J.J. Abrams has been announced as the next director for Star Wars, which seems fitting because he’s currently making Star Trek movies that feel kind of like Star Wars movies. You might suspect that only casual fans would ask “what’s the difference?” But when even Trekkies laud Abrams’ gun-slingin’ crash-boom approach to the franchise, one worries that Gene Roddenberry’s original vision is slipping into obscurity.
Star Wars looks backward (“A long time ago…”) in the sense that problems are resolved with guns and swords. The heroes are good, the villains are bad. Star Trek, in original concept and at its best, looks forward. It envisions a possible Earth where money isn’t needed, and where nobody is homeless or hungry (Yikes! Anti-capitalism alert.) Its best plots examined issues such as racism, the price of war, and environmental concerns (the truest film of the franchise is IV, in which humpback whales save the planet.) As often as not, villians turned out to be something else when seen from a new perspective.
Star Trek emerged from the best traditions of science fiction, which used futuristic settings as microcosms of our own society. Star Wars dumbed down sci-fi (and then Lucas dumbed it down even more with Episodes 1-3) and made it mass marketable on an unprecedented scale. During a time when people are furiously defending their rights to own weapons, when talk show blowhards insist the poor are just lazy, when religious leaders demonize people to solidify their followings, we need to rekindle the hope of Roddenberry’s vision. We’re all in this together.