On LiveJournal today, a buddy of mine posted that on his radio show, people compared Star Wars against Star Trek during a discussion of the new Star Wars III release. In response, I found myself writing an essay, which I had not set out to do. It turned out so nicely that I repost it here:
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Star Wars vs Star Trek: Science Fiction Sagas for Different Purposes
Each of these science-fiction paradigms represents a different brand of storytelling and serves a completely different purpose therein.
Star Wars is a magickal mythos, very much in the same sort of vein of ancient mythologies just as Tolkein emulated them so well in LOTR. It is based on the Ring Trilogy by the German composer Wagner. In fact when George Lucas was recruiting John Williams to do the musical score for Star Wars in the seventies, he had placed Wagner's work over the nearly-final version of the film, certain pieces for certain scenes, so Williams would have an idea of how Lucas wanted him to emulate Wagner and what he wanted musically texturally for each scene. LOTR was also inspired partly by Wagner. However the true roots of these epics go back to mythos such as Beowulf and those of the ancient Greeks.
Star Trek is true speculative fiction in the literal sense of the word. While Star Wars simply presents an epic mythos in the vastness of space, it is in the past in another galaxy, and is not strictly 'speculative fiction'. That's not it's function: it does not predict nor attempt to guide the developing mentality of society, although it does at times attempt to teach morality lessons as did the classic myths. Star Trek was meant to provide an influence in society as well as predict the future of Humanity in the most positive yet realistic light possible, and succeeded in inspiring multitudes of new scientists, astronauts and hordes of dreamers. There is a fantasy element but it is the original science-fiction touchstone: 'This is what we can do if we pull it together in these dangerous years.' Indeed, we need something with equal power or greater to inspire people again, for these are even more dangerous times than the 1960's which spawned Star Trek.
On a very practical level, Star Trek also predicted many technologies more often than not then-unheard-of, which have appeared amongst us today. Some of the predictions are expected to be impossible, such as the transporter, but warp drive is a possibility according to scientists, and we do in fact have devices much like communicators and tricorders with us now, long before even the projected fiscal calendar of the show's setting: the 22nd and 23rd centuries.
Most positively, Star Trek provided a powerful voice against social negatives such as racism, even giving us television's first interracial kiss. (Kirk/Shatner and Uhura/Nichols, 'Plato's Stepchildren', 1968)
Star Trek provides a great beacon of hope to those who still perceive its positive prediction of a bountiful Human future in the stars, for all of us. Unfortunately those in power seem to despise this dream, and there are too few who espouse it to fight for it effectively.