Star Wars vs. Star Trek: Part 3
One thing I’ve learned in this series is that both of these franchises are so vast and have so many facets to them that it really is nigh impossible to do justice to either of them. Consequently, anyone who reads this should know that my focus is primarily on the original incarnations of these series. Those are the aspects with which I am most familiar and where I feel most capable of comparing them. So just bear that in mind as we finish out this series.
I’ve looked at other aspects of these two series already, but I saved the two most important for last: character and story. Let’s start off with character.
Without engaging characters, any story will quickly be forgotten. Both Star Wars and Star Trek are chock full of of colorful, memorable characters. And not only are they funny, interesting, and unique, many of them are genuinely heroic, noble people who display great courage and self sacrifice in the face of daunting odds.
Star Trek is led in this effort by Captian Kirk, of course. Though at times he can be a bit brash, generally the moxy displayed by the leader of the enterprise works out for the better. It’s clear that his chief concern is always his crew. He’s not a terribly complex or conflicted character, though he does have a bit of a weakness when it comes to women.
Spock is far more compelling and unique. I would say he is the singularly most original aspect of the series. He reflects the sort of faith in science and reason that is so prevalent in our culture and yet the series constantly questions that faith and contrasts it to a more emotional point of view, sometimes even poking fun at Spock’s stogy pragmatism and “logic”. But Spock at least is consistent in the pursuit of his ideals and his values rarely run contrary to the best interests of the enterprise. In that sense, he functions as sort of the conscience of the crew.
Luke Skywalker is the central character of the original Star Wars trilogy. In some respects, he’s much like Kirk, a gung-ho, put-me-into-the-action sort of guy who wants to join the rebel alliance and fight the Empire the first chance he can get. He’s not as accomplished as Kirk (at least at first) and he lacks some of the bravado of the captain of the Enterprise, but he’s a fairly uncomplicated figure as well. That is, until we discover the identity of Luke’s father. This wrinkle makes him vastly more interesting and gives rise to an inner conflict which causes Luke to grow and mature and make difficult decisions.
The Power of the Dark Side
Star Trek’s characters seem to be more straightforward and less complex overall (with Spock being the exception and even his inner struggles are only brought out in a few episodes). And I think part of this is because of the general lack of compelling villains. Yes there is Kahn, and a few others, but no consistent threat which the enterprise can pin up on a wanted poster in the ship’s break room.
Star Wars, on the other hand, has Darth Vader and, to a lesser degree, the Emperor. Again, I pin this back on the episodic nature of the original series. Every bad guy was defeated by the end of the episode in Star Trek. There was no single overarching villain they were fighting against. But in Star Wars we had the mysterious and powerful Vader, who’s ambition for power seemed to match his stature. Was he a man? A machine? Whatever he was, he was bad, that was all we really knew at first.
Add in the complex relationship between Obi Wan and Darth Vader and their past history, not to mention the revelation of who Leia was and you’ve got a whole lot of ingredients to throw into the pot. All that made for a veritable feast of intrigue and character development which Star Trek just didn’t seem to have.
I realize that I’ve only focused in on a few of the main characters and that there are loads of wonderful secondary characters in both series, but when all is said and done, the depth and complexity of the characters in Star Wars is a few warp speeds ahead of what Star Trek has to offer.
Tell Me a Story
If characters are the fuel that drives these franchises, then stories are the engine. Both Star Wars and Star Trek tell interesting, intriguing stories. Star Trek’s episodes have the advantage when it comes to sheer variety and a willingness to “boldly go” and explore new ideas. Things like the mafia episode and tribbles come to mind as being some of the more, well, interesting directions that they chose to go in.
With Star Trek most of the drama comes from learning about new planets, learning about the peculiarities of Klingons, Vulcans, and other races, and the occasional phaser fight, ship battle, or dangerous situation. The stakes never get too terribly high and there is little in the way of an over-arching meta-story.
Star Wars sticks more to a tried and trued good vs. evil script. And yet there are plenty of wrinkles thrown in along the way (Darth Vader’s past, the disappearance of the Jedi, Luke being mentored by Yoda, etc) so that it never feels like it’s simply a matter of getting a big enough army together to be able to take down the Empire. It’s about finding a way to stop Darth Vader and I think the personalization of evil in this single figure makes it all the more compelling. The fate of the universe is seemingly wrapped up in the Rebel’s ability to take down this one man and ultimately it becomes clear that Luke is the only one who has a chance at doing that.
The grand scale of Star Wars’ plot sweeps the little skirmishes of the Enterprise out of the quadrant and once again, when it comes to story, just as in the other areas, Luke and company carry the day.
While it might not seem like it, I really do enjoy both of these franchises. Clearly Star Wars wins for me on almost every count, but I do enjoy Star Trek, just in a different way.
I feel like maybe in the end this exercise was a bit like comparing apples to oranges. Yes, both franchises have captivated audiences for decades. Yes, both deal with space and new worlds and advanced technology. But that key difference of the actual medium these two stories were told in cannot be overlooked. Star Wars just feels more epic, its characters more deep, its scenes more impressive and memorable. Had Star Trek originated on the big screen, I maintain that it would have had more drama, bigger stakes, and probably a lot more complexity to it.
But hey, it’s a big universe after all. And there’s plenty of room for both franchises to continue to connect with audiences light years into the future.