On Beloved Worlds, Revisited
Having watched George Lucas try unsuccessfully to turn Star Wars into Star Trek in 1999, J.J. Abrams decided to one-up him and turn Star Trek into Star Wars, and with far more success.
It took years to finally get over that feeling that Star Trek and Star Wars, despite their fandom rivalry, really weren’t all that comparable. I mean, sure, they both took place in outer space and came out of the, but there was always a huge gulf between the two that couldn’t simply be explained by the decade between them nor the difference between working with TV and working with film.
The issue, it turned out, was partially one of lack of fine detail in genre classification. Star Wars was never really science fiction, at least no more so than Harry Potter is.1
And, in fact, much like Harry Potter, Star Wars does try to add a sense of consistency and rules to what is still fundamentally magic, yet there’s no tying The Force to what actually exists in any meaningful sense, and that is in fact why it is so cool. In a nutshell, Star Wars is a fantasy adventure series that just happens to take place in outer space; the mere presence of spaceships no more inherently defines it as “science fiction” than the presence of drift racing makes The Fast and the Furious a treatise on the physics of cars. It is, unapologetically, a world built on the Rule of Cool, and it’s a lot of fun for exactly that reason.
Star Trek, on the other hand, always at least aimed for a veneer of scientific — or, perhaps more accurately, sciencey — rigor. One of the show’s trademarks, in fact, was a sense that there was a road map, however vague, from Here to There, even if the technobabble that resolves the episode’s space-travel-related conflict was essentially made up, a kind of magic incantation all its own.
The thing is, though, Star Trek isn’t really about solving the ship’s engineering problems, at least not at its best. It always aspired to something nobler — Star Trek is supposed to be a character-driven drama that is built around the premise that if we all work together and put aside our differences, we can do great things, and that we can resolve our problems diplomatically if we can just talk them through.
The difference between the two series, then, was not just one of genre (space fantasy versus science fiction), but in fact one of premise. Star Wars is for the id. Star Trek is for the super-ego. And both series featured notable steps away from these extremes, to varying levels of success.
I think we can all agree that “the Star Wars prequels kind of sucked, a lot” is not an especially controversial statement for a number of reasons. An awful lot is out there about how bad the prequel trilogy is, in tremendous detail. Sure, the stiff, wooden dialogue and endless series of shots of characters walking side-by-side down what are fundamentally CGI hallways are major issues, but the bigger issue is one of story and atmosphere. Somewhere, Lucas apparently got it in his mind that there was something less noble about space fantasy adventure than Proper Science Fiction, and thus we were treated to a wildly tone-deaf Phantom Menace featuring such mind-blowers as a subplot about trade route taxation and Darth Vader using the word “yippee.”2 For this reason, among others, the prequel trilogy is often merely tolerated at best, and by far the best proposed viewing order for the Star Wars series skips The Phantom Menace outright, because it literally added nothing. Even the much-hyped whatever-Episode-III-was-called3 didn’t add much to the mythos, doing little more than connecting the absolutely unnecessary prequel trilogy to the original Star Wars for reasons limited, essentially, to “I guess we might as well at least see this thing through to the end.” On the other hand, with the upcoming sequel trilogy, there’s actually — dare I say it? — a new hope for the series, if only because we already know that they _literally cannot be worse than what has already happened._4
J.J. Abrams took essentially the opposite approach with the new Star Trek film franchise, taking what used to be a Solemn, Dignified, and Kind Of Boring But On Purpose5 franchise and injected Action Movie Formula directly into some important vein or other. Gone from the films is the notion that things really can be resolved if we just talk them through and don’t resort to anything as undignified as violence unless absolutely necessary.
In fact, as has been pointed out by others, 2009’s Star Trek was fundamentally a superhero origin story, up to and including a Supermanesque baby-being-sent-away-from-the-end-of-the-world and subsequent growing up in a sleepy Midwestern small town. While the Captain Kirk of the TV show was a larger-than-life figure, the character in the Abrams films comes across as not so much a cocky ship captain as he does Zapp Brannigan’s daydreams.
The new Star Trek films are tremendously entertaining, but in a large sense they suffer from the same issues as the Star Wars prequels: they have sacrificed their uniqueness and defining characteristics in order to become something they are not, and the only things really tying them to the older works are that we are told that they are, both directly (by the makers) and indirectly (through character names and places). The main reason that the new Star Trek gets a pass on this by the public in general is because it at least wasn’t actively dull.
“Yer a Jedi, Luke!” ↩
Lest you mistakenly think that Lucas somehow lost his way, bear in mind that this is the same man who gave us Howard the Duck, the Star Wars Holiday Special (which was pretty much entirely what he wanted), and, once he was freed of anyone working with him to do him the favor of telling him “no,” the second half of Return of the Jedi. For all his worldbuilding visual design chops and merchandising savvy, George Lucas is a man profoundly lacking in good taste, Microsoft in human form. ↩
A few moments after typing this I remembered it was called Revenge of the Sith, or Attack of the Sith, or something like that, but the point stands: what an appallingly unmemorable snoozer for all the excitement built around it before its release. Much like the two movies that came before it, in fact, neatly tying the trilogy together thematically. ↩
A few wags expressed Leno-monologue-caliber guys-I-thought-of-the-obvious-joke-too concern that Disney was going to somehow screw up the franchise after they bought Lucasarts, but it’s worth bearing in mind that Disney, much like Apple, is no longer the disaster it was for much of the ’90s; the contemporary Disney is the studio that gave us The Avengers, which for any complaints you may toss its way was still an exceptionally entertaining film. ↩
Though of course not to the same extent as 2001: A Space Odyssey, which rather effectively used its exceptionally long running time to give the audience a sense of the vastness and dullness of outer space. ↩