Star Wars individualists vs. the Star Trek collective

News is a little slow at the moment, so I thought I’d publish an essay instead contrasting the themes of Star Wars and Star Trek. I hope you enjoy it.

Star Wars vs. Star Trek: it’s a perennial geek topic that resurfaces every time a new entry in either franchise makes its debut. At best, Star Wars is often described as a “swashbuckling” adventure in the science fantasy genre, whereas Star Trek is “true science fiction” that presents a utopian blueprint for the future. (This is less true now that J.J. Abrams has his fingers in both pies, but let’s focus on Gene Roddenberry’s conception of Star Trek vs. George Lucas’s vision for Star Wars.)

SF author and futurist David Brin went one step further in 1999, famously describing Star Wars as “elitist” and “anti-democratic”, contrasting it with the “egalitarian” spirit of Star Trek. This was eventually expanded upon in 2006 in the book Star Wars on Trial, where Brin discusses at length (for almost 40 pages, in fact) the inherent moral failings that inevitably arise when a series of films (such as Star Wars) are incredibly conservative from a storytelling perspective.

Flash Gordon

Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon with Carol Hughes as Dale Arden in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940)

I’ll grant Brin this: it’s true that in many ways, Star Wars is more conservative compared to Star Trek. While Star Trek is more-or-less forward looking, painting a world where God is dead and humanity has overcome prejudices, Star Wars rests on a foundation of nostalgia. Paying homage to pulp sci-fi serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, Star Wars is not so much about our dreams for the future as it is a reflection of our futuristic dreams of the past. And indeed, the debt Star Wars owes to the ancient myths of the world is both readily acknowledged and extensively documented. At the same time, one suspects that nostalgia is seen as anathema to Trek’s progressive agenda—the little it does play with older-style storytelling (e.g. Tom Paris’s The Adventures of Captain Proton on Star Trek: Voyager), the “fond look back” is a bit of whimsy used as a breather between more serious episodes. On this point, certainly, Star Wars and Star Trek are poles apart, and Star Wars is the less daring of the two.

On the other hand, Star Wars possesses a sense of spontaneity and freewheeling adventure that Star Trek mostly eschews. In that galaxy far, far away, ideas flow freely as the imagination runs wild and characters bounce from one fantastic set piece to another. Star Trek, in contrast, operates in a controlled environment, where parties soberly contemplate each move in a spacefaring game of chess. It’s fair to say that Trek is more conservative in this regard.

But neither is conservative politically, and it isn’t fair to say that because Star Wars draws upon older story-forms that it must therefore also carry along archaic values that have no relevance to today (or tomorrow). Just like Star Trek, Star Wars holds the values of democracy and egalitarianism near and dear: the Rebels are fighting not to move towards a feudal system of kings and queens but to overthrow a fascist regime and rebuild a democracy that treasures the notions of freedom, equality and justice.

Captain Picard

Captain Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)

In the final analysis, what sets apart Star Wars and Star Trek seems merely to be a matter of taste. It’s when you consider what lies at the heart of both that you start to see more commonalities than differences: in short, both Star Wars and Star Trek are about the importance of community.

With Star Trek, it’s obvious: the Enterprise is a travelling utopian community where people work together in order to further the greater good. (This theme was especially prominent in Star Trek: The Next Generation, where Trek creator Gene Roddenberry attempted to minimise conflict even within the ship’s own crew.)

At times the one-for-all-and-all-for-one atmosphere in Star Trek seems almost suffocating, and occasional glimpses in post-Roddenberry episodes suggest a darker side to the Federation, where those who shun the all-encompassing embrace of the feel-good commune are targeted as enemies of the state; that’s the cynic’s view of Roddenberry’s vision, but also one that is perhaps necessary for sustained storytelling. Good drama thrives on conflict.

Taken at face value, however, Star Trek presents the ideal vision of many a hippie geek—it’s the same ethos that fuelled the hacker culture behind much of today’s technology, and it’s also a vision sympathetic to the ideals of scientists like Carl Sagan. Many in the fields of science and technology are simultaneously frustrated by the petty squabbles of politics but hopeful that society can one day build a future based on reason and cooperation.

And yet Star Wars isn’t that far removed from Trek’s ideal vision. Anyone paying attention to the saga will note that the Rebels embody the principles of cooperation and shared values. Put in Trek terms, the Rebels are Trek‘s Federation while the Empire—with their assembly-line stormtroopers and a cold-blooded approach to conformity—are the Borg.

Again and again, Star Wars emphasises community and the coming together of individuals. For example, Han Solo (whose name alone marks him as an individualist) realises his importance to the larger cause of the Rebellion, and his character arc involves him being transformed from a selfish smuggler to a respected member of a community. On a larger scale, in the final moments of the fight against the Empire, the Rebels must band together with the unlikeliest of allies—the Ewoks—in order to defeat the Imperial forces. “You are now a part of the tribe” indeed.

But where Star Trek presents the community as being axiomatic, Star Wars sees it as both the final realisation in a journey towards maturity and the solution to the problems that individuals cannot face alone.

Boba Fett

Boba Fett, an iconic bounty hunter from numerous entries in the Star Wars saga

In Star Wars, the natural state is the individual as lone agent: the mercenary, the farmer, the entrepreneur, the gangster; the individual must come to a realisation that “no man is an island”, but that realisation must be discovered, not imposed.

This is in stark contrast to Star Trek, where the notion of community is so ubiquitous that it hardly merits discussion. In Star Trek, the natural state is the community, and it’s the community that supports the individual in the pursuit of his or her own ends. You want to be a great trombone player? Or a dancer? Or even a research scientist with some crazy hypothesis you’re just dying to test? Go for it! You can, because the community supports your search for individual identity.

If anything, Star Wars may be seen as an individualistic tale stressing the importance of community, whereas Star Trek is a collectivist tale stressing the importance of the individual—they both meet each other half way.

So are you more interested in a story about the individual discovering that he or she is also a member of the community, or do you prefer to see each member of the community discovering that he or she is also an individual? Whichever you prefer, the truth is that Star Wars and Star Trek are simply two sides of the same coin.

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