A short time ago in a galaxy very, very near, a young writer made the treacherous decision to boldly go where many have gone before.
Universes of geekery are very abundant. They tend to spring up from stories which already take place in their own expansive places with their own laws and rules of physics and magic: Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Battlestar Galactica, and even Firefly – a show we got half of one season and a single movie out of – have all churned out amazing expanded universes. But the defining universes and calling signs to all-time geeking are still the two Star franchises: Star Trek and Star Wars. And with the new trailer for The Force Awakens out now, there’s no better time to write about this.
Actually, that really isn’t fair to those franchises. Except for the fact that they involve big spaceships, regular interaction with alien races, and the word “star” as the first word in the titles, they have virtually nothing in common. That makes it perfectly possible to have a deep love and appreciation for both of them at the same time, and boosters of both franchises tend to get along just fine and have a lot in common with each other. Unfortunately, the only things people seem to notice if they’re not into either one are the levels of devotion fans have to Star Trek and Star Wars, and that’s all the onlookers need in order to start making their geek jokes and comparing the two to each other. This mindset has become so popular that it managed to leak into the Star Trek and Star Wars fanbases themselves. Its managed to infect a lot of people who should know better, and so we get a lot of comparisons making the case that one is better than the other. And now I’ve decided to jump into these murky, dianoga-infested waters myself in another one of my popular Ultimate Battle series.
While deciding which – if either – is better, I’ll also be trying to explain a lot of the differences between the two which make them separate and unique. Also, I’ll be taking as much of their universes into account as I know about – and, being raised by one Star Trek parent and one Star Wars parent, I know quite a bit. I’ll be using every iteration of both, or at least trying to – let’s face it, I don’t know everything about either of these franchises. So let’s do this! Star Trek vs. Star Wars. One day, I’ll learn.
The good guys of Star Wars are known to everyone. You’re counting them off on your fingers now that I’ve said that, aren’t you? Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2, Darth Vader… It’s a very significant list which also includes bit role players like Boba Fett and Qui-gon Jinn. The world of Star Trek introduces us to a bunch of different characters as well, and most of Trek’s iterations are designated by their ship Captains: Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, and Archer. Most Trekkies narrow the fight exclusively to Trek’s defining Captains, Kirk and Picard, while arbitrarily dismissing the others. This eagerness to fight over the best Captain unfortunately leaves onlookers with no information regarding many of the other characters. They forget Star Trek has interesting characters like Sulu and his litany of interests: Botany, gymnastics, and old weapons. There’s Spock, whose people place empirical logic above all other virtues; Deanna Troi, who has psychic abilities; Data, a robot who had difficulty understanding human concepts; Quark, a slimeball who still managed to show compassion by the standards of his culture and was often at odds with it; The Doctor, a hologram with all the capabilities of a real doctor; Phlox, a doctor with an interest in many different cultures; and Seven of Nine, a reformed member of a hostile race. Star Wars characters include Han, a smuggler turned good guy; Luke, a farmboy turned into a great warrior; Yoda, an 800-year-old Jedi Master; Jabba the Hutt, an evil gangster; and Boba Fett, a big-name bounty hunter. All of these characters have ticks and quirks of their very own as well, and many of them are ably developed through the course of the movies. The seven movies which are out so far, in fact, revolve around the life, fall into evil, and redemption of their main character, Anakin Skywalker, who becomes Darth Vader but eventually betrays the Dark Side.
I’m giving this to Star Trek. Yes, Star Wars has its share of awesome, interesting characters, but too many of the main characters lean too much on cliche. The smuggler with a heart of gold has been done a million times. The young, eager small-town learner has also been done a million times. But almost all of the main characters in Star Wars – that’s main characters, not secondary characters, so no Yoda, no Admiral Ackbar – are human men, which is an absurdity in a universe that expansive. Seriously, there are about two women of any consequence between the two movie trilogies, and while it’s better in the expanded universe, it’s difficult to find prominent non-human characters. Also, Star Wars falls back into tropes pretty often. There are wisecracking rogue heroes, comic relief characters, badass royals, and even the main villain cackles at times. (Not Darth Vader. Emperor Palpatine.) Star Trek has a much more diverse and interesting array of main heroes. Also, while every good guy in Star Wars is based strictly off their fight against the Galactic Empire, Trek’s heroes are not as single-minded; each one is different, and has culture outside of Starfleet, which means they all look into their universe and interpret something different out of it. Part of it is because Star Trek’s universe is based in the idea of exploration, cooperation, and learning rather than a fight between good and evil. It’s in Trek’s mantra: “These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: To explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Yes, Star Wars fans may counter with the strength of Han Solo as a character, but that doesn’t work out as well as they’d like to think. After all, Star Trek has James Kirk and Will Riker.
Like the heroes, Star Trek fans can easily pick out their personal favorites from a long list of villains in the Trek universe. From Kirk’s iconic battle with the Gorn in The Original Series to the futility of resistance in The Next Generation, The Wrath of Khan, The Dominion, and Nero acting independently from the Romulan Empire in the 2009 reboot, Star Trek has a galaxy of colorful villains giving life to the idea that all good guys are the same, but bad guys are all bad in their own way. Every villain is unique in their methods and motivations, and through the course of five series, the relationships between Starfleet and the various other worlds of Star Trek evolved. In The Original Series, the Klingons were the bad guys. By The Next Generation, they had reached a truce with the United Federation of Planets. By Voyager, there was a converted Borg. All the enemies of the Federation also had different methods of attacking as well. The Klingons attacked with a directness which was honest in its brutality, while the Borg learned the way their foes functioned in order to immunize themselves against any counterattacks. And when it came down to the individual, Star Trek made out with characters like Khan – who was so awesome, they gave The Wrath of Khan an update which was the second JJ Abrams movie – and Q, whose malevolence was more subdued and refined. Star Wars has one Galactic Empire, but one is all it needs – nothing in any universe encompasses and dominates everything quite like the Empire. The Empire is the command of everything in the Star Wars universe, except for a few backwoods outposts which answer to crime lords. It’s run by a single Emperor who is hell bent on becoming immortal and who is so powerful, the forces of darkness themselves are at his beck and call. The Empire builds everything it has on every form of oppression you can imagine, including slavery, kidnapping, and executions. If you don’t want to follow Emperor Palpatine, he’ll send his right hand, Darth Vader, in to force you to obey. And Vader talks you into it at the point of his lightsaber.
This is where Star Wars shines. Yes, Khan was one of the all-time legends of villainy. Q’s mind games with Picard were things to behold, and the fact that he let himself be foiled just because he thought Picard was interesting gave him a dose of panache; and the Borg were downright scary. But none of that matches the pure evil genius, unrelenting chessmaster tendencies, and indomitable will to rule that define Palpatine. He used two different identities to mastermind both sides of the Clone Wars, using his power to get the Galactic Senate to consolidate its power into an all-encompassing empire and then exterminating the Jedi, the only fighters in the universe capable of challenging his rule. That’s some serious evil right there. He tricks the Chosen One who was prophesied to destroy him into joining him and is so convinced that he’ll become immortal that he doesn’t bother to appoint a successor. Emperor Palpatine/Darth Sidious is the very manifestation of evil itself, and if Star Trek and Star Wars are in the same universe, Khan, Q, the Borg, and everyone else are going to be answering to him.
Annoying Kids’ Character Everyone Hated
Sometimes, mass media creators tend to forget their audiences, and that results in the creations of weird, out-of-place elements of the series canon which were made strictly to appeal to outsiders in attempts to expand the audience. And when they try to expand the audience to little kids, the results can be grating. Both Star Trek and Star Wars have done this. Trek: TNG gave us Wesley Crusher, the son of Enterprise doctor Beverly Crusher. Wesley was a child prodigy, which in TV parlance translates to “annoying know-it-all who sometimes acts suspiciously grown-up.” Throughout The Next Generation TV series, Wesley is a deus ex machina character whose purpose appears to be getting the writers out of technological jams by being the solution. The official count of times Wesley saved the Enterprise is seven, even though he had trouble getting into Starfleet Academy. Star Wars introduced a few things that might count: Chewbacca is arguably one of them, and there’s no question the Ewoks are another. But the most blatant attempt is easily Jar Jar Binks. Jar Jar was meant to provide comic relief and to be an appealing character to younger members of the audience, but he ended up becoming symbolic of everything that went wrong with the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy. With a clumsy nature, interruptive presence, and odd speaking dialect, Jar Jar’s introduction in The Phantom Menace was so disastrous that George Lucas phased him into greatly reduced roles in the following prequels. Jar Jar had two or three scenes and maybe ten lines of dialogue in Attack of the Clones, and by Revenge of the Sith, he was just a background character in a single, silent cameo.
Star Trek. Wesley Crusher might have been a much more effective character had he been used in a different fashion – the big complaint against him is the fact that he is a Mary Sue character, a criticism that even Wesley’s actor, Wil Wheaton, agrees with. Jar Jar managed to steal the spotlight even at a lot of times when he wasn’t supposed to, but how could it be avoided when the character was an animated klutz with a wacky accent? More to the point, Wesley Crusher didn’t offend anyone outside the Star Trek loop. He didn’t piss off three different races of people. Despite the criticisms of Wesley Crusher, Wil Wheaton seems to have a terrific sense of humor about it. He sporadically pops up on The Big Bang Theory as himself, game to mock his time on The Next Generation.
Weapon of Choice
Despite the nature of Star Trek, the crew of the Enterprise sometimes need to apply force in order to defend themselves, and in self-defence they’re equipped with phasers. Phasers are the defining weapon of Star Trek. They don’t look like a whole lot, but even the small phasers issued to Starfleet personnel can be deadly. Phasers are direct energy weapons with settings everywhere from stun to disintegrate. Phaser beams can be adjusted in both their width and output, and they can also be adjusted to a point where they’re capable of hitting a bunch of targets at once or evenly destroying large objects or amounts of material. Creative people are also able to use them to weld, cut, or even create heat sources. Lightweight and versatile, phasers are always handy in a pinch. The Star Wars universe has the lightsaber, a thin loop of plasma affixed to a metal handle. Like the phaser, the lightsaber can be adjusted for the length and power of its beam. Like the phaser, the lightsaber is primarily a defensive weapon, but creative people can use them for other purposes – they can pass as knives. The lightsaber, though, is much more of a skill weapon. They’re made strictly at home by the Jedi, who wield them exclusively because the crystal alignments which give lightsabers their power are very tricky to get exactly right, which means they also symbolize one’s mastery of The Force.
This one is controversial, but I’m giving it to Star Wars. While the phaser is definitely the more useful and practical of the two, I also appreciate the idea of skill development. If someone develops their skills to the extent of being able to properly wield a lightsaber, that person will probably be the more powerful fighter, and even with range, a plebe with a phaser isn’t going to stand much of a chance against a master with a lightsaber. While Star Trek fans in this debate like to play up the wide beam of the phaser, they also leave out a crucial detail: The wide beam is merely a stun weapon. Besides, Star Wars has its blasters as well, making the lightsaber a more unique alternative while the phaser, despite its iconoclasm, still comes off as just another laser gun among a million.
Okay, by this, I mean how politics are portrayed inside the franchises’ universes. Star Wars has a Galactic Senate where representatives of the various worlds go to fight with each other, but while the Senate Chamber was used extensively in The Phantom Menace, it played a reduced role in Episodes II and III and didn’t exist in the Original Trilogy. Star Wars, to paraphrase Anakin Skywalker, likes to keep its political negotiations aggressive: That is, with blasters and lightsabers. The Jedi Council is also a political entity, complete with petty bickering and so many in-house disagreements that I’ve frequently wondered if the Galactic Republic would just be better off with the Sith running it. Star Trek is a polar opposite – a lot of the stories and themes of Star Trek are driven by politics. Although Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is overwhelmingly about the politics of the Federation, the most political figure in Star Trek is arguably Jean-Luc Picard. Picard is known best for his cool rationalism. While he’s certainly willing to throw down a gauntlet, he waits until he has no other choice, and he’s always at his best trying to find common ground with whoever he’s talking to.
Star Trek. Star Trek, Star Trek, a million times Star Trek. Politics is something that runs with the theme of Star Trek: You know that if Galaxy-Class starships are ever invented, we’d be idiots to try to send them out on exploratory missions with a Captain who couldn’t broker a truce in the event of a misunderstanding. Deep Space Nine introduced moral ambiguity to Star Trek – it was the first Star Trek series to really confront the idea that the United Federation of Planets might have been an unwanted aggressor without the best interests of its worlds in mind. The factions between good and bad in Star Trek always exist, but they’re almost always political or arising from misunderstandings. Star Wars is a direct tale about the fight between good and evil, and it’s always at its best when the Light Side and Dark Side are duking it out in traditional fashion. In the movies, Star Wars’s tries at political and moral gray areas were disastrous; politics were the biggest reason The Phantom Menace was considered the worst movie in the series. While the EU books portrayed political factions much better, there’s still the little matter of the Jedi Council and its petty bickering – and they’re the few select people in the Star Wars universe who are supposed to be above that.
Well-designed aliens help create the illusion of different worlds, and that helps viewers get into the story. The problem with most alien designs, though, is that so many of them are humanoid. It’s a constant in science fiction: Aliens get designed, and everyone watching and writing creates a lot of basic features which we just assume aliens are going to need because humans have them: Eyes, nose, mouth, proper limbs, trunk. They get created with human values and ideals in mind, no matter how different their world is. Star Trek actually takes this to an extreme: Most of its prominent races are created not only with humanoid forms, but also with humanoid features. Nearly all of them walk upright, have human facial and body features, and many of them tend to think along the same lines. This aspect of Star Trek has gone so far that the language of one of its races, the Klingons, has a properly developed language which millions of fans take the time to properly learn. (The Elven language from The Lord of the Rings is getting to this point.) Star Wars is catching up to Star Trek in linguistics – there is a phrase book and travel guide with a lot of languages and phrases in it, and one of the more recent re-releases of Star Wars featured writing in a language called Aurebesh. But as far as designs go, Star Wars still brings humanoid basics…. And that’s frequently about it. With a lot of the races, the proper humanoid features are a lot more muted, so while the basic forms are there, they still look a lot more like aliens from the far end of the galaxy. Remember that guy in the Mos Eisley cantina with the slanted head? Or Lando’s co-pilot during the Battle of Endor? Or that cloaked anteater-like alien which clued the Stormtroopers into Han’s location on Tattooine? Or that weird cadre of sentients in Jabba’s palace? Yeah. Still humanoid, but only in basics.
Star Wars. There are times when Star Trek comes off not as a show about explorers, but as a show about people evangelizing about the one true path of the Federation. On those occasions, the human-like appearances of the various alien races takes on a much more disturbing undertone: They’re different from us! Clearly they’re not civilized! Also, Star Wars shows us that aliens could come in a lot of different shapes, even when it’s restricting itself to humanoid forms. Star Wars gets the idea that alien races could be completely different from humans.
Types of Media
Both franchises have transcended their original mediums. Both of them have managed to invade the world of science fiction literature. They’ve also crossed into each other’s mediums – William Shatner credits Star Wars for studios being willing to take a chance with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, while Star Wars began with a show about the movie’s droids before later moving into fare with storytelling truly worthy of Star Wars: Two shows based on the Clone Wars, and more recently, Star Wars Rebels. They’ve even both gotten into the world of video games. Now, Star Wars is a natural for the video gaming world because so many games revolve around the concept of you being a one-man army and taking on the world. The games are nearly ready-made when the title of the franchise has the word “wars” in it. Star Wars is a very action-oriented franchise. Star Trek also made its way to video games, but with considerably less fanfare. You can probably guess why: There’s very little action to base a Star Trek game on, so a lot of the games churned out based on Star Trek were pretty weak. Granted, Star Wars has been one of the weakest licenses ever given to video game developers – it’s like the developers are coasting on the Star Wars tag alone. Large aspects of Star Trek games are based on mental dexterity, which isn’t a bad thing, but people don’t seem to remember Star Trek ever being a video game franchise.
Star Wars. Its been naturally integrated into more kinds of media, and has been more prominent in other forms of media. Although Star Trek has been dazzling in many forms of media, most attempts to turn it into a video game have fallen flat because programmers have trouble compromising the elements required of a good video game with the elements which make up Star Trek. Star Wars hasn’t had many of those problems, although to be perfectly fair to Star Trek, Star Wars hasn’t gotten along the best with gaming either. Yes, there are strong points like Knights of the Old Republic, Rogue Squadron, and Lego Star Wars, but Star Wars as a whole has produced far more trash than diamonds. Do I have to bring up Masters of Teras Kasi?
It’s the themes of Star Trek and Star Wars that really resonate with people, inspiring them and keeping the fanbases connected. Calling Star Wars science fiction is a little inaccurate; it’s really more of a genuine science fantasy because it has a basis in mystical elements. The mystical elements of Star Wars is embodied in The Force, an omnipresent entity that connects all life in the universe. Its most notable aspect is the fact that it grants incredible, superhuman powers to anyone who is able to tap into it. It has a Dark Side, though, which tempts good guys into self-corruption. Both the Original Trilogy and the Prequel Trilogy revolve around characters who are learning to master it. The Prequel Trilogy is about how its main character, Anakin Skywalker, was trained to be a prophesied Chosen One who would destroy those who used the Dark Side – known as the Sith – but was tempted and corrupted, falling to the Dark Side himself. The Original Trilogy is about Anakin’s son, Luke, learning to use The Force, become a Jedi Knight, and eventually facing the Galactic Empire and redeeming his father. Star Trek is more science based than Star Wars, and most references to the idea of any sort of higher power are mostly there for cultural contrast. That makes a dominating theme of Star Trek that of humanism – or really, being-ism in the Trek universe – and the exploratory and political nature of the franchise brings on the virtue of open-mindedness. Most of the characters running the various incarnations of the Enterprise, Voyager, and Deep Space Nine are full of intellectual curiosities and willing to peace and diplomacy in the name of avoiding a serious conflict a shot.
So, here are the themes of both franchises reduced into very short, simple, easy-to-write sentences. Star Wars: Don’t turn away from something just because it’s hard, and you may discover a talent you never knew you had. Star Trek: Keep an open mind, and you can discover a lot of interesting people and places. Both are equally virtuous, and following just one would make you a better person; and more power to you if you try to follow both. (As I do.) Therefore, I’m calling this a draw.
A good franchise with the word “star” so prominently featured better have some awesome star-hoppers, and in this respect, both Star Trek and Star Wars have obliged us in spades. Star Trek, of course, has the USS Enterprise. The Enterprise has been designed and redesigned many times, but the basics are always there: A large saucer, large impulse engines, phasers, and photon torpedoes. The Enterprise is over half a kilometer long and comes equipped with a method of faster-than-light travel called a warp drive. The Enterprise is an exploratory vessel, and therefore it tends to come off as a giant galactic luxury cruiser; but while it wasn’t really built for combat, the Enterprise has saved the world on numerous occasions. Jean-Luc Picard managed to save the Earth twice from the Borg using two different versions of the Enterprise. There are a lot of ships in Star Wars which might qualify as standout icons, but the most prominent one is probably Han Solo’s personal vessel, the Millennium Falcon. The Falcon is basically a converted freighter which may look like a hunk of junk, but with the capability to jump to .08 past light speed and make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, definitely has it where it counts. Like the Enterprise, the Falcon has a world-saving pedigree – Solo rescued Luke Skywalker during the Battle of Yavin in Episode IV, allowing Luke to deliver the payload that blew up the Death Star. In Episode VI, Lando led the Rebel Alliance in the Falcon during the Battle of Endor and delivered the killing shot himself. Although best known for its speed, the Falcon is no pushover in combat; it’s equipped with concussion missiles and three different kinds of laser guns. It’s large enough to have a significant range, but small enough to be a versatile and dangerous dogfighter.
I can’t decide. I tried, but I can’t. Both spacecraft are so different and so useful that it seems a moot point. The Enterprise would provide luxury and comfort to its crew members, as well as long-term sustainability for a long voyage. If there’s a rescue mission which requires large pickups, the Enterprise can hold several thousand passengers comfortably, with every nice living luxury necessary and all the latest technology available for use by everyone aboard. The Millennium Falcon has more of a brass knuckle feel – it has the design patterns of an old World War II bomber, rife with jagged, sharp edges built more for functionality than comfort. There room for the crew and maybe a handful of passengers, but it’s a tough, reliable ship which can get you much further than any of the small transport shuttles from Star Trek while still providing the firepower and maneuverability of a single-person starfighter. My own ideal would be to simply lodge the Falcon into the Enterprise’s docking bay.
Movie About Fanbase
Both franchises have received a rare designation: They’ve had theatrical features made about their fanbases! Trekkies, the movie about Star Trek fans, probably shouldn’t be labeled as a feature. It’s a documentary about the fanbase itself and the way Star Trek has influenced their lives in positive ways. I’m not sure if its director was a Trekkie himself, but at the very least, Trekkies does a very Star Trek-like presentation by trying to shed a new light on a group of people, and the director seems to have some level of respect for them. There was a movie called Fanboys which was completely fictional, and about a group of hardcore Star Wars fans trying to rush their terminally ill friend to George Lucas’s home so he could have his last wish fulfilled: See The Phantom Menace. (Fanboys takes place in 1998 or 1999.) While intended to be a lighthearted, irreverent take on sci-fi fandom, Fanboys is just insulting. It revels in every geek stereotype imaginable, and if anyone behind Fanboys cared about Star Wars in the slightest, it doesn’t show. Plus, there was the obligatory shot at how bad The Phantom Menace was in the end, which sort of takes the movie out of its era – there was a time when The Phantom Menace was the most eagerly awaited movie ever, and the thought of it being bad was outrageous.
Trekkies, the movie about Star Trek fans. Trekkies wants to show its audience how Star Trek inspires people to be their best and go further than they ever thought they could. Fanboys was an insult through and through, and not only did it spend 90 painful minutes picking on Star Wars fans, it got its jabs in at Star Trek too. William Shatner makes a cameo – which is really the best part of the movie – and hey, if you insult one group, why not insult them all? There’s a group of Trekkies in Fanboys who get into a scuffle with the main characters. Hilarity, as you can probably guess, ensues.
Well…. This is a first! We have a tie! My personal preference remains loyal to Star Wars by about a hair, but here we have definitive proof that one of these franchises isn’t better than the other. Live long and prosper, and may The Force be with you!