Turning inner space into outer space

January 2, 2016

Star Wars has destroyed Star Trek

William Shatner dressed as storm trooper.
William Shatner, who played Capt. Kirk, is dressed as a Star Wars storm trooper. (Reuters)

I’m such a big science fiction fan that I gave a blog about media and technology an outer space theme. So I should be really pumped about the new Star Wars movie, right?

I wish.

Star Wars movies — every one of them — literally put me to sleep. I’ve forced myself to watch them because they have become a huge part of pop culture and it seems almost impossible to love science fiction and not be at least familiar with the Star Wars stories.

So why do I keep falling asleep? My theory is that these movies basically consist of explosions, running around and wisecracks. There is precious little in the way of character development. The plots are a convoluted mess not worth trying to follow.

Despite all that, I’m willing to set Star Wars to one side and be content with the fact that it provides harmless escapism to millions of people around the world. I just don’t happen to be one of them. Or at least I’m almost willing, because there is one thing about Star Wars that kind of hurts. It has destroyed Star Trek.

Every once in awhile you’ll come across an article that compares Star Wars and Star Trek with the idea of declaring a winner. I definitely like Star Trek better, but as far as a winner goes, Star Wars is clearly the victor.

All you have to do is look at the Star Trek reboot by J.J. Abrams and the the trailer for the next one in the series by Justin Lin — lots of explosions, running around and wisecracks. It’s the Star Wars blockbuster formula shoehorned into Star Trek.

It’s hard to believe that Star Trek started out as a series of stories about exploration. It was right there in the opening to the show: “Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

The Enterprise crew went out of their way to avoid conflict. They were diplomats who tried to peacefully resolve disputes. And if they weren’t able to do that, they considered it a failure.

Star Trek was inspirational because it hinted at a future world where we on Earth could settle our differences peacefully. If Justin Lin wanted to take Star Trek back to its roots, the next movie might involve a visit to a planet with a conflict similar to the one in Iraq and Syria. There would be a starship hero who is a Muslim.

We would be treated to an exploration of both outer and inner space.

I would be very surprised if this happened. Science fiction movies about exploration still exist, but the Star Trek franchise has abandoned them.

You can watch Ex Machina for an exploration of our relations with artificial intelligence. Try Coherence for an exploration of how a group of people at a dinner party react to a passing comet.

Yes, these are good movies, but they aren’t the blockbusters that Star Trek aspires to. The Martian, an exploration of human survival, made a lot of money at the box office — but it’s hardly in the same league as Star Wars.

The Star Trek tradition lives on. Just don’t expect to see it in Star Trek.

Update: There was some hope that we would see a new Star Trek movie based on the original concept. Some fans raised a million dollars and were about to go into production. But now they’re being sued by Paramount and CBS. It’s highly unlikely they’ll be able to withstand that kind of pressure, but they’re hoping to work out a deal.