Why ‘Star Wars’ Is Crushing ‘Star Trek’ in Pop Culture

This should be Star Trek’s moment. The franchise is celebrating its 50th anniversary, a new film is now in theaters and Comic-Con just delivered a peek at the latest Star Trek TV series.

So why are so many people still more enthusiastic about Star Wars? Because traditional storytelling still trumps 21st century revisionism and political correctness.

For decades, Star Trek has offered a hopeful vision of the future, albeit with plenty of progressive posturing. The United Federation of Planets (or “Federation”) is like a utopian and uncorrupted version of the United Nations that promotes peaceful space exploration and believes everyone in the interstellar universe should all just get along.

The TV series remains a classic, and the movie spin-offs have done moderately well at the box office. The most recent movie in the franchise, Star Trek Beyond, opened July 22 and earned $59 million in its opening weekend.

But that’s a pittance compared to what the most recent Star Wars film earned: $100 million in advance ticket sales; and once it was released, the movie became the top film of all time in domestic box office sales. The disparity holds true for the franchises’ respective series spin-off projects as well. The “first look” teaser for the new Star Trek TV series drew more than 3 million views on YouTube since its May debut. The first trailer for Rogue One, the Star Wars prequel, generated 40 million views since its April posting.

Why has Star Wars made a larger and more enduring impact on popular culture?

It has something to do with the virtues and values emphasized in each of the franchises. George Lucas may be a devout liberal in his personal politics, but the themes running through the Star Wars universe he created are deeply traditional: Good vs. Evil; Father vs. Son; Love vs. Hate; Courage vs. Cowardice; Freedom vs. Centralized power. The elemental battles that form the background of Star Wars date back to the dawn of storytelling, particularly the rise of empires and the rebellions that arise to dismantle them.

A focus on storytelling is what the Star Wars franchise temporarily forgot when it made the deservedly maligned trilogy of movies known as Episodes 1-3. Suddenly, we were asked to indulge a sullen Anakin Skywalker working through his anger and authority issues and made to endure Jar Jar Binks, a character cravenly created for marketing purposes (as were the cuddly Ewoks who debuted in Return of the Jedi, a movie whose original storyline had been much darker—and potentially less amenable to lucrative merchandising).

But The Force Awakens returned the series to its epic origins. Once more, we saw young heroes mature and the remnants of old foes reborn. The Skywalker family came back into focus in a way fans cheered. There were no lectures. No sloganeering. No attempts to force-feed its audience contemporary political messages.

By contrast, Star Trek has let PC niceties invade the franchise. The saga always had a political edge, of course. That was more welcome back when it began in the 1960s, when the series first aired. Who doesn’t applaud the fact that the series showcased one of the the first interracial kisses on television between actors William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols? But these boundaries no longer exist (unless you believe the fictions peddled at last month’s Democratic National Convention). What seemed revolutionary in 1966 is now the norm, and thank goodness for it.

But the latest offerings from the Star Trek universe have allowed political correctness to undermine storytelling. Star Trek Beyond makes Lieutenant Sulu gay, for example, even though the actor who originally played Sulu on TV, George Takei, was against the move. And it’s not just sexual orientation; an earlier movie, Star Trek Into Darkness, featured a whining Scotty complaining about killing terrorists and made many thinly-veiled criticisms about American military power in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

By contrast, Star Wars has mostly avoided wading into the murk of the culture wars (an irony, given that the same director who helmed Star Trek Into Darkness, J.J. Abrams, is now with the Star Wars movies). We haven’t seen any major characters undergo a gender or ethnic switch, and the latest movie, although it featured a woman and a black man in its lead roles, doesn’t do so for the sake of PC pandering. The story keeps its focus on the deeply-rooted bonds among the characters and their battle against an evil empire; and there’s no handwringing when a Storm trooper needs to be taken out, either.

In other words, it showcased storytelling, not agenda-peddling. As long as Star Trek caves to cultural pressures to promote Hollywood’s liberal political agenda, it will remain a distant second place to the epic—and far more satisfying—Star Wars.

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13 responses to “Why ‘Star Wars’ Is Crushing ‘Star Trek’ in Pop Culture

  1. Thanks for this Christian….I think the idea that Star Wars taps into more universally relatable ideals (good v. evil, heroes v. villains, etc.) is really true, and makes it a more broadly appealing sell than Trek. I don’t think you can blame Trek’s current struggles on political correctness though, or a liberal agenda. By placing a female at the lead of the new Star Wars, the producers are also pursuing a deliberately more inclusive agenda there, and that certainly didn’t dent the popularity of that film. Similarly, Game of Thrones is one of the most massively successfully TV productions ever, and it has characters across the sexuality spectrum, so again, no effect there. Star Trek has its own problems, but I just don’t think there’s any real evidence to substantiate the claim that its being hurt by a liberal Hollywood agenda.

    1. I’ll give you some “real evidence” — I know of many people (myself included) who rarely go to movies anymore because they’re loaded with PC propaganda.
      The new Ghostbusters movie is a flop not because of its lack of entertainment value, it’s a flop but because of its too-strident feminism and the PC straightjacket that prevents women from being funny.

    2. The distinction is, that when pushing the agenda becomes more important than making an entertaining story, then it’s going to suffer. In the 60s ST promoted racial harmony because being black is a *characteristic* whereas being homosexual is a *behavior*.

      It’s really sad for me, as a longtime fan, to see Trek commit suicide like this.

      1. Hm, if by describing homosexuality as a “behavior” you mean to say that it’s something people have the power to change, then that would be incorrect. Homosexuality is no more changeable than heterosexuality. Of course, if you’re heterosexual and would like to switch to homosexuality to prove me wrong, please do so :).

        Regardless, there’s still no real evidence to support the idea that supporting LGBT characters in Trek is hurting it. If anything, it’s providing publicity that puts Trek in the spotlight more than it would be otherwise. Also, given that Sulu spent all of two seconds in STB being recognizably gay, it’s a serious stretch to say it impacted the story in any consequential way.

  2. One was a TV show that was cancelled twice in three season run, who’s cinematic spinoffs reached nine figures only twice until the Obama administration, and even then has lagged behind Zach Galifinakis in ticket sales. Meanwhile, the original Star Wars made more money than studios thought a movie could in a single run, and each film save “Attack of the Clones” has easily been the number one movie of the year at the box-office. “Star Wars” is owned by Disney, the biggest entertainment conglomerate in the world, “Star Trek” is owned by Paramount which…is not. But no, the reason is because they gave Sulu a husband (Which was not a speaking role)

    By the way, the biggest criticism of “Star Trek Into Darkness” (and one which soured the goodwill of the franchise) was that it was a retread of “Wrath of Khan”. The biggest criticism of “The Force Awakens” was…that it was a retread of “A New Hope”. If the article’s thesis about Star Wars appealing to more conservative aspects, apparently conservatives crave unoriginality and retreads.

    1. Your distinctions are meaningless. Star Trek is tied to the orthodox religion of progressivism, while Star Wars is less tied to it. Orthodox religions just aren’t fun. That’s why we’re not reading novels or watching plays written by the Puritans.

  3. By contrast, Star Wars has mostly avoided wading into the murk of the culture wars

    You’re going to have to take this back, now, with Rogue one and its “white supremacist” empire battled by female-led multi-cultural heroes.

  4. I think you’re absolutely wrong. Star Trek will always remain behind Star Wars, regardless of politics, because of two things:

    1) (ignoring the heinous reboot movies) it’s an intellectual show. Star Wars is a bunch of (mostly excellent) popcorn blockbusters. Anybody will enjoy that. Star Trek is and always has been cerebral, has a more “nerdy” fandom and desires actual thinking engagement from viewers. Lots of people don’t enjoy that in their entertainment. The only way Star Trek could even begin to compete with Star Wars is by dumbing itself down, and I hope that never happens.

    2) It’s primarily a TV phenomenon. Yes, there are many movies, but Star Trek is 720-something episodes of television and a dozen or so movies. Star Wars is eight movies and no real TV presence to speak of. Star Trek requires a whole lot more time and investment to get into, so there are far more casual Star Wars fans than Star Trek ones.

    Also, Star Wars may play bigger; I would argue that Star Trek has had more actual impact on culture and technology.

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