It happens every time I wear my “Live Long And Prosper” T-shirt.
“Oh, so you like ‘Star Trek,’” they always say. “Which do you like better,” they ask next. “That or ‘Star Wars?’”
I’ve never understood why this had to be a question. Growing up, I watched “Star Trek: The Original Series” (TOS) on the Syfy channel (back when it was Sci-Fi) with my father and brother every night. I saw Dad sing the theme song at the dinner table. I was the only third-grader well-versed in the Vulcan salute.
But my brother and I also spent hundreds of hours on the N64, podracing on “Star Wars: Episode 1 Racer” (S/O to my favorite, Sebulba). We owned the entire “Star Wars” trilogy first on VHS and then the entire series on DVD, and we watched them over. And over. And over.*
I’ve never chosen between “TOS” and “Star Wars” because, well, no one ever told me I had to. I think it’s possible to like both, and here’s why: The two are uncomparable.**
First, I should say that I think people insist on the comparison because they have some incorrect assumptions about both entities. For example: “They both have ‘Star’ in the title, so they must be similar.”
This is usually posed by someone who’s unfamiliar with both the show and the movies. It’s like saying that everyone should have to choose between cheese pizza and grilled cheese just because they both have “cheese” in the name. Imagine the chaos that would ensue if I walked around posing that to the Western world.
I’ve also heard this: “Aren’t they both just about lasers and space and aliens?”
This actually makes me want to bang my head against a wall. OK, in a sense, yes, they do both have lasers and space and aliens. But if you’re watching both “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” and only seeing lasers and space and aliens, you’re doing it wrong. Hence:
Star Wars” is an adventure story set in space, often called an “epic space opera.” In the space adventure, there’s good vs. evil, religion, romance, wilderness vs. civilization, and many other popular subplots within the larger “space adventure” idea. There’s handsome men, pretty women, aliens, and robots. It spans three movies (I’m only talking about Episodes IV–VI here, because, in my experience, when people talk about “Star Wars” in relation to “Star Trek,” they typically mean the original trilogy, rather than the prequels). “The movies premiered between 1977 and 1983, and were produced with a total budget of nearly $75 million.
“Star Trek: TOS” is a television show that ran from 1966 to 1969 and spanned three seasons, running 80 episodes total. In it, Gene Roddenberry, creator and executive producer of the show, saw it more like a type of “space western,” where the crew of the Enterprise was battling space as a “frontier.” He also used it as a vehicle to couch statements on political and social issues of the day. The average cost of one episode was around $150,000. If every episode cost exactly that much (in reality, some cost more, some cost less), the entire show would have been produced for around $15 million.
Roddenberry once said this about the movie series: “I like ‘Star Wars.’ It was the young King Arthur growing up and slaying the evil emperor, finally. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of entertainment. Everything doesn’t have to create a philosophy for you, for your whole life. You can also have fun.
Differences in budgets might have been behind many of the differences between the two entities: Had “Trek” had more resources, things might have been different. However, I don’t think that money alone accounts for why the two are so different. It’s like Roddenberry said above; I think the goals of both productions were fundamental different. “Star Wars” was seeking to entertain, to provide a certain type of escape for viewers, while “TOS” sought to provide entertainment, yes, but also to speak on current events and issues in an understated way.
And there’s nothing wrong with either of those things.
In the 2009 “Star Trek” movie, a type of reincarnation prequel headed up by then-rising-star-now-totally-fabulous producer J.J. Abrams, the executive producers and crew wanted to look at how they could translate “Trek,” specifically the tradition of “TOS,” into a consumable product for 21st-century viewers. In a behind-the-scenes featurette found on the DVD, Abrams said that he wanted to bring a “certain type of energy and spectacle” to the new “Trek,” and to do so, the team took a look at “Star Wars”—which makes complete sense, because “Star Wars” is a hugely successful media franchise centering around much of the same material the new “Trek” would: intergalactic warfare, aliens, good vs. evil, etc.
I was so glad to see the new “Trek” crew taking a cue from “Star Wars,” rather than feeling opposed to it. thought that maybe, just maybe, we could all just get along, and that this new movie could be the start of it all. But…
The featurette showed writers/executive producers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman talking about what cues they took from the space opera franchise, and this was the beginning of the exchange:
Orci: “What can we learn from ‘Star Wars’ here?”
Kurtzman: “As sacrilegious as it is to, you know, even bring that up in relation to ‘Trek.’”
I remember being so frustrated that he felt it was “sacrilegious” to bring the two up together. Why do the two have to be at war with one another? Why can’t they be complimentary? In his defense, Kurtzman did go on to bring up some really good points (like the need to reach a modern audience used to a faster-paced movie), and also made the following statement, to which I’ve held fast as a good explanation of the differences (and uncomparable-ness) between the two:
“I always thought of it as ‘Star Trek’ as beautiful classical music and ‘Star Wars’ as rock-and-roll, and felt like ‘Star Trek’ needed a little more rock-and-roll to connect to a lot of audiences.”
Abrams also acknowledged that “Trek” could learn a thing or two from “Star Wars.” “I didn’t want to sort of impose a ‘Star Wars’ tone on ‘Star Trek,’” he said in the featurette. “But there’s a certain kind of pace that ‘Star Wars’ … had, that I just thought, “That is the pace that I love.”
What I respect about the Orci/Kurtzman/Abrams discussion (despite the “sacrilegious” mishap) is that in it, they are acknowledging the tendency in popular culture to pit the two entities against one another while saying that they are both mutually exclusive and mutually beneficial to one another. I think that’s important to remember.
“TOS” came out before “Star Wars,” and set the stage for the reception of science fiction as a major production. “Star Wars” built on that foundation and created this phenomenon, and then the 2009 “Star Trek” came back and built on those additional layers that “Star Wars” had added.
“Star Wars” creator George Lucas said this in a documentary called “Trek Nation:” “’Star Trek’ was more sort of intellectual mystery; it wasn’t action-oriented. ‘Star Wars’ was action-oriented…. ‘Star Trek’ softened up the entertainment arena, so that ‘Star Wars’ could come along and stand on its shoulders.”
The two creations are both complement each other and work with one another, rather than detract from each other, and I think that’s where most people are misinformed.
*My mother is obviously a wonderfully tolerant human.
** Please note that I said “uncomparable,” meaning unable to be compared, rather than “incomparable,” meaning that they are both so good that they are beyond compare.
Photo credit: trekcore.com, jess-rose-carter.tumblr.com, startrekpropauthority.com, and tattoosandstardestroyers.tumblr.com, respectively.
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