Blog Directory CineVerse: “Star Trek” vs “Star Wars”

“Star Trek” vs “Star Wars”

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Star Trek vs Star Wars: Which franchise has had a greater cultural impact?

by Erik J. Martin

Note: This is part one of a two-part article that will be continued next week.

Ask yourself: How many kids do you know who asked for a U.S.S. Enterprise playset for Christmas? How many of your young cousins or nieces or nephews while away their afternoons with their Benjamin Sisko and Kathryn Janeway action figures? Do you know of a single fifth-grader who would feel safe going to school wearing a "Spock Lives!" or "Beam me up, Scotty" T-shirt?

Now go to your local Toys "R" Us and check out the long, overflowing aisles of “Star Wars” toys. Head over to the JC Penney and rifle through rack after rack of Darth Vader T-shirts.

It's plain to see: For an entire generation, “Star Wars” is cool, “Star Trek” is not. And that's nothing new. “Star Wars” has always been the slick, Han Solo-ish charmer able to win over young and old alike with good looks, a strong sense of humor and general dynamism. “Star Trek”, on the other hand, has a less suave, more Spocklike personality-aloof, cerebral, even nerdy, I would argue.

James Gunn, director of the Center of the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas, said the Wars saga appeals to a broader audience than Trek because its storyline is more straightforward and archetypal. “Star Wars” at its core is a simple fairy tale," said Gunn, who is also a respected SF novelist. "It's a story about a princess abducted by an evil magician and the heroes who rescue her from the dark castle."

That kind of uncomplicated good against-evil storytelling explains why younger viewers in particular can't resist Wars.

"You generally see a lot more younger fans into “Star Wars” than “Star Trek”," said Alice Bentley, former owner of Chicago's The Stars Our Destination science-fiction bookstore. "There's a greater age range among Wars fans because it appeals to all ages, even though the Trek franchise is older."

That broader appeal made “Star Wars” an ambassador for sci-fi cinema in the late '70s and early '80s. While the studios always viewed Trek as a fringe phenomenon not worth emulating, Wars convinced Hollywood's decision-makers that audiences were clamoring for big, loud special-effects spectaculars.

“‘Star Wars”' success in 1977 changed movies radically and was responsible for wholesale changes in the entire film industry," former Chicago Tribune movie critic Michael Wilmington told me. "Without ‘Star Wars,’ you wouldn't have had people investing in the first ‘Star Trek’ movie."

According to Wilmington, George Lucas' trilogy (and, to a lesser degree, the “Star Trek” franchise) "made science fiction more attractive to investors and inspired a boon in special effects computer technology."

Next week: The Klingons strike back

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