Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Trek, of course–what kind of question is that? Actually, if I’m going to write an essay, I should have more to say….
Star Trek, in its original incarnation (which I will henceforth refer to by the standard fan abbreviation TOS for “The Original Series”) began its prime-time network run on NBC in 1966, at which time I was three years old. Its last season ended in 1969, at which time I was six, and about to begin the first grade. I know Mom and Dad watched it, so I no doubt did, as well. I’ve seen every episode multiple times since, and given that, it’s hard to sort out any genuine memories of the series’s original airing.
It doesn’t really matter, though. Throughout my childhood and young adulthood, TOS was more or less constantly in syndication somewhere on one channel or another. Every time it was available on any of the channels we got, I always watched it. For reasons that are obscure, certain episodes (e.g. “The City on the Edge of Forever” and “A Piece of the Action”) were in very heavy rotation, whereas others (such as “Errand of Mercy” and the insanely elusive “The Mark of Gideon”) were rarely if ever aired. I made it my goal to watch every one of the original seventy-nine episodes at least once. I set this goal at the age of around twelve or thirteen, and it took into my mid-twenties to complete it, but complete it I did. In the meantime, my involvement with Star Trek was expanding far beyond watching reruns.
At some time in the mid-70’s–I don’t remember exactly when–I encountered James Blish’s series of novelizations (short-story-izations?) of the episodes of TOS, and began collecting them with a passion. At that time, the nearest bookstore to my tiny Appalachian town was around eighty miles away. In those pre-Internet days, the book rack at K-Mart (usually a dismal assortment of trashy romance, trashy action/adventure, and a few NYT bestsellers) and bookstores were the only source of–well, books. My family traveled the eighty-some-odd miles to (what to me) was the City of the Bookstores about twice a year–for Christmas shopping (in the late fall) and to go to a nearby amusement park (in the summer). In the process, we’d always stop by one or two bookstores. To me, as a fledgling bibliophile growing up in an area with a marked lack of books, these trips were golden. Anyway, I think that, by the time I finished high school (in 1981), I had all or most of the Blish books (I may not have gotten the last one or two by then, but I don’t recall specifically). It was through them, in fact, that I became aware of many of the episodes I hadn’t seen and formed the desire to see them all.
At about the same time, I began collecting the books in the Best of Trek series, edited by Walter Irwin and G. B. Love. These books were compilations of articles from the fan magazine Trek, the Magazine for Star Trek Fans. It’s oddly hard to find information on Trek, though you can read about it here or watch a brief YouTube clip about it here. It started in 1974 and apparently ceased publication in the late 80’s or early 90’s. This is unclear–the last Best of Trek book was Volume 18, published in 1996; but no source I’ve found so far gives a specific date or number of the last publication of the magazine. The site at the first link above on Trek gives no listings beyond Issue 19 of the magazine, published in 1988; but it doesn’t explicitly say this was the last issue, and elsewhere on the page, it says the magazine published until the “1990’s”.
Anyway, I never encountered the original magazine, but I gradually collected over half of the Best of Trek paperbacks. They can still be found, usually in battered state and not in all volumes, online, usually for reasonable prices. I found them a fascinating resource. They were chock-full of essays about the symbolism and meaning of TOS (and later the movies–I don’t think I had the editions that came out after Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I don’t even know if that series was ever addressed in the magazine or books)*. There were discussions of the science of Star Trek long before this book ever came out. There were profiles of the actors and others involved in the series; reviews of episodes and movies; speculation about the origins of the various alien races of the franchise; poetry; and occasional pieces of fan fiction. All these opened up a whole new world to me. It was my initiation into fandom.
Alongside the Blish and Best of Trek books, I picked up the Star Trek novels that were starting to appear in the mid-70’s. The quality varied, but many were written by already established science fiction writers, such as Joe Haldeman. Also, I contend, having read Star Trek novels on and off ever since then, that those of the 70’s and early 80’s were in general substantially better-written than what gets published now. That’s a discussion for another day, though.
I should also point out, lest it seem that I’ve tilted too much towards TOS (which is my favorite series), that I have watched plenty of the various entries in the Star Trek franchise since then. I’ve seen all the big-screen movies in all iterations (TOS, TNG, and the J. J. Abrams reboots, except for the last two), the entire run of The Next Generation, despite its weaknesses (which I may discuss at some future time), and large parts of the runs of Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise. Heck, I even watched the animated series in the early 70’s. I admit I have not seen the current series, Discovery, since I refuse to subscribe to CBS All Access merely for a single series, even Star Trek (additionally, fan buzz has been very much divided on Discovery).** I’ve even tried my hand at a short-story fanfic. Star Trek is an ongoing presence in my life, and will continue to be.
Well, I’ve written over a thousand words on this essay now and still not got to Star Wars. I will now do so.
The original Star Wars (and this was all it was called, then–this is long before the subtitle, Episode IV: A New Hope) was released on May 25th, 1977. This was two months before my fourteenth birthday, and a few weeks before the end of my eighth-grade year. The old cliche is that the “golden age of science fiction” is about thirteen; and so it was. I had actually encountered the Marvel Comics adaptation of Star Wars a few months before the movie came out. At that time, I didn’t realize it was an upcoming movie. I thought it was a comic book adaptation of some old movie I’d never heard of. After all, in the 70’s space operas didn’t get made for the big screen anymore. Star Wars certainly changed all that!
I saw it twice within a year or so. For those of my audience who weren’t around before streaming, satellite, cable, DVD’s, and even VHS, the only way you could re-watch a favorite movie back then was if it were re-released. Popular movies were often re-released within six months to two years. I don’t remember exactly the time scale between my two viewings of Star Wars, but it was short, as I recall. I went on to watch the remaining movies in the original trilogy. Some of my friends, who’d bought the novelization ahead of the movie’s release, spoiled the plot-twist in The Empire Strikes Back by blabbing, “Darth Vader is Luke’s father!” Despite this, I loved Empire, and after over forty years and ten movies (and counting) in the franchise, I still consider The Empire Strikes Back the best Star Wars movie yet made. I was substantially less impressed with Return of the Jedi. I mean, another Death Star? Really? Still, the sequence in which Luke rescues Leia is one of the best all-time science fiction action sequences, and the movie as a whole was not bad. Certainly, it outshines all the prequels.
I enjoyed the movies enormously, but I never got as deeply involved in the Star Wars franchise as I did in that of Star Trek. I think there are several reasons for this.
First, there was nothing to sustain me between movies. The only novel that came out during the time of the original trilogy was Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, by Alan Dean Foster. I remember when it came out that I read the cover blurb and somehow found it uninteresting. Recently I learned that George Lucas commissioned Foster to write the novel as the basis for a second Star Wars movie. The idea was that Lucas had burnt out on doing the actual writing; and moreover, he didn’t expect the huge reception that the first Star Wars received; thus, he thought he’d have a very low budget for a sequel. He thus instructed Foster to write a story that would be as cheap as possible to film. Thus, the novel contains very few sequences of space flight or space combat. It’s mostly a quest movie set on a planet. In short, it lacks most of the elements that made Star Wars such a huge success. Now Foster is a perfectly competent writer, and the king of franchise novelizations. Still, the description I’ve read of it does not compel me. I certainly haven’t heard raves about it in the nearly forty years since it was written. Perhaps my younger self intuited it was a weak book. In any case, thank God we got The Empire Strikes Back as a sequel, and not Splinter of the Mind’s Eye!†
Second, there was nothing equivalent to The Best of Trek. There may have been Star Wars fan magazines–I’m sure there were–but nothing published in book form. In the small rural area of my youth, I didn’t even have access to Trek magazine itself, but had to experience it through the paperback compilations. Thus, any Star Wars fanzines would have gone totally under my radar. With nothing to read and no Internet, there was nothing to stoke a deeper interest in the details and themes of the Star Wars franchise. Also, as with Star Trek, there was no in-real-life fandom to connect to. Thus, without the support of books, there was nothing to encourage me further in the Star Wars universe.
Finally, I think the biggest part was simple timing. I have long believed that many fan allegiances, pop-culture tastes, and general preferences, are set at a young age. The author I read most as a kid, for example, was Isaac Asimov. A friend of mine, who never read much of him in his youth, finds him unreadable. Conversely, both he and another close friend are huge fans of everything Edgar Rice Burroughs ever wrote. I’ve read the original Tarzan and The Jungle Tales of Tarzan as an adult, and they were OK. I tried to read A Princess of Mars and was bored to tears. Similarly, I read The Jungle Book and Lord of the Rings as a kid, and loved them. The aforementioned friends, not so much. I began reading some of the short stories of H. P. Lovecraft several years ago. Aside from the “Dream Sequence”, I am generally underwhelmed.
The point is that some literature, television, and movies form an intense, passionate interest if encountered early in life; but this is more difficult, if possible at all, in the case of an adult or even an older teen or twenty-something. I began to passionately engage Star Trek starting around the age of ten, and there were many tie-ins to further that passion. Star Wars, perhaps, was just a shade too late, with a shade too few supporting media, to engage me in the same way that Star Trek did. I loved the franchise, and still do–with the exception of Solo, I’ve seen all of the new Star Wars movies. Certainly, there are plenty of tie-ins now in this Internet Age. Still, for all that I really like the Star Wars franchise, appreciate the mystic aspects in the series, particularly in The Empire Strikes Back (and more recently in The Last Jedi), and would agree that, at its best, it is one of the all-time great science fiction franchises, nevertheless, it will never have the profound resonance for me that Star Trek has.††
So I answer the question “Star Trek or Star Wars” with no ill-will and in fact, with much affection for Star Wars, but nevertheless with a resounding “Star Trek!” Live long and prosper, all, and may the Force be with you, too!
*About the same time, I also got Meaning in Star Trek. I was much less impressed with it–the author began with an analysis of Star Trek in terms of Jungian archetypes. At that time, I was unfamiliar with that concept, as well as others the author discussed. I simply couldn’t make heads or tails of the book, and eventually got rid of it. I repurchased it about ten years ago, and tried to re-read it. I could understand the concepts, now, but the style was boring and there was a lengthy comparison to the then-current series Space: 1999, which struck me as monumentally irrelevant. I gave up a second time. I still have the copy I repurchased, though. Maybe the third attempt will be the charm.
†I did read the novelizations of the first three movies. The quality of the prequels didn’t motivate me to follow suit there. A co-worker suggested one of the novels set during the time of the prequels, and I gave it a look; but it didn’t interest me enough to continue past the first chapter. The current series is much better, but I don’t read many franchise tie-ins these days. There was a short-lived Marvel Comics series in the late 70’s or early 80’s that took the storylines further; but the art didn’t appeal to me, and the storylines were weak. There was also a short-lived Sunday newspaper comic strip, which was better–but short-lived. Even as a kid, I wasn’t impressed by the infamous Star Wars Christmas Special. There were a couple of Ewok-centered TV shows in the 80’s, as well as a Star Wars cartoon based on the droids; but I don’t recall hearing about them at the time. I doubt I would have been interested in them had I known of them. Beginning in the early 90’s, novels set in the Star Wars universe finally began to appear, bringing into existence the Star Wars Expanded Universe. By that time I was out of college and working, spending less time reading franchise tie-ins. Since the turn of the century, Star Wars tie-ins of various sorts have become a torrent. Still, I never have been motivated to get into the Expanded Universe to this day. For reasons I explain above, I think the time to engage was past by then.
††At this point I should point out that although I do prefer Star Trek to Star Wars, I don’t necessarily agree with David Brin’s analysis of the two franchises. His argument, in a nutshell, is that Star Trek presents the future as an egalitarian, meritocratic, democratic utopia; whereas by contrast, Star Wars presents a vision that is classist, elitist, and anti-democratic. I understand his argument; but I disagree with it. Heck, Star Trek has been accused of having an implicitly fascist ideology. Love or hate either Star Trek or Star Wars all you like; but I don’t think it’s a good idea to try to argue for or against either franchise on the basis of supposed political agendas. You can find some dark themes in both franchises; but in the end, it’s entertainment, folks!
**Update 15 September 2020: Well, last year I caved in and subscribed to CBS All Access to watch the new Star Trek franchise series Picard. Sigh. In this case, it was worth it; and since I now have the subscription, I may go back and watch Discovery. The upcoming Discovery spinoff Strange New Worlds, starring Ethan Peck as young Mr. Spock on the Enterprise under Captain Pike looks like it might be good, too. I will possibly devote a future post to that series when it eventually airs.
Part of the series “This or That“
Also part of the series “Star Trek“
Also part of the series “Reviews, Views, and Culture, Pop and Otherwise“
Posted on 17/06/2018, in Entertainment, movies, pop culture, science fiction, television, television and tagged entertainment, movies, pop culture, science fiction, Star Trek, Star Wars, television, The Original Series, this or that, TOS. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.