The Pros and Cons of Star Wars
Although I was exposed to Star Wars first, as I grew older and more discriminating, Star Trek offered me more substance and what I needed as a more mature adult. I agree with what many have said about Star Wars being very black and white, pitting good against evil, and filled with common archetypes. Lucas drew heavily on Japanese film and culture, and the mythology of Joseph Campbell. His movies are epic, and rightfully called space operas. They have a very overblown, deeply felt, dramatic tone to them, and are very operatic in style.
When all is said and done, I can’t help feeling that Star Wars really is a franchise aimed at young people, and the young at heart. The action is exciting, relatively easy to follow, and filled with all kinds of colorful costumes, freaky alien makeup, thrilling sound effects, and exquisitely detailed models and/or CGI. There are few deep philosophical questions, and Lucas doesn’t ask much of us. It’s thrilling, in the way that Stephen Spielberg movies are thrilling, and it’s not surprising that the two are friends and borrow liberally from each other. Just as Spielberg provides all the excitement of hunting a giant shark or being chased by a Velociraptor, Lucas provides us with captivating excitement, while spending less time filling in the deeper inner life of the characters. The emotional investment of the characters is bifurcated, with deep allegiances to good (the rebels/Republic) and bad (The Galactic Empire). Luke dresses in white at the beginning, and Darth Vader is in black. Every design choice in the films reinforce this dialectic, and make it abundantly clear who is who, so you never have to question who the bad guy is. The emotions soar in isolated scenes, but the feelings are relatively simple and unrefined. There is little philosophical musing or deep cerebral action happening throughout the franchise. There’s little nuance here. That’s not Star Wars. It’s exactly what it says it is, and you know exactly what you’re getting. I still love it, but more in a nostalgic way, summoning my boyhood infatuation with the films. When I want something more filling, I turn elsewhere.
The Virtue of Star Trek
Star Trek, on the other hand, started right out of the gate as something new and provocative. It didn’t take long to notice that this Sci-Fi series was going to be something drastically different than anything that had come before. This was no Lost in Space or Forbidden Planet. In truth, Gene Roddenberry drafted a proposal for the science fiction series that he publicly marketed as a Western in outer space. He called it a so-called “Wagon Train to the Stars” — taking the name directly from the popular Western TV series. In that show, settlers explored the frontier in peace, but encountered hostility along the way. Their strong moral code allowed them to solve disagreements and meet new people and civilizations. Sound familiar? He privately told friends that he also was modeling it on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, intending each episode to act on two levels: as a suspenseful adventure story and as a morality tale.
Within the first few episodes, the show set itself apart from its peers, and offered a thoughtful reflection of 20th Century problems and unenlightened prejudices, while comfortably distancing itself in the future. Up until that point, much Science Fiction had been cheesy, shlocky, campy, and silly in its portrayal of the future. The genre had become waded in technology and ridiculous depictions of space gadgetry. Of course, Star Trek had its own technobabble and gadgets, but they were never ostentatious or showy. They were functional and utilitarian, and built on technology we already had. Or at least could envision. The show told deeply inquisitive stories, and offered a Universe like our own, except better. And all of this was already apparent by the fifth episode!
Although Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) isn’t my favorite series, it set the bar high. The first significant thing it had going for it was its multicultural cast, including three Jewish actors (Shatner, Nimoy, Koenig) playing bridge officers. Even though the show never acknowledged the ethnicity of its actors, the casting was a symbolic nod to what kind of show this would be. Secondly, there was an actor playing an accented Scotsman, an actor playing an accented Russian, a Japanese man, and a black female communications officer who spoke Swahili. This was one of the first instances of a black female in a lead role. This kind of diversity was almost unheard of in network television at the time, and all throughout the series, Roddenberry gave substantial roles to minorities.
This universe was set three hundred years in the future, after the third world war and the eugenics war. Humanity was peaceful, and had rid itself of greed, capitalism, the need for currency, and war. Starfleet Academy is where the future’s recruits to Starfleet’s officer corps will be trained. It was created in the year 2161, when the United Federation of Planets was founded. By the time Kirk is captaining the Enterprise, Starfleet and the Federation are roughly a hundred years old. Exploration is out of its infancy stage, but still wild and not totally regulated. Needless to say, Kirk and his crew have a LOT of latitude.
The Soul of Star Trek
Perhaps the soul of the show can be found directly in the guiding principle of the Federation and Starfleet Academy. It’s a moral code, by which the explorers live by. The Prime Directive, also known as Starfleet General Order 1 or the Non-Interference Directive, was the embodiment of one of Starfleet’s most important ethical principles: noninterference with other cultures and civilizations. At its core was the philosophical concept that covered personnel should refrain from interfering in the natural, unassisted, development of societies, even if such interference was well-intentioned. The Prime Directive was viewed as so fundamental to Starfleet that officers swore to uphold the Prime Directive, even at the cost of their own life or the lives of their crew. A premise such as this was profoundly unique to Star Trek, and revolutionary for the era. Roddenberry clearly had Native American genocide, African slavery and Civil Rights, and other Colonial interference and subjugations in mind when he crafted such a directive. Over the fifty years prior to the show, Colonial governments were being overthrown, and countries were gaining their independence and autonomy from various imperial states. The devastation left in the wake of colonial imperialism can still be deeply felt in nations across Africa, Asia, South America, and elsewhere. Roddenberry deeply believed in a future free of unnecessary meddling or interference.
Star Trek: The Original Series
There were just three short seasons before being cancelled, by my land, what a magnificent run. Granted, the production values were god awful, and the acting was almost as bad. By today’s standards, the show is often laughable, with flimsy sets and unimaginative multi-colored food morsels (they didn’t even have room in the budget for prop food). However, those three seasons produced some of the most iconic scripts, with some of the most profound and philosophical ideas ever put forth on television. Although sometimes the dialogue was laughable and contrived, the stories in those early years were really innovative, and simply good science fiction. The Enemy Within is a nice riff on Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, and asks us to examine the evil within us all. It explores where our assertive and aggressive sides come from, and acknowledges that we must invariably draw on our reptilian self-preservationist savage from time to time. It’s not pretty to look at that side of ourselves. Dagger of the Mind raises questions about crime and punishment and the ethics of certain methods of rehabilitation. It might be even more relevant today, with our bursting, eroding prisons. The Conscience of the King is a great premise, with a former tyrant and mass butcher hiding within a Shakespeare troupe as an actor. He might as well have been Eichman or Mengele. Return of the Archons is the inspiration for the recent Purge movies. One night a year, people go crazy and kill, for the sake of peace and calm in society the rest of the time. Yet, like today, the exploited and exploiters aligned with the have and have-nots, and it becomes clear who’s being purged. In Space Seed, we are introduced to the inimitable Khan, one of the greatest characters in the Trek universe. and introduced to a superhuman man and product of the Eugenics Wars, a shameful and destructive period in Earth’s late 20th Century. The genetically engineered Khan is a reminder of Hitler’s own obsession with breeding a master Aryan race. The episode City on the Edge of Forever, was artfully scribed by the famous Science Fiction writer, Harlan Ellison. This episode is so unlike the others, and has a special grace and elegance to it. We see Kirk genuinely fall for a woman, and ultimately have to let her die in order to not pollute the temporal timeline. This was really the first Trek to introduce the idea that our interference could change the course of time. This would later be known as the Temporal Prime Directive. This Gateway of Forever construct was used later in TNG, when Picard had to step through, and ended up on a Romulan ship. Although cancelled after just three short years, Star Trek set the tone for the rest of the series, and set the bar high for future generations. It was the face that launched a franchise, and is quite honestly, the series by which all others are measured.
I’m currently on my fourth viewing of all six series (including The Animated Series), and every time I go back to TOS, I’m a little skeptical, knowing it’s a bit cheesy, and hard to watch at times. However, there are at least TWO things that TOS got right. The first thing is the scripts. Those stories were strong enough to carry the show, no matter what happened. They were bona fide works of science fiction, and as good as anything in the genre. Secondly, the relationship between Kirk, Spock, and Bones was so solid and so affectionate, you could tell those three men really liked each other. They had such a short hand, a familiarity, and lighthearted chemistry. You would have thought they’d been acting together for over 20 years. That trifecta relationship was really what the show rested on. Had Jeffery Hunter stayed with the show, I don’t think it would have been nearly as successful. Despite his absurd (but lovable) over-the-top and blustery acting, Shatner brought a charming energy, which permeated through the whole cast.
Star Trek: The Next Generation
Although the film franchise was launched in 1979 — roughly a decade after the first series went off the air — it took nearly 20 years for another Star Trek show to hit the airways. That show was the much beloved Star Trek: The Next Generation. Think of it. What big shoes to fill. In that 20 years, a revolution had formed — a groundswell of fiercely loyal fans devoted to what…three short seasons of a cheaply produced science fiction show from the late ’60s! By then, Star Trek Conventions were popping up all over the world, and the fan base was deep and committed. I myself attend Conventions every summer! We all know Star Trek was much more than a cheap science fiction show. It was a movement. It was the thinking man’s science fiction, and a font for how we approach the universe, ourselves, and each other. It was social commentary. It was brawn and brains. Action and exploration. TNG was great, and did a remarkable job filling those shoes. It was different and new enough to be fresh and above reproach, yet still recognizable as in the Trekkie universe, upholding all of the same ideals and asking us even more nuanced questions. The first couple seasons were rough (embarrassingly bad quality writing that was at best prosaic and contrived, and at worst, creepily sexist and racist), but it showed marked improvement after that. The major improvements upon the original were a significantly higher budget and convincing production values, and more importantly, an arguably better cast — acting wise. That’s not to say the iconic cast from TOS was horrible — because they weren’t — but they were generally a bit cheesy and overblown, allowing us to love them for the charm of their personalities over their innate acting ability. TNG had a legitimate stable of trained actors, led by the inimitable Shakespearean stage actor, Patrick Stewart. He set the tone for the whole show. His serious demeanor and commanding presence leant the show gravitas, and we instantly knew we were in capable hands. Probably the next best actor was Brent Spiner, in a remarkable turn as Data, the android who so desperately longs to be human. His earnest and inquisitive, while often unintentionally funny, demeanor stand as not only the levity of the show, but ironically its heart. The tin man provides the heart and soul of the ship and crew, nay, its very mission. The rest of the cast varies in talent (and in annoyance factor — I’m looking at you Deanna and Lwaxana Troi…Beverly and Wesley Crusher!) But for the most part, the cast was competent and effective. Sadly, my final assessment is that although it has some of the best episodes Star Trek has ever produced (Chain of Command, Ship in a Bottle, Darmok, The Measure of a Man, Relics, to name a few) and perhaps the two best characters — Picard and Data — the show’s writing was uneven and inconsistent, making it sometimes fall short of the mark. The show is excellent, but it would take one more incarnation to really master the formula.
Deep Space Nine Captures Lightening in a Bottle
As the various series matured, Star Trek tackled more philosophical ideas, and challenged its viewers to think more deeply. In my humble opinion, Deep Space Nine (DS9) stands as the pinnacle in Star Trek accomplishment. I know many people disparage it because it takes place on a space station, and not a starship, thus defying the mission of the show. That’s bullshit. The show has by far, the most accomplished cast of actors, each playing really unique characters. including one Bajoran, a shapeshifter, a Ferengi, and later a Klingon. Add in two terrific Cardassians, and Lissipian barfly named Morn (an anagram spoof on Cheers‘ Norm) and you have the most talented cast of all. Sure, TNG had Picard and Data, but it also had Troi, Crusher and Yar. DS9 cast is terrific across the board. There simply is no offensively bad actor on the show.
In terms of scripts, I would venture to say that few science fiction scripts in the history of episodic television have rivaled DS9 at its best. The scripts are so well articulated, and so intricately plotted, that character arcs are well developed and extended perfectly over the course of the seven year run. Dialogue is elegant and intelligent, and the plots are interesting and engaging. DS9 at its best perfectly mastered the balance and elegance of a solid Star Trek episodes. The episode would be both cerebral and moral, ask questions the audience had to answer, and still provide plenty of action to keep you engaged. TOS and TNG might have some stellar episodes throughout, but DS9 wins for most consistent quality. And most evenly and impressively acted by every cast member.
I only need name a few transformative DS9 episodes to make my point. Far Beyond the Stars envisions the events of Deep Space Nine as the creation of Benny Russell, a struggling science-fiction writer living in 1950s New York City who dreams of an escape from the racism and social tumult that surrounds him. He also looks exactly like Ben Sisko, giving the rest of the cast a chance to ditch their makeup and prosthetics to appear as his friends, co-workers and tormentors. This episode may be low on production costs, but it extraordinarily high on concept. In The Visitor it’s hard to escape a viewing without sobbing uncontrollably. This episode gets to the soul of what Star Trek is ultimately supposed to be about: the human condition. After the unexpected death of his father, Jake spends a lifetime figuring out how the boy that he was can be reunited with the dad that he so desperately needed. At its core, Star Trek is not about technobabble or sci-fi, and this episode perfectly captures that. It is a story about love, loss and self-sacrifice that is so powerful that it transcends the genre and devastates by its sheer beauty. In Duet a Cardassian man arrives on the station suffering from an illness that he could only have contracted at a Bajoran labor camp during the Occupation. While in custody, he boastfully claims to be the head of the labor camp, responsible for countless Bajoran deaths. Major Kira (a deeply bitter and resentful Bajoran) leads an investigation to determine whether he is actually a notorious war criminal. The show explores mercy, redemption, forgiveness, guilt, and the insidious effect of hatred and vengeance. It is one of the most powerful hours you’ll ever spend in front of a television.
Star Trek or Star Wars?
As much as I enjoy the Star Wars films, they are blockbuster candy. They’re exciting and thrilling, and are undeniably fun. At the same time, they are also really sweet and fill me up for a time, but they’re not high in nutrition. Whereas, Star Trek rejuvenates me each time I return to the well. I am inspired by its lofty ideals and Roddenberry’s hope for a better tomorrow. The movies and shows are intellectually engaging, morally inquisitive, and challenge me each time I watch. Star Trek pushes us to reexamine our world, and to go boldly go where no one has gone before. If Star Wars is my youthful idealism, Star Trek is my cautious optimism, tempered by time and experience. That sustains me.