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Monday, May 4, 2020

Human Nature in Outer Space: Star Trek vs. Star Wars – Excerpt from “Behind Enemy Lines”

by Ray Keating
May 4, 2020

(What better day to settle (?) the Star Wars vs. Star Trek debate than International Star Wars Day? Well, I’m not sure this will settle anything, but it is one of my entries in this decades-long (dating back to the 1970s!) sci-fi dispute. I wrote the following column for Newsday in May 2005, and it appears in my new book Behind Enemy Lines: Conservative Communiques form Left-Wing New York. In terms of a little context, at this point in time, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith hit movie theaters and Star Trek: Enterprise finished its run – and no sci-fi fans knew if anything more would be coming on either front.)

Was it true – Star Trek and Star Wars ending within six days of each other? Have I beamed down to the dark side? 

Just in case George Lucas really has put down his light saber for the final time, and Paramount Pictures is through exploring the final frontier, I was determined to savor these moments. 

That meant no dinner with friends on Friday night, May 13, and instead eating in front of the television to watch the last episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise. Then on Thursday, I saw Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, the final piece in the six-part Star Wars tale, at 12:01 AM. This post-midnight show brought out the hard core fans, with two Darth Vaders engaging in a light saber duel before the film rolled.

Revenge of the Sith has ended the Star Wars epic with a bang, while the Star Trek: Enterprise finale whimpered as an unsatisfying send off. Either way, that each will live long and prosper in one way or another is stating the obvious. After all, Star Trek has been around for almost four decades, and the first Star Wars film hit theaters 28 years ago. These are pop culture icons. 

Interestingly, some of the reasons for such staying power differ in fascinating ways, including what’s said about politics and human nature.

The politics in Star Trek often reflect the times. For example, the original 1960s series dabbled in Cold War themes. Meanwhile, two Enterprise episodes airing earlier this month dealt with a radical group trying to force aliens to leave Earth, with echoes of today’s immigration debate.

But contrary to attempts to politically pigeonhole the latest film based on a line or two of dialogue, Star Wars ranks as a timeless warning about how liberty and democracy can be lost to claims of safety and other seductions, as well as a reminder that freedom must be fought for and protected. Star Wars politics reflect what Benjamin Franklin once said: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” There’s some sound Jedi reasoning from a Founding Father.

While Star Trek and Star Wars each have those critical characters that viewers care about, the Star Wars story arch swirls around a distinctly unlikable character in Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. The fact that the central character is unappealing – indeed, much of the time detestable – speaks to the difference in how human nature is viewed in Star Wars vs. Star Trek.

With so much Star Trek spread over five television series (six if you count the cartoon) and 10 movies, various takes were offered on the state of mankind. But if a general outlook could be pegged, it would be a liberal utopianism. Particularly in the Star Trek: The Next Generation series, the message was that humans largely overcame their sins and shortcomings. The sinful aspects of human nature were beamed away.

In contrast, Star Wars directly grapples with the dark side of human nature. Anakin’s descent into Darth Vader comes to grim fruition in Revenge of the Sith. During the scrolling story update at the start, it’s declared: “Evil is everywhere.” That’s not liberal utopianism. But as with mankind’s story, Star Wars also is about hope. As we learned 22 years ago in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, even redemption for one as evil as Darth Vader was possible. 

Some late nights have been lost debating which is better – Star Trek or Star Wars? A few shouts before the movie started on Thursday morning reflected this conflict. I long argued for Star Trek. But while I still enjoy boldly going “where no man has gone before,” I must now bow to Star Wars as the richer space epic about the struggles of human nature.

Ray Keating is the editor, publisher and economist for DisneyBizJournal.com, and author of The Disney Planner 2020: The TO DO List Solution (now available at a deep discount) and the Pastor Stephen Grant novels. He can be contacted at  raykeating@keatingreports.com.

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