The Cricket: Can’t the Empire and the Federation get along?

By Sean P. Means

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: February 1, 2013 10:01AM
Updated: May 21, 2013 11:31PM
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FILE - In this Jan. 8, 2013 file photo, J.J. Abrams arrives at the Winter TCA Fox All-Star Party at the Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, Calif. According to multiple reports, Abrams is set to direct the next installment of “Star Wars,” which Disney has said will be “Episode 7” and due out in 2015. Disney bought “Star Wars” maker Lucasfilm last month for $4.06 billion. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP, File)

Can a person boldly go where no one has gone before while also jumping back to long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away?

The question that science-fiction fans have asked themselves for decades — which is better, “Star Trek” or “Star Wars”? — roared back into the pop-culture conversation (or at least its geekier quadrants) last week.

The impetus for this phasers-vs.-lightsabers smackdown was last week’s announcement that J.J. Abrams, who resurrected “Star Trek” with his 2009 reboot, would try to do the same for Disney by directing the upcoming seventh episode of the “Star Wars” franchise.

You may remember the day of the announcement: It was the day Twitter exploded.

Fans of both franchises reacted with shock. The “Star Wars” lovers were delighted that a big-name director — the guy behind “Lost” and “Super 8” — would be rescuing the franchise from the leaden direction of its founder, George Lucas. Meanwhile, the Trekkies felt stood up — or, as Jordan Hoffman on the movie blog Badass Digest put it, “I feel like J.J. Abrams took me out to the prom but left with the hotter girl.”

The battle between the “Wars” fans and the “Trek” fans may seem silly to people outside the science-fiction firmament. That’s because it is silly. Deeply silly. Hopelessly silly.

We who are fans of the franchises, if pressed, would admit that it’s silly. But being silly has never stopped an ardent science-fiction fan.

The arguments are well-practiced and flung at each other’s barricades like photon torpedoes and proton torpedoes. “Star Wars” fans look at “Star Trek” as stuffy and talky, with none of the action or nobility that Lucas invested in his Jedi Knights. “Trek” fans consider “Star Wars” dumbed-down space-cowboy nonsense, with a mushy metaphysical thread woven through it.

In my personal pop-culture history, both franchises have loomed large.

I remember, at 4 years old, watching “Star Trek” in its original run while my mom ironed. I also watched the series in countless reruns, to the point where my brothers and I played a game to see who could first identify an episode by the pre-credit introduction.

As for “Star Wars,” I was 13 when I took two city buses to get to the other side of Spokane, where the movie played at only one theater. I also remember spending nearly every weekend of the summer of 1977 going to see it again with my older brother. And in Mrs. Lykes’ eighth-grade journalism class that fall, I wrote about “Star Wars” in my first movie review.

So I can know the pros and cons of both science-fiction universes.

“Star Trek” has been speculative fiction at its finest, grounded in Earth history and scientific thought. Each week, the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise encountered alien species whose problems were apt allegories for the problems of 20th-century Earth — racism, nuclear annihilation, overpopulation and the onrush of technology.

“Star Wars,” set in a distant past in an even more distant galaxy, played more like legends and fairy tales. There was a sense of the fantastical, a gee-whiz throwback to Saturday serials where swashbuckling spacemen rescued damsels from evil warlords. And there was The Force, the mystical presence that “holds the galaxy together.”

“Star Wars,” in short, was a universe you could believe existed in our dim memory, while “Star Trek” provided a guidepost to a utopia toward which we were striving.

The two can co-exist, in spite of what diehard fans of one or the other may think. In their history, neither could exist without the other.

It was Gene Roddenberry’s imaginative take on the future in the original “Star Trek” that, in part, inspired George Lucas to create “Star Wars” — and “Trek’s” cult following that prompted Hollywood to take a chance on bankrolling Lucas’ dream. When “Star Wars” was a hit in 1977, Hollywood went searching for other science-fiction franchises, and Paramount dug into its vault to make “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” in 1979. From there, the two franchises played a can-you-top-this? game through the 1980s — with “The Empire Strikes Back” raising the stakes in 1980, “The Wrath of Khan” answering in 1982 and so on.

Together, the two franchises with the similar names pushed the science-fiction blockbuster beyond its B-movie roots and made futuristic fantasy the staple of the summer movie season.

With Abrams delivering “Star Trek Into Darkness” this summer and prepping for a new “Star Wars” to be released in 2015, it appears that he will live long and prosper because the Force will be with him. Always.

spmeans@sltrib.com