Aug 3, 2009

MEDIA: Why Star Trek Is Better Than Star Wars

I promised a controversial and troubling post for my next entry. And here it is. There are some huge branding battles out there. You know what they are. Coke vs. Pepsi. Ford vs. Chevy. McDonald's vs. Burger King. Windows vs. Apple. There is the number one, the number two, and no one else matters. That is the way that I see the Star Wars and Star Trek battle. You have Star Wars - arguably the bigger of the two, with the marketing and legacy and bulk. And you have Star Trek - the smaller and less of a juggernaut. The rest of the sci-fi properties are not in the discussion. You can talk until you are blue in the face about how amazing Battlestar Galactica was. But until it can consistently put out entries to the levels where it has made over a billion dollars in box office revenue (not counting television, merchandising, or anything else), it is an also ran. The same goes for every other sci-fi offering. You just cannot match those two behemoths.

My experience with these two is different than most. I am 35. I was born in 1974. So, according to the majority of people my age, I should be an unabashed Star Wars fan. The first movie came out when I was three, followed at age five and eight. I should have been right in the mix of those Star Wars fanatics. Most people my age are. I know for a fact that my son would have been in that boat - since he is NOW. But I didn't see the original trilogy until I was 18 and in college. For over ten years, I had been hearing how awesome this series was. "You HAVE to watch it." I wasn't allowed to watch it. When I got to college, I finally saw it.

It was okay. (Ducking the force lightning.) You have to give me a break. I saw these movies in August of 1992. I already knew that "Luke, I'm your father." The good guys won. I already had seen toys and heard stories. As far as the technology goes, remember what had come out by that point. In July of 1991, Terminator 2 had come out. Morphing technology. Liquid metal turning into man. And in the summer of 1993, dinosaurs were about to come to life with Jurassic Park. It was hard to be impressed with a pilot turning a dial and flying into a box of lines. Especially when you had been watching Star Trek.

Star Trek: The Next Generation hit the airwaves in 1989. I started watching it in 1990 or so. So, I had been seeing flying spacecraft and impressive sets. There were special effects. Nothing Star Wars put out there was that impressive, in 1992. So I was not that impressed. I tried hard. I bought the movies, watched them with my friends. I went to the Special Edition releases (and realizing how there were long boring stretches in the original trilogy). And I got really worked up about the 1999 arrival of Episode 1 - organizing a big group of people to go. But, it coincided with my own battle with movies (reflected in this award winning blog entry). So I never saw Episode One until last year. I still have not seen Episodes Two or Three.

Star Trek is a different story. I watched the show every week. I watched Deep Space Nine every chance I could - my personal favorite series. I watched Voyager until they got really stupid. And I watched Enterprise for a while, too. I have seen every Star Trek movie. And I have seen every once since Six in the theaters. The newest one? I saw it twice and would watch it again tomorrow if I had the time and money. So, is it me? Is it just my personal preference? I mean, I like Pepsi, Burger King, and Apple. I guess I root for the second place finisher. Or is it something more? Is Star Trek actually better? Let's try to analyze. Winner of each topic gets 10 points. Loser can get up to nine.

You would assume that this is a runaway for Star Wars. You would be right. Total domestic take for Star Wars? $2.2 billion. Total for the Treks? $1 billion. (And that is only because a quarter of that came from this summer's reboot.) $1 billion is nothing to sneeze at - it is ninth all time in franchises. But, not even close.
WINNER: Star Wars 10-5

This one is closer than you may imagine. The hit and miss nature of Star Trek is well documented. The odd number movies are usually atrocious, while the even ones are good. Well, until 10 was terrible and the reboot (11?) was the best ever. I would say, though, that Star Trek 2, 4, 6, 8, and 11 hold up comparably well against the Star Wars saga. Let's be honest here. Episode Five is an all time classic. Episode Four is also a legend. But, aside from that, what about the others? Six was good, but was it great? There are some really bad moments, not to mention that the ending ruined what was one of history's great villains - and probably could be held accountable for the disaster of the first three episodes. Episode One is good - but nothing so much better than Trek Four. Episode Two is ridiculous - at least the part I have seen. The romantic angle is just juvenile and Hayden Christiansen does what entire galaxies couldn't do - takes the bite out of Darth Vader. I haven't seen Three, but I have heard it was good, but not legendary. Honestly, 1-3 are largely bailed out by side characters (Darth Maul, Mace Windu, the Fetts). And Lucas even mishandles those - there is no way you should kill someone as awesome as Maul in the first act and replace him with Saruman. But, even I would be hard pressed to win an argument in Trek's favor here.
WINNER: Star Wars 10-8

Is this a fair category? Probably not. This is where Star Trek began and where it thrived. With the reboot, it may actually become a movie based brand. But for years it has been television first and foremost. Star Wars has dabbled here. The Clone Wars is not bad. It is better than the Star Trek Animated Series and probably better than Enterprise and Voyager. But it is a far distant fourth to the Original Series, TNG, or DS9. There is a new Star Wars live action series coming out in 2010. That could be interesting. And Clone Wars got better as the season rolled on. But you are up against some heavy competition. TNG was a phenomenal show. There are episodes of it that were just jaw-dropping - even by today's standards. They were one of the first to really utilize the end-0f-season cliffhanger to great success. I still remember when Picard, changed to a Borg, was staring at the Enterprise and Riker just said, "Fire." And season ends. WHAAAAAAT!?!?! To this day, when entertainment groups do rankings of cliffhangers, TNG is on the list with Lost and Dallas. The competition in this one is as bad as the box office one. Oh wait, I forgot the Star Wars Christmas Special....
Winner: Star Trek 10-5

This is a tough category. Most Star Wars fans think that sci-fi didn't exist before Lucas and 1977. (Of course, most Trek fans feel the same way.) Trek was first by a long shot. It premiered in 1966. It tackled some huge issues. The first televised inter-racial kiss was on Trek. It was well known that Gene Roddenberry was preaching through his show - making each race a veiled representative of those on earth. As the shows progressed, it continued to tackle issues. Euthanasia, genocide, assisted suicide, ethics, what defines life. It was never just about space exploration - it was about mankind exploration. Star Wars was groundbreaking in the level of technology and how it related to the people. It was pure entertainment and it tried to reach people where they were. It was at Comic-Con when it was just two guys in a treehouse trading comics. And culturally, it would hit a nerve unlike anything before or after. The only way to decide this is with the question, would Star Wars been put out without Star Trek? I really don't know. Lucas pitched SW in 1971. There has to be a winner.
WINNER: Star Trek 10-9

Even I am not so brazen as to imply Star Trek has had as large of an impact as Star Wars in our culture. Star Wars has done so much - especially if you throw in the impact of things like Industrial Light and Magic, Skywalker Sound, Pixar, Darth Vader, The Force, the books, the games, the conventions. Trek has its own contributions: Spock, Kirk, William Shatner, the Vulcan mind meld, Vulcan greeting, live long and prosper, Tribbles, Klingons around Uranus, warp speed. And Star Wars has Jar Jar Binks, so I must give Star Trek an extra point.
WINNER: Star Wars 10-7

Right now the score is 44 to 40 Star Wars. So I have to come up with something to explain why I think Star Trek is better - something to generate them some points. If you go with scope of franchise, Star Wars would win. If you go with quality of actors, Star Wars would win. If you go with coolness factor, Star Wars would win. So this is where you pull out the personal card. Star Wars is a huge battle that basically swirls around one family: The Skywalkers. It is a gigantic family drama. We see Luke alone at first. Slowly you add Leia and Han. They we find out about Anakin/Vader. Then we go back and learn all about Anakin. Later, we jump ahead to Luke's kids in what would be Episodes 7-9. But it swirls around Skywalkers. And it is a huge space war basically brought on by greed and power struggles. Most people are just pawns. You may see someone break through with an identity of their own - like Boba Fett. And that gets exploited as fast as possible. But there is very little for you, the viewer, to connect with. It is like watching Indiana Jones or Superman. You are never going to be that person. You don't have midichlorians or a whip or Kryptonian legacy. You are just some guy working in a cubicle eating Cheetos and spending too much time worrying about things like "Who is Hotter? Padme or Leia?" That guy in Star Wars wears a gray hat and gets killed when the Emperor's ego trip is blown to Kingdom Come. The Everyman factor is not there. It is pure escapist fun.

Star Trek is not. It is a bunch of individuals working together. Someone is going to be a person you can relate to. It may be the maintenance guy who works his way up to station engineer like Miles O'Brien. It may be the son trying to fill the shoes of a famous officer like Wesley Crusher or Jake Sisko. It may be the thieving sneaky bartender who is completely untrustworthy, yet somehow never ends up in jail, like Quark. It may be the hot green skinned Orion slave girl. Whatever. You relate to Star Trek. They are trying to make their ways and learn and make a difference. That was the beauty of the show. It was a bunch of people going to work and us watching their jobs unfold. Sometimes it would be something amazing like a space baby sucking energy out of the Enterprise. Sometimes it would be really mundane, like the episode Data's Day. It was like a sci-fi version of The Office. And the volume of shows and such really brought this home. It wasn't about the six epic showdowns. Sure, there were those. But it was about the day in, day out stuff too. Teachers, doctors, scientists, engineers. Following their leaders and trying to survive and learn. This was brought to light time and again in eleven movies and 725 episodes.
WINNER: Star Trek: 10 to 5

I think that is the tipping point in the argument to me. Books, comics, games. Frankly those are a draw. Movies: 6 vs 11. But when you have to come up with 725 stories? That says something. Once Star Wars dives into the television market, it may be different. They will have to get smaller - more intimate, more relatable. But that is not in their nature. It is always about the big picture. I can't imagine them doing what Star Trek did with Voyager - flinging a ship to the other end of space and then watching them get back. Or DS9 - basically setting a series on the Trek equivalent of the Cantina. And while I enjoy the big escapist epics. I am always going to be more drawn in the long term to the property I can invest in. That is why Lost is better than Heroes - you are invested in the castaways. This is even why I feel good about the new Trek direction - I left that movie being very interested in those people. Someone once said the biggest thing going for Star Trek was the characters. The people. I guess that's what tips the scales to me.
TOTAL WINNER: Star Trek: 50 to 49

Now, feel free to tear me a new one.


Anonymous said...

You know, I always saw the epic nature of Star Wars, but still was able to relate (and enjoy) to the Star Trek storyline in a way that I wasn't able to for Star Wars.
That, and before Episode 1 came out, Star Trek had generations of storyline in four different television series (five if you cound the animated series) and nine feature-length movies to Star Wars' three movies.
The only real development of storyline for Star Wars has been in the numerous novels.

I also think it's also because Star Trek is a bit more connected to reality than Star Wars was. We're not shooting laser guns at each other or cutting people's arms off with nifty light swords, but our modern cell phones are smaller than the communicators that existed in Star Trek.

That, and apparently 200 years from now, we're going to go back to using big, clunky CRT monitors and have panels of big switches because the nice LCDs and touch panels we have now are just not futuristic enough. :-D

TRO said...

There is only one word...Spock. Better than duct tape and much more powerful. Spock has been able to transcend any Star Wars story he has those cool pointy ears.

Dooj said...

I don't quite see your point about the individuality. Yes Star Wars surrounds the Skywalkers, but everyone knows that if you wear a red shirt in Star Trek you'll die, similar to those "pawns" you were talking about.

You also have to remember that the scope of Star Wars is a period of less than 50 years. If you only did 50 years of Star Trek you would lose some of the scope of that individuals and feel like it's only about Spock and The Captain (Kirk or whoever)

Icberg brings up a good point and that is the books. I don't know about the Star Trek books but if you made a television series based on the books of Star Wars (especially the Zahn books) you would have the epicness that you are saying Star Trek currently has.

Anonymous said...

Good article, but ST:TNG started in 1987 not 1989.

darthmilo77 said...

"I think that is the tipping point in the argument to me. Books, comics, games. Frankly those are a draw."

Evidently you haven't read many books or comics or played many games of either series.

Tina Kubala said...

Since Star Wars has the higher profile, sometimes it seems like Trekkies are outnumbered. I hesitate to say, I love science fiction and I even like Star Wars, but they are *just* movies to me for fear of reprisals.

I'm a bit younger than you, born in 1980, but our experiences are similar. I'd seen bits and pieces of Star Wars over the years, but ever saw them front to back until the remastered versions came out. Trek was a family affair. We watched TOS every night after dinner and watched the early seasons of TNG. I was thankful for Westley as a second grader who wanted to grow up and marry Spock.

My parents weren't crazy about TNG, so I was pretty low on Star Trek until about a year ago when I had my best friend pick out some Trek books. I'd read science fiction since I was a teen and was feeling nostalgic. I've gotten hooked in like never before. I've loved catching up on all five series. DS9 is my least favorite, but I've only seen a handful of the later ones. If Spike would start showing it again, I'm sure I'd like it more. I love Enterprise. I still love TOS. As I say, the sets were cheesy, but the stories were well written and the acting was superb with the exception of Shatner. I still blush a little seeing exactly why my eight year old self was infatuated with Spock.

I loved the new movie. One of the things I love best about the Star Trek universe is that there is plenty of room for more stories.

Anonymous said...

Books can be a draw - though Star Wars books take the story into the future and kills off characters in a way that Star Trek doesn't.

Games - Star Wars definitely wins. Take X-wing vs Tie Fighter and the assorted spin offs and then add on Knights of the Old Republic... while for some reason most Star Trek games I've played are just bad, while there have been many good to decent star wars games. (More advanced technology makes for more complicated stories, while Star Wars fits quite nicely into multiple genres)

That said, Star Trek is still more intellectually stimulating, so I'll go with them.

Cineball said...

First, I came across your blog after reading your post on the Wired article and it was divinely inspired that I do so. I've found someone to whom I can relate in Blogville.

To the issue at hand. I find myself torn. "Wars" is a much grander tale of adventure on the epic scale worthy of Homer and Tolkien, however "Trek," as you have already stated, is more about the people. To choose from these monolithic creations is simply unfair. As movies "Star Wars" as a whole has what "Star Trek" could never have, a self-contained and nicely delivered package telling a single story in groupings of three acts. "Trek" films become a continuation of what is already known from the television shows, and are hardly intended to be enjoyed on their own. When I want a good swashbuckler I turn to "Star Wars" and when I want to dig deeper into one or more characters and follow their journeys and how they develop over time, "Star Trek" takes a more intimate form were you can get entrenched in your experience and sometimes grow with whichever crew you are, at that time, enamored of.

My answer has changed many times over the course of my life thus far, so it shall again I'm sure, but right now I'm at a place where the journey is the important part, not the conflict and it's resolution. For me, Star Trek is stronger with character longevity and real-life motivations.

Swathe said...

I find your lack of faith disturbing

Anne said...

I was born in 1963. And I'm a girl. I grew up reading science fiction books. Original Trek was on TV when I was young but I wasn't allowed to watch it. The original Star Wars movie came out when I was in junior high. It blew me away. I loved that movie. The opening shot of the huge spaceship going over our heads and over and over and on and on - was amazing. We ran all the way home from the movie, battling each other with our light sabers. I loved the second movie too - Empire Strikes back with the ever cool Han Solo and gutsy Princess Lea. Luke? Who cares. After that, I've never really cared for Star Wars. I never saw the new movies in the theater and didn't care for them when I finally saw them on DVD. They just didn't grab me.

I think my heart belongs to Star Trek. I love the characters. I want to live in that world. The show that sealed the deal for me was ST:TNG - almost every episode was good, some were amazing. I admit to crying over several of the episodes, I found them so moving. I enjoyed DS9, Voyager less so, never watched the new retro series. Star Trek movies - loved II, III, IV & VI. Lost track of the TNG movies - some were okay, some were pretty bad. Enjoyed the reboot movie - looking forward to a new universe of great Star Trek characters interacting with all that cool technology and having some amazing adventures.

The sci fi/fantasy world is very crowded these days but I think Star Trek still holds its own in a field that includes the shockingly good, but short lived Firefly series, my beloved Buffy series, the new Battlestar Galactica, the Alien movies, the Terminator movies, the Matrix movies, and on and on. Star Wars? I can take it or leave it.

My boyfriend was born in 1974 - he's a big Star Wars fan but he loves Star Trek too. He is an aerospace designer. My little brother was born in 1971 - I played with his Star Wars toys. I stole the Star Trek belts with the phasers and communicators from his Star Trek dolls and put them on my Barbies.

My daughter is 10 - she does not care for Star Wars and is neutral about Star Trek. She loves Buffy and Harry Dresden and Riddick and Avatar and Kim Possible. And so it goes...