Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Star Trek and Star Wars and JJ Abrams

A few weeks ago, Jon Stewart interviewed J.J. Abrams on The Daily Show. After getting over the "Gasp!" moment when Abrams admitted that he didn't "get into" Star Trek - and then did a slow-motion walk-back and recover - I found that I was really, really interested by one question they were batting around: What was the difference between Star Wars and Star Trek?

They both agreed there was a big one. Stewart said that Star Wars felt like a Western, or a samurai move, a dueling gunslinger kind of thing. Abrams agreed. "Star Wars never felt like a sci-fi thing, but Star Trek does." And he's right, I think. But why?

Structure. Not story structure; structure in general. Whether the structure is political, military, or cultural, Star Trek is interested in it, and Star Wars is not. It's a difference that shakes out in a lot of ways.

For instance, Star Wars is interested in individuals doing Force-y type stuff. There are different races, but only one culture: Whether you're Wookie, Hutt, or protocol droid, you're a character recognizable from human literature, often to the point of archetype...or stereotype.

Star Trek, on the other hand, is really interested in differences. Sure, sometimes that interest was ham-handed (how many times did they explain sex and love to Data?) but the appeal isn't just in meeting aliens who look different; it's in meeting aliens who behave differently. You might think that the portrayal of Klingons is as cliché warriors, but at least they behave differently from Humans. That can only happen if your stories deal, on some level, with structures like civilizations. Get rid of that structure, and your story is entirely about individuals.

And then there's the stuff everybody associates with space opera - blazing blasters, strafing space ships, and battlemechs. If you don't care about structure, you can't give an audience a sense of the wider conflict. Because war is about armies, and there's nothing more structured than an army. So in dealing with the space navy/future army side of things, Star Wars can only tell stories of battles - but Star Trek tells stories of wars.

And remember all that trade conflict gobbledygook from the second SW trilogy? If you don't care about how things are really structured, then all talk of economics, politics, law...is going to be gobbledygook. Inevitably. Because none of it will really affect the outcome of the story. But because Star Trek cares about structure, it can have a scene where two diplomats get into an argument, and make it actually dramatic:

"There will be payment for your slander, Sarek!"
"Threats are illogical. And payment is often expensive."

If you're interested in structures, it gives you more room to play.
Just sayin'.

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