This is an age-old geeky/nerdy question, as to which is better, or which is what, and I think now I am at a place where I can weigh in. Because both have a huge fandom around them, both have TV shows and movies and different eras and books and video games and… on what grounds do you compare these two worlds?
I have at least one way I would like to compare them. I recently did a post on the definition of Science Fiction – and one on the definition of Fantasy. I am going to be relying heavily on these definitions, as I think that weighing these will show a difference you can discuss between these two series.
Read up on the definitions if you haven’t already, and then let’s compare Star Trek and Star Wars!
Star Trek – Science Fiction or Fantasy?
Star Trek at its base is a story of exploration. This may be the very basis of science, as well, if we break it down, so in that way calling it Science Fiction makes sense. It also includes the hallmarks of science fiction stories, especially the large, space opera kinds: space travel, aliens. But does that all make it science fiction?
Looking at Frank Herbert’s definition of Science Fiction, Star Trek uses the aliens and situations to put the humans (and the rest of the crew of the Enterprise) to the test. There are varieties even within the alien races, with great examples being Spock and Worf. They stand out from the rest of their races, and we learn something through this interaction and comparison.
As Star Trek is an exploration story, it is not really a specific journey – even things like the five-year mission, or Voyager returning home, has strong episodic tendencies. This lends itself towards many problems, handled in a wide variety of ways. But the crew must always use their wits and technologies to handle these problems. Even if some of these technologies – like replicators and warp drives – are little more than wishful thinking.
Because of this episodic nature, Star Trek is not quite as escapist as it could be. It is still an escape – Tolkien may very well have liked it – but not so much so that it seems like a fantasy. The world is not so different from ours – it is, after all, our future – and is really more of a scientific utopian dream. It makes us think, and wonder, but maybe not escape from our world completely.
Star Trek is solidly Science Fiction.
Star Wars – Science Fiction or Fantasy?
Alright, you say, so far, nothing particularly surprising. Star Trek, a Science Fiction show, is Science Fiction. To which I say, let’s do that again, and see if the results are the same – with Star Wars.
Star Wars, at its base, is the hero’s journey of first Luke Skywalker, and then Anakin Skywalker (or really of Obi Wan Kenobi) before him. Even a story like Knights of the Old Republic, which I am playing right now, focuses on the journey, and rise to power with the Force, of your main character.
And here, then is the crux of the story: The Force. A mystical force of the universe which helps solve the characters’ problems. The good and evil of it are the basis of the conflicts in the story. It guides them, solves their problems, gives them powers to fight, to persuade… it is the mystical basis of what is done in the stories.
Following Frank Herbert’s definition of Science Fiction, characters in Science Fiction use their own wits and technology to solve their problems. But in Star Wars, there are pivotal moments where technology is turned away in place of the Force – like, say, in destroying the Death Star.
We also use aliens to tell us about our own humanity in Science Fiction – but in Star Wars, the aliens are far more part of the environment. They also, by race, tend to be similar to one another – a common trait in Fantasy, not necessarily Science Fiction. So are the Wookies, Hutts, and other aliens of Star Wars just the Dwarves and Elves of Star Wars?
I would say yes. Star Wars is escapist fun – if only there were the Force, we too could fight with swords and beat people with laser pistols (moving faster than light? Only possible if you can be in the right place before they fire, right?), move objects with your will, persuade others to your way of thinking… Yep, it all sounds really cool, and may be why Star Wars video games tend to be really excellent, and why Lucas Arts going away is such a devastating blow to the video game community.
Star Wars is a Fantasy story, where aliens and space are the fantastical landscape, where our heroes battle evil and go on personal journeys to become the saviors of the day.
Star Trek versus Star Wars
So, if Star Trek is a Science Fiction world and series, and Star Wars is a Fantasy world and series, how do we compare them? Well, let’s think about a different comparison.
How about in books – can we compare Dune and Lord of the Rings? Sure, in terms of their roles as founding stories in their genres. One is a group, battling for good versus evil; another is a person fighting the various challenges of his day on his own (kind of continually true throughout the series). Comparing these to Star Trek and Star Wars, we switch which is a group and which individual, but these are not the fundamental differences between Science Fiction and Fantasy.
Dune and Lord of the Rings are both books – unlike the media differences between Star Wars with its base in movies, and Star Trek with its base in TV. So they’re more similar in this way. But in terms of what is and what happens in the stories, they are very solidly different. And I don’t feel like I have to say which I like better – they are different enough that I don’t have to choose, because I can’t compare them to each other well enough to say.
In the same way, how do we compare Star Trek and Star Wars? They’ve spawned worlds as large as each other, perhaps, so calling them two of the biggest fandoms and comparing them that way works. But in terms of the content? In terms of their stories? One is Science Fiction, and one is Fantasy.
So you can ask a different question, like, do you prefer Science Fiction or Fantasy? You can ask medium questions, like do you prefer movies or TV shows – Video Games or Books? But just asking the question, do you like Star Trek or Star Wars, is asking someone to compare apples and oranges.
And I’ve played enough Apples to Apples to know – it’s much more fun to compare apples to apples.