December 18th, 2015 is a day that will go down in history. It’s the day Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens in theaters all across America. Of course, it may be awhile before you see it. All the early showings are sold out. You had to purchase those tickets weeks ago. The film has already sold $50 million in pre-sale tickets. The Force is strong. And the thirst is real. But it’s not hard to see why fans are so geeked for this seventh episode in the film franchise, brought to the screen by JJ Abrams: it looks incredible.
How those images we glimpse in the trailers conjure such strong emotions and create palpable excitement, why they connect to the child-like corners of our imaginations, pretty much guarantees Star Wars VII will be the highest grossing film of all time (surpassing Avatar). And yet, as much love as the Internet has for Star Wars, you still find plenty of geeks and fan-boys that will swear on a stack of Asimov novels that Star Wars isn’t even the best sci-fi franchise. That honor still belongs to Star Trek.
The oft-debated question splits geek fandom into two virulent camps. And it has for about as long as anyone alive can remember. Which is better: Star Wars or Star Trek? And more importantly: What’s the difference between these two universes?
Do a quick search online and you’ll find copious debate between super fans. Some of the more ambitious Trekkies pen blogs that read like a doctoral thesis, meanwhile, Star Wars fans prefer to trot out Joseph Campbell and his analysis of the “hero’s journey.” They argue that Star Wars mythic structure salves the soul with its storytelling. This serious star debate is so over-hyped and overheated, there’s a Wikipedia page devoted to it. And even Buzzfeed recently jumped in to settle the debate. Mostly they proved the debate will never be settled. Why? Because it all comes down to how you look at life.
How are Star Wars and Star Trek different? To some, this question is easy to answer. As Penny once told Amy on The Big Bang Theory, “There is absolutely no difference!”
Due to the immense popularity of the two sci-fi franchises, and their shared hold on our culture’s imagination of space, everyone has heard of them. This also means lots of folks mix them up. The confusion is so common it gave birth to an Internet meme:
Whole office just went crazy when I asked, “What’s the difference between Star Trek and Star Wars?” 😕— TeeThaGod (@TeeShady_) August 19, 2015
It’s such a popular joke that when AFI gave George Lucas their Lifetime Achievement award, none other than Captain Kirk came out and sang a Sinatra tune to serenade Lucas.
“May I call you, George? You may call me… Mr. Shatner.” The audience laughs.
William Shatner played his lovable, befuddled, narcissistic self which summed up perfectly the confusion so many people have about these two franchises. To pop the tension in the room, Shatner dramatized the song “My Way” as George Lucas chuckled along, and Steven Spielberg, sitting next to him, looked awkward about the whole bit.
“From one star voyager to another…”
To really seal the deal of the confusion of the two sci-franchises, AFI had Captain Kirk close the opening number doing high kicks with a chorus line of stormtroopers dancing like Rockettes, as Shatner sings…“What is a man, what has he got, if not himself, then he is not.”
Which brings us to the most obvious and distinctive difference between Star Wars and Star Trek: how they both speak to your sense of the role of the individual.
Star Wars is a hero’s story, told by a farmboy. As originally imagined by creator George Lucas, it’s a story of rugged individualism. It’s an American story.
Star Trek, on the other hand, is basically the United Nations in space. It exemplifies the idea that what we do together is far greater than what we can accomplish alone.
At long last, Star Wars looks to have a new film that lives up to the masterpieces that are Star Wars Episode IV and Empire Strikes Back. Finally, someone took the controls away from George and is getting to play in his emotionally-ripe cosmos. And the person doing it is this generation’s Steven Spielberg. When it was announced that JJ Abrams would direct Star Wars Episode VII, fans had strong responses. Many were thrilled. And an equal number were concerned he would make Star Wars look like Star Trek.
What’s the difference between Star Wars and Star Trek? Answer: Lens Flares— Reid Sullivan (@ReidSullivan) October 20, 2015
But when the first trailer hit the Internet, most folks seemed confident that Star Wars was in good and competent hands. (Frankly, that first trailer looked so damn sick, I stayed in bed two days after watching it.)
The first words we hear, darkly uttered, are simple as the story tends to be, “There has been an awakening. Have you felt it?”
And then later on, this same voice, rumbles a pale imitation of a cosmic zen koan, “The dark side, and the light.” We know exactly what he means. That eternal struggle brought to life by the Jedi and the Sith.
When the second trailer was released, casual fans caught on to the excitement. They could see that this movie promised to be good, real good.
And the reason why the second trailer struck a chord with the more casual fans speaks to the timeless appeal of the Star Wars franchise. It’s the saga of a family.
We hear who we assume to be Luke Skywalker say in a calm confident tone, “The Force is strong in my family. My father has it. I have it. My sister has it. You have that power, too.”
We don’t get to learn to whom Luke is speaking. Instead, just before the trailer is over, fan favorites Han Solo and Chewbacca appear onscreen.
“Chewie, we’re home.”
That’s the appeal of Star Wars, it feels like home. Its family story is your family story. Somehow. Star Wars is not a thin tale of black-and-white good-and-evil morality. It’s a family epic that reimagines good and evil as love and hate.
And of course, it also has lightsabers. But if you watch, inside the lightsaber fights are the language of love. Here’s a vid of all the lightsaber fights in all of the Star Wars movies assembled in one massive supercut. Let’s focus on one particular lightsaber fight (it starts at: 33:08):
After battling over a pool of lava, the arrogant Anakin Skywalker gets cuts down by his master Obi Wan, severing off both legs and leaving him to burn alive. This sets up Anakin for his conversion to Darth Vader. As he catches fire on the volcanic earth, the Luciferian imagery ratcheted up to 11, the legless Skywalker yells at Obi Wan, “I hate you!” In response, Obi Wan reminds Anakin that he was supposed to be the Chosen One. Here’s that hero’s journey Star Wars fans like to point out, the one that figures into the DNA of all the great myths and legends. But more important than any narrative theory, Obi Wan tells his pupil he just cut down, “You were my brother, Anakin. I loved you.”
In that final shot of legless Anakin Skywalker smoldering like a hot coal on volcanic soil, we the audience witness the fiery birth of Darth Vader, and we say, “ahhhh,” as he writhes in pain. This moment may best reveal the difference between Star Wars and Star Trek.
To answer the question of what the difference is, most folks who know a lot about both franchises tend to focus on the details. Like, here’s one fan who made a vid to compare the biggest starships from both universes and analyze how they would do in a space battle.
Thankfully, we now have all this endless debate reduced down to one man’s opinion. JJ Abrams will decide for all of us what the true difference is.
The funny thing is, he clearly has a favorite. When Abrams rebooted Star Trek, he admitted his preference. And it wasn’t Star Trek.
Abrams’ confession pissed off a crown prince of geekdom, Wil Wheaton. He first became famous for his role as Wesley Crusher on the TV reboot Star Trek: Next Generation. Wheaton took Abrams to task for dismissing Star Trek for its philosophical bend.
“The whole point of Star Trek is that it’s philosophical. If you don’t want philosophical Science Fiction, there’s plenty of that for you to enjoy, but Star Trek is philosophical. Philosophy is part of Star Trek’s DNA, and if you’re given the captain’s chair, you’d better damn well respect that.”
So, while we’re at it, what do you think? Who do you think does better at online dating: Star Wars or Star Trek fans? In their report on single sci-fi fans, eHarmony noted that:
Male Star Wars fans were found to have more sense of humor than male Star Trek fans. This included their ability to make others laugh, enjoying jokes made by others, and seeing humor in everyday life. With all the Star Wars spoofs on the Internet, this finding really didn’t surprise me.
Overall, Star Wars fans placed greater importance on physical and sexual compatibility between themselves and their prospective partners. Additionally, male Star Wars fans rated themselves as more attractive, athletic, and physically fit.
This was may be the most surprising. Star Trek fans were found to be less adventurous and energetic than Star Wars fans. This seems to go against the credo of either series.
But here’s the real answer we were waiting for:
We found that male Star Wars fans, on average, receive 14 percent more communication requests than male Star Trek fans (no differences were found between female fans).
This kind of surprised me. Kind of. But when I spoke with my friend Ted Bailey, a writer and self-professed supergeek in an email exchange, he pointed out that Star Trek, not Star Wars, is the sexier franchise.
Star Trek is sexier. It just is. Sure, Leia in the Jabba slave Space Bikini was the stuff of many young boys’ first autoerotic fantasies in the early 1980s, but that’s about it. Star Wars is pretty chaste. Jedis aren’t allowed to have girlfriends. The hero kisses his sister. A 14-year-old hottie queen falls for a ten-year-old boy.
Star Trek has, from an unashamedly male perspective, a lot of hotties. Uhura, Yeoman Rand, Doctor Beverly Crusher (Oh, Bev. I wish I could quit you), Deanna Troi, T’Pol, Seven of Nine, green-skinned Orion slave girls. The Borg Queen.
Kirk bedded just about any Space Hottie he could find. Data banged Tasha Yar when the crew of the Enterprise all got Space Drunk. Kirk and Uhura share a kiss in a 1968 episode that is widely (and incorrectly) cited as the first interracial kiss on American TV. Other mixed race smooches had happened before on other shows (and hell, Kirk kissed an Asian actress during the previous season of Star Trek). But go and YouTube Kirk and Uhura’s kiss. It’s smoking hot.
Makes it kind of hard to argue that Star Wars is sexier, even if eHarmony says its fans get more action.
For now, let’s get back to JJ Abrams. Since his imagination gets to reboot the two most popular sci-fi franchises of all time, his understanding of those two universes will be what the rest of get to play around in. Plus, he will also set the timbre of this heated fan’s debate for decades to come.
So, how does Abrams see the difference between Star Wars and Star Trek? Back in 2009, doing press for the first Star Trek movie, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Abrams said:
“Star Trek” is positing a future that is incredibly inspiring. If you can get past the cliche and make it real and relevant, there’s something very exciting about that. This is not “Star Wars” which happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. This is us and our future. The interviewer jumps on this difference between the two and follows Abrams’ answer with this question:
GB: “Star Wars” vs. “Star Trek” is sort of a classic Beatles vs. Stones debate for sci-fi fans of a certain age. You have said you wanted to infuse your “Trek” revival with some lessons learned from the George Lucas universe. Can you talk about that?
JJA: Well, I’m just a fan of “Star Wars.” As a kid, “Star Wars” was much more my thing than “Star Trek” was. If you look at the last three “Star Wars” films and what technology allowed them to do, they covered so much terrain in terms of design, locations, characters, aliens, ships — so much of the spectacle has been done and it seems like every aspect has been covered, whether it’s geography or design of culture or weather system or character or ship type. Everything has been tapped in those movies. The challenge of doing “Star Trek” — despite the fact that it existed before “Star Wars” — is that we are clearly in the shadow of what George Lucas has done.
He knew it back then. And by great irony, this makes him the perfect person to drag Star Wars out of the shadow of what George Lucas had done to the franchise. But how does one do that? Well, it helps that he knows the difference between Star Wars and Star Trek.
Star Wars has the Force. Jedi knights battling with lightsabers. And Darth Vader, the baddest villain to ever have his full story told—from his start as an innocent slave child to being redeemed as a dying father. It makes for a powerful triangle of spirit, action, and family drama.
Star Trek has the Prime Directive. Transporters, warp drives, and cloaking devices. Klingons, Vulcans, and Q. And it centers on the bold, ethical, and scientific desire of humanity to enlarge its understanding and involvement with the world and universe that surround us.
The creator of Star Trek Gene Roddenberry called his TV show, and the resulting universe of spin-offs and franchise films, a “space western.” It was inspired by the American tradition of setting forth into the wild frontier. With its outposts of civilization, the characters faced the moral quandaries that occur out beyond the rule of law. Star Trek is very similar to the shows that preceded it, the television westerns of the ‘50s. It’s about civilization.
George Lucas started with vastly different source material: Samurai movies. Inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s movies like The Hidden Fortress and Seven Samurai, Lucas infused his dreams of a “space opera” with the violent severity of a swordfight, as well as the quiet spiritualism of meditating monks. He combined that with the visual appeal of the streamlined futurism of science fiction from the ‘20s and ‘30s. And at the heart of the story, he wove in himself (George/Luke Skywalker) a farm kid, who raced hot rods as a teen, and dreamed of getting out of the sticks.
As Abrams drags Star Wars out of the long shadow of Lucas to make it his own, he can’t help but make clear for us all the ultimate difference between the two seminal sci-fi franchises. It’s right there before you. You’ve said and heard it a million times, but we overlook it for that same reason. It’s so familiar we miss the obvious. The best answer is in the titles.
Star Wars is about wars. The wars between good and evil. The war between civilizations. The wars between the past and the future. The war between science and faith. The war between young and old. The war between fathers and sons. And the wars that are told and retold as myths because they connect to the wars inside of us.
Star Trek is about a trek. It’s a journey into the unknown. It’s inspired by discovery, by hubris, by the desire to chase the horizon, on in space terms, the event horizon marking the border between matter and darkness, that line between the known and unknown. Star Trek embodies our desire to answer the questions of existence.
Both take place in space. Both are filled with strange, wondrous creatures and locales. Both explore alien religions and the limits of faith, reason, and compassion. Both are sprawling epics that invite countless stories to be told. They are both goldmines that we seem to be able to dig deep into and drag out stories from the collective unconscious that bring us together in communities of fandom.
Some like to say Star Trek is science and Star Wars is magic. But I would disagree. Star Wars represents this divide well. From the first teaser to the newest trailer, we see evidence that Abrams gets that Star Wars’ primary appeal is the mythic family drama, one that centers on the war between love and hate, and how those impulses to freedom and control are mirrored in the battles between faith and science. To Lucas, a person’s faith is instructive and expansive, while science aims to be reductive and it tends to align with the capitalistic/material use of power. But Abrams doesn’t seem to take sides and instead focuses on the family at the heart of the story.
JJ Abrams gets that Star Wars is a polyglot story that captures our global imagination because it draws on all of our cultures: it features samurai action and western heroes, it mixes calm, confident wisdom of Eastern mysticism with the cocksure bravura of fighter pilots, and the deeper, more compelling character study of Russian literature—and the product is a story we can all take ownership of. Because like a fairytale, our shared global myth takes place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
The first thing you learn in Hollywood as a screenwriter is that audiences connect to stories emotionally. Each audience member watches that glowing silver screen, or those illuminated pixels, and they secretly ask themselves, “what would I do if that was me?” This spell of identification binds us to the characters. We experience the story as the characters. We watch and feel our way through the film. Which gives Star Wars a huge advantage. It’s more primal, more emotional. While Star Trek is more intellectual. This doesn’t make it better. It just means the magic of Star Wars works more deeply than Star Trek.
Seeing them both as envisioned by the imagination of one person, we finally have an answer to our question: What’s the difference between Star Wars and Star Trek?
The simplest way to remember it is right there in the titles. One shows you life as a war, while the other sees it as a shared journey.