Recently I’ve been thinking about the fundamental differences between Star Wars and Star Trek. At this point, however, both franchises have grown far beyond any easy definition so that the simplest way to differentiate them is by genre and setting – Star Wars takes place in a mythic past and Trek in an imagined version of our own future. The former uses fantasy to weave its story of family and redemption; the latter relying on science fiction to explore moral, social and political issues.
In exploring these distinctions, I’ve found myself meditating on what each franchise means to me and the unique ways each of them makes me feel. Even the nostalgia for either franchise is different because of my experience and interaction with both growing up. I have vivid memories of watching Trek re-runs with my mum and watching the movies when my sisters were upstairs and my dad was away. To this day, I can’t watch Generations without hearing my mum say “poor Worf” when the gangplank disappears and he falls into the ocean.
To me, Trek felt more like a part of the adult world, more grown up and sophisticated, po-faced and profound. Star Wars, on the other hand, was something I experienced with my friends. Aside from one whom I started a Star Trek club with (we were the only two members), my friends were all Star Wars fans. Except that one kid who I could share my Stargate obsession with, but that’s a whole other article. The rise and fall of the Skywalker family was part of our playground parlance. So much of my childhood was defined by the prequels, six years that saw me go from child to awkward teenager. And it was during these teenage years where Star Wars became a kind of lifeline, watching the saga by myself and sinking hours into Knights of the old Republic.
It was only as I entered my twenties that I rediscovered Star Trek. The reasons were two-fold, firstly for my mental health. Trek gave me something to immerse myself in, a place where I wasn’t overcome with anxiety and depression. Secondly, it was something me and my partner could share together. Like me, she fondly remembers watching re-runs with her family. And now we’re showing those same series to our own kid.
It was when I was absent-mindedly making a cup of coffee that I realised something important about my relationship to Star Trek – it makes me want to be a better person. Characters like Picard and Janeway inspire me to do more, but there are so many other examples. B’Elanna Torres shows that you can pull through and learn to live with mental illness; Geordi La Forge shows that disability isn’t a handicap; Benjamin Sisko offers a powerful role-model for fathers, and Data and the Doctor show that pursuing the arts isn’t only important, but fundamental to our humanity.
I’m not saying that Star Wars can’t also inspire goodness – often, it does – but on a personal level, Star Trek is aspirational, a roadmap to being a better person, while Star Wars is a lens through which I can analyse and explore storytelling and myth. It’s for that reason that Star Wars at its best touches something deep and primal within us, presenting archetypes and tropes that seem innate to our imagination. It’s really no wonder that watching a Star Wars movie in a packed cinema feels so much like a religious experience.
The manufactured rivalry between Star Trek and Star Wars is farcical, especially considering George Lucas himself was a Trek fan. But there’s no denying that both franchises speak to us on different levels. All of this is, of course my own opinion, but what’s your relationship to each, let me know in the comments below.