The two big live-action sci-fi franchises, Star Trek and Star Wars, are undergoing a bit of an identity crisis. Or rather the crisis is about how their fans are reacting to the latest incarnations of both franchises.
The properties are several decades old by now and although so much of what made them popular still resonates with people, they have to remain fresh. In other words, Star Trek and Star Wars have to keep up with the times. This meant that the recent incarnations are distinctly different from the original versions, which has sharply divided fandom.
Star Trek Into Darkness
Star Trek returned to home screens with Star Trek: Discovery, a show that is in many ways a radical departure from the 1960s TV show. The lead is not a white male captain, but a black female science officer who committed mutiny. That’s not all. Star Trek: Discovery features an openly homosexual couple, a starship captain with questionable morals, and a much darker tone where adult language and violence are commonplace.
The premise of Star Trek is about a starship exploring new worlds and meeting new races. There is very little of that in Star Trek: Discovery as it takes place during a war with the alien species, the Klingons. This was something that Star Trek’s original creator, Gene Roddenberry, would not approve. He presented a futuristic show about an enlightened humanity.
While Star Trek: Discovery explores issues like its predecessor, the characters, not the guest aliens, are the ones undergoing their own ethical crisis. An early subplot of the show dealt with the morality of the ship’s crew forcibly using an alien creature as a means of propulsion. This brought up the problem of animal abuse and later the characters’ ethics were heightened when it was revealed that the creature was sentient. The captain’s justification for the abuse was that he was trying to win a war. Another main character is actually a Klingon disguised as a human, who suffers from PTSD and is grappling over his sanity. Then the main character, Michael Burnham, committed treasonous acts that ignited a war with the Klingons and agonizes over her past. These characters are not exactly clear cut heroes.
The Ambiguous Star Wars
The new Star Wars trilogy films have featured women as the lead characters, as well as non-whites. Unlike the original films that concentrated on a young, white male savior, the new films have strong women who are the central characters.
The films are also more ambiguous than the original ones with their simplistic good vs. evil plotlines. For example, in the latest film, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the issues of war profiteering, class inequality, and animal abuse were brought up. The film’s villain had a more ambivalent nature as Kylo Ren was genuinely conflicted about embracing his dark nature. Actually, his descent into evil was more interesting than the film’s other one-dimensional foes, who were little more than cackling caricatures.
One of the heroes featured in Star Wars: The Last Jedi was Luke Skywalker, the main protagonist from the earlier films. In this film, he was a fallen man, full of defeat and bore little resemblance to the optimistic savior of the original trilogy. This arc gave Luke more dimension and provided a vehicle to explore his spiritual reawakening and redemption. In the film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the main characters were also spiritually murky as they carried out dubious actions in the spirit of winning the war. For example, one of the leads, Cassian Andor, cold bloodedly murdered an accomplice in order to escape the bad guys. The overall tone of that film was harsher as it dealt with the brutality and ambiguity of war.
It comes as no surprise that some vocal fans have reacted negatively to these changes. A common complaint among them is that “It’s not my Star Wars,” or “Star Trek is not supposed to be about war.” They are correct; these are not simple recreations, but evolutions. These purists are unable to embrace any changes. A lot of them just want to relive their memories and cannot let go of the past. Regrettably, other fans simply cannot deal with a non-white or a woman as the lead and use the faults of the new Star Trek and Star Wars as a cover for their dislike. This brings up another point.
Are these films and shows perfect? Of course, not; every work of art has its flaws. Go back and rewatch the original Star Trek episodes with an open mind. Would they pass muster with today’s audiences? Women walking around in skimpy outfits; simplistic solutions used for complex social ills; male leads cavorting with different female guest stars; cardboard sets and dated effects. Not likely.
The early Star Wars films for all their glory are not without faults. While they are not as dated as the original Star Trek, they do have their own problems. There is a shocking lack of non-white characters in the first film, very few women are seen, as well, and let’s get to the plots. It’s obvious that creator George Lucas was making up the story as he went along when Princess Leia passionately kissed Luke only to later reveal they were siblings. Then there are the prequel films. Can anyone honestly say The Phantom Menace is a better film than The Last Jedi?
Sure, many complaints and nitpicks about the new Star Wars and Star Trek are legitimate. The Last Jedi is riddled with plot holes, has pacing problems and was too long. That entire sub plot with the casino planet did not go anywhere and made the heroes look incompetent, which is unfortunate since the leads in that story line were non-whites. As for Star Trek: Discovery, in trying to be too different the show went overboard with the terrible reimaging of the Klingons. There are problems with the script and acting at times. In one episode the starship Discovery crew let a criminal go free after he tried to destroy the ship. In another, Burnham sneaks onboard a Klingon ship and plants these too-obvious-to-not-be-noticed devices and succeeds.
Despite these problems, both franchises should be lauded for trying something different and they have their merits. The fact is that both Star Wars and Star Trek have to stay current and appeal to modern tastes in order to stay relevant. Some adjustments are required and they may not always work. However, the creators have to do this or face a diminishing fan base. This is probably happening anyway with purists swearing off the new incarnations. But there is the possibility that the franchises could gain new fans. They will carry the adoration for these wonderful properties into the future and to new generations.
Lewis T. Grove and José Soto