To the casual observer, Star Trek and Star Wars look a lot alike, beyond the obvious similarity between their names. Each has a lot of spaceships, strange worlds, ray guns, and aliens, many of whom look startlingly like humans with prosthetics and makeup. But of course geeks are not casual observers, and we know just how different they are.
Now, I freely admit to having been a huge fan of both since childhood, and I know many people who feel the same way. So why should we debate about which is better? Because we’re geeks, and that’s what geeks do! So, in the finest tradition of completely unnecessary geeky arguments, let’s create a preposterous hypothetical situation that requires you to choose between the two: Suppose you were adrift in space after your spaceship’s engines died, and while you’re waiting for your rescuers to find you, you wanted to watch a movie. Suppose, further, that the only two videos available were your favorite Star Trek movie and your favorite Star Wars movie (whichever ones those happen to be), but your video player has only enough power left for you to watch one of them. Which one would you choose? To help decide, since I suspect everyone reading this has a pretty good idea of what to like about both, I’m going to focus on what not to like.
Star Wars is grounded in mythology: the struggle between good and evil drawn in such broad strokes that few characters have any shades of gray. Even Darth Vader, who switches from good to evil and then back again, is never anywhere in between — he flips between extremes. Is it any real surprise that the most popular character from the original trilogy is Han Solo, who isn’t as cut-and-dried? The Star Wars storyline requires you to take a lot for granted: Most fundamentally, the main characters are far, far more important than anyone else in their world, even the “good” ones. Look, for instance, at how everyone acts after Luke returns from blowing up the Death Star: They’re all cheering and hugging, and then Luke gets really upset about R2-D2 being damaged — his good friend Biggs and a dozen other men were just blown to pieces, but Luke’s upset because his droid is busted. Nice. And at the end of Return of the Jedi, Vader turns good and saves Luke by killing the Emperor, and then the ghost of Anakin Skywalker appears along with Obi-Wan and Yoda. This man is responsible for personally killing hundreds of innocent beings, for ordering the deaths of countless more, and for torturing quite a few as well; but he is completely redeemed because he saved his son’s life. This can only mean that Luke’s life is worth as much as (or more than) those of all the (probably) thousands of people Vader slaughtered put together, because otherwise it simply makes no sense, right? These are the two examples that stand out the most in my mind, but there are plenty more where they came from.
Star Trek begins with a premise so ridiculous it could only have originated in the Sixties: a united Earth, only about 250 years from now. At least Star Wars started off by telling you it was happening “in a galaxy far, far away” so any assumptions based on what we know about Earth and humanity didn’t necessarily apply. But Trek is science fiction, not fantasy, and so different rules need to apply, and they break them all the time. First they go and invent things like warp drive and transporters, which are implausible but not outside the realm of normal suspension of disbelief. Then, having created rules around how these marvelous devices work, they regularly break those rules. It’s not enough that the Enterprise can travel many times faster than light speed; now they can go through a rift in subspace (or somesuch) and wind up thousands of light years away in an instant. It’s not enough that they can go back and forth between a planet and their ship in a few seconds; now an ion storm (whatever that is) sends them to an alternate universe (yes, it’s one of my favorite episodes, too, but that doesn’t make the premise less silly). And why did it never occur to anyone designing chairs for Starfleet to install seat belts? I mean, I know they would have deprived us of some lovely scenes of actors throwing themselves back and forth and pretending to fall, but there might have been other benefits, too!
Of course, we have to consider the serious failures that are a part of both universes. The Star Wars universe would look so much better were it not for Episodes I – III, and the Ewoks. And the Star Trek universe would look much better without Star Trek V, and Generations, and Insurrection, and (in my opinion, anyway) Nemesis, not to mention quite a few episodes of each of the five TV series.
I hate to have to make a call here, but it’s my job. I have to give the nod to Star Trek. For all its technobabble and implausible extrapolation from current reality, it’s just on the whole a better product. It’s far more egalitarian, and so easier to identify with. I get the feeling that, if I were transplanted to the Star Trek universe, I could make a go of it and be a productive member of society on some level; conversely, I get the feeling that, if I were transplanted to the Star Wars universe, I would be one of those guys who has two lines and then gets shot by stormtroopers, who as everyone knows can only aim well at unimportant folks. Plus, percentage-wise as well as (obviously) length-wise, Star Trek simply has a lot more good material.
So, what do you think? I made my choice, so you have to choose, too. Please feel free to explain/defend your decision in the comments, if you wish.