Why a new Star Trek is a bad idea, even though a new Star Wars is fine. Science Fiction ≠ Fantasy.

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(note: no spoilers below! I haven’t even seen the new Star Wars movie yet.)

As mentioned in an earlier post, a few years ago my son came home from school saying Darth Vader was Luke’s father. The problem? He hadn’t seen Star Wars. Grade school playgrounds being the source of many hard truths. As good parents we soon watched all six movies. The kids loved it. Then this year my daughter came home from school asking about Spock. Who is Spock? Why are people talking about Spock? So we watched Star Trek II The Wrath of Kahn, the best movie with the original cast. And this time my kids were, well, rather bored. Which was painful since I had always liked Star Trek better than Star Wars. Yes, the Star Wars movies are better made, with more kid appeal. But it’s more than that. With a new Star Trek TV series due in 2017 and the new Star Wars movie just out, time to take a stand. No more Star Trek. Continuing Star Trek betrays what it represents. Even though more Star Wars is fine.

Why the difference? First let’s look at an old essay by Star Trek superfan Matthew Yglesias, who (on purpose) watched every episode of all six Star Trek TV series. That’s 30 TV seasons for a total of 726 episodes. Plus all 11 movies (the number now stands at 13). Fan knowledge level = expert. Let me summarize his views on the key themes of Star Trek:

  • explore what it means to be human, contrasting humans with aliens and androids
  • be multiculturally inclusive, the federation welcomes new races
  • show what a progressive post-scarcity utopian (socialist) society looks like. Replicators can have that effect you know.
  • peak Trek is Star Trek The Next Generation, the one with Picard. A fan consensus view by the way. I agree.
  • plus Star Trek’s tech tropes: dilithium crystals, transporters, shields, cloaking devices, tricorders, photon torpedoes, phasers, warp drive, etc.

Yglesias highlights the politics and economics, since he’s a progressive writer on these subjects. That said, I would still classify Star Trek as science fiction. Science fiction explores how future science and technology may change society. For Star Trek that’s how replicators and other tech allow humans to explore strange new worlds, not use money, occasionally but reluctantly shoot space guns, and then all be friends. Even with sexy green-skinned aliens. Overall a great 1960s progressive vision!

In contrast, Star Wars is fantasy with a dash of space opera on the side. Swords. Princesses. The mystic power of the force. The tell is everyone rightfully hates how midichlorians “explain” the force. In fantasy you don’t explain magic with pseudo-science. You revel in the mystery of it.

And fantasy ages rather well. J. R. R. Tolkien was born in 1892, but The Lord of the Rings is as good today as when he wrote it. Contrast this with Jules Verne, who wrote science fiction. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea has lots of outdated science, and so is less worth reading now. That’s not a defect, but built into the deal. As long as science and technology advance by discovering new and unexpected things, extrapolations based on technology will age poorly. Being true to the spirit of science fiction means each tech era has to create its future afresh. Transporters, phaser guns and dilithium crystal powered warp drives are now retro. Tech from an outdated 1960s future, haunting our present. The Jetsons run amok. Whereas smartphones, self driving cars and robotic driven space ships now feel inevitable. Newer movies like Her or Ex Machina, for all their flaws, are better speculations of where we’re headed than rebooted Star Trek. If we want to stay true to Star Trek’s science fiction spirit, we honor it best by moving on. No more Trek. As for Star Wars, bring it. My kids will thank you. And yes, they are getting Star Wars movie tickets for Christmas. We’ll see the new movie December 26. Hope it’s good!

_______________

Some extra notes and related links:

  • To be fair to Yglesias, he’s always advocated another Star Trek TV series rather than new movies. See his recent comments here. I think this points to his being drawn to the Lyndon Johnson progressive message of Star Trek more than the tech itself. Which is fine. I get it. But if you keep around the outdated tech, you may become locked into a narrow version of its 1960s world view. Creating some risk for the whole progressive message backfiring. A lost utopia past. Better to take a fresh look at where future tech is headed, and create a fresh version of how the progressive world view fits into that updated future. Anyway, it’s a huge franchise, so unkillable. Like Star Wars. Or Bond.
  • A few related posts by me. On watching Star Wars movies in the correct order. Either 4,5,1,2,3,6 or machete order 4,5,2,3,6. Followed now by 7 I supose. On not being surprised that science fiction movies often have imperfect science. On astronauts no longer needed as robotic probes are a more likely future. Sending explorers into space seems less and less likely the way to do it. The 1960s future envisioned in the Apollo era has changed.
  • Thanks for twitter exchange with Yalım K. Gerger, which helped motivate writing this post.
  • By the way, I thought the Star Trek JJ Abrams movies were quite decent action superhero movies. A successful reboot, especially from financial movie studio perspective. Fun, well worth seeing, highly competent, especially good with characters, but ultimately weak on plot and story, and missing the essential progressive viewpoint of Star Trek as well as showing no concern with the science side of science fiction. Simultaneouly brilliant and blandly derivative in a fan fiction sort of way. That is to say I very well enjoyed them, but at the same time think they aren’t all that interesting. And in some ways not even science fiction. Along those lines, the best review of the existing six movie Star Wars canon prior to the new movie coming out is by Ross Douthat. He points out Lucas was an auteur, and that’s the path to true original greatness as well as Jar Jar Binks. This implies the only opportunity for a great Star Wars would have been if Lucas had managed to keep it together and pulled it off. And unfortunately he didn’t. So best he passed his legacy on to others. Quote:

But Lucas did have a vision for “Star Wars” that, if he had actually pulled the six-movie cycle off, would have belonged to a higher level of cinema than most of the obsequiously-fan-servicing blockbusters and adaptations that now dominate the multiplex. The auteur theory has its weaknesses, but it isn’t all wrong: “A New Hope” and “Empire” are both masterpieces of pop art in a way that none of the endlessly-proliferating Marvel-universe or D.C. blockbusters are likely to ever be; the only superhero movies that have come close to the “New Hope/”Empire” quality, tellingly, are Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, a self-enclosed project in the charge of a perfectionist director. And the full rise and fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker would have been something even greater, if only Lucas could have sustained the quality of “Empire” instead of succumbing to whatever it was that closed him off to constructive criticism and collaboration, and turned his genius into Jar Jar Binks.

Now we’re never going to get that even greater story, because Lucas tried to deliver it and failed; that star destroyer has sailed. What we’re going to get instead — “Star Wars” as another Marvel universe, a sprawling genre world in which many directors get to play — will probably produce some really good movies, and all in all I’m glad it’s happening, I’m glad Lucas sold the rights, I’m glad that Jar Jar and Naboo aren’t the last word on the franchise.

But the story I wanted from “Star Wars,” the story that is “Star Wars” to me, is the one that Lucas already finished and disastrously fouled up, and a cool space thriller about the spies who stole the Death Star plans or the adventures of Young Han Solo just isn’t going to be quite the same thing.

So my priors on JJ Abrams Star Trek before seeing movie captured here:

One last update. Douthat has now seen the new Star Wars movie. Think his reaction unsurprised but rather pointed if you know where he’s coming from.

If you want spoiler filled detailed version of Douthat’s take, go here.

9 thoughts on “Why a new Star Trek is a bad idea, even though a new Star Wars is fine. Science Fiction ≠ Fantasy.

  1. My favorite scifi themes growing up were time travel, fast interstellar travel, and people with extra-sensory powers. All of these are fantasy, dressed up slightly by pretending they could be real. In fact, the only thing that makes scifi less enduring than fantasy is if they try to explain how the tricks are done. As Clarke said, a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Truly.

    1. BTW, my favorite Star Trek episodes by far are the time travel and parallel universe episodes of the original series. Much more fun than any of the movies, and they aren’t dated, since the time travel was into the past, and the “science” will probably always be impossible, and therefore never out of date. Those are the ones I would show to kids today.

  2. interesting to say star wars is fantasy. No wonder I love it.

    agree that star trek TNG is the best. And best episode? Tinman, IMO. If you haven’t seen it yet, do. The Borg is just war. Tinman is beauty.

    1. Obviously fantasy and science fiction have lots of overlap, so line is inherently blurry. Technically both fall under “genre fiction”. But to me science fiction is distinguished by having a primary focus on how changes in science/technology drive changes in society, while fantasy is about a romanticized and magical past. Stars Wars is about a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. Not tech changing the world. Fantasy with most excellent sci-fi coloring. Star Trek is about technologically driven post-scarcity society, enabling humanity to lurch to utopia. So fits firmly in sci-fi. Though JJ Abrams movies are more action adventure/superhero, so in some sense his reboot did great with rebooting the characters while at the same time discarding the very essence of the TV series. While retaining all the Star Trek/Jetsons 1960s view of future tech.

      Tinman’s greatness must not be denied. Escaping the madness of society through bonding with the other. A pilgrim reaching for transcendence.

      1. I tend to think of scifi and fantasy as two different settings for “travel” stories, where you go to strange places and see incredible things. I always liked scifi better, though, because it makes science the source of power and interesting possibilities, which it really is, whereas fantasy is closer to religion and provides empty calories.

    1. ok, just to tag on to the mystery paragraph:

      I read Men Explain Things to Me which explains that Virginia Woolfe claims that art criticism shouldn’t crush the spirit of the piece. Forgot, so let me quote from an email I wrote to an Oregonian:
      [blockquote]
      Virginia says “I don’t know a lot.” She doesn’t know what women want. But in her stories it is freedom to have an identity. I feel that way with the perception that the strangers I interact with have ulterior motives.[/blockquote]

      1. I disagree that sky fi (to distinguish as less speculative side of the genre, farther from the join with fantasy), ages poorly. For example, in thinking about how Nietzsche the son of a preacher man, turned Fyodor’s Feynman Integral all moments at one into cycles, like Ecclesiastes, I then later recalled the person who inspired the Manhatten project except with the exception, from the laws of physics that his bombs would explode for a long time instead of with a single bang.

        -s

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