As the National Post puts it, the two science fiction franchises Star Trek and Star Wars are like matter and antimatter; explosions result by bringing them (or their rabid fans) together. They cannot exist independently, but they cannot be equals at the same time. The Post splits the last several decades into Trek or Wars periods where one or the other franchise was top dog, but their analysis merits a deeper and more thorough look into what have become the two greatest science fiction franchises of all time.
The original Star Trek television series is what the public most readily associates with the phrase, even after four decades and roughly 25 season’s worth of newer Star Trek episodes. The 1960s series was never terribly popular during its run, and after NBC moved the show to a bad time slot, its fate was sealed. The series was cancelled in 1969 after three seasons.
Star Trek‘s creator, Gene Roddenberry, never gave up on the science fiction universe he spent the previous decade pitching and then producing. There was a short-lived animated series in the early 1970s that like its predecessor was cancelled. But while it seemed on the brink of oblivion, Trek was making a comeback. Old episodes were shown on syndicated television, translated into dozens of languages, and cultivated a following. Under pressure from fans, NASA renamed their new space shuttle Constitution to Enterprise. Roddenberry began gathering momentum for relaunching the series. Star Trek: Phase II, as the proposed series was to be called, would feature the original actors from the 60s and some new characters; the USS Enterprise was redesigned, props were manufactured, and the show was slated for launching Paramount’s new television channel in 1978. The channel (Paramount Television Service) folded and production ground to a halt–but buoyed by success of recent science fiction films, Phase II‘s pilot was adapted into a theatrical production, Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Star Wars‘s early history is murky at best, as its creator, George Lucas, has often contradicted himself in statements and interviews. Inspired by old Flash Gordon space adventure serials and comics, The Star Wars lingered on the backburner as Lucas produced his first films. The plot was developed in stages, with each successive draft adding elements which would become central to the franchise’s mythos (including the Jedi and Sith); after early drafts were called too difficult to understand Lucas liberally borrowed from other works including the Japanese film The Hidden Fortress. After the success of the film American Graffitti, Lucas finally got the momentum to bring his movie to fruition. Despite running behind schedule, difficult shooting and indifferent actors, Star Wars was released in 1977 and broke box office records. While Star Trek was hibernating, Star Wars had taken the world by storm.
The success of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind meant that scifi was in vogue and a Star Trek movie was feasible, but from the get-go Star Trek was playing catch-up to Star Wars, whose “used future” look and incredible special effects set the bar for future films, in much the same way as 2001: A Space Oddessy had done nearly a decade before. Starting with the abandoned Phase II props and sets, The Motion Picture‘s team redesigned the Enterprise and its sets, trading the camp colors of the 60s show for sterile white and grey. The uniforms were dull jumpsuits which the entire cast hated. Roddenberry wanted the special effects to be top-rate, and they were, to the expense of the character interaction and pacing of the original series; the budget ballooned to more than $45 million (in comparison to Star War’s $11 million cost) and the end result was a lackluster response. The Motion Picture made a considerable amount ($139,000,000 worldwide), but this was far less than hoped for. Critic and fan reaction to the film was generally poor, with some critics noting that the film was overly reliant on special effects and that the plot bore too close a resemblance to the original series episode “The Changeling”. Meanwhile the next Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back, grossed even more worldwide than its predecessor. As 1980 closed, Star Wars held the clear advantage.
The Motion Picture‘s box office success meant that another sequel would be feasible, but Paramount saw Roddenberry’s constant rewrites during production as the chief reason for the delays and ballooned budget. Roddenberry got as far as suggesting the next movie have the crew of the Enterprise go back in time to assassinate JFK before he was kicked upstairs to the ceremonial position of executive consultant. Paramount television producer Harve Bennett was made executive producer for the sequel on the condition that he could make a better, cheaper movie than the motion picture that came before.
Bennett, who had never watched the original TV series, sat down and ran through the entire series to familiarize himself with Trek, and latched on to the superhuman villain Khan from the episode “Space Seed” as the enemy for the new film. Bennett’s original treatment was refined by Jack Sowards, who added a powerful ultimate weapon that Khan would steal. In order to entice Leonard Nimoy, the actor who portrayed Spock, to returning, the producers added a glorious death scene for his character. As the script was unfinished and deadlines looming, a Paramount executive suggested to Bennett that director Nicholas Meyer could help resolve the screenplay issues. Meyer (who had also never watched Star Trek) helped pool the drafts’ best elements and wrote a new screenplay in just twelve days. While Roddenberry strongly disagreed with Meyer’s nautical tones and swashbuckling atmosphere, production ignored him and filming began.
On a budget of just $11 million, Meyer commissioned new uniforms and repainted the Enterprise to fit his vision of “Horatio Hornblower in outer space”. To keep under budget cost-cutting methods were used whenever possible; old models were reused and altered slightly, while the old film uniforms were dyed red and used as cadet’s jumpsuits. While The Motion Picture had tried to hide the passage of time, Meyer embraced the character’s ages, making William Shatner’s character of Captain Kirk worn out and afraid of his coming old age. Spock’s death initially drew unfavorable crowd reaction, so Bennett rewrote the ending to be more uplifting, as well as provide a way for Spock to return in later films (Nimoy had such a positive experience during filming, he wanted to return for any sequels.) The result had tears in theater-goers eyes.
On release in 1982, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan made $97,000,000; while less of a total gross than the Motion Picture, due to the dramatically reduced costs of production it was more profitable overall. The film was critically acclaimed as well, and paved the way for further sequels; Entertainment Weekly called The Wrath of Khan the film that saved Star Trek as we know it. Once again, Trek was on top, but it wouldn’t remain that way for long.
In 1983 the final episode in the Star Wars trilogy, Return of the Jedi, was released. It broke first-day gross records in the United States (beating the record set the previous year by The Wrath of Khan, to boot). In contrast, the third Star Trek film, The Search for Spock, was considered a good but not great Star Trek film, and in many ways a compromise between the first and second movies.
While Star Trek has generally featured more nuanced and varied themes than Star War’s basic good vs. evil plot, the arrival of Star Wars caused changes to Star Trek as well. Trek has been and was known for relatively cheap special effects, and Star Wars introduced aliens that actually looked alien, rather than people dressed up with different colored skin and pointy ears. While Star Wars took place in the midst of a civil war, with mystical and religious undertones, Star Trek (especially as envisioned by Roddenberry) was a god-free future where basic human faults had been rectified by the 24th century. The distinctions between both were clear, but both would be shaped by each other. With Return of the Jedi, Lucas’ future vision had won in the public’s minds… for a while, at least.
With the last Star Wars trilogy film out, it was time for Star Trek to take the spotlight again. The fourth Star Trek film, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, is known by fans as “the one with the whales”. After the events of the previous two films the crew of the USS Enterprise is heading home in a stolen Klingon ship to find that Earth is being destroyed by a probe. Realizing that the probe is trying to contact humpback whales, which went extinct in the 21st century, the Enterprise crew goes back in time to San Francisco, circa the 1980s, to find some whales and save the future. There’s no real enemy in the film, and compared to other entries in the film series, it’s light and humorous throughout, with character interaction the main feature of the film. Unlike any film since or before, The Voyage Home was Star Trek for the masses, not just dedicated fans. The film made $109 million domestically, making it the highest-grossing Trek film to date. Its success fueled a new television series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, which featured a new Enterprise and a new crew. For the next decade, it was time for Trek’s dominance. The original crew of the USS Enterprise starred in two more films (even the failure of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier did little to dim the franchise for long) and The Next Generation capped seven award-winning seasons with a film in 1994. Two new spinoffs, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager, would each run for seven seasons, and the second The Next Generation-era film, Star Trek: First Contact, was critically acclaimed as one of the best Star Trek films, ranking up with The Wrath of Khan and The Voyage Home. Star Wars fans could do little but brood and read expanded universe comics and merchandise; without new films a major segment of the population just didn’t pay as much attention.
All good things, however, come to an end, and so it was with Star Trek. The spinoff series performed well, but began to decline in ratings as the shows progressed. 1998’s Star Trek: Insurrection was an odd-numbered Star Trek movie and performed poorly, garnering mediocre reviews. While the franchise would soldier on into the new millennium, Star Wars would once again rise on top with the release of three new prequels to the original trilogy, beginning with 1999’s Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. While the prequels would never hear the critical acclaim of the earlier films, they were box office successes any way you cut it. The tenth Star Trek film, Nemesis, fared dismally commercially and critically, and the television series Star Trek: Enterprise was cancelled after four seasons. By 2006, there was no Star Trek on television for the first time since 1987. Revenge of the Sithwrapped up the Star Wars prequels triumphantly, and whatever critics thought, Lucas was sitting on a nice pile of money. Star Wars had returned with a vengeance, but its return would be short-lived.
Critical reception to the 2008 animated feature Star Wars: The Clone Wars was poor, and not only was the film critically panned, but the film was called the first bona fide Star Wars flop; the film made a total of $65,590,000 worldwide, slightly less than the $67 million haul of Nemesis; while that would be halfway decent for a Star Trek film, it was an utter failure compared to any other Star Wars film. As quickly as Star Wars regained the edge, it lost it with stilted dialogue, poor animation, and tepid action sequences.
This leaves the ball squarely in Star Trek’s court, and in the safekeeping of a rather odd person. The new 2009 Star Trek film (simply called Star Trek) is a prequel to the original series and is directed by J.J. Abrams of Lost and Alias fame, who admitted he preferred Star Wars as a kid. The new film is aimed at creating new fans, not particularly pleasing old ones; either you buy the new reboot of the series, or you don’t. It’s a dicey proposition at best, and one that is enormously risky for the franchise; with a budget of $150 million, the producers are hoping for a box office response on a caliber never before seen with a Star Trek film. The release date was moved from December 2008 to May 2009 to position it as a summer blockbuster. This means that 2009 is the chance for Star Trek to once again become top dog, and perhaps to grow beyond its core audience; in effect, Star Trek is trying to go where it has never gone before: to finally become cool. And to that I can only say: may the force be with them.