Hatfields and McCoys, Marvel and DC, Star Trek and Star Wars. One never knows how seriously to take these deadly rivalries. Personally, I like both of the science-fiction series, so I see the Trek-Wars wars more as a difference in tastes. Sometimes you feel like a hamburger, sometimes a pizza.
The particular difference I see in SW and ST has to do with their atmospheres or sensibilities.
The Star Trek universe—I’m focusing especially on the original series (“TOS”) and movies here—is civilized. There are plenty of things that go wrong, and going where no one has gone before frequently brings us into situations of conflict. But the Federation itself is organized and mostly decent. There’s an actual chain of command. Authority figures are typically respected.
That’s the first approximation. To be sure, Captain Kirk and his successors don’t mind defying Starfleet orders now and then. But when Our Heroes turn out to be right, they’re back on amicable terms with their superiors in short order. At the end of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Admiral Kirk, after stealing and destroying the Enterprise (among other things), is demoted to Captain again as his “punishment.” But everyone understands this as simply restoring him to the role he prefers and serves so well.
There’s enough divergence among Starfleet personnel to make the stories interesting, but actual villains in the corps are relatively rare. Starfleet and the Federation are the orderly defenders of liberty and individual (in our parochial world we say “human”) rights. That Gene Roddenberry optimism is embedded in the show’s DNA.
In Star Wars, it’s the villainous Vader who wants to “bring order to the galaxy” (as he says around 1:38 in this clip), and it’s the motley, disorganized rebels who fight for freedom. Our Heroes are rebels who defy the authorities. Their chain of command is informal, and pretty much anyone, even the carefree Han Solo, can become a general.
Though the swashbuckling, colorful Star Wars universe may seem lighthearted, it’s actually a rather distressing place. The nearest outpost of civilization to Luke’s uncle and aunt’s farm is Mos Eisley, a “wretched hive of scum and villainy.” Slavery has flourished on Tatooine from a generation ago (little Anakin) to Luke’s era (Jabba’s servitors)—and apparently neither the Empire nor the old Republic did anything to stop it. Intelligent droids are second-class citizens. In the latter days of the Republic, trade combines were permitted to conduct outright warfare against whole planets (Phantom Menace), with no more than tardy, ineffective intervention by the Jedi Knights. It seems a much less comfortable universe to live in than Star Trek’s Federation. Both have their flaws, but the Star Wars ’verse seems much more unstable—if colorfully so.
There’s nothing wrong with this as a story setting. A varied world full of dangers makes for more exciting stories than a placid utopia. But the Star Wars setting calls out to a different kind of fan than that of the Trekkies.
Vader’s desire for order actually has good character-based reasons—one of the things the prequel trilogy got right. In a world where you’ve been held as a slave, your mother has been tortured to death by barbarians, and your beloved is menaced by assassins at every turn, a desire for law and order is extremely understandable. But it’s the lively Rebels with whom the viewer’s sympathies lie. In this democratic milieu, quirky individuals and inspired improvisation flourish.
Both the SW and ST approaches represent ’60s sensibilities, but one is slightly later than the other. Roddenberry’s Star Trek expresses the firm American optimism of the Kennedy era (1960-1963); it isn’t accidental that in the follow-up movies, Roddenberry kept wanting to tell a story about time-traveling to meet JFK. Star Wars, on the other hand, evokes the counterculture of the late ’60s, which distrusted authority and prized rebellion—not to mention colorful chaos.
The Abrams Factor
It’s instructive to see how J.J. Abrams handled the two, since he has had the opportunity to reboot both Star Trek and Star Wars franchises. My sense is that he’s handled SW much better than ST. Abrams’ Star Trek movies show us a distinctly grittier, more chaotic world than Roddenberry’s. It is, in fact, more like the Star Wars universe. And I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that, entertaining as Abrams’ ST movies may be, he doesn’t quite “get” what Star Trek is about. His Star Wars continuation, The Force Awakens, however, is to my mind an excellent (if not flawless) extension of the SW universe.
In other words, making Star Wars more like Star Wars is a good thing, right up to the point where it begins to get slightly repetitious. Making Star Trek more like Star Wars runs the risk of losing the very things that makes Roddenberry’s creation distinctive. Both are good things; but they’re not good in quite the same way.
One of the interesting things about the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) game system is the notion of alignment. D&D is built on ideas from a whole range of fantasy stories. Many of those stories involve a conflict between good and evil. Some, however, make the central conflict one of law vs. chaos. D&D’s creators took the surprising step of adopting both oppositions, but keeping them distinct. The result is a three-by-three, nine-cell matrix. A character’s personality and ethical stance can be lawful good or chaotic good, or straddle the two as neutral good. The being can also be lawful or chaotic evil—the evil of 1984 or of Beowulf, let’s say—or an intermediate neutral evil. Finally, someone can be lawful neutral (think an OCD personality), chaotic neutral (low impulse control), or “true neutral” double-neutral (an unprincipled pragmatist, perhaps). The range of combinations allows for shorthand expression of quite an array of character types.
I wouldn’t necessarily buy into this particular classification of famous fictional characters . . . but it gives us an idea how the alignment scheme works in practice.
The alignment chart also yields a neat way to encapsulate the ST/SW difference we’re examining. Star Trek honors the lawful good: the interstellar police force, the scientific explorer, the careful defender. Star Wars admires the chaotic good: the lovable rogue, the solitary guru, the loosely organized band of allies.
Here’s yet another way to put it. Science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle, whose doctorate is in political science, laid out in 1963 a map of political “alignments” with two axes, producing a far more useful classification of positions than the usual left-right continuum. (Pournelle’s 1986 essay provides a detailed explanation.) The two dimensions in Pournelle’s scheme are “attitude toward the state” (from state as evil to state worship), and “attitude toward planned social progress” (from rationalism to irrationalism).
If we think of these axes as applying to the character of a culture, not necessarily to politics per se, we can express the ST/SW divide in Pournellean terms. I’d put TOS-era Star Trek somewhere around 3/4’ or 3.5/4’ on the chart, believing pretty strongly in reason and ambivalent about state power. Star Wars, by contrast, seems to live in the 2/2’ region, not far from the “American ‘Counter Culture’” to which I compared its ambiance above. Each milieu will tend to attract viewers who are sympathetic to the points of view expressed in its neighborhood on the grid.
What it comes down to, I think, is whether we see the best conditions for free and fruitful lives primarily in order or in disorder. Both are arguably necessary. But is what’s best for people a basically orderly society with a healthy modicum of chaos; or a wild-and-crazy culture with just enough organization to hang together?
The Star Trek/Star Wars contrast thus leads us up to the question of what makes for a good society, a true civilization. There’s a good deal more to be said about this, and I’ll take another crack at it next time.