By Mike Knope, Staff Writer
I’m doing a little monthly ritual of mine, where I stalk the man cave with a feather duster and stare at what is essentially a Star Trek museum, checking each prop, spaceship replica, action figure and whatever else is in there, looking for the tiniest imperfection, something out of place, or any other evidence that somebody, maybe one of the kids, touched something. A look in my eyes like I’m ready to chop some hands off, Hammurabi-style, for any transgression against my great wall of nerd. I look at all these autographed pictures: me and the missus next to William Shatner, in full Starfleet uniforms. Another Shatner picture, signed to me. All five Captains from the TV shows signed a picture, and Lavar Burton personalized one for the wife. Marina Sirtis (Counselor Troi) and Nana Visitor (Major Kira) both wished us a happy anniversary when they signed our stuff. It dawns on me: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is playing on my iPad, and I really need to use this spare time I have to watch it. Straight from a Trekkie’s heart: It’s really good. REALLY GOOD! Not Force Awakens GREAT, but damn good. Later I watched Star Trek Beyond for the fourth or fifth time, and I got into one of those moods where I just sat and grinned like a fool because I live in a time and place where Star Trek and Star Wars are still being made and made well, and I realized that every time I talk about this stuff, the question comes up: “Which one do you like?” Answer, “I never grew up in a world where you’re only allowed to like one.”
So, I decided that I wanted to be the very first person to ever write an article on the internet about the old Star Wars vs. Star Trek debate, but it looks like somewhere around two million or so people beat me to the punch. Them’s the breaks; but screw it, I’m going to do it anyway.
In 1997, George Lucas re-released the Star Wars trilogy in theaters as a Special Edition, twenty years after it’s original release, and I was able to see it on the big screen for the first time. The films included some additional digital effects, the effectiveness or usefulness of which can be debated from now until the Sith destroy the galaxy, but that’s not why I’m here. I remember very vividly trying to get into the mindset of a person who HADN’T bought these things on VHS on three separate occasions because they had been watched over and over again to the point of the tape practically disintegrating. Try to imagine, being there in 1977, going in to see a movie that you knew nothing about except hype and word of mouth, and that music hits and pins you to the back of your seat. Reading a weird looking text crawl that was stylistically lifted directly from the old Flash Gordon serials, full of names and events that probably made no sense. Galactic Empire? Rebel Alliance? DEATH STAR!? So many weird and intriguing things going on before the movie even starts. Then, the camera pulls back, and you see that you are in space, a planet off in the distance. A spaceship screams overhead, it’s being attacked. It fires off a few shots of it’s own, then you see what is chasing it: a bigger, scarier looking, and obviously faster ship. Without knowing, you’ve already figured out that the little ship is the good guy Rebels, and the bigger ship is that evil Galactic Empire you just read about. Some would argue that this is the most poetic and breathtakingly beautiful opening in cinema history. I was able to go there, to let myself be taken to that place, regardless of how many time I’ve seen the films on home video. And because I waited until all three of the original films were out, I did them all in one weekend: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. And holy shit, was that an experience to remember.
You know, the magic of cinema and all that.
Speaking of cinema magic, all of this wondrousness happened only a year after another cinematic juggernaut, Star Trek: First Contact. This is the film that set Captain Picard and the crew of Star Trek: The Next Generation off on their first solo adventure. The previous film featuring this cast, the much-hyped Star Trek: Generations, admittedly fell a bit flat. In it, the Next Gen captain managed to free the previously-declared-dead Captain James Kirk from a strange alternate reality called the Nexus, and Kirk promptly managed to get himself killed in the dumbest way a person could get themselves killed, a point amplified by the fact that this character will live on forever as one of pop culture’s most endearing, inspiring, and beloved heroes. So, when the crew of the Enterprise romped off on this new time-travel adventure, featuring one of fiction’s most terrifying entities, The Borg, fans were understandably wary. Boy, were we in for a wonderful surprise. Star Trek: First Contact was a moody, occasionally dark little film full of angst and themes of revenge, and ultimately ended as a character study where Picard learns that anger is a part of the human condition until it manifests itself as vengeance and consumes your soul little by little until your humanity is gone, and a bitter husk will be all that’s left of the man you once were. Thankfully our good captain was able to turn away from the darkness and save himself, as well as, you know, the rest of humanity. Also, kudos to James Cromwell, who plays Dr. Cochrane in the movie, as a man who is always running from the greatness that is within him, never wanting the responsibility that comes with being a genius, deciding that it’s more interesting to drink and dance and have fun. By the end of the movie, he launches his rocket achieving warp speed for the first time, and becomes the first human to make contact with an alien race. As he extends his hand to teach the Vulcan explorer what an Earth handshake is, Cromwell, using only facial expression, a wary smile, and body language, perfectly encapsulates the emotions of a man who has decided to shoulder his burdens, let go of his carefree ways, and become the hero that history has demanded of him. It’s called acting, and this is one of the best in the biz. There’s also some pretty badass action here too.
So now, reliving a personal favorite moment from each franchise, I’m asking myself: why am I even writing this? The purpose of this column going forward will be to let you, the reader, walk the path that I’ve walked through “nerd culture,” my personal history as a fan of all those things that used to get made fun of; the comic books, the science fiction, the fantasy. I might even have a thing or two to say about professional wrestling every now and then. Because to me, these things are meaningful and have a resonance in the world, but most of all it’s just fun. That being said, since I’m sure that in the future I’ll write more about Star Wars and Star Trek, I’m going to end this first column with a list. Here now, the two best and the two worst things about BOTH Star Wars and Star Trek
BEST OF STAR WARS: The “used future.” The used future is something that George Lucas made a point of in many behind the scenes documentaries and making of featurettes that have been released over the years. With no Earthly connection, this galaxy far,far away wasn’t some shiny, sterile, clean-looking sci-fi trope. This was a place that has been lived in for a while. There was a dirtiness to it, Han Solo’s shit keeps breaking down; there were sections of the galaxy filled with criminals, bounty hunters, and an organized crime syndicate ran by a perverted turd-slug who fetishized human women and instilled fear in his enemies by grunting and farting and getting other, more mobile people to do everything for him.
WORST OF STAR WARS: The Prequels. This is where George Lucas shit the bed. The Jedi Knights, instead of being these badass warrior samurai monks that we thought they were for so many years, are instead a bunch of weird dudes who take infants from their families and indoctrinate them into some galactic Scientology club where they are forced to abandon all emotion and family connection. And the Force? The mystical energy that binds the galaxy together? Turns out, you just have some weird micro-organisms in your blood, and they somehow make….the Force…happen? It’s a shit idea, and to make matters worse, it’s an incomplete shit idea. Remember when Obi-Wan told Luke that Darth Vader helped the Empire hunt down and destroy the Jedi Knights? Turns out a bunch of Stormtroopers killed the Jedi Knights, and all Vader did was cut off Samuel L. Jackson’s hand so Palpatine could kill him, then he went to the Jedi temple and slaughtered a bunch of seven-year-olds. But he was making sad face when he did it! That was his internal conflict! Or when he strangled his pregnant wife to the point of unconsciousness, then was all like “WWWHHHHHAAAAAAAT? SHE DIED? BUT HOW? NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” When the twins are born, Jimmy Smits takes Leah to his homeworld, gives her his last name, and tells everyone that she is his adopted daughter. Obi-Wan’s plan? Take Luke to Vader’s home planet, give him to Vader’s family, and make sure you keep the Skywalker name!
BEST OF STAR WARS: Lightsabers. Seriously the greatest fictional weapon ever conceived. Nothing, and I mean nothing, will ever be as awesome as a frickin’ sword, made out of a frickin’ laser. NOTHING! EVER! And they can cut through anything and they can block blasters and they come in different colors and the bad guys always have a red one and some of them have two blades and they make the coolest sounds and they are the bestest thing ever ever ever ever ever ever!
WORST OF STAR WARS: The, dare I say, childishness? of some of it. Maybe childishness isn’t the right word, but tell me this: Do you not roll your eyes just a bit when you see a character named General Grievous? Because no matter how cool or interesting he is, his name is General Grievous. I guess General Android Deathbringer was already taken? Same as Killerson McDeath? WTF Lucas? And while we’re on the subject, Death Star? Murderball Laser Annihilator a little too subtle there, George? Lest we forget Jar-Jar Binks, a character so blatantly obvious that his sole purpose is make little kiddies laugh so we can sell more Happy Meals, who becomes a hero of the Republic by performing an off-Broadway one-man-show re-imagining the Three Stooges on a battlefield and then he saves the day stumbling into a freaking tank division and wipes it out by accident……it’s headache-inducing.
BEST OF STAR TREK: The Earth connection. One of the most likable and endearing things about Star Trek is that many fans, myself included, love the optimistic tone of the franchise. That we, as a united human race, somehow arrive at a future where exploration and the pursuit of knowledge become our most important endeavor. Sure, there’s a darker underbelly to how we arrived at that future. If you look at the previously mentioned First Contact film, mankind had to survive unknown atrocities to reach that point: the Eugenics Wars, World War Three, The Post-Atomic Age. But Trek shows us that yes, we can learn the value of self and the preciousness of life and understanding. Trek was groundbreaking in 1966: a Russian officer on the bridge during the cold war, an African-American female lead. Did you ever hear the old joke that Star Trek was so progressive, they even let an Asian drive? Yes, that is a horrible joke, but I saw George Takei laugh at that one, so I’m leaving it in. Trek works as great science fiction in the exact way that genre entertainment is designed to work. It was The Next Generation that woke me up to what allegory really means. Once I realized that, for instance, the Borg are actually a take on Communism, or that the Cardassians are textbook fascists, I was hooked in a way no entertainment had ever hooked me before. The reimagined Battlestar Galactica was really good at that, too. Star Wars? Not so much, not that that decreases it’s value as a piece of entertainment. I’m still going to love it.
WORST OF STAR TREK: Some of the movies. Look, in my opinion, Trek works best as a television series. Twenty-six or twenty-four episodes, average run time 44 minutes without commercials. It’s not all action, all the time, and that’s not a bad thing. By the time Star Wars was released in 1977, Trek had been off the air for eight years. The way I imagine things is, some studio executives at Paramount looked up and said “That Star Wars is making all of the money in the world. Don’t we have the rights to one of those star things?” “Yeah, an old TV show,” replied his colleague. “Let’s greenlight that shit and get our hands on some of that space-money, because the 1980’s are going to be here soon and we’re going to need all that extra cash when cocaine becomes a thing.” And the monstrosity known as Star Trek: The Motion Picture was born. Over long, flat out nothing happens for large chunks of the movie, and The crew of the Enterprise learns how to make conversation with a gigantic space-vagina made out of blinking lights and comet trails or something. Of course, this would be followed up by The Wrath of Khan, which is great, and The Search for Spock, which the opposite of great. The Voyage Home was hilarious, The Final Frontier was total butt. The Undiscovered Country, REALLY REALLY good. Avoid the odd-numbered Trek films, is what I’m saying.
THE BEST OF STAR TREK: The real and not-so-real science behind all of it. Ask any Trek nerd how the ships fly in Star Trek. The warp core creates a matter-antimatter reaction which bends the fabric of space itself. Imagine that the ship isn’t moving, it’s making space move around it. How doe the hyperdrive work in Star Wars? Nobody has time for that shit. Han Solo picks up a random tool and beats the hell out of something, Chewbacca yells something, then R2-D2 sticks his little robo-pecker in something, “PUNCH IT, CHEWY!” Aaaaaand, we’re off. Trekkies or Trekkers can talk for hours about transporter technology, breaking matter down at a molecular level, running it through a pattern buffer, and rearranging it on the other end. Lightsabers work because they have a crystal in them.
WORST OF STAR TREK: The stinker episodes. Over the course of five series, there has been some truly great work, like the fourth (sadly, final) season of Enterprise, The Dominion War from Deep Space Nine, the Borg arc, along with episodes like “Year in Hell” from Voyager. But, since this is Star Trek, episodes like “Spock’s Brain” or “Come Along Home” make me want to cut my nipples off in a tub full of saltwater. I’m not even going to recap these, they’re all on Netflix. I’ve seen a starship captain and her first officer get turned into giant salamanders and forced to have sex with each other, I’ve seen Abraham Lincoln and Genghis Khan talk shit to each other, I’ve seen Data’s poetry recitals, and I watched a favorite character get killed by being eaten by living tar, then come back as her own daughter, but a Romulan. So yeah, just remind me of these things every time I bash Jar-Jar Binks or midichlorians, or Kylo Ren’s hair. I deserve it.