“Trekonomics” author, Manu Saadia, gives “Star Trek” fans 10 reasons to defend themselves against that other franchise.
TV has a built-in advantage over movies: there's just more of it. That doesn't mean TV is necessarily better. For instance, special effects for cannot be as good as in feature films for budget reasons. But TV, especially scifi TV, allows for a considerably more detailed look at fictional universes.
(image url='https://static.techinsider.io/image/574d9d7a52bcd023008c5edf-803/screen%20shot%202016-05-31%20at%2010.18.45%20am.jpg' alt='Pie-chart-star-trek' link='lightbox' size='primary' align='center' nocrop='false' clear='true')A movie has only two hours to wow the theatre-going audience. It must pack a real punch. The action must move at a brisk pace. The special effects and space battles must be perfect and incredible - production value in other words. The main characters, good and bad, must be clearly defined and immediately recognisable.
TV is different. TV thrives on habit and familiarity. In TV you can take your time to fully explore not only the characters but also the finer details of a particular universe. You do not achieve the same production quality (sets and special effects are expensive) but you have more latitude to develop a more complex world.
Incidentally, that is why a lot of what we know of the Star Wars universe comes out of supplemental material (books, movie novelizations). For instance, bounty hunter villain (and fan favourite) Boba Fett is never even named in the original trilogy. Much more of Star Trek's canon, as fans call it, appears on the screen.
More TV episodes allow us, the audience and the fans, to get more fully acquainted with the various alien civilizations of Star Trek. The Vulcans, the Klingons, The Romulans, the Ferengis, the Bajorans - all the great Trek aliens - become much more than actors in funny makeup. Their respective beliefs and cultures are stories onto themselves. More than a few episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space 9 go far into the lives and struggles of the Klingons. It's a real springboard for Trek writers' imagination and virtuosity (special mention to Ron Moore, Trek's resident Klingon specialist, who went on to create and produce the reboot of Battlestar Galactica).
This is what is referred as 'world-building' among scifi and fantasy fans. The depth and quality of Star Trek's fictional alien civilizations is such that people in the real world have created a full Klingon dictionary and turned it into a living language. You can for instance find a performance of 'Hamlet' in Klingon (on Youtube, where else?). Klingons claim it is better than the Bard's original.
Star Wars has many more aliens but somehow fails to treat them as much more than props or comic relief. I really love Chewbacca - who doesn't - but the fact that he doesn't have actual lines of intelligible dialogue make it difficult to know more about him and to understand his people's culture and his psychology (and no, the infamous Star Wars Christmas wookiee special will not help you one bit). Come to think of it, we are not even sure whether Chewbacca is a male or a female wookiee.
That is an important point: alien characters in Star Wars do not have the same psychological depth than their Trek counterparts. Their 'otherness' so to speak is only skin-deep. And rightly so: movies are desperately short, one doesn't have the time to delve into the secret lives of Wookiees or Jar Jar Binks' philosophical beliefs.
Star Wars has this:
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The bad guys in Star Trek are much more interesting than the bad guys in Star Wars. Their culture, their motivations, their politics are deeper and more complex. At times they even come across as not universally bad. We get to know them better and to understand them. This is a direct consequence of TV vs. feature films.
The perfect example is the Cardassians - the former occupiers of planet Bajor in Deep Space 9. Cardassians are authoritarian and militaristic, and share many traits with the Soviet Union. Yet, we encounter Cardassians who are actually torn about their crimes and who are good and decent people.
This is very similar with the fearsome Klingons and the disgusting Ferengis: both alien civilizations change in the course of the show. They improve. They become more complex. We care about them in a way we never get a chance to care about Star Wars' stormtroopers.
Compare this complexity with the almost cardboard-like quality of the villains in Star Wars. Darth Vader, despite his internal struggle, is very much of a piece. He is the archetype of the movie villain. The Emperor in both trilogies is a conniving, power-hungry maniac while their troops are either hapless robots or mindless clones. Star Wars' villains are essentially caricatures. This is done for a purpose: it ratchets up the danger and the emotional stakes of the movies.
Even Star Trek's Borg collective is more complicated and intriguing than the Empire and the Dark Side. The Borg assimilates entire people and outfits them with prosthetic appendages. The Borg drones become connected to the collective consciousness. The Borg is in fact an incredibly complex model for a villain.
'Live long and prosper' the famous Vulcan greeting encapsulates Star Trek's philosophy in the same way 'May the force be with you' represents Star Wars. MTFBWY is about magic. LLAP is about reason. Let's compare:
- Star Wars' Force is a mix of mystical religion and real-world power. Those who learn to master the Force can do all sorts of awesome things, from mind tricks (these are not the droids… etc) to moving objects at a great distance.
The Force is indistinguishable from magic. As Han Solo says in the first movie 'hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid' - Han Solo is right, this is kind of true.
The genius of George Lucas and Star Wars is to make us, the audience, buy into exactly the opposite proposition. We get to believe - if only for the duration of the movies - that telekinesis is indeed a thing and that an invisible field binds all living things together.
- Live Long and Prosper is of a different nature altogether. There is not an ounce of magic or mysticism in the Vulcans' greeting. It is an injunction to cultivate one's mind and one's character - unlike us, Vulcans have zero interest in material things. Prosperity is not wealth.
Vulcans embrace the intergalactic version of Stoicism. Stoicism came out of Ancient Greece and is specifically anti-religious and anti-mystical. It proposes that the universe is entirely made up of matter and thus can be known by reason and science. There is no unknowable force - only imperfect knowledge. Stoics believed that knowledge rather than a deity was the foundation of human ethics: hence the Vulcans' emphasis on logic and on controlling one's passions. After Spock, Cicero, Seneca and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius are the most famous stoicists.
Set aside faster-than-light travel and the transporter for a minute. Many of Star Trek's on-screen technologies inspired real-world innovations: Captain's Kirk communicator became the modern cell phone; Siri, Google and Amazon Echo all try to replicate the capabilities of the Enterprise's on board computer. There are many more of these examples (link to previous piece on Star Trek tech).
The lightsaber is 'an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.' It was not invented with the future in mind but rather as an analogue to noble, Japanese samurai swords.
Star Wars is in fact rather anti-technology - since it is ultimately the Force that defeats the Empire's incredibly advanced weapon systems (aka the Death Star). Star Wars treats technology as nothing more than a prop. the impact of technological progress on society is never really explored. Star Wars' galaxy is strangely archaic, in fact.
In contrast, Star Trek believes that technology will profoundly change society - automation and artificial intelligence will be at our service and improve the quality of our lives.
Star Trek's fictional economics is much more consistent and well thought-out than Star Wars.
In Star Trek, the Federation has achieved post-scarcity. Replicators are available as free, public goods. Money is no longer needed because, thanks to automation and artificial intelligence, goods and services have essentially no tradeable value. This allow 24th century Federation citizens to worry about other things. Free from the need to work to survive, Star Trek people strive to improve themselves. They compete for reputation and honours rather than wealth or power. In addition, the Federation has to contend with outside alien civilizations that still use money - the greedy Ferengi for instance. The series Star Trek: Deep Space 9 explores how a utopian society deals with less advanced nations and cultures.
The economic world of Star Wars - Wookieenomics - is much, much messier. Star Wars' galaxy is a rough place, with poverty, child labour, violence and weapons of mass destruction. There are tons of robots in Star Wars but they work alongside slaves. This is a complicated proposition: why have robots when you have slaves, and vice-versa.
From an economic standpoint, the construction of the Death Star seems to be a big mistake. Economists have calculated the (fictional) cost of building the first Death Star - and they're astronomical. And then it gets destroyed not once, but twice, by what amounts to mosquito bites. Makes one wonder…
Next time your kid plays Jedi, think about this: the Jedis are called knights for a reason. They are an unaccountable group of feudal warriors imbued with magical powers, in charge of policing the galaxy. How's that for values? And where are the scientists and the engineers in Star Wars?
In addition, far from me to defend the virtues of the dreadful Empire, but it could be argued that Luke Skywalker and his band of rebels are terrorists who use mass murder to beat the Empire. How many innocents were killed in the two consecutive destructions of the Death Star? But don't take my word for it. This is what filmmaker Kevin Smith - a huge Star Wars fan - has to say in Clerks:
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Star Trek heroes on the other hand are diplomats and scientists. They do not have magical powers, only knowledge and ingenuity (and cool tools). Mr Spock is just the most famous of these scientists and diplomats.
Every crew in Star Trek includes a science officer and a doctor. The captains are above all diplomats. Peaceful scientific exploration - 'to seek out new life and new civilizations' - is the purpose of Starfleet, not war. There is surprisingly little violence in Trek - and especially not any instances of dismemberment and full-body 3rd degree burns like in Star Wars. Star Trek is above all about peace.
So I implore parents: consider carefully what kind of heroes you want your children to emulate - heroic warriors who shoot stuff up and kill in gruesome ways; or scientists, engineers and diplomats? Just saying...
In addition to science over violence, Star Trek has a real commitment to diversity. The Original Series crew, in the 1960s, featured a black woman (communications officer Uhura), a Russian officer (ensign Pavel Chekov) and an Asian American (Mr Sulu).
Later series went even further: Captain Sisko of Deep Space 9 is African American, as his The Next Generation's chief engineer Geordi LaForge. Voyager's badass Captain Janeway is a woman, her second in command is Native American, etc, etc. Star Trek paints a true reflection of our wonderfully diverse society.
Not quite so for Star Wars. While Princess Leia and her mother, Queen Amidala, are very strong female leads, the first two Star Wars' trilogies were kind of a Caucasian boys' club. This stunning lack of diversity changed with the latest instalment, The Force Awakens. Needless to say, this raised real hackles in some of the darker recesses of the internet. To some people, in 2015, a stormtrooper still cannot be played by a black actor. Oh well.
Star Trek is properly science-fiction. It attempts to depict how technological progress will change society and humanity. Star Wars is not interested in technological change at all. Star Wars is about mythology and the kind of human emotions that we take to be unchangeable and eternal - ethics, loyalty, friendship, heroism etc... Star Trek, for its part, does not seem to believe that there is such a thing as an eternal human nature. Star Trek tries to show what would happen to humans under radically improved economic and social conditions. What would we do with our lives in a world of absolute plenty for all? What kind of people would we become if we were to devote ourselves to the pursuit of knowledge and science? What would be the meaning of life and achievements if work is no longer an absolute necessity?
These questions are about the future, our future. Technology is fast replacing old forms of human labour. It is creating plenty, at least for some, and it is making us much wealthier and well-off as a society. At the same time, the coming of robots is also fraught with dangers. How are we going to negotiate the transition? How are we going to change?
Star Trek compels us to reflect on our future and on our place in it.
Star Wars on the other hand is more interested in present moral dilemmas. Incidentally, this is probably why Star Wars is more popular than Star Trek. It is entirely devoted to explore today's moral questions. We can all identify with Star Wars characters. We can all relate to them. Under their make-up they are like us, with the same fears and the same emotional wounds.
We are all Anakin Skywalker, the lonely and angry child who must grow up in the unfair world of adults. None of us is Spock - wise, logical and altruistic. Someday in the future, maybe.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is unique. It is perhaps the best movie in the whole run of Trek movies. It is about whales. It has no villains, no space battles, and no futuristic technology. It is in fact an incredibly funny and witty retelling of Gulliver's Travels.
The crew of the Enterprise must travel back to our present in order to bring a couple of whales to the 23rd century. The beloved crew ends up in 1985 San Francisco. It is an uproarious romp, written and directed by Leonard Nimoy, Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer.
The movie's levity comes mainly from the actors who are visibly having a blast. As a result, the compassion and humanity of Star Trek shines through even more. The movie is very funny and self-aware and yet it is deeply serious in its message. No melodrama, no heart-rending action, no killing of any sort - nothing that we have been trained to expect from a big sci-fi franchise blockbuster. And it is more satisfying and uplifting than anything Star Wars has ever put out.
Give me a Star Wars movie with no killing, no violence and no villain for a change, and which grapples with an issue that concerns us all. Right. I didn't think so...
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