Kyle Newman is an American born filmmaker and a frequent guest on the Star Wars-centric podcast RebelForce Radio.
The speculation was over. After months of scrolling through endless online banter I received a text heralding the news. “JJ” is all it read. But those two letters meant a lot more. The most hotly debated gig in entertainment had been filled. Star Wars: Episode VII had found a director. For a second it seemed surreal. Not the choice — that was inspired; but the fact that the powers that be were actually making a new Star Wars film… and this film would be brought to life by J.J. Abrams the director of Star Trek.
Before we continue, I must confess that I am a born and bred Star Wars fan. I was less than two years old when my family took me to see George Lucas’ groundbreaking A New Hope on the big screen at a drive-in theater in New Jersey, and that experience was burned into my mind forever. And what a ride it was! There wasn’t a Christmas that passed without something Star Wars under the tree. I could pronounce the exotic names of Star Wars characters before human words! Star Wars ignited my imagination, inspired me to pick up a pencil and draw, and became my passion, my religion, and my reality. It raised me like a third parent.
There was Star Wars… and then there was “everything else.”
But by the late 1980s the franchise’s incandescent glow had faded. Return of the Jedi had completed George’s groundbreaking trilogy… the once legendary Kenner action figure line was filling up bargain bins… and Bantha Tracks (the official Star Wars fanzine) stopped showing up in my mailbox. A new post-Star Wars era was upon us, rife with an onslaught of copycat entertainment vying for my attention. But something caught my eye, shining brighter than all of the imposters… Star Trek.
1987 was an exciting time to be a Star Trek fan. Along with a steady flow of films, there was a new series on the horizon and a wealth of vintage Trek in syndication, which I absorbed like a sponge. At first it felt like I was cheating on Star Wars with my new love Star Trek. But those were dark times for junior Jedis… and I was justifiably lonely.
Admittedly, the franchises do not have much in common beyond the superficially obvious title similarities. True, they take place in space. And both have their origins at a critical era in pop culture in the later third of the 20th century, within a mere 10 years of each other. Ironically, for two space franchises, the true depth of their kinship can be measured mostly off screen.
When Star Wars blazed into the zeitgeist in 1977, the world didn’t know what hit it. By default, Star Trek, which had been virtually dormant, was suddenly relevant again. Paramount, in a scramble to capitalize on the “Star” phenomenon, dusted off Trek for a new small screen incarnation. But the allure of a Star Wars-scale box office bonanza pulled Paramount in like a tractor beam and the series was scrapped in favor of the big prize — a motion picture. It was as if Star Wars taunted Trek to the big screen.
Star Wars was a cultural juggernaut, crushing entertainment standards and erecting new ones in its wake in a manner that would never be witnessed again. And Star Trek seemed content to cruise along right there beside it, offering a different take on outer space. One was pure myth and fantasy — the other true science fiction. But quite often they inspired each other to new heights, as if they were The Beatles and The Stones of cinema.
This was never clearer than in Nicholas Meyer’s bar-setting sequel Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which controversially deviated from Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s “peace, love, Prime Directive” vision, perhaps inspired by overwhelming audience reaction to The Empire Strikes Back‘s darker themes. In the film’s climax, Kirk wages a battle to the death versus a vengeful, larger-than-life antagonist bearing super strengths (an answer to Darth Vader?). But the narrative correlations ran even deeper, right down to Khan’s tragic, cliffhanger ending, which saw Spock facing an unknown fate akin to Han Solo’s carbonite imprisonment. The sibling rivalry was in full effect.
So much so, that by Star Trek III: The Search For Spock the franchises began to bear the same filmic language, the obvious windfall of hiring George Lucas’ Academy Award-winning effects powerhouse, Industrial Light and Magic, to handle all of the cinematic sleight of hand. The universes were now sharing the tricks of the trade! But by the mid-’80s, Lucas abruptly abandoned his universe for new creative pastures. He even seemed to doom his own Saga into obscurity by casting doubt over any further films. “I look upon the three Star Wars films as chapters in one book,” he told Time magazine. “Now the book is finished, and I have put it on the shelf.”
Star Trek was quick to cement its place atop the nerd food chain. A multi-platform explosion was afoot, culminating with the acclaimed Star Trek: The Next Generation series, which became the gold standard for ’90s genre television, and ultimately, the catalyst for countless forays to the big screen with an all-new crew, including the era-crossing and aptly named Generations, which fused classic Trek with its 2.0 model.
But while Trek was now freely basking in the science-fiction limelight, (and eventually wearing out its welcome with one too many series), George Lucas was secretly prepping Star Wars for its long overdue renaissance. The saga had developed cult status during its big-screen hibernation, quietly solidifying its fan base with novels, comics, and a re-launched toy line. A new type of fan community emerged, one so incestuously modeled after Star Trek’s, embracing of both cosplay and conventions, that the two fan bases were now almost indistinguishable. By the time Trek was fading back to earth (for the second time in its history), the Star Wars: Special Editions had set the stage for the saga’s rebirth in what was billed as the greatest show on earth – The Prequel Trilogy.
What can be said about the Prequels that has not been said? Well, a lot actually. The release was indeed a colossal event like no other, spanning every media and retail outlet on the planet. However, much of the opinion formed on the films hasn’t evolved since media’s knee-jerk reaction to The Phantom Menace in 1999 despite subsequent chapters challenging the way fans envisioned the entire saga. Cinema’s greatest villain was now a hero and we witnessed his long-promised fall from grace. Unlike Rodenberry, who never had the opportunity, Lucas boldly reset the stage, challenging fans to reframe their interpretation of the entire classic trilogy — to “unlearn what we had learned.”
The Prequels were a massive entrepreneurial success and ushered in a whole new generation of fans (something Trek has struggled to do through its various reinventions). But critically, the films were left for dead, mainly a byproduct of over-hype. Even in hindsight, that criticism often overlooks how Lucas had shattered every technical boundary in the process of their creation. Quite possibly, their greatest legacy was the undeniable proof that Star Wars could not only stand the test of time, but could thrive between generations.
George Lucas signed off from Star Wars on a high note, again claiming the franchise had reached its conclusion (although there are decades of Starlog magazine interviews to the contrary, boasting a nine- or 12-film series). “The movies were the story of Anakin Skywalker and Luke Skywalker, and when Luke saves the galaxy and redeems his father, that’s where that story ends.” Despite the successful, and often brilliant, Star Wars: The Clone Wars series, which launched in 2008, the “Galaxy far, far away” has never gained much small screen traction… And so it became Trek’s turn to shine once again.
With phenom director J.J. Abrams at the helm, Star Trek throttled back into relevance with an exciting new chapter that actually rebooted the franchise’s timeline and gave it a star-studded face lift. Its one commonly critical “fault” is that it bore too much resemblance to a certain other Star-franchise. Shocking, considering the key creatives behind the current incarnation are self-professed Star Wars fans. Perhaps, this was inescapable considering that the talents entrusted to bring these new adventures to life are children of BOTH universes, acolytes of Lucas’ and Rodenberry’s visionary storytelling.
Which brings us back to today. Excitement surrounding Star Wars has been at a fever pitch since word broke in October that Disney has acquired Lucasfilm and plans to continue the Skywalker saga. Just as Star Trek arose like a phoenix from its own ashes, it is now Star Wars‘ turn once again. With J.J. Abrams seizing the reigns of the galaxy’s greatest saga, Episode VII could not be in better hands! The Star Wars and Star Trek universes are about to cross their fates forever. But again, that’s nothing new.