With regard to science fiction, there are two franchises that epitomize the genre in the popular consciousness. While superficially similar, further examination reveals that, thematically, Star Wars and Star Trek are in fact diametrically opposed.
While Star Trek has often been relegated to the status of Dungeons & Dragons (something that is only for hard-core nerds and not considered palatable for mainstream audiences), Star Wars has enjoyed enormous mainstream success while maintaining a loyal following of the nerd elite. Subsequently, Star Trek over the years has slowly but surely been reinvented as something which perhaps owes more to Star Wars than its own source material.
The waning popularity of Star Trek corresponds with a broader societal trend characterized by an increasingly apathetic public attitude toward science, particularly with regard to space exploration. While it would certainly be erroneous to attribute these attitudes to the decline of Star Trek, it is undeniable that Star Trek has inspired advancements in science and technology that have changed the way we live.
By better understanding how the two differ, it can be more easily understood why they should continue to do so.
Star Trek and science
Perhaps the best description of the differences between Star Wars and Star Trek comes from Bill Nye.
“Star Wars has magic in it … it’s really about family conflicts, and it’s Shakespearean … but in Star Trek it’s an optimistic view of the future with science.”
The differences between the two are the same differences that distinguish Science Fiction from Fantasy. In fact, referring to Star Wars as science fiction is a bit of a misnomer as it contains no actual science.
Nye expounds that in Star Trek, “They have anti-matter contained in magnetic fields … which is a real thing, but in Star Wars it’s just magic and they have wings and there are sound effects in space … The Force is like a ghost or magic.”
Nye is not the only member of the scientific community to express such opinions concerning Star Wars. According to Neil deGrasse Tyson, “I never got into Star Wars. Maybe because they made no attempt to portray real physics. At all.”
This is not to say that Star Trek is intrinsically better than Star Wars, rather it is to illustrate the differences between the two.
While Star Trek has taken some liberties with science, the writers and producers have historically made efforts to keep the show grounded in plausible physics. Take, for instance, the faster-than-light capabilities of vessels such as the Enterprise. Though warp drive seems perhaps as fanciful as the Force, it does have at least some basis in theoretical physics. As NASA’s David Batchelor points out, the warp engines that allow for interstellar travel in Star Trek create “propulsion by distorting the space-time that Einstein conceived.”
So while the technology did not and still does not exist, at the very least it had some basis in theoretical physics. The writers of the show could extrapolate what future technologies might be based on the science of the time. Insofar as Star Trek technologies are concerned, the warp drive might be one of the most far-fetched, but there may be some reason to believe that it is not entirely outside of the realm of possibility.
Recently, NASA scientists have been working with a device known as the EmDrive, “a proposed method of interstellar propulsion,” which has showed some promise of moving particles at speeds exceeding the speed of light. Should warp drive ever come to fruition, it would join a list of technologies conceived by the writers of Star Trek that became fully realized, practical devices. But more on that later.
Star Wars and the monomyth
Whereas Star Trek is concerned with the future, it could be said that Star Wars is more concerned with the past. While this may seem counter-intuitive, it makes a great deal of sense when viewed in the framework of the hero’s journey as outlined by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
Campbell’s hero’s journey is built on the notion that myths across cultures and time contain common threads that are indicative of aspects of the human psyche, essentially applying the archetypes of Carl Jung to mythology and religion and demonstrating that all myths express the same basic human concepts. Viewed through this lens, Luke Skywalker seems quite similar to any number of figures from mythologies across the globe.
Campbell’s influence on George Lucas has become the stuff of legend. Lucas has even gone so far as to refer to the Late Cambell as “My Yoda.” In an interview in 1997, Lucas echoed the crux of Campbell’s seminal work:
When I was in college, for two years I studied anthropology […] myths, stories from other cultures. It seemed to me that there was no longer a lot of mythology in our society, the kind of stories we tell ourselves and our children, which is the way our heritage is passed down. […] So I looked around, and tried to figure out where myths come from. It comes from the borders of society, from out there, from places of mystery […] And I thought, space. Because back then space was a great source of mystery.
The interstellar setting of the Star Wars films has less to do with Utopian visions of the future as characterized by Star Trek and more to do with the kind of introspection that early peoples might have engaged in when they looked to the stars and wondered.
Real-life application of Trek tech
With regard to science and technology, Star Trek has served as inspiration for many scientists who have created inventions that have changed the world. There is perhaps no better example of this than a piece of technology that has become a facet of daily life: the cellular phone.
In the early 1970s, Motorola engineer Martin Cooper worked with a team to develop the world’s first mobile phone. Cooper has explicitly stated that he was inspired by the communicators on Star Trek. Modern smart phones might be viewed as a combination of the Star Trek communicator and the tricorder.
Beginning with The Next Generation, Enterprise crew members used a device known as the PADD (Personal Access Display Device) which bears an uncanny resemblance to modern touchscreen tablets. The PADD is essentially the iPad minus Angry Birds.
The list goes on: According to Chris Foresman, “interchangeable data chips were used on the original Enterprise well before the introduction of solid-state memory cards or USB flash drives.”
While we take these consumer electronics for granted, at the time they were revolutionary ideas. That they have come to fruition is evidence of the potential Star Trek possesses for inspiring new breakthroughs.
Social progressivism in Star Trek
One would be remiss to discuss how Star Trek has positively changed society without mentioning the ways in which the series advanced notions of equality. While it seems commonplace today, the diverse ethnic makeup of the crew of the original Enterprise was downright unheard of when the show premiered in the ’60s.
Some might be surprised to learn that one of the earliest self-described Trekkie’s was none other than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura, once met Dr. King, who offered her encouragement and praised her work on the show:
He took my hand and thanked me for meeting him. He then said, ‘I am your greatest fan.’ All I remember is my mouth opening and shutting. I thanked him so much and told him how I’d miss it all. He asked what I was talking about, and told me that I [couldn’t] leave the show. ‘You are changing the minds of people across the world, because for the first time, through you, we see ourselves and what can be.’
This is but one example of how Star Trek helped to change perceptions about race. Gene Roddenberry imagined the Earth of Star Trek as one that had grown past the petty prejudices that have plagued us for so long. In his Utopia, there was no room for bigotry, an ideal which, for all of our progress, we have yet to achieve.
The popularity of Star Trek in the 1960s was due in no small part to the concurrent breakthroughs being made in the field of space exploration. America was truly venturing out into the final frontier; however, as the decades have progressed, popular interest, and subsequently government funding for NASA, has declined significantly.
In 1966, NASA’s budget accounted for 4.41 percent of federal spending. By 2015, that figured had fallen to a scant 0.47 percent. While it would be foolish to claim that there is a direct correlation between the waning popularity of Star Trek and the ever-shrinking NASA budget, it is not entirely implausible to suggest that popular media such as Star Trek could influence popular opinion. After all, it has already been shown the ways in which Star Trek has influenced members of the scientific community to develop bold new inventions and world-changing ideas.
The Final Frontier
By now, it should be evident that these two franchises embody vastly different concepts. Whereas Star Trek concerns itself with the physical, Star Wars focuses on the metaphysical. Star Trek looks outward to the stars and forward to a vision of the future free from the petty squabbling that has characterized much of human history. Star Wars looks into the self and backward in time to the kinds of myths and legends that sought to address the basic anxieties of human existence.
Neither is inherently superior to the other. Both are valid expressions of human ideas. Turning Star Trek into a pale imitation of Star Wars, however, is depriving us of something from which we could severely benefit. Without the pioneering spirit of exploration and social equality as embodied by Star Trek, society is lacking a significant cultural touchstone for which to inspire the future.