It’s the question that has torn the sci-fi sub-culture apart and pitted geek against geek for thirty years. Which is better — Star Trek or Star Wars? The two franchises have a lot in common. Both feature futuristic technology and colorful aliens, both are more space opera than science fiction, and both were created by men who turned out to be not very good at stuff like writing and making movies and TV shows and relied on more talented people to produce their best work.
It’s only that bigger debate I want to weigh-in on here, not any of the thousands of smaller, even less important questions like light-sabers vs. phasers, or the Millennium Falcon vs. the Defiant. And I can think of at least five reasons
Why Star Trek is Better Than Star Wars
It’s Creator is Dead.
Like I said, both Star Trek and Star Wars were created by guys who had interesting ideas and poor abilities to translate those ideas into interesting film and television. The great advantage Star Trek has is that its creator, Gene Roddenberry, has been dead since 1991. And even before his death, Roddenberry had been forced into a marginal advisory role in the film franchise, allowing people like Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer, and even Leonard Nimoy, to produce and direct Star Treks II – VI with little interference from the franchise’s creator, a hilariously awful writer who never met a heavy-handed moralizing monologue he didn’t like. Star Wars, on the other hand, has been under the direct supervision of the hopelessly dense George Lucas since the very beginning. Do you find it telling that the best film in the Star Wars series is The Empire Strike Back, the one in which George Lucas had the least personal involvement? It’s compelling evidence that the best things aren’t always auteured, especially if the auteur in question is an idiot.
One thing Star Wars has over Star Trek is consistency — not of quality, but of presentation. But that can also work against it, depending on the fan. If you think the Force is the dumbest concept you’ve ever heard, and are immune to the charms of Mark Hamill, Star Wars ain’t got much for you. Star Trek, on the other hand, is way more wide-ranging, telling lots of different stories featuring lots of different characters. Not everything’s good, but the diversity makes the franchise as a whole more accessible to the audience. Watching William Shatner stammer and karate-chop his way through Star Trek not your idea of entertainment? I give you Star Trek: The Next Generation, starring Royal Shakespeare Company veteran Patrick Stewart. Don’t like stories set aboard spaceships zipping through the galaxy? Try Deep Space Nine, which (for the first few years, at least) is set primarily on a space station. Don’t like Star Trek at all? Give the new Star Trek film a try. Or watch Enterprise and pretend it’s a shitty lost episode of Quantum Leap. You have so many choices.
Willingness to Evolve.
Another benefit to having a dead creator is that Star Trek has been free to try different things throughout the last forty years. George Lucas has been putting on the same show since 1977, while Star Trek has changed its look and core characters several times since the original TV series debuted in 1966. After twenty years of watching Captain Kirk’s space cowboy adventures, Star Trek: The Next Generation came along with a more cerebral tone. When Roddenberry’s biological functions finally ceased, the producers on the TV side were finally able to craft darker stories around more complicated, multifaceted characters, resulting in arguably the best of the Trek shows, Deep Space Nine. After the Next Generation/Deep Space Nine act got stale, and they booted the Enterprise prequel, Star Trek was able to start all over again with Captain Kirk and company played by a new cast and produced by a fresh creative team. Star Trek is flexible. Star Wars is as brittle as Carrie Fischer’s twisted old bones.
Or actors that are more fun to watch, anyway. Neither franchise has distinguished itself in the annals of acting, but at least Star Trek has given us more of a laugh. Look at the actors Star Trek has brought before us over the years: Shatner, Nimoy, Frakes, de Lancie — a veritable who’s-who of ham! And every once in awhile they feature someone who can legitimately bring it as a dramatic performer — Patrick Stewart, Avery Brooks, Walter Koenig (HA! Yeah right!) Who’s Star Wars got? Harrison Ford? I’ll give ‘em that one. Mark Hamill? For a few seconds in The Empire Strikes Back, maybe. Hayden Christensen? Don’t think so. At least most of Star Trek’s shitty actors are of the Shatner type — fun shitty, not boring-as-hell-monotone-mannequin shitty.
The downside of Star Trek’s tendency toward political commentary is that it can get a little preachy. Do I really need Captain Kirk to tell me that war is bad? And what business is it of Counselor Troi if I want to use my telepathic abilities to memory-rape scores of women? The upside is that as a result of that social consciousness, Star Trek felt like it was about something other than guys with lumpy foreheads in funny costumes pretending to fly spaceships. Star Wars had some thematic depth with the redemption of Darth Vader, until the prequel trilogy stomped all over that, but really Star Wars was just about Star Wars. Star Trek had shows that argued for the importance of preserving the natural environment, wagged a finger against racism, presented Cold War and Holocaust allegories — and hey, some of them are even pretty good.
But the main reason why I prefer Star Trek to Star Wars can be boiled down to two sentences: At its best, Star Trek is just better than Star Wars. And at its very worst, it’s nowhere near as bad. Even Nemesis doesn’t reach the depths of Attack of the Clones.