Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Why Star Trek Is Better Than... Star Wars

I like Star Wars. I like Star Wars enough to have pre-ordered the 6-movie Blu-Ray edition coming near the end of this year. I think it's visually splendiferous. Every once in a while, there is a great character on display. I've watched it probably a dozen times in my life, give or take.

But folks, it's no Star Trek.


Why, you ask, is Star Trek so much better than Star Wars? I'm happy you asked! [Editor's note: all reasonable people have avoided ever asking his question of a fan of either franchise. But let's play along.] And since everyone loves top ten lists, I'll answer in that tried and true format.

10. It has Multiple Writers

If we learned nothing from the transition from the Original Trilogy to the Prequels, it's that individual writers can fail. As in, fail by forgetting each and every single element of good storytelling they ever knew. It was immediately obvious upon the premiere of Episode 1 (some would argue it was obvious during Jedi) that George Lucas had graduated from being a driven, intense young outsider into being an isolated, out-of-touch, CEO dictator surrounded by sycophants and yes-men. His writing efforts in the prequels were about on par with the novel writing of Saddam Hussein.

Star Trek, perhaps by design, perhaps by the fortunate happenstance of its being episodic television, simply could not function with one writer. Instead, one or several executive producers would guide an entire staff of writers, developing stories and character over seasons. The key here: people will say NO. Wait, you want an animated Jamacian stereotype who tells fart jokes anchoring the first half of your return to cinema? NO. You want your protagonist to be a whiny twerp that no one can identify with or care about? NO. You want the central conflict in the film to be between two CGI armies that are peripheral to the main story? NO.

It might be said that this writing by committee meant that Star Trek suffered from a lack of ambitious storylines. Maybe this is true to a degree. But there were still plenty of good tales told, and no Jar-Jar. So chalk one up for "Trek" over "Wars."

9. Its Aliens Aren't Racist Caricatures

Speaking of Jar-Jar... aliens in Star Trek are definitely more three dimensional and realistic than those in Star Wars. Most aliens in "Wars" are background filler. But when they do get developed? What do we have here:

Jar-Jar is an offensive Jamacian stereotype.

Watto the junk dealer is a pretty awful money-grubbing "semitic" character.

The Neomidians are some "yellow menace" Fu-Manchu style Asian stereotypes.

It just keeps going and going.

This is not to say that Trek never faltered. The Ligonians spring to mind. But generally, alien races in Trek received the benefit of complex cultural backstories, and really never devolved into stereotypes. There was diversity of sentiment and character among Klingons, Romulans, Vulcans, even Ferengi. Also, aliens never suffered from weird accents that only draw comparisons to existing ethnic groups. Aliens on Trek rarely if ever threaten to rip you out of the moment, as they do in "Wars."

8. It's Longer

To be fair, Trek was always going to be longer by virtue of the kind of franchise it is, tough Star Wars is catching up with its "Clone Wars" cartoons and the long-rumored live action TV series. But we can't give something a pass. What's better? More. More is almost always better. More time to develop a world. More time to develop characters. More chances to get the storytelling right. More time to correct the course of the franchise if things go awry.

7. It's Not Driven By Special Effects

Watching any episode of TOS, and indeed most of TNG, will hammer this point home to you. This show is not driven by its effects. That's not to say they're bad. Well, at least not uniformly bad. OK, fine. They're kind of bad. But you know what? Special effects can't make you laugh, or cry, or care about a darned thing. And if you ever doubted this point, I submit to you the three Prequel movies. Only at the end with Episode III was I even threatened by the possibility of caring for a character - but even that was squelched by minute after minute of numbing space battles, CGI monster battles, hell, even the light saber fights got boring after a while. It just felt gratuitous and pointless. It seems like no mere coincidence that, as the effects in the movies improved, the stories got worse.

On the other hand...

Star Trek doesn't have the benefit of dozens of millions of dollars to blow on effects (Well, real Star Trek doesn't, anyway). Instead, it has to make us care about characters, cultures, and organizations.  I cared more about Captain Kirk dodging a foam rock than I ever cared about Obi-Wan MacGregor fighting General Grievously Stupid.

6. Its Politics Make A Lick Of Sense

Ugh. Don't even get me started on the C-Span in space that Episode I turned out to be. But you know what the bigger problem was? If you're going to spend 2 hours on space politics, have them make f-ing sense. Elected queens? Trade federations and the taxation of "space routes?" Slaves who live in nice houses and race hotrods? Galaxy-spanning republics without standing armies? Guilds? Bankers? OMFG, STOP. It is obvious that George Lucas just likes having his characters spew words. Words that sound nice but make no sense.

Star Trek and its producers had a better idea - be very sparing in your mention of these sorts of details. What is the economy of the Federation like? Who knows? But we do know that it has a council, a president, and a bunch of members, kind of like a Galactic UN. That makes sense. Should we get bogged down in details? The answer is an unequivocal No.

5. It's Tied To Earth History

"A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away." You know what this says to me? "Nothing you see here could possibly involve you, the viewer. You have no stake in this."

4. It's Not About WAR

There are people who like war movies. They want every story they are exposed to to contain a war in one way or another. Maybe these people like Star Wars better than Trek. I am not one of these people, however. Do I think war can be an exciting occasion for drama? Sure. But would an entire franchise based on war maintain my interest? No. It's simply not realistic.Wars don't last forever. People get tired of them. You know what I want to know about the Star Wars universe? How was hyperdrive discovered? How did it change the cultures it touched? Who was the first Jedi? What are the philosophical differences between the Sith and the Jedi? How did humans become so ubiquitous in the galaxy? Do you know how many of those questions were answered? None of them. Why? Because I was asked to watch scene after scene of "pew-pew-pew-KABOOM!"

The answer to this is so obvious I can't believe anyone even made this graphic.

Star Trek, apparently, bores the same group of people mentioned above. But it keeps my interest much more easily. There are battles and wars every once in a while. But mostly, there are science fiction stories that describe the universe and its societies, instead of blowing them all up.

3. It Has "Real People" In it

Let's be fair. Star Wars had one real person in it. Han Solo. Everyone else was a guru, a princess, a chosen one, or a wooly mammoth. But Han Solo had a story arc, a motivation which grew and shifted over time, a realistic love interest, and a satisfying growth. So what did Lucas do, once he had the opportunity to monkey with his creation after the fact?

He made Greedo shoot first. Bam. No more character arc for the one truly flawed and human character in his tale.

Humans do it better.

Star Trek, on the other hand, really has only one Jesus character (and the DS9 writers only sprung it on us at the last moment). Everyone else? No destiny. No archetypes. Just real people who want a certain kind of career in a logically coherent organization. Real people with flaws, hopes, dreams, setbacks, and strengths. I've never been a chosen one, or a mysitcal monk, or a giant furry mercenary. I have been someone who has a job, coworkers, skills, and dreams. Thus, Star Trek will always speak more to me than Star Wars.

2. It's Not Based On Magic

What's the most magical thing in the Star Trek universe? The Prophets. But what are they? "Wormhole aliens." They live on a different plane of existence, and thus have a different but ultimately explicable view of the affairs of our universe. Trelane? An adolescent entity that uses machines to focus his natural abilities. The alien tormentors of "Catspaw" aren't magic - they use human memories of magic to make their machinations more scary to their human victims. Ardra is a charlatan who subverts religious stories by using technology to mimic ancient stories.

Star Wars, on the other hand, is magical fantasy through and through.

I own technology. I use it. I don't possess magical abilities, nor have I been convinced in any way that they do or even can exist in our world. Therefore, I can identify and be moved by the stories of Trek to a far greater degree than those of Star Wars. Which brings me to the final reason, which is really just he flip-side of this one...

1. It's Science Fiction

Let me define science fiction for you. Science fiction is a "what if" story in which the effects on humanity of a technology or technologies that currently do not exist are explored. Thus, it is "fiction" that revolves around "science." Let me be clear, though, that I am willing to define these terms broadly. What is science, but human innovation in the quest for truth? Scientia, from the Latin, means truth, after all.  What are humans, except the progeny of Earth? And what is technology, but applied arts and sciences? Techne, from the Greek, means the art or craft of something.

So we see that humans from Earth and technology are the key elements. It should be pretty easy to see what Star Wars is missing, then... humans and technology. Yes, yes, they are called humans. But they have nothing to do with Earth, so they may as well be called Flumans. And yes, they use technology... but the stories do not revolve around the effects that these technologies have on the Flumans. Light sabers and hyperdives may as well be Excalibur and chariots. In fact, the only aspect of the story which could be said to drive the tale as a whole is the Force, which is a magical story element through and through, not a technological one (even with the unbelievably hackneyed addition of "midichlorians" to the mix). You're born with it or you aren't. You can't pick it up as you go, as you could with a technology. You're not rewarded for your smarts or your merit. It's just dumb luck.

Star Trek, on the other hand, is science fiction. Humans are at the core of the story, springing from an alternate future which is changed by technology. What technology? Well, warp drive and antimatter power are the biggies. Essentially unlimited energy changes humanity in some key ways (and wonderful ones, at that). From this backdrop, many other "what if" stories are told, touching on artificial intelligence, immortality, alien encounters, matter transportation, universal translation, and all other manner of science-based gewgaws.

This is (and could probably only be) a personal opinion, but I find Sci-Fi more engaging than Fantasy. I'll very likely never ride a dragon, nor rescue a princess. But I use technology all the time, and I've personally witnessed "what if" scenarios writ large in real life with several life changing technologies and their effects on humanity (the Internet being the obvious one, but also cellphones, microwave ovens, liquid crystal displays, rechargeable batteries, among many others). So why not stretch the boundaries a little further and wonder "what if" with respect to a new energy source, or a new means of travel in space, or a new means of communicating with other species?

Face facts, folks. Star Trek has and hopefully always will speak more to the human condition than Star Wars ever could. Star Wars is a fun trifle, a nice piece of eye candy with a kick-ass soundtrack. But Star Trek nourishes the intellect and the soul, and is darned entertaining to boot.

Keep on Trekking!


  1. It's no secret that I do not like Star Wars. In fact, I've never bothered to watch Episodes 2 and 3. I think that of your reasons, though, it's really the real people argument that does it for me. I like character stories, and I find the characters in Star Wars to be unrelatable and thus boring. And if I don't care about the characters, I don't care about the story.

    I have to wonder after reading this why you pre-ordered the Blu-Rays of the Star Wars movies. And why you made me watch that stupid Greedo shooting scene over and over and over again. :)

  2. So am I going to have to hate your blog now Mathew!!! All though I agree with you about the Greedo scene. The Original is so awesome.

  3. You will notice that most of the criticism is reserved for the prequels. I do, however, like Star Trek better than the original trilogy, too.

  4. I did notice that. I agree that Star Trek is a deeper more subtle brand of entertainment. But lets be honest how many young boys want to be Han Solo or Luke Skywalker vs say Picard or Data?

  5. This might be the wrong site to ask that question... I know that I for one idolized Trek characters more than SW. I think Kevin and Richard did as well, although they can correct me if need be.

  6. I'm actually wearing my WWJLPD? bracelet right now.

    Oh my god, we should so sell those from the blog.

  7. As a HUGE fan of both series, I have to say I find this debate to be...rather HILARIOUS.

    I LOVE EM BOTH! Hell, I even wrote a cross over story outline.

    And here's the teaser poster I made:

  8. Okay,I really don't think Star Wars is racist. I'm very sensitive about racism, don't get me wrong. But I think the Gungans are supposed to be funny and Watto is made out to be a jerk because he's a slave dealer. I am a huge fan of both series, and I think it's actually kind of funny everyone makes these lists of why one is better than the other.

  9. I'm not saying that Star Wars is akin to "Birth of a Nation" or something. I'm just saying that alien races in Trek generally seem more well-developed and realistic, while aliens in Star Wars seem to be caricatures, and ones which can be identified with this or that human ethnicity.

  10. I'm sorry, but Merchant of Venice had a more subtle portrayal of a Jewish merchant.

    I don't even think it's plausible to say he blundered into an unintentional caricature. If he did, he would have be to so ignorant of history and literary context that it devalues his work anyway. I don't think they had to be overtly malicious. There was just a reason that they found it funny or that it set off no alarm bells, and those reasons aren't pretty.

  11. You. Are. A. Genius!!!! I bow down to you dude!! My boyfriend still thinks wars is better than trek, so I plan on showing him this and watching him cry :D

  12. 2. It's Not Based On Magic

    I believe Q is pretty magical, the entire "Prime" timeline of ST was caused by Q the military buildup that allowed the feds to beat the dominion was triggered by the borg.

    I agree with everything else though.

  13. I believe the Q are explicitly not magical. Picard certainly acknowledges Q's powers, but assigns no mystical import to them. Also, Quinn discusses the evolution of the Q and the true nature of their alleged omnipotence. I think it goes to the heart of Star Trek's humanist message. Even if there is a (nearly) all-powerful being, they don't exist outside nature, they are part of nature and their powers as classifiable and explainable as any other phenomenon.

  14. Your No. 2 is the best point, imho. I think trek is better as well, but recently blogged the 5 best arguments Star Wars has on Trek (http://kooztop5.blogspot.com/2012/01/top-5-reasons-star-wars-is-better-than.html). (I plan to do a follow-up from the other side soon.) All things considered, Trek is a more meaningful scifi show, whereas Star Wars is a retelling of the same hero myth that's been around for millenia.

  15. wow star trek is way better star wars uses trash cans not recyling bins thats bad for the enviroment

  16. FIREFLY!!! (Discuss amongst yourselves . . .)

  17. Firefly: 13 pretty good episodes and a movie, one really obtuse and weird character death, no real resolution.

    No competition, really. It's like wondering whether a particular prizefighter was the greatest after 2 bouts and a career ending injury.

    1. I totally agree with you that Star Trek is way cooler than Star Wars.

  18. I will say there is much to recommend Firefly. It certainly has the sense of camaraderie on and off camera that I find appealing. It also has Christina Hendricks, who is, of course, simply delightful.

    I'll also give Whedon credit creating a fully realized, self-contained universe very quickly. Likewise, his characters had dimension and depth from the get-go as well. I don't think had the shown gone on, we would have seen or needed to see the kind of shift we see in seasons one and two of TNG to bring characters in line with their actors strengths.

    I also like the effects work a great deal. The shaky cam was not quite so played out then, and it certainly aided the feel the show was going for, so it wasn't substance-less gimmick. Cough-lens flare-cough.

    From a science fiction perspective, it presents if not necessarily novel, certainly an interesting question. Most future societies, particularly the nicer ones, are presented as well resourced and unified culturally and socially. And like Quark and Garak discussing root beer, it is interesting to see someone who doesn't like the Federation for precisely those reasons. One of the things I always question when I see poor planets discussed on Star Trek is why the hell people wouldn't be lining up to live in the Federation. Deep Space Nine and Firefly in various explore that idea with interesting results, that for many, the feeling of self-sufficiency is more valuable than the results yielded. Personally, sign me up for replicators and holo-porn, but hey. That's me. So I certainly appreciate Whedon's attempt to portray the future in something other than sterile utopia or garbage strewn dystopia.

    Ultimately, a lot of things I like about Star Trek are present in buckets in Firefly. It is a fully realized, thoughtful idea realized on stage and behind the scenes by some very smart people who are passionate about their work. Both present with uniquely identifiable visual styles that are interesting.

    The weak point of the franchise for me would probably be wondering how it continued past a few seasons. Especially with the events of the movie, they aren't quite the outlaws constantly on the run, so I wonder where the show would have gone. Many (Lost) a (BSG) show (Heroes) have (Ally McBeal) had (don't hate me, but X-Files) stellar early seasons and been unable to resolve them well. I think Firefly does get a the benefit of the presumption the show would have remained as tightly awesome throughout an actual run.

    Even had they done that, I think Star Trek lands the moniker "better show" for a simple reason. Firefly is about a group of people. Star Trek is about viewpoint given concrete form. The ambition is broader, so the rewards are too. Star Trek is just trying for more. Don't get me wrong. I love the show. I hate Fox for cancelling. I love the movie. I truly hope it Futuramas itself into new life, but yeah, Star Trek is still "better."

  19. I liked Firefly but didn't "love" it. I found the vernacular grating after an episode or two. I think there was a general sense of aimlessness to the overall plotline - it felt like it was supposed to be serial, but kept jumping around. I think the format has to, by nature, focus on "what is this world?" as opposed to "what new worlds are there?" So Trek has a leg up in that respect. I also kind of don't get why and how there could be such destitution in a society with interstellar travel. How did these people get to their given colony worlds, anyway? Either the resources expended to take, say, 5000 people to another star would be so enormous as to imply that the society responsible has limitless resources; or so negligible as to make it nonsensical that said colony wouldn't have a vast surplus of its own.

    But indeed, many of these things could have been rectified given time. I think Kevin has it just right in that the promise of the show is what gets people all steamy in their drawers, as opposed to the actual execution.

  20. Star Trek is simply much more realistic and logical than Star Wars. Period.