Star Wars is bigger than ever, and we’re celebrating 50 years of Star Trek. This is a great time to be a fan of space action. But these two universes are actually very different, and I have a theory about why. Star Wars is about fighting the Man, and Star Trek is about being the Man.
Star Wars is usually about the plucky Rebels, who stand up against the evil Empire—or else it’s about the corrupt Republic being lured into war, while the little guy suffers. Meanwhile, pretty much all versions of Star Trek revolve around the officers and crew of Starfleet, who worry about how best to follow their own rules and how to keep random trouble-makers and evil foreign regimes from screwing everything up.
Don’t believe me? Let’s delve deeper.
Lucas started out as a member of the counter-culture, part of a group of young film-makers who were challenging the status quo in Hollywood, alongside Francis Ford Coppola. He was very much a product of the 1960s counter-culture: His earliest work was Look at Life, an “abstract montage” of still black-and-white images that explore the political tensions of the 1960s. He was one of the cameramen in Gimme Shelter, which was viewed as a West-Coast alternative to Woodstock.
Lucas’ first science fiction movie, THX-1138, is very much about distrust of the state. And it’s all about the fear of being oppressed by the technocratic, sterile government, in which everything organic and individual has been crushed by those in power. It’s very much a counter-cultural document, about the individual trying to break free from a consumerist, conformist order.
And at the time when Lucas made the first Star Wars, he was definitely thinking of it as a counter-cultural movie. As I wrote a while back, Lucas was actually supposed to direct Apocalypse Now as his next project, and chose to do Star Wars instead. All of Lucas’ friends urged him to do Apocalypse Now, as a way to make a “big statement.” Everybody wanted him to make his Taxi Driver or Chinatown.
And when Lucas decided to do Star Wars instead, he believed that his space fantasy would cover a lot of the same ground as Apocalypse Now—he intended it to be a searing critique of U.S. imperialism, with the Emperor based on Richard Nixon. (There are tons of great details about this in Chris Taylor’s book How Star Wars Conquered the Universe.)
The Original Trilogy avoids explicit political messages, but it has a distinct anti-authoritarian idea, in its images of jackbooted Stormtroopers and weapons of mass destruction. Lucas didn’t really succeed in getting the political message of Star Wars into the Original Trilogy, and it wasn’t until he made the prequels that he was able to include his full critique of imperialism and war-mongering.
Gene Roddenberry flew B-17 bombers in World War II, and then in 1949 he joined the LAPD. According to the book These Are the Voyages: TOS Season One by Marc Cushman with Susan Osborn, Roddenberry only used his service weapon once during his seven years on the force: to put a dog out of its misery after being hit by a car.
But at the same time, Roddenberry was instrumental in helping Police Chief William H. Parker to militarize the LAPD. Parker hired Marine drill instructors to train the police, and tried to turn them into a highly mobilized force, on a paramilitary model. Parker was trying to root out corruption, but the LAPD’s newly aggressive tactics are often credited with leading to the 1965 Watts riots. And Roddenberry wrote the speeches that Parker used to sell this policy.
Cushman and Osborn’s book quotes Roddenberry as saying about Parker: “I was Parker’s speechwriter, writing his philosophical beliefs. I had to justify for him many of the the things he did. These were things of rare honesty. I was close to him in the days when he dreamed of building a better police department, and when he was engaged in putting his dreams into action.”
But Roddenberry also said about Parker, “It was only when he forgot he was a philosopher and began to think he was God that he got into trouble... as his student, I have gotten into trouble the same way.”
In the 1950s, TV and radio shows like Dragnet and Mr. District Attorney were constantly seeking details of real-life LAPD cases to turn into scripts, and Roddenberry used this connection to become a technical consultant for them. Soon, he was writing scripts for cop shows, while still working at the LAPD. And then he created a drama about the Marine Corps, The Lieutenant, starring the future Gary Mitchell, Gary Lockwood.
When Roddenberry pitched Star Trek, it was as a space-faring version of Wagon Train, the long-running Western show. But also as a military show with a “slight Naval flavor.” And one of the fascinating details that emerges when you read all three volumes of These Are the Voyages is how Roddenberry worried that Captain Kirk was getting too chummy with his subordinates. Especially in the show’s second season, Roddenberry would rewrite scripts at the last minute so that Kirk spoke more formally to the other officers and referred to them by their job title (e.g., “navigator”) instead of their names.
At this point, we almost expect a Star Wars movie to end with a triumphant explosion. The end point of a Star Wars story is that something gets destroyed—in the prequels, it’s the Republic, which was a force for good, but the overall arc is still one of things being torn down. Star Wars includes a backstory in which the Republic stood for a long time, but we never get to see much of that in canonical works. Instead, there’s an endless wheel of destruction, going around and around.
In Star Wars, too, the only good military organization is a rag-tag band of guerilla fighters, who hang out in a bunker somewhere. A big government, with a well-funded, properly equipped military, is probably fascist and definitely evil. (I guess the Republic doesn’t even have a proper military until they get the clone army. Before that, they’re just relying on a small group of warrior monks to keep the peace across an entire galaxy. Makes sense.)
Meanwhile, the arc of Star Trek is all about building the Federation and spreading enlightened values throughout the galaxy. The biggest concern, throughout all of the Star Trek series, is with the stability and influence of the Federation. A huge secondary concern, of course, is with the Prime Directive and generally with the question of how the Federation can restrain itself from using its incredible power to reshape other societies.
And consider the average plot of an Original Series Star Trek episode. The central worry, more often than not, is Kirk losing command of the Enterprise. His authority is challenged by Starfleet officers, local despots, godlike aliens, mutinous crew-members and weird children. The common thread is usually that Kirk belongs in that central chair, and anything that undermines his control is a problem. Of course, Kirk goes around overthrowing other people’s societies all the time, especially if they’re governed by an evil computer—but he’s almost like a cop, coming into your house and sorting out your domestic disputes.
The later Star Trek series are frequently concerned with the wisdom of command—Picard, in particular, obsesses about choosing the wise path and being a responsible leader. Deep Space Nine and Voyager try to take away some of Starfleet’s awesome power (by showing a crew without a giant starship, or a starship without starbases) but still end up being about Federation values, and the responsible use of power.
This is obviously a broad-brush generalization, and it’s true that both Star Trek and Star Wars were both, in their own ways, products of the counter-culture. Star Trek very much wants to interrogate the dangers of too much state power, while Star Wars very much yearns for the possibility of an enlightened government, the good Republic which is Star Wars’ Paradise Lost.
But I can’t help wondering if this is one reason why Star Wars looms so much larger in the popular imagination than Star Trek: Because we always want to identify with the scrappy rebel against the evil empire. Even when we actually are the world’s main superpower, with unparalleled military and economic might, we Americans like to think of ourselves as still a ragged group of revolutionaries, fighting the American Revolution against the overbearing redcoats. Star Wars plays into our national fantasy of righteous underdoggery, while Star Trek is actually closer to reality.