Happy Star Wars Day. But Star Trek is Better.
Fanboys, Jedi, countrymen, lend me your ears (be they pointed or otherwise). I come not to bury Star Wars but to praise it.
I love Star Wars. Honestly, I do. The first Star Wars movie (and yes, I go back to the first Star Wars movie—Episode Four, not Episode One) is the second greatest Geeky Movie Theater Experience of my life (having recently been usurped by Avengers: Endgame). I’ll never forget it, nor the feeling of walking around for weeks as my brain buzzed with the sound of lightsabers and landspeeders and the visions of x-wings and tie-fighters. Why, I wondered as I walked my paper route, did I have to go to Madison Junior High School? Why couldn’t I train to be a Jedi instead?
But even then, deep down, I knew that Star Trek was better. I knew it wouldn’t be long before I gave up dreaming about being a Jedi and returned to dreaming about attending Starfleet Academy (where, sadly, I knew I would wash out, since I had no grasp whatsoever of quantum physics, and the academy didn’t have a creative writing major).
First of all, let’s be clear: it’s really not fair to compare the two franchises, because despite star being in both their names and all the interstellar space travel, they’re not in the same genus at all. This we must understand above all if we’re to have a reasonable discussion involving Vulcans and Wookies and Klingons and Jawas. Star Trek is science fiction. Star Wars is science fantasy. What’s the difference? “A science fiction story generally extrapolates elements of the modern world and attempts to predict how they could possibly develop,” according to Masterclass.com. “Fantasy, on the other hand, uses supernatural elements that have no link to our contemporary world.” So again, they’re not the same thing. It’s like comparing Casablanca and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Sure, everyone’s chasing a MacGuffin (the letters of transit and the One Ring), but one is grounded in a realistic world, and the other isn’t.
That’s the key here. And no, a story isn’t necessarily inferior because it uses magic as a key element in its plot. (Magic is great. I love magic. After all, I am a Mets fan.) But in this case, it’s why Star Trek will always win this particular debate.
There are other points Star Wars fans point to in defending their franchise. Is Star Wars (generally) superior in a visual sense? Absolutely. Star Wars isn’t just on the cutting edge, it is the cutting edge. It was at the release of the original in 1977, and Star Trek has been playing catch-up ever since. But by any measure, the writing in Star Trek overall has been far superior. The stories are just better. And I’ll take a superior story from Star Trek: The Original Series any day, despite its cheap, cheesy sets, props, and special effects, over any Star Wars story, even with its superior visual design and execution.
In terms of storytelling, Star Wars, really, should have been a one-shot deal. Let’s face it: the first Star Wars movie was an exercise in cheese itself, as far as storytelling goes. And that’s why we loved it. Some of the overwhelming charm of that movie was in how much it winked at its own cheesiness. Parts of it were so tremendously corny—but corny in a fun, good way, the kind of delicious corn that you enjoy right off the cob on a warm summer evening. (Do cheese and corn go together? They did perfectly in this movie.)
The franchise was lucky that The Empire Strikes Back was so good (and yes, it was the best movie of the franchise, despite not really having an ending). And we were tremendously fortunate that Return of the Jedi was good at all (and it’s a very good, decidedly fun movie).
After that, though, the luck ran out. Episodes 1-3 are overwhelmingly dour and tiresome. And the less said about Episodes 7-9, the better. Unless you’re in them for the nostalgia, they’re just an incoherent mess. Gone are the winks and nods. Gone are the cheese and the corn. By this time, the franchise is drained of the joy and fun upon which it ran. In these episodes, Star Wars takes itself far too seriously. The latest trilogy is fueled by earnestness, solemnity, and confusion. Rian Johnson didn’t like what J.J. Abrams did in The Force Awakens, so he changed it in The Last Jedi. Abrams didn’t like what Johnson did in The Last Jedi, so he changed it again in The Rise of Skywalker. It only took me nine movies and 42 years to realize that they’re making this crap up as they go along. (I really should have recognized this when Luke made out with Leia in Empire, and then turned out to be her brother in the very next movie.)
Have there been crappy episodes of Star Trek? Without question. Every Star Trek series has been plagued by the occasional stinker (“Turnabout Intruder,” “Angel One,” “Let He Who is Without Sin,” “These are the Voyages”). But when you’re churning out more than 700 hours of episodic television, you’re bound to hit some bumps in the road. There are even lousy Star Trek movies. (The Final Frontier is ridiculous, and we won’t even mention Into Darkness. We have a standing rule in my family: Do NOT get Dad started on Star Trek Into Darkness. Bad on so, SO many levels.)
But Star Trek’s high points more than outweigh its lows. The best episodes of Star Trek are among some of the finest episodes of television ever produced. (Want to argue with me? Go watch “City on the Edge of Forever.” Better yet, go watch “Far Beyond the Stars.” Then get back to me.) The Wrath of Khan? Pure cinema magic from first frame to the last. And the Dominion War story arc from Deep Space Nine not only changed all of television forever by bringing serialized storytelling to prime-time drama (no Dominion War, no Breaking Bad, no Mad Men, no Game of Thrones), it far outdid Star Wars in terms of storytelling. It was a vastly superior, compelling, coherent, engaging story of a war that takes place among the stars.
And are they making up Star Trek as they go along? Of course they are. When Gene Roddenberry pitched his “Wagon Train to the Stars” concept to NBC in 1964, he certainly didn’t have it mapped out all the way through this year’s Star Trek: Picard. But unlike Star Wars, Star Trek can grow. It can prosper. It has the room to expand, with a deep, near-infinite cast of characters with whom we can engage and identify on a personal, emotional level. Star Wars has stumbled, and stumbled badly, in that department.
In the end, Star Wars is about a galaxy that’s fully explored and bound together by a magical “force.” Every star, every moon, every planet is mapped out. The universe is divided into two categories, the dark and the light, and everyone has to choose a side for which to fight. In Star Trek, the universe is largely unexplored, and it’s laid out before us, in all its glory, from which to learn—just as our universe is. Like Starfleet officers, we fling ourselves out into the unknown every day. We have no idea who or what we might encounter. And yes, we might get hurt. A few of us will even die. But we do it to expand the boundaries of humankind. We boldly go so that we can make ourselves better.
Even as I walked my paper route, that’s what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to live long and prosper. I wanted to boldly go. And be honest, at the end of the day, even if you occasionally have to put up with a crappy set or prop or special effect, isn’t this the universe in which you’d rather live?