Star Trek Is Boldly Going Where Star Wars Won’t Dare


(Disney/Lucasfilm, CBS)

So, are you more of a Klingon or a Mandalorian person?

If you get a little heated about that question, congratulations, you may be a diehard sci-fi fan locked in the endless Star Trek vs. Star Wars debate. I hate to break it to either side, but both sides are winning in different ways. Yet, as a huge fan of both (it is possible!), I think that Star Trek side has a serious leg up on Star Wars’ progress.

Let’s back it up a little to get us all up to speed.

Back in the mid-’60s, there was a powerful surge of sci-fi on big and small screens. Between Lost in Space, Doctor Who, and the original Star Trek, people around the world were enjoying the time and space adventures of people dealing with fantastical creatures and imaginative scientific problems. And the majestic peak of that surge was the theatrical release and runaway success of Star Wars: A New Hope in 1977.

However, it seemed that cinematic sci-fi had a larger staying power than television. Where Star Wars thrived, Star Trek and Lost in Space were axed after only a few seasons. While the shows were popular, they were hard on the crew and expensive to make.

One thing that did persist long past their end-date, though, was the fandom. Star Trek fans were practically patriotic about their favorite series, and it makes sense that they’d feel a little indignant about the much easier road Star Wars seemed to have. When Star Wars absolutely destroyed box offices, many Trek fans were bitter that their favorite show didn’t get the same respect and adoration by mainstream media. In turn, Star Wars fans didn’t appreciate their beloved franchise getting trivialized by people who loved a show that got canceled after three seasons.

And so was born the caustic debate that’s been going on far too long: What’s better: Star Trek, or Star Wars?

So now we reach today. While I don’t personally subscribe to thinking there’s much of a point of pitting two fun, very different sci-fi fandoms against one another, there is some merit to comparing the two series of fiction and analyzing how the two equally impressive franchises grow. Star Wars may still be the mainstream darling that it has always been, but Star Trek has a serious upper hand—and it has to do entirely with creative innovation.

First, let’s take a moment to talk about the current state of the Star Wars franchise. In theory, it looks pretty good. The fandom is riding the high of a series of top-grossing films, The Mandalorian got rave reviews, the fandom’s favorite animated series returning, and the sequel to that series had a show-stopping ending.

However, there’s a lot of complexities going on there. The Clone Wars is only coming back because so many fans were generally dissatisfied with where they’d previously ended the series in season 5 and, later, in the bizarre season 6 add-on. And despite the large financial gain of TROS, it caused volcanic rifts in the fandom and was generally panned for being a bad conclusion to the trilogy. Despite all the seeming success, it feels like the fandom’s in more turmoil than it is prospering, right?

Rey talks to Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

(Disney/Lucasfilm)

And goodness knows that everyone’s being inundated with Star Wars merch at every corner, because that’s what the Disney machine does.

If you take away all the multi-million-dollar marketing and stop playing the numbers game, as a creative property, it does seem like the whole thing is kind of a mess—and not a mess in the old, classic, “wow, there’s so many extended books and ideas and comics going on” way. It’s more like the franchise is trying so hard to do what the fans want that it’s hurting itself in confusion.

Now, that’s not to say that Star Trek, as a franchise, is perfect. Just looking at Discovery, there were a lot of fan problems with the new formula and setup. There are even current fan wars about the politics of the show. However, when it comes to creative capital? Star Trek seems to have that in bounds and just keeps on accumulating more.

Despite Discovery’s shaky first season, the creative teams for the show took the critiques seriously and ironed out a lot of the kinks to make a stronger season two. Going into season 3, they’ve even removed one of Discovery’s biggest hurdles: being a prequel. They’ve also started creating the much-adored Short Treks, little windows into the wider universe that Star Trek lives in. Picard has completely blasted off as a great blend of fan favorite nostalgia and a complicated, organic shift in galactic order. And even better, they have several very different shows in the works to just keep the ball going.

And that’s not to say that Star Wars doesn’t have any ideas left. There are definitely ideas, but there’s a bigger problem getting in the way of working through any new, big ideas, and it’s causing a serious dissonance in Star Wars as a whole. And one of the largest roots of that? Fanservice.

Hear me out.

Fanservice is a fun part of existing as a fan. You get to see things in your favorite properties that harken back to all the lore and things you know because you love a franchise so much. It feels like such an intimate in-joke that, of course, amuses longterm fans and makes them feel appreciated.

Star Wars, though, has taken that to an illogical extreme. Fanservice is fun when it exists without taking away from a new story. Star Wars fanservice is out of hand, particularly in the films, and it goes from the main plot to much smaller details.

Palpatine tells Anakin tragedy of Darth Plagueis.

(Disney/Lucasfilm)

When it comes to plot, we’re obviously talking about messes like the Palpatine situation. In reaction to the controversy following all the changes in The Last Jedi, the creators were ready to do anything to please fans again. Desperate for a more classic “big bad,” Emperor Palpatine was brought back (even though that doesn’t make sense) and gave Rey that blood-relation that fans kept begging for.

But was that decision satisfying or sensical? No. And worse, none of us ever wanted to think about Palpatine’s sex life. However, it didn’t just make TROS feel absurd. It also retroactively made the original trilogy feel useless and made the so-called “prophecy” that the two first trilogies were based on irrelevant. Because, in theory, if Palpatine lived, Luke and Anakin absolutely failed. They didn’t dethrone the emperor, not really, and the First Order (an Empire copy-pasta) came back within a few years.

But it’s even the smaller details. For example, Kylo Ren’s real name is Ben. This is supposed to be a reference to Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi, Luke’s somewhat neighbor and Jedi Master. On another level, though, it’s also a reference to fan-favorite Ben Skywalker, Luke’s son in the old Legends books. However, considering the fact Leia never really knew Obi-Wan and Han only knew him for a few days, it’s a bizarre choice in names. It would’ve made more sense for them to name their son Bail, after Leia’s dead adopted father.

Instead of focusing on the organic logic of their own universe, though, the creative teams chose fanservice to try to appease this market they were dying to be loved by—even when that fanservice only did a disservice to their film.

Again, Star Trek isn’t perfect, but their fanservice doesn’t get in the way of the story, whether it’s those smaller details or larger story beats. While it’s confusing and annoying for Michael to be adopted into Spock and Sarek’s family, while they never talked about her in TOS, they are very private characters. Unless the Enterprise encountered a mission that required talking about it, it’s not wildly out of the question that Spock would never mention his sister—and what also helped counteract the weirdness of that retcon was that the additions of Sarek and Spock are some of the strongest parts of the series, adding nuance to these beloved, complex characters and dynamics in what still feels like an organic way.

"The End Is The Beginning" -- Episode #103 -- Pictured (l-r): Michelle Hurd as Raffi; Patrick Stewart as Picard of the the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: PICARD. Photo Cr: Trae Patton/CBS ©2019 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

(Trae Patton/CBS)

And on the smaller end, they make references to old uniforms, other captains, inconsistent door rules; even Captain Geirgiou has a Chateau Picard wine bottle in her office. These decisions speak to the larger universe without taking away from the story itself.

This does creep into Easter Egg territory, which Star Wars also does. They include quite a few clever add-ins from their extended lore, but some clever Easter Eggs don’t make up for the creative choice Star Wars made that pandered to fanservice instead of making sense.

Something like naming Leia and Han’s son Ben Solo doesn’t feel like a clever Easter Egg for Legends fans. It feels like they picked whatever name was most recognizable and marketable without putting too much thought behind why he would ever be named that in the first place. Discovery’s Tilly, a slightly neurotic engineer, noting door inconsistencies makes sense with her character. Leia naming her son Ben, after a man she never knew (and didn’t even know was nicknamed Ben) doesn’t.

And that level of lazy fanservice doesn’t make any property better; it only makes it worse. It’s only tragic that fans are told to enjoy it, because the creators did it for them, when bad fanservice isn’t very enjoyable at all. It’s the cinematic equivalent of getting flat soda shoved down your throat.

Star Trek makes mistakes, but it commits to its bold decisions and ideas. It’ll tweak the creations to make them better after valid criticism, but they won’t jump the entire shark if things go wrong. If they bowed to fanservice and outrage, like Star Wars did, Discovery’s second season would’ve killed off Michael Burnham, the new main character would be Kirk’s long lost dead brother, and they would’ve made a ten-episode arc out of copying “Chain of Command,” “Balance of Terror,” and “In The Pale Moonlight,” three of the franchise’s most beloved episodes, only cheapening them in the process.

Tig Notaro as Jett Reno on CBS's Star Trek Discovery.

(CBS)

But they didn’t. They figured out how to keep the show organic and fresh without turning into some fanservice rehash cesspool.

Hell, Star Trek even seems to be doing some of Star Wars’ recent rare, innovative attempts better than they did. Picard is basically just The Last Jedi’s disillusioned Old Man Luke, but with better focus and direction.

Now, does this mean anyone shouldn’t still be excited about The Clone Wars season 7, or The Mandalorian season 2, or the upcoming Obi-Wan series? Absolutely not. Just because the Star Wars films shot themselves in the foot with their own bowcaster doesn’t doom everything else. Star Wars still exists in a wildly fascinating universe with so many other stories to tell.

It just means that as a franchise, Star Wars is more scared of its fans’ outrage than it is dedicated to creating something new and innovative for them. Maybe that comes with being a poster-child of the sci-fi mainstream, so perhaps Star Trek has been blessed with always living just on the fringes of that. And this doesn’t mean Star Trek is some grand masterpiece that should be lorder over Star Wars fans.

If anything, it just means one of these two sci-fi giants is being held back by fear (which leads to the dark side, you know), and it deserves better than that. Because while one keeps going forward, where no one has gone before, the other is stuck in the trappings of its own past. Star Wars deserves to be just as innovative as Star Trek, but it’s being let down by executives too afraid to boldly commit to anything.

However, with this disappointing fanservice trilogy at its end, hopefully Star Wars can catch back up to where it belongs, side by side with Star Trek, so this age-old debate can never reach a resolution forever.

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