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Fantasy and Materialism in the Star Trek vs. Star Wars Debate

July 10, 2015


I recently saw an article discussing one of the most important questions in the world of nerds: who would win in a fight between Star Wars and Star Trek? I have had this discussion numerous times. And I’m ashamed to say it may have become a rather heated argument on more than one occasion. I grew up watching Star Wars and was eager to defend it against my trekkie friends. Only recently did I get into Star Trek. I’ve seen all of the movies and every episode of Next Generation and Deep Space Nine along with most of Enterprise and a dozen or so episodes of the original series and Voyager. Still, I’m not exactly unbiased. Star Wars is my favorite, without a doubt, but I definitely have a love for Star Trek as well.

As I considered the “Star Wars vs. Star Trek” question again, I was struck not by the differences in laser strength or ship speed but by the different kinds of storytelling (and world views) each represents. Star Trek, for the most part, is straightforward science-fiction. Gene Roddenberry and his predecessors attempt to imagine a future in which mankind makes impressive technological advancements and takes to the stars, encountering alien civilizations along the way. Despite the many conflicts that dominate the world of Star Trek, the basic outlook is still optimistic and humanist at its core. The series is also materialist. In general, characters are disdainful of religion and any belief that could be seen as unscientific. In a way, science IS the religion.

In Star Wars, George Lucas utilizes many of the settings and trappings of science fiction: space ships, futuristic technology, ray guns, and aliens. But its style of storytelling is less science-fiction and more fantasy. The saga begins with the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” Replace “galaxy” with “kingdom” and you have the beginning of any number of fairy tales. These words are clearly meant to draw on the “once upon a time” formula, generic words to build the sense that the details of time and place are not important. This formula doesn’t set a specific scene so much as it prepares the viewer for a hero’s journey.

The rest of the Star Wars opening crawl describes not a futuristic scene but the familiar players of a fantasy story. We have the false emperor who has set up an evil empire in place of the rightful government. There is a small but brave group of resistors. And, of course, there is a princess. The combatants may use spaceships instead of horses and the emperor’s fortress may be a space station instead of a castle but the basic plot elements are recognizable.

As the story continues, it becomes even more familiar. The protagonists are not just outlaws but knights of a disbanded order. The hero learns from his mentor the elements of a kind of chivalric code as well as the basic techniques of swordplay. His sword is made of plasma instead of steel but we know the type in an instant. The lightsaber was meant to evoke visions of fantasy and a heroic past as Old Ben Kenobi wistfully remembers the weapon as “a more elegant weapon for a more civilized age.” This attitude is common today as we look at modern warfare and long for the romantic (if mostly fictitious version of the) middle ages.

The more we learn about Jedi, the more we see that they aren’t just knights but wizards as well. They are mages, seers, and workers of magic. These abilities are granted to them by a mysterious Force that permeates all living things. Jedi would be a bit out of place in a story of hard science-fiction. But they fit right in with a story that is chiefly fantasy.

But the most telling fantasy element is simply the dichotomy between good and evil that plays a central role in the Star Wars universe. The conflict between these two sides is so overt that they are literally called the light side and the dark side. George Lucas may have tried to retcon the supernatural Force so central to his saga, but he never explained away the clear ideas of good and evil.

So why does the genre affect the outcome of the Star Wars vs. Star Trek debate? Well, as a fantasy story, a tale of good and evil, Star Wars isn’t playing by the same rules as Star Trek which is a materialist’s dream of technological messianism. And, since the debate is fictitious, the outcome can only be decided by a fan telling the story. If that fan follows the ground rules of fantasy stories, then Star Wars must win (just think of the Ewoks’ triumph over the Empire). But if the fan instead follows the rules of materialism, then Star Trek should triumph. Personally, I’m a huge critic of Gene Roddenberry’s view of the future. And I don’t accept either the humanism or the materialism on which Star Trek is founded. On the other hand, I wholeheartedly believe in the triumph of good over evil portrayed in Star Wars. I even go so far as to connect George Lucas’ view of evil to St. Augustine’s. All that to say, in my discussions of this great nerd question, I find a way for Star Wars to prevail.

Since I’m sure you’re dying to know, here is a brief outline of my views on the actual debate:

The whole thing comes down to who is actually participating in the battle. Is it simply the protagonists in each series? Or do the antagonists join in as well? Does the Death Star get to join the fight? What about the Dominion from Star Trek: Voyager? Do Jedi get to use mind tricks? Does Q show up? Parsing out those factors, I think the two series each get an advantage.

-Alliance to Restore the Republic vs. United Federation of Planets: Star Trek Win
-Alliance and Galactic Empire vs. Federation and Klingon Empire: Star Wars win
-Alliance and all its enemies vs. Federation and its Alpha Quadrant enemies: Star Trek Pyrrhic victory
-Entire Star Wars galaxy vs. Entire Star Trek Galaxy: Near-total destruction of both galaxies

I started to write out a detailed explanation of my position but I think I’ve embarrassed myself enough with this post. I’d love to hear your perspective! Leave a comment below.