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Daily Journal

Star Trek and Star Wars politics

Dec. 19th, 2002
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RALEIGH — I’ve had so many positive responses from the reposting, a few weeks back, of my very-scientific, very-serious analysis for CJ of the political significance of comic book superheroes that I’ve decided to pick up a similar theme today. Treating the release of the latest Star Trek film last weekend, “Nemesis,” as a news peg, I will now make my ironclad case for the fact that Star Trek is liberal and Star Wars is conservative.

• In the future world of Star Trek, money and capitalism are treated in a negative light. At several points in both the television series and the films, an addled Gene Roddenberry tried to insert in the story that money itself had been disinvented, but this ludicrous premise didn’t even work in fiction and was discarded. Instead, those engaged in free enterprise are portrayed as evil, ruthless, and physically revolting — the stooping, big-eared, and sniveling Ferengi race of The Next Generation being a kind of psychological projection of how Roddenberry and other Star Trek creators see the world of business.

In Star Wars, on the other hand, two of the main heroes — Han Solo and Lando Calrissian — are present or former smugglers and businessmen. In “The Empire Strikes Back,” Lando is employed as the administrator of a mining colony that thrives by being outside the taxing and regulatory authority of the evil Empire. Later, in “The Phantom Menace,” an attempt by the Trade Federation to tax and monopolize interplanetary commerce turns out to be part of a nefarious conspiracy to overthrow the Galactic Republic.

Interestingly, despite their intentions, the Star Trek creative team couldn’t keep up the anti-capitalist bias on a consistent basis. Several of the most entertaining and interesting scripts involved the hated Ferengi. Later stories in The Next Generation involve commercial bidding for wormhole rights and technological advances. And in the movie “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” some of the best jokes come at the expense of the Enterprise crew as they plop down, cluelessly, in the middle of late-20th century California and try to interact with average folks in daily commerce.

• In Star Trek, storylines and characters make a fetish out of diversity, dwelling on differences and sometimes questioning whether a universal morality can truly be asserted across racial lines. In Star Wars, which is a fictional world of mind-boggling diversity, alien species work together and fight together with little self-conscious sermonizing or pontificating. It’s obvious, at least visually, that the freedom-seeking rebellion against the Empire is a multicultural one. But the rebels aren’t seeking to defeat the Emperor simply because he won’t hire enough Toydarian storm troopers, or because he prefers officers with proper English accents, or because he is Trent Lott with a (black) hood. They want to defeat him because he is an evil tyrant, period.

• In Star Trek, the Federation appears to exercise significant power and control over interplanetary issues and commerce. Its governmental agencies are usually seen as benign. In Star Wars, everyone in the earlier time period (comprising “The Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones”) complains that the Galactic Republic is sinking into a morass of bureaucracy and corruption. The risk that these problems will give rise to a tyrannical dictator is explicit discussed, and reminds one of a number of cogent explanations for the rise of centralized, oppressive government in various real-world countries over the past two centuries.

• In Star Trek, law enforcement is armed with phasers. Officers stun people, then lock them up, then subject them to intensive psychiatry until they are “cured” of their criminal impulses. In Star Wars, law enforcement under the Galactic Republic appears to be the job of Jedi Knights who try to avoid violence but, if pressed, will cut you in half with a light saber.

• In Star Trek, evil characters are frequently considered to be the product of a poor environment, a bad childhood, misunderstanding, or miscommunication. It turns out that Captain Kirk and the other original cast members just didn’t understand the Klingons, for example, or the Romulans. The Gorn, a lizard-like race that does a Pearl Harbor on the Federation and kills many innocent people, are later excused from culpability because they say that they saw peaceful Federation colonists as “invaders” in their territory. Killer clouds of space gas or giant space amebas threatening the lives of billions turn out to be lost children or mindless things just trying to survive. Even the Borg, a great source of villainy from The Next Generation, are humanized in subsequent stories.

In Star Wars, evil characters have been seduced by the dark side of the Force. They have given into temptation, and are held accountable for their actions. The Star Wars movies are really morality tales, and have a strong religious component in spite of themselves. No one argues that Sith Lords might have turned out differently if they had just been enrolled in a quality preschool program.

• In Star Trek, Starfleet has apparently by the time of The Next Generation decided to post “counselors” on their starships to tend to the psychological needs of their crews, and generally to muck up the works with weepy sentimentality. In Star Wars, you go to a Jedi Master for advice and counsel — and if you get any, he makes you work hard for it. He has mental powers, just like Counselor Troi does in Star Trek, but uses them when needed to protect the weak and enforce justice rather than just to “understand” you.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like both Star Trek and Star Wars. In fact, I know way too much Trek trivia and own more Star Trek novels that I care to admit (some of them are excellent, others just escapism). But I just thought I’d set the record straight: Star Trek is liberal, Star Wars is conservative. Feel free to agree or disagree, or to suggest other popular culture that needs political dissecting. It’s fun, but it’s also offers some quasi-serious insights into changes in public moods and mores over time.