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What’s Really Behind the Star Wars vs. Star Trek Rivalry Is Vastly Different Philosophies

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BY November 29, 2019
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Iconic fandoms often have iconic rivalries. One of the biggest is DC vs. Marvel Comics. It will be the subject of the documentary series Slugfest by Avengers’ directors Joe and Anthony Russo on Quibi. Yet, while that is mostly between parent corporations, the rivalry between Star Wars and Star Trek is more primal.

The original Star Trek ran for just three seasons, followed by a few more seasons of an animated series. Yet, by the time Star Wars hit theaters, the crew of the USS Enterprise had been out of production for three years. They’d not been seen in live-action for eight years. One would think that when Star Wars debuted in 1977, they would flock to it. Instead, these fans felt cheated. How could this goofy space movie be the biggest thing in the culture, but they couldn’t even get Star Trek back on the air?

Naturally, in the years and decades that followed, neither franchise went away for long. Bolstered by expanded universes of novels, comics, and tabletop games, the stories continued. In the late 1990s, Star Trek returned to television in a big way and a whole new Star Wars trilogy was in the works. Even then, the division remained as powerful as ever. Both fanbases were getting what they wanted (kind of). Yet, Star Wars fans still thought Star Trek sucked and vice versa.

To those who are fans of both or neither, this can seem strange. The two properties seem to have far more in common than they don’t. So, what could be rivalry between Star Wars and Star Trek be about? The answer is simple when you consider it. The two stories have two fundamentally different philosophies.

The Rivalry Between Star Wars and Star Trek Comes to Down to Belief

Star Wars Star Trek Rivalry Yoda Spock Image by JD Hancock via Flickr

Some people look down on genre storytelling as a lesser form of art. This attitude is what motivated Martin Scorsese to say Marvel movies aren’t cinema. In calling them “theme-park rides,” he is suggesting that they have little-to-nothing to say about the world. People felt this way about Star Trek and Star Wars, too. Thus, they saw the rivalry between the franchises as little more than a nerd slap-fight. Yet, genre stories always have something to say. The commentary these franchises make about the world is where the division begins.

To put it simply, how you feel about these franchises likely matches your political philosophy. Star Trek is all about designing the perfect system. Meanwhile, each iteration of Star Wars is about how every system will eventually fail you.

The Philosophy of Star Trek: The System Can Be Perfected

Star Trek Star Wars Rivalry Original Series Kirk Spock Scotty Image via Paramount

Gene Roddenberry wanted his “Wagon Train in space” series to deal with issues plaguing society at the time. However, the political mood of the United States in the mid-to-late 1960s was as rancorous as it is today. So, the storytellers used subtext to tell stories about racism, war, and the like set in a fantastical future. What was genius about this, is that in the future Roddenberry envisioned, the world figured it all out already. Earth wasn’t just a global society, but an inter-planetary one. They didn’t spend their time warring with other groups. Instead, they were focused on scientific discovery and introducing themselves to other societies that ventured into space. The stand in for the democratic West in Star Trek is the Federation. The rules and regulations of this military-like organization was the “perfect” system to govern their people and spread their values.

Of course, in no version of Star Trek was the Federation ever truly perfect. When the rules of the system failed or were unjust, people with power challenged them. Usually, those people were the crew of the Enterprise. Only, Captains Kirk or Picard didn’t rebel against an unjust system. No, they were true believers. The system could be perfected, and they were the ones to do it. Since none of them were ever demoted or tossed in the brig, the powers-that-be agreed. New series, like Star Trek: Discovery, are a little darker and more cynical than earlier Trek. Yet, even in these dire circumstances, the mechanism to improve what’s wrong is already present in the Federation system. At worst, corrupt individuals sully the values and the institutions they represent. Fans of Star Trek likely believe that real-life institutions and systems need not be dismantled, only perfected.

The Philosophy of Star Wars: The System Is the Problem

Star Trek Star Wars Rivarly Revenge of the Sith Jedi Temple Burning Image via Lucasfilm

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker will debut in less than a month, closing out this third trilogy of Star Wars films. Even though we don’t know how it ends, it’s safe to say that the good guys win. Like Star Trek, Star Wars is ultimately a hopeful story. The rivalry between their fans, therefore, comes with where they find that hope. Through the original trilogy to the current one, Star Wars primes their fans to expect to be disappointed by the system. The original was a simple “good” versus “evil” story. The Empire was bad, and the rebels were fighting for a generic kind of freedom. At no point in the original films do the rebels talk about what sort of government should replace the Empire. Ultimately, we learn that they just went back to “The Republic.”

The prequel trilogy is the most political of all them. In these movies, every institution we’re introduced to is benevolent. The Republic is a galactic democracy. The Jedi are an order of peace-keeping warrior-monks, who answer to the people’s representatives. Even the Separatists are, at first, sympathetic because they are “rebels” against what they see as a failing democracy. The entire prequel saga is all about how, one-by-one, those institutions are corrupted. The sequel trilogy continues the story 30 years after the happy ending of Return of the Jedi. Our heroes got about 26 years of a happy ending, before everything started all over again.

Bringing the Star Wars and Star Trek Rivalry Into the Modern Day

Star Wars Star Trek Rivalry Rey and Michael Burnham Suck it Sexists Images via Lucasfilm and CBS All Access

The sequel films argue that even though Leia, Luke, and Han Solo were our heroes, even they can’t build a perfect system. The Republic fell into old patterns, and Leia had to break off to form the Resistance in the face of the Empire-like First Order. Luke Skywalker is so disillusioned that he thinks the best thing for the galaxy is no system at all. In both Discovery and the trailer for the new series Picard, the system is as imperfect as ever. Ironically, people on both sides of the Star Wars and Star Trek rivalry struggle to accept the state of things.

The Star Wars fans want to believe that the original trilogy heroes could beat the odds. Luke would create the perfect Jedi Order, while Leia would lead a perfect Republic. (And, if they did, there’d be no interesting stories to tell.) The Star Trek fans recognize that with our protagonists at odds with the Federation, that it doesn’t “feel” like the optimistic franchise they love. Using the system as the source of conflict in both properties makes sense given our current political realities.

The current versions of these stories are unfinished. Still, it’s safe to say that the Trek heroes will bring the Federation in line with their values. Similarly, the Star Wars heroes will defeat the bad guys, but we likely won’t find out what system will replace the one they dismantled. Whatever does follow it, will surely create conflict for these or other characters in the future.

There Is Wisdom In Both Philosophies

Star Wars Star Trek Rivalry Coexist Image via Twitter

The rivalry between Star Wars and Star Trek is fun (at least when no one ends up going to jail). However, no matter which one you like best, there is wisdom in both philosophies. These stories are myths. Yes, they have believable stakes, characters, and morals. However, they are meant to be both aspirational and unattainable. The Star Trek philosophy suggests that a system based on decent, moral values is ultimately good. When it fails, agents within that system can correct it. The Star Wars philosophy suggests that no matter how well-intentioned, systems can always be corrupted. When they inevitably are, good people have to stand up and fight for decent, moral values. Whichever philosophy most matches your own likely determines which one you like more. Still, no matter which one that is, considering the alternative point-of-view can give you a more well-rounded perspective.

Where do you fall in the Star Wars and Star Trek rivalry? Which philosophy more closely matches what you believe? Sound off with your thoughts, theories, and analysis in the comments below.

Featured image by Doh Doh via Flickr

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Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.

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