“Your Eyes Can Deceive You”: How the Boldness of Star Trek Became the Blind Faith of Star Wars

Feature / August 30, 2017

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Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek cast members in front of the NASA space shuttle Enterprise at the Palmdale manufacturing facility, 1976

MCKENNA: “As the Apollo moon shot moves steadily from the drawing board to the launching pad, STAR TREK takes TV viewers beyond our time and solar system to the unexplored interstellar deeps,” read the NBC brochure for the 1966 launch of the show, before promising that Star Trek would “stimulate the imagination without bypassing the intellect,” and “have much to say that is meaningful to us today.” Eleven years later, though, the pressbook for 20th Century Fox’s upcoming 1977 release Star Wars made no such claims, promoting the film instead as a “majestic visual experience” – “A magical space fantasy adventure,” which, it claimed, “has no relationship to Earth time or space.”

Each is in its way a transcendent piece of pop-culture art, but what shift had taken place in the zeitgeist that made it want to push aside the socially progressive, nominally science-based and adult Star Trek and replace it with the escapist, visionary lunacy of Star Wars? Had thirty years of living in the shadow of one of technology’s most terrible inventions crippled our belief that science was the way forward? Had we started thinking the irrational was the only way to deal with what looked like an increasingly insane world?

GRASSO: This question seems to beat at the heart of Generation X sci-fi pop culture: “Star Trek or Star Wars“? Before I get into the nuts and bolts of how I see it in the grander sense, I’ll get personal and come out and say it: I’m a Star Trek guy. Always have been, always will be. Being a child of television, I guess this makes sense. Even before Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in 1987, I was an avid viewer of the original series in syndication. As a kid, and later as TNG and Deep Space 9 (1993) continued into my high school years and college, Star Trek offered a final gasp of the liberal optimism of the New Frontier in a confusing, soon-to-be-post Cold War world. (I feel like every time one of us uses the phrase “New Frontier” this week, our readers should have to take a drink.)

Star Trek, much like The Twilight Zone (1959), was the product of an idiosyncratic mind, that of Gene Roddenberry. And that mind was forged in the fires of World War II, came to maturity in postwar America, and saw the varied hypocrisies and contradictions of an America who’d come out of World War II believing itself exceptional. It’s no surprise that both Rod Serling and Roddenberry made their fortune in television, because television offered something that film as an institution, at least in the ’50s and ’60s, could not. Since television was a new medium, and one desirous of content, creators could take many more chances there than with a film studio’s millions. So as Serling and Roddenberry labored in anonymity before their big breaks, they learned how to carefully place possibly-subversive messages into their works. Television was, and is, a medium that can accommodate irony and novelty much easier than film. Each creator, of course, had to cloak their ideals in the comforting conceptual distance of science fiction, but occasionally real and profound societal change could come from these tales.

As for Star Wars, well, I’m sure others can speak better of it than I, but I believe that in many ways, its 1977 debut and the mania surrounding it ushered us into the bloated, nostalgia-choked, commercialized media landscape we live in today. Kelly?

ROBERTS: Ouch. Although my interest in Star Trek eventually displaced the Star Wars phenomenon that defined my youth, it took a while. I was 15 when The Next Generation debuted (and 5 when I first saw Star Wars), and I was transfixed for the first year. As I discovered the guitar, “classic” literature, and, yes, the opposite sex (none of whom seemed to dig sci-fi and comics at my school), I slowly abandoned the show and almost all of the “genre” media that had obsessed me since I could talk. Though I would watch an occasional episode, I didn’t rediscover Trek until my late-20s, though my loyalty is focused almost exclusively on the original series and TNG—I believe the latter is the greatest sci-fi series that has ever aired. Looking back, even though there is a powerful case that the original Star Wars is more sophisticated than it gets credit for, I still think it and its unprecedented popularity were essentially products of Cold War exhaustion. Much like J.R.R. Tolkien’s dualistic and moralistic Lord of the Rings, Star Wars gave us the good guys vs. the bad guys, and the good guys won. The difference was the “majestic visual experience” Richard mentions above. It was exactly that: a revolution in visual effects that continues to play out to this day.

It was the counterculture that buoyed the success of the first Lord of the Rings paperbacks (which George Lucas read while at USC film school) published in 1965, and it was the counterculture that buoyed Star Trek, which first aired in 1966. Here’s DeForest Kelly in 1984:

A lot of young people have been brought up in a negative atmosphere… We began when the hippie generation was sitting around, and I think Star Trek gave its members hope.

We told them, ‘There are still new frontiers.’ We showed them a group of adults who really cared for each other and for their fellow man… The young mind is so open, so ready to be saturated

Star Wars, on the other hand—and keep in mind, I still love the film—is a children’s movie. There is nothing intellectual about it, a fact that Lucas tried to rectify in the prequels—with deplorable results.

MCKENNA: Hmm. I’m slightly older than you two, so maybe that’s why, despite a love for both Star Wars (by which I mean the first film) and Star Trek (the original series) so deeply ingrained that it’s like an old wound that throbs when the weather changes, I still carry a torch for Star Wars despite the horrors it undeniably spawned. I was seven when I saw it in 1977 at a hulking art-deco cinema in a working-class mining town in the North of England. Lots of kids, but plenty of adults too, and none of them soft touches. As we left the vast Gaumont, the looks on their faces were telling: they were in shock. We were all in shock. Many of those leaving just silently rejoined the queue that snaked down the red brick side of the immense building to see it again. I’ve never experienced anything like it since.

It’s hard now to remember how devastatingly, psychotropically immersive Star Wars felt at the time, and how potent the dreamlike collision of surfaces and textures that resulted from old-school British cinema nous fusing with trippy US vision. Yes, Star Wars is a children’s movie—and as both of you have pointed out, one that opened the sluice gates for the interminable slick of trash which continues to pollute the cultural waters of the world—but it’s a children’s movie as made by Antonioni: like Red Desert, it’s a study of surface whose intensity makes it profound. The story is garbage, of course (though I did love it at the time), but the story wasn’t what it was about (and once the “story,” in the form of bollocks like Yoda and the Force, started to take hold, the stench of putrefaction got too much even for my miniature mind): like Alien the following year, Star Wars was primarily a film of transformative aesthetic power, the lysergic cover of an SF paperback with a dull novel between its covers—ideal for a generation that had grown up gazing at the artwork of SF paperbacks it was too young to read.

Unfortunately, as time passed, people started thinking that it was the silly ephemera Star Wars had spawned, and not the transformative experience, that was what it had all been about, and something which should have been an existential corollary to Star Trek ended up becoming its anti-intellectual antithesis.

GRASSO: Wow, Richard. That anecdote about seeing Star Wars in ’77 is pretty powerful. I saw Empire at a local drive-in theater (there were three drive-ins within 20 minutes of my house in 1980, if you can believe that) and Jedi in a traditional theater three years later, and I did not come out of either with wonder in my eyes and hope in my heart. It just didn’t speak to me, and I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps it is an age thing; if I’d been a few years older and had been five or six in 1977, I might feel the same way as you.

Your mention of “a children’s movie as made by Antonioni” reminds me, though: George Lucas is a damn good filmmaker! I count THX-1138 (1971) as one of the most inspired debuts in all the “outlaw ’70s” class of directors, and American Graffiti (1973) was and is a great “hangout” movie, even if it did inspire the glut of late Silent/early Boomer 1950s nostalgia of the 1970s. His visual styling is undeniable; in both THX-1138 and Star Wars his vision of an impersonal, computerized future is probably one of the most trenchant cinematic observations of the looming technocratic consensus. I don’t know quite when the Star Wars phenomenon got out of control; my podcast partner and We Are the Mutants contributor Rob MacDougall often cites the famous “empty cardboard box becoming the most popular Christmas gift of 1977” phenomenon as the first sign something was seriously wrong with Star Wars fandom. We can leave aside the Holiday Special for the moment.

Pivoting off of Kelly’s observations on the respective fandoms, I’ve heard some say that the epic scale of Star Wars inspires folks inclined towards fantasy and the hierarchal militaristic scale of Star Trek inspires those who love historical fiction and tales of warfare. Lucas was of course notably inspired by Joseph Campbell and other theorists of heroic folklore. Roddenberry’s inspirations were Westerns like Wagon Train and naval tales of the Napoleonic era. Ultimately, though, they’re both bluff boys’ tales of adventure, let’s be honest. I can absolutely respect Lucas for slyly subverting the “princess in need of rescue” trope by making Leia into a bad-ass who can wield a blaster with the best of them. But I think another reason why Star Trek will always have more of a place in my heart is that Kirk can’t do it alone. He’s not a hero on a journey. He’s part of a team, a crew. This is true whether we’re looking at the classic Kirk/Spock/McCoy triad (where Spock and McCoy act as the logical/emotional poles of Kirk’s New Frontier brains-and-brawn combo) or the entire bridge crew with its deliberately multicultural set of origins.

ROBERTS: I want to go back to the differences between the two franchises for a second, and the differences between their respective audiences. In 1966, young people wanted meaningful answers, they wanted out of the war, they wanted inclusiveness, they wanted to protect the environment and the diverse creations of diverse cultures. As the most privileged generation in American history, they had the luxury of wanting and demanding those things. Federation “employment,” it turns out, was not unlike everyday reality for the Boomers: Kirk and company have little to worry about except the conflicts they have asked for. By 1977, things had changed. Recession came home to roost, there were no jobs, parents were absent, the middle class started to erode. The young wanted cigarettes and beer—scarce commodities at this point—and any sort of escape they could manage: video games, role-playing games, laser light shows, and, on May 25th, a film called Star Wars. If impulsive Kirk and rational Spock are the heroes of the ’60s rebels, then take-no-shit Princess Leia and the mercenary, “scruffy-looking” Han Solo belong to ’70s kids.

One of these generations sold out, by the way, and it wasn’t mine.

MCKENNA: Yes, as Kelly points out, one generation’s utopian Federation is another’s oppressive Empire. There’s another link between the two that we haven’t touched on, though—the generational nervous breakdown that was Space: 1999 and its progenitor, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey2001 had turned the special effect from window dressing into an actual form unto itself, rendering visionary imagery so artfully that it became not just a selling point for the film but the film’s actual narrative voice, and the immaculately-rendered illusion—as opposed to the Trek-like intellectual investigation—subsequently became our chief mode of tackling the unknowable. And with the certainties that the ’60s had challenged revealing themselves to be only the tip of an iceberg, the unknowable began to dominate. When the Andersons decided to tackle adult science fiction in their Space: 1999, they adopted 2001‘s cool surfaces and glacial effects to communicate the ineffable. Hardly any of it made anything resembling “scientific” sense, but as a metaphor for being ejected from the orbit of the familiar and facing the traumas of a confusing, arbitrary future, Space:1999‘s cribbing of Kubrick and Clarke worked brilliantly. Just how brilliantly was highlighted when ex-Trek producer Fred Freidberger stepped in to produce 1999‘s second season, the hokeyness and mundanity of the approach he brought with him suddenly feeling hugely dated. Soft, metaphysical SF, where evoking the vast, intergalactic spaces of the psyche was as important as tackling issues, was in the ascent (fittingly, 2001 was re-released in the UK—with a self-deprecating George Lucas quote—to cash in on Star Wars‘ success, meaning that I was taken to see it for a friend’s ninth birthday).

So with all this in mind, it’s hard for me to blame Star Wars for its faults. They were the faults of the time, and Star Wars wasn’t to know that, driven on by the voracity of commerce, it would help widen those faults into huge cracks which would swallow up the brains of grown women and men for decades to come. Maybe on some parallel Earth where plastic was too precious in 1977 to make sequels inevitable, they’re free to enjoy Star Wars as the visionary piece of accidental outsider art it should have been.

2 thoughts on ““Your Eyes Can Deceive You”: How the Boldness of Star Trek Became the Blind Faith of Star Wars

  1. “Unfortunately, as time passed, people started thinking that it was the silly ephemera Star Wars had spawned, and not the transformative experience, that was what it had all been about, and something which should have been an existential corollary to Star Trek ended up becoming its anti-intellectual antithesis.”

    This is one of the most on point and penetrating observations about the SW/ST duality that I’ve read anywhere.
    I’m the same age as you Richard and you described my experience seeing Star Wars for the first time note for note. It wasn’t necessarily the story in Star Wars the drew me in, but the spectacle, design, the world building and, of course, the characters who were all very distinct personalities easily understood by a child.. I was already familiar at 7 years old with Star Trek (intimately) and Space 1999 by the time I saw Star Wars and the experience was, as you said, an aesthetic transformative experience. I suppose Space 1999 was for me as well in its own way, and it managed to freak me out like nothing else, but perhaps part of the difference is (as a metaphor) the X-Wing vs the Eagle and the size of the cinema screen vs the television.

    • Thanks a lot, Brad. Space: 1999 was a hugely transformative – not to mention traumatising! – experience for me too, I think it probably shaped a lot of the way I look at life, for better or for worse.

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