It is the question that divides my generation of science-fiction nerds: Star Trek, or Star Wars? It was inevitable that I would have to address it someday, so I thought I’d get it out of the way.
Which is better? That really depends on what you’re looking for. Star Wars is rip-roaring science-fantasy, a callback to the old days of swashbucklers and chapter serials. It has action and melodrama, warriors and monsters. Its story is the epic saga of one family, and the way in which their existence and choices affect the fate of the galaxy. Star Trek actually aspires to be, and on several occasions achieves, true science-fiction status. It not only has spaceships and aliens, but endeavors to treat those things seriously, from a scientific perspective. It dials down the action quotient in favor of philosophical treatments of metaphysical, ethical, and political problems.
In short: Star Wars is science fiction that favors people who want to feel; Star Trek is science fiction that favors people who want to think. I use neither of these descriptions in a derogatory manner, by the way. Sometimes I want to roam the galaxy, meet new lifeforms, and reach a genuine understanding of our differences and similarities. Sometimes I just want to watch people get cut apart with laser swords and watch gigantic floating fortresses get blowed up real good.
Which has had the greater pop-cultural impact? I think Star Wars wins this hands-down. Star Trek has been around longer, but there’s an entire universe of continuity that bogs down easy accessibility to the neophyte. Star Wars, by contrast, is just a three-movie universe. It deliberately cultivates a mythic resonance with characters and situations. People may know “Beam me up, Scotty,” but they feel “Use the Force, Luke,” in a way that only a few moments in Star Trek can truly touch for pure, visceral impact. The most recent Star Trek movie understood this, and went straight for the eye candy and the gut instinct. It achieved major mainstream success as a result. Old-time Kirk and Spock will simply have to settle for having influenced the development of cellphones and the layout of military command centers – which, if you think about it, is quite a sign of influence in itself.
(Yes, you in the back. Did you have a question? You say there were six Star Wars movies? I’m sorry, that’s not correct. There were only three. Bailiff, feed this person to the Sarlacc.)
Which will have the greater staying power? Star Wars again, I should think, though this time I’m not quite as sure. The beauty of Star Trek is that it can keep getting reinvented in new forms, telling new stories, and exploring new aspects of its universe. But the brilliance of Star Wars is that will always stay the same at its core. Its three movies (there are only three!) tell a completely self-contained story, one that will continue to be told for generations.
Which one do I prefer? Well, I appreciate both. However…
Live long and prosper, Chewie. But Spock could take you.