Star Wars vs. Star Trek – An Opportunistic Galaxy vs. a Utopian Future

Both Star Wars and Star Trek are well-known and popular brands around the world, and the stories of both universes have appeared in many different forms in the decades since their creation. But while the latter’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, was primarily interested in the potential (in a positive sense) of humanity for the development of society, George Lucas transformed the harsh reality of a world dominated by existential opportunism into mythic form, presenting it through a romanticized struggle between good and evil.

Put in a somewhat simplistic way, existential opportunism is basically the law of the jungle, according to which the most successful individuals or species in nature are almost always the most resilient, the most uninhibited, the most adaptable and the most able. It is this kind of existential competition that has driven the evolutionary process for hundreds of millions of years, ensuring that the most capable species survive and evolve under given living conditions. And because we humans, emerging from the animal kingdom, have not yet been able to shed our primordial nature – despite the unparalleled intelligence that our evolution has bestowed upon us here on Earth -, the law of the jungle and existential opportunism are still the guiding principles of our modern societies. In essence, Lucas has done nothing else than translate the ensuing constant struggle into a fairytale-like and highly entertaining form, setting the plot in a galaxy far, far away.

By contrast, Roddenberry stuck to our own galaxy and Earth’s relatively narrow sphere of influence, and instead of a quasi-parallel universe to our own, he set Star Trek in the imagined future of humanity, mostly in the 23rd-24th centuries. And by setting this fictional universe several centuries ahead of our current time, the creator also assumed that its inhabitants had successfully transcended life based on the law of the jungle. Thus, the society we are presented with is no longer dominated by the resulting existential opportunism, in which individuals (or their groups) prioritize their own well-being, often at the expense of other individuals (or groups), the community or society as a whole.

Accordingly, the characters of Star Trek are typically opportunistic at a community level, in that the inhabitants of the United Federation of Planets all work together to create prosperity, technological and social progress, with a strong emphasis on true equality of citizens and the effective facilitation of equal opportunities. To this end, all planets in this federation have essentially the same standards and laws, with only a few local differences. In the Star Wars galaxy, this is true only in the era of the Galactic Empire, but with the radical difference that the central power rules by exploiting and intimidating the majority of planets and their inhabitants, whereas in the Republic, the individual planetary systems form a much looser alliance of interests.

In light of this, it is hardly surprising that in the world of Star Wars, average citizens are typically seeking their own fulfillment, and are usually willing to do almost anything to achieve it, even at the expense of others. It’s no coincidence that the whole set-up is quite reminiscent of the 19th century Wild West, with smugglers, bounty hunters and other opportunists trying to make their fortunes as best they can. It is to this not particularly welcoming milieu that Lucas has associated the fantasy-infused storytelling, which in turn is based much more on ancient mythology, folklore and legends, with the classic concept of the ‘hero’s journey‘ at its heart, which has become an integral part of modern popular culture through Joseph Campbell.

This contrasts sharply with Roddenberry’s fictional universe, which is entirely in the realistic science-fiction vein, with far less romanticized characters and story-telling. There are no superhuman heroes in Star Trek, but the Federation and Starfleet, which is responsible for exploration as well as military protection, live and work in extremely close-knit communities. At the same time, the Star Wars galaxy, far from being free of colonialism, racism and inequality, is more like our present and our earlier, far more imperfect world, with nowhere near the unity, harmony and equality.

While Star Trek focuses more on the peaceful coexistence and tolerance of different cultures, Star Wars is much more about constant competition, almost entirely regardless of race and cultural affiliation. Accordingly, technological progress is also manifested in different ways in the two universes: while in the former we can speak of a clearly positive process serving the well-being of all citizens, in the latter it is much more characterized by the ‘technological terror’ used to create hostility and to impose one’s own point of view and power (see Death Star). This is true even if weapons and spaceships abundantly equipped with them are ever-present in both, as their variety and use are fundamentally different in that they are more for self-defense or to defeat others. (Including the lightsaber, which is used as much by the Jedi Knights, who are seen as the guardians of peace and justice, as by the Sith, who seek to increase and enforce their own power.)

Despite the fact that both Star Wars and Star Trek deal with serious, ancient human and cultural themes, philosophies, thoughts and feelings, their creators clearly had different goals in mind when they created their respective universes. While Lucas envisioned his space opera primarily as an entertaining adventure film which he himself would have liked to see, Roddenberry set out to capture his own ideas with a kind of ‘popular education’ in mind. Another significant difference is that Star Trek was first released as a series in 1966, a format much better suited to long exposition and in-depth discussion of the characters’ personalities, their thinking and motivations. Therefore it’s not too surprising that these stories are deeper, more thought-provoking and much closer to the world of science fiction in the classical sense. By contrast, the main thrust of Star Wars, which debuted in 1977, had for a long time been the movies, whose primary aim has always been to entertain and attract as many viewers as possible.

Nevertheless, the emergence of different formats, including novels, comic books, video games and more, in addition to the feature films and various series, has leveled the playing field somewhat over time. Thus, there have been stories in the Star Wars universe that have explored in more depth the background of an era and the mindsets and dilemmas of its characters, while the world of Star Trek has also seen less philosophical, more action- and entertainment-oriented movies. Among the similarities, we should also mention that both convey to a large extent the worldview and thinking of their creator, and accordingly both reflect human society itself, even if they present us with countless different species or even artificial persons.

So, as different as the two universes are, they are both fundamentally rooted in the reality of the second half of the 20th century and our present time. In this regard, the most important question is what each one suggests to the audience and what effect it has on us. If we want to be honest, we need to say that while most people are drawn to the adventure, risk and conflict of Star Wars, the majority of us would prefer to live in the much more just and balanced world of Star Trek, with its promise of much less uncertainty. In the two worlds, there are often very different levels of ‘opportunism’ according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and motivations: while in Star Wars the desire to satisfy lower-level needs appears much more frequently, Star Trek is generally more characterized by higher-level motivations.

For although the Star Wars galaxy focuses on lofty goals such as the struggle for freedom against dictatorial oppression, the struggle between good and evil between and within individuals, and the mutual cooperation, altruism or self-sacrifice that goes with them, in their everyday life, individual characters tend to pursue much more down-to-earth and selfish considerations. Let’s just face it: the pursuit of food and drink (or even alcohol), gambling, life-threatening competitions or the satisfaction of hunting others down are not exactly the first things we associate with a truly advanced, civilized society. Even Han Solo, one of the main heroes of the freedom-fighting rebels against the oppressive powers, is primarily concerned with money and his own personal well-being.

While in Star Wars almost everything revolves around credits, in the world of Star Trek the institution of money no longer exists. This is possible because in this fictional future, it is not really necessary to make a living anymore. Because here, while people spend most of their time working for the betterment of themselves and the world, for physical and mental fulfillment and for the flourishing of civilization, the goods produced by advanced technologies are basically equally distributed among the populace, according to their real needs – and their potential merits. And since the inhabitants of this universe have moved beyond the constant pursuit of primitive needs and dependence on material goods, they are essentially not even dependent on money as a mediating instrument (or as a status symbol) – even if it is unclear if private property exists in the absence of money. And while it is a fact that a similar system – in a well-functioning form at least – essentially reminiscent of communism is totally unfeasible in practice today, we too would certainly need balance, with a much more equal society and a thorough review of our values in order to achieve sustainability.

Based on the above, it is clear that there is a sense of idealism that permeates both the Star Wars and Star Trek universes, but that weaves its way through the story in very different ways. And given the rather dark portrayal of the world and the future in films and pop culture in general at the time of their birth, it is no coincidence that optimism is central to both, even if it also takes different forms in the narrative. A recurring motif in Star Wars is the emphasis on hope and keeping it alive, which is as much about positive change as it is about the hope of the ultimate triumph of good. At the level of characters, an excellent example is the aforementioned Han Solo, who over time shows that he is not only interested in money at all. It is perhaps through his character development that we can best observe the ability of individuals throughout the Star Wars universe to change on a positive influence.

While in Star Wars the role of the optimistic approach is mostly filled by hope for human goodness and a better future, Star Trek presents its vision in a much more concrete, one might say utopian way. In Roddenberry’s world, humanity has already moved not only beyond the pursuit of basic instincts and motivations, but also beyond primitive tendencies such as nationalism, racism and other manifestations of chauvinism. This is made possible by the practice that children’s identities are shaped from birth by society in a much more humane way, so that they can be brought up in a social environment that is radically at odds with the hostility and opportunism of the present, or that of Star Wars universe for that matter.

I think it’s no coincidence that most serious science fiction writers could not imagine humanity in an advanced future being as divided and primitively opportunistic as it is today. As a result, you don’t really see in any true science fiction story, for example, an alien race arriving for first contact waving the flags and other symbols of several different nations of their own. This seems logical, if only because we already know that society needs to evolve in the life of a civilization in parallel with technology. If ethical and moral development and people’s vision of the world cannot keep pace, it will not lead to stable civilizations in the long run, as Gene Roddenberry, who may not have had clairvoyance, but clearly had considerable foresight, recognized in the 1960s or before.

At the same time, we must also see that a similar philosophy was to some extent expressed by George Lucas shortly afterwards, even if it was portrayed in a completely different way in appearance and in many details. Because, if you think about it, in Star Wars, the evil, utterly opportunistic, imperialistic and materialistic Empire was also presented as a power and ideological organization that was dysfunctional in the long term. The reason for this is the realization that, ultimately, only the pursuit of external and internal balance, of environmental and social sustainability, can bring order to the chaos that is constantly hovering over our very own civilization, too.

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