The original Star Wars film was released when I was 13 years old. I won free tickets, and a button that said “May the Force Be With You”, from the local newspaper. The contest was to draw a picture of a robot, and they published the winning entries. At that point in my life I wanted to be a comic book artist when I grew up, so I was more interested in getting something I drew published in the paper than seeing some movie I’d never heard of. I won for my age group. I wish I still had the clipping, because they printed my robot in color. It was kind of a big deal, at least for me.
I loved the movie, though. I saw it multiple times. It felt like there was so much going on in the movie, there was so much world building (although I didn’t know the term at that time), so much back story, so much potential. I wanted more. I got more. I was in high school when Empire came out; I was in art school for Jedi. Was it a major influence in my life? Absolutely.
Star Trek was something I never got into when I was a kid. I was too young to catch the Original Series in first run (I was born in late ‘63; that made me 2-going-on-3 when the show premiered, and 5 when it was canceled for the final time). Reruns were on late at night, well past my bedtime. When I did catch it, I initially found it a little too talky. The cheesy sets and silly costumes didn’t bother me; I was a huge fan of Lost in Space, which aired daily in the highly accessible after-school time slot, so I was very forgiving of low-budget productions. I thought it needed more starship battles and Kirk getting into fistfights, and less pontificating from Spock and McCoy.
Then I grew up.
Star Trek is Greater Than Star Wars
Gardner Dozois, the famed editor and anthologist, once said that the test of whether something is truly science fiction is whether the story falls apart if you pull the “science” part out. Is the whatchamacallit a gimmick, or integral to the plot? Does being in the future matter, or is it a war of adjectives where the space hero is driving his space car on the space highway to his space job at the space office? When you apply that basic test, you can see that Star Trek is objectively better science fiction than Star Wars.
Now, I want to put forth the caveat that Star Trek isn’t always good science fiction, and sometimes it isn’t science fiction at all. We are talking about close to 50 years worth of television series, movies, novels, comic books, and video games. That’s a lot of media. Sometimes it’s good, occasionally it’s great, too often it’s crud. Yet even when it doesn’t work, it still works better than Star Wars on a good day.
Star Trek isn’t science fiction because it has starships and phasers and transporters. Those are trappings. Those are story conveniences. Warp drive exists as a convenience for writers, so the crew can be on one planet one week and a different planet the next. The transporter offers the same, to handwave people back and forth from the ship. Phasers, rather than modern handguns, telegraph the point that this is supposed to be The Future. Star Wars does the same thing with hyperspace and blasters. If there were sailing ships or airplanes, flintlocks or shotguns, it wouldn’t make a whole lot of difference to most plots.
What makes Star Trek science fiction isn’t the gadgets. It’s the sociology. What happens when we stick an alien, with a different set of values and a devotion to pure logic, on a ship with a compulsive captain driven by his passions and a doctor who values compassion and life above all else? What happens when one culture comes into conflict with another? What happens when humans have to deal with powers, gadgets, and situations they’ve never encountered before? Those fiddly bits matter, and the story falls apart without them.
To me, Chewbacca doesn’t even count as an alien. That he’s hairy and growls are fun bits, but they don’t affect the plot any more than most of the latex foreheads and body paint on Trek. Neither do R2-D2 and C-3PO being droids, or Jabba being a slug, count; Jabba was, in the deleted scenes for the first film, just some guys, and the “slugginess” is trappings. There is appearance, but no culture. For the most part, you can stick an ordinary human in those roles, have the same characterization, and achieve the same story goals. Good science fiction, or at least sociological science fiction of Star Trek caliber, would have spent more time exploring the “life debt” between Han Solo and Chewbacca, or addressing the fact that droids are essentially sentient beings and therefore slaves, as well as the overt slavery of Leia in Jedi and young Anakin in whatever that first prequel that I can’t entirely erase from my memory was called. The cultural analogs in Star Wars don’t make for good speculative fiction; they get denounced for the racist stereotypes they emulate.
Star Wars, when it’s good, it a lot of fun, but it’s action-adventure with science fiction trappings. It’s pulp, and yes, it can be great pulp. Star Trek has arguably done a lot of harm to the public perception of what science fiction is and can be (and that’s a rant for another time), but most of the time it actually tries to be science fiction, it tries to be something other than pure entertainment, it tries to be relevant and inspirational.
That’s why Star Trek will always be better than Star Wars to me. If I’m feeling down, a good episode of either will cheer me up. When Star Wars is over, though, I’m back to the real world. When Trek ends, I’m still left with hope. I’ve seen, first of all, that there is a future, albeit a fictional one. Humanity can survive whatever real or manufactured crisis is being shoved down my throat by the 24 hour news cycle. We can sort out our differences and have true equality and social justice, overcome disease, defeat poverty and hunger. If we get our act together we can not only find solutions to our current problems, we can address future issues that we couldn’t even imagine back in the last half of the 20th century.
I like Star Wars, but I don’t just like Star Trek. For the sake of my own sanity, sometimes I need Star Trek.