“So this is how liberty dies. With thunderous applause.”
Many a late-night, mood-altered bull session, Fan X panel or Twitter rant has revolved around one of the biggest questions of my lifetime.
Star Trek? Or Star Wars?
Which of these two major science fiction franchises is better, deeper, more meaningful, more realistic? Which of these decades-long fables offers the most meaningful morals? The most ominous cautionary tales? The coolest gadgets? The hottest space babes?
It’s fun because it really doesn’t matter who is right. People can come and go, change their minds, play devil’s advocate and not risk anything because none of it is real. (Unlike, say, religion, where people who don’t share your view often feel somehow obligated to, well, kill you, because, unlike, say, Homer, or Aesop, or Milton, or Jesus, they don’t understand the teaching power of stories — parables — that don’t have to be true to have great meaning.)
Today there is reason to fear that the question may no longer be so academic.
There is reason to assume that this is an idea that will never, so to speak, get off the ground. It would be really expensive. It would tick off the whole command structure of the Pentagon as every general, colonel, captain and defense contractor would rightly worry about losing turf and pull. Even the members of the Utah congressional delegation who are the most in the tank for the president — Rep. Chris Stewart and Sen. Orrin Hatch — have declined to comment or given non-committal responses.
There is no particular reason to think that we need a whole new bureaucracy, chain of command or style of uniform to deal with space as a military theater of operations. The Air Force is there to handle anybody who needs to be shot down. NASA, one of the greatest successes in the history of bureaucracy, is there to do everything else.
But those of us whose view of the world has been usefully colored by Star Wars and Star Trek know that which of the models we follow would matter a lot.
In Star Wars, the creation of a huge military force to control space and the planets was, as a few characters saw at the time, a gigantic ruse. The fractious democracy was convinced to step aside in favor of a totalitarian state, thought necessary because of what seemed like major external threats that the new emperor was actually aligned with and had been part of cooking up. (Darth Vlad and Darth Donald. No need to ask which is the master and which the, well, apprentice.)
In Star Trek, the multi-ethnic fleet of spacefaring adventurers was the good thing that rose from the ashes of a planetary war on Earth and an interplanetary war with the Romulans. At least two major characters in two iterations of the franchise were heard to say, in key plot-development moments, some variation of “Starfleet is not a military organization.”
Yes, I know, every version of Star Trek involves a lot of stuff getting blowed up. But you can’t make that many episodes out of debating the humanity of robots. But Gene Roddenberry’s Starfleet is also devoted to diplomacy, search and rescue and, largely, research. None of George Lucas' Imperial Star Destroyers had a science officer aboard.
Both myths are big on diversity. In Star Trek, it is more overt, with story lines centered on the differences, similarities, conflicts and convergences of different species. In Star Wars, which came later and had bigger budgets for makeup and effects, it is just kind of there. Expected.
Most of the lead characters in both are white guys, because that’s who made it all up and makes up the bulk of the target audience. But both fandoms are sadly besmirched with a few outspoken bloggers, tweeters and commenters who express great hostility when, in their view, a non-white or non-male character is perceived to be hogging too much screen time.
The good news is that such disgraceful behavior is the best way to get yourself blocked, or flamed, by Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill (@HamillHimself). He has become the dominant Jedi of social media, seeking to balance the Sith tweeter in the White House.
The increasingly racist tenor of public debate — from MAGA rallies to Fox News to all those sad white people calling the cops on black folks for no reason whatsoever — is an indication that too many people don’t watch, and don’t get, either Star Trek or Star Wars.
Help us, J.J. Abrams. You’re our only hope.
George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, knows that the truly superior space opera is Duck Dodgers in the 24th and a Half Century. firstname.lastname@example.org