star Trek relaunch he managed to repeatedly enrage fans by stating he didn’t like Star Trek and didn’t watch it. So, no surprise that he departed Trek to direct Wars. In his mind it’s a step up. But it seems almost redundant because he also he turned Star Trek into Star Wars.
The plot parallels between Star Trek and A New Hope are uncanny, beyond the hero’s journey employed as a character arc in any movie with epic aspirations. It wasn’t just the orphaned farm boy going to space or the planet-killing bad guy or making a stop on a very Hoth-like planet. Abram’s reboot was much more in the fast-paced, episodic action-adventure vein of Star Wars.
It loses some essential Trekiness. The best scene in of all the movies – of any Trek for that matter – is the initial showdown between Capt, Kirk and the eponymous villain in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Sure, it involves some pew pew pew lasers, but what makes it great is that it’s all about Capt. Kirk outthinking his enemy.
By comparison both Star Trek reboot movies feel like the film equivalent of a cover version of a song. They only exist because of the original.
Considering this, the upcoming The Force Awakens is much less of a mystery. If we had to guess what it is going to be like, we’d go with “a lot like the 2009 Star Trek reboot.” That’s actually the movie he’s been longing to make, it’ll just be Star Wars this time.
But even as the two franchises drift toward one another, the eternal question of which is better, Trek or Wars, is in a way quantifiable.
If one were to take all the various incarnations of Trek – the movies, the five TV series, the animated series – and rank them against the whole of Star Wars – the six movies, the two Ewok TV movies, the animated movie and TV show, the holiday special – which percentage-wise would have the most bad.
For beloved franchises, both have a wealth of embarrassingly bad moments. At the outset we’ll concede that by sheer volume of bad, Trek wins easily because there’s so much more of it. But by percentage – that gets dicey.
One might quickly jump to The Star Wars Holiday Special, which is canon because it introduces Chewbacca’s home planet of Kashyyyk and Boba Fett. Surely nothing in Trekdom is as bad as a cooing Diane Carroll providing virtual reality spank material for Chewbacca’s grandfather Itchy.
But then we have Spock jamming on his Vulcan harp with space hippies in TOS episode Journey to Eden. For every “I don’t like sand” line from Star Wars there’s a “Brain? Brain? What is brain?”
The Star Wars prequels get lots of fan hate – justifiably so. Entire swaths of the Star Trek canon may not sink quite as low, but they certainly suffered from creative exhaustion. Later seasons of Voyager and most of Enterprise are a grim slog indeed.
In any mathematical quantifying of the franchises, Star Trek would probably lose to Star Wars on the overall quality front. But it would be close. In either case, there’s certainly more bad than good in both franchises.
But quality issues aside, the needs of Hollywood blockbusters mean that we aren’t going to get the same types of movies or TV shows that made us fans in the first place. In this regard Star Wars faces a greater degree of difficulty.
Star Wars is something people fall in love with in their childhood. As a result, we love it irrationally.
A colleague one said he didn’t see A New Hope until he was in his 40s. When asked what he thought of it, he paused and said “Well, the dialogue is really bad.” He’s not wrong, but fans are willing to overlook this and revel in childhood joy. Star Trek, by being present culturally through multiple incarnations, at least had a chance to grow up along side its fans.
The Force Awakens is freighted with expectations, expectations it can’t meet. The deep love of childhood nostalgia attached to Star Wars means that no movie – not even Star Wars itself – is good enough to be the idealized movie we carry around in our heads.
An attempt to create that idealized movie is about to be repeated over and over - a Star Wars cinematic universe. Whether Star Wars can become an open-ended series and retain its special place in our culture remains to be seen.
Regardless of all the “what does it mean,” Star Wars fans are sure to break box office records and flock to the movie. It doesn’t actually matter if it’s good or not. But let’s hope it is.
Whether one franchise is better than the other is probably at this point is irrelevant because the only perfect realization of either series exists in our own head. Any filmmaker can only guess and try to get it right.
- Imperial Star Destroyer, easily. Everybody knows this.
- Ronald D. Moore’s stewardship of Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica shows this can work, even if BSG felt like Moore finally getting to do what he wanted with Deep Space Nine and Voyager’s overall themes.
- Star Trek nemesis, I’m looking in your direction.
- Bea Arthur and Harvey Korman are both part of Star Wars canon. Deal with that, fans.