Star Wars / Star Trek

If it came down to a choice between Star Wars and Star Trek, for me, it’s not much of a contest: for all that I grew up watching Star Trek (TOS) re-runs on terrestrial tv, watched the entirety of the runs of TNG, DS9 and Voyager (Enterprise didn’t do much for me) in the 80s and 90s, and have a deep and abiding fondess for Shatner, I only own a couple of the movies on dvd, and only Star Trek: The Motion Picture is one that I re-watch for pleasure. By comparison, I own all the Star Wars films, have the Clone Wars dvds, Star Wars Lego, and even went to see The Phantom Menace at the cinema twice (the second time on its recent 3D re-release). (That’s dedication.)

However, I recently sat down to watch Star Trek Into Darkness, and while the post 9/11 analogies are a bit pat, the question that is poses about the Federation itself – Scotty says to Kirk at one point, when questioning the arrival of advanced missiles aboard the Enterprise, ‘I thought we were meant to be explorers’ – is a particularly interesting one.  Because the film asks: what kind of organisation is this? What are its aims, its ethics? Central to this is the Prime Directive, the ‘non-interference’ clause that Kirk violates repeatedly (and once again at the beginning of Into Darkness) in the name of a ‘higher’ ethics, whether that is to save a friend (‘the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many’) or in the service of a kind of liberation-theology, removing a developing people from an oppressive yoke. The ‘Prime Directive’ proposes the Federation as a liberal, post-Imperial, non- or anti-hegemonic force, ‘seeking out new worlds, new civilizations’ to join the ‘family’ (a crucial word in Into Darkness, it should be emphasised), but refusing to expose themselves to the sight of developing species who might, as do the denizens of the world at the beginning of Into Darkness, turn the alien visitors into an extra-terrestrial cargo cult. This is an ethical alibi, of course, allowing Kirk and crew to zoom around the galaxy doing all manner of things – including waging war against Klingons or Romulans – without worrying unduly about the moral or material cost of happy adventuring.  Except in dilithium crystals, of course.

That the Prime Directive is central to the Star Trek universe indicates, I think, that for all the purchase Star Wars has on my own imagination, it is Star Trek that is the most interestingly and politically striated text. If the Federation is a projection of NASA, the ghosts that haunt the vaunted memory of Apollo – von Braun and the V-2s, the Shuttle’s secret military missions – also haunt the Federation. The Enterprise embarks on a ‘5 year mission’ to explore, but its capabilities are offensive as well as defensive, and as DS9 in particular explored, the Federation is also a military entity. Into Darkness brings this to the fore, although it really re-scripts the end-of-the-Cold War narrative of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, with Peter Weller’s war-monger General the counterpart of Christopher Plummer’s bellicose Klingon general, as well as explicitly re-writing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. One of the most revealing things about Star Trek VI is Kirk’s, and the crew’s, growing awareness that they themselves are Cold Warriors who have outlived their time, and in particular Kirk’s unreconstructed belligerence towards all things Klingon (‘you Klingon bastard, you killed my son!) has no place in the future coming-together of Klingon Empire and Federation that is key to TNG.

I think Star Trek’s ultimate psychological orientation is outward, not inward; what slash fiction has done since the 1970s is to create that psycho-sexual hinterland which allows Kirk’s question in Into Darkness – ‘why did I go back for you?’ – to go unanswered. (Spock’s stilted ‘because you are my friend’ seems somewhat lame in this scene; the film goes to intriguing lengths – Kirk discovered in bed with two be-tailed young women, the reverse shot of Carol Marcus in her underwear, not p-o-v because it is shot from below so her whole body is on display – to emphasise Kirk’s heterosexuality, when it is the homosocial – the relationship to Pike and to Spock, and even to Khan – that is the true centre of the film’s relationships.) By comparison, I think the basic orientation of Star Wars is inward; that is why the prequel trilogy’s handling of politics is so inept. Star Wars isn’t about politics; it’s about belief.

I read the crucial act in Star Wars as the moment when Luke, beginning his final run against the Death Star, turns off the targeting computer. Of course, he has heard dear old Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan say to him ‘Use the force, Luke’, but the act of turning off the computer is a turning away from material reality towards the numinous that lies within.

That’s why all the talk of midi-chlorians in The Phantom Menace is so cack-handed and unnecessary: the crucial split in Star Wars is always between the material and the spiritual, between Reason and Power (the Empire) and Faith (the Jedi/ the Force). What The Clone Wars series does a much better job of showing is that, like Kirk, the Jedi cease being ‘Knights’ but become soldiers, but don’t realise it. They become too immersed in the material world and lose their ethical compass thereby. (The prequel films handle this so badly that we, the audience, don’t realise it either.) Han Solo, who Leia sneers at when demanding his material reward, is so antithetical to the numinous that when delivering the line ‘May the Force Be With You’ to Luke, Harrison Ford clearly has no sense how to do it: is Solo trying to be sincere, to boost Luke’s moral, or is he taking the piss? Considering the rest of the film, you have to suspect the latter, but the moment cannot play like that, even though Hammill does a much better job of giving a withering silent stare in the reaction-shot, clearly believing that Solo is being sardonic. When Solo in the Millennium Falcon turns up at the Death Star, it’s in the cause of friendship, rather than because he believes: in the two sequels, he is a freedom fighter, not a Jedi-manqué. Solo is much closer to the two-fisted ethos of Kirk than anyone else in Star Wars, partly because he does not have the spiritual interiority demanded of the Jedi.

Where the crucial prohibition in Star Trek is the Prime Directive, the taboo that is the (somewhat occluded) problem in Star Wars, and in particular the prequels and the Clone Wars series, is the relationship between Master and Padawan. When Qui-Gon Jinn tells the young Anakin, about to face death in the pod-race, that he should ‘trust his feelings’ (a replay of Obi-Wan’s posthumous words to Luke in his X-Wing), my reaction is: hang on, aren’t the Jedi all about repressing one’s feelings? How can they, on one hand, profess that the Jedi must put aside attachments and treat all alike, while the source of their power, the Force, is accessed non-cognitively, through (yes) one’s feelings?

The prequel trilogy and partly the Clone Wars tries to posit Anakin’s later turn to the ‘dark side’ as a consequence of his inability to let go of his feelings, the negative emotions that accompany the loss of his mother and the love for (and secret marriage to) Padme. But this all feels unsufficiently motivated. Yes, he’s breaking the taboo of attachment, but it’s a perfectly reasonable romance (unreasonably/ execrably narrated in Attack of the Clones), and Anakin should be able to compartmentalise his life enough without being consumed by the Dark Side, to say to Obi-Wan (as he does in Revenge of the Sith) that the Jedi are ‘evil’. This doesn’t make much sense. Evil? How so?

I think the power of the ‘dark feelings’ that Anakin has access to are only really understandable in terms of the taboo on attachment that is articulated increasingly explicitly in the Clone Wars episodes. What this taboo is particularly meant to prohibit is, I think, sexual relations between Master and Padawan. (Where Star Trek is haunted by war, Star Wars is haunted by pederasty.) The relationship between Anakin, as Master, and Ahsoka Tano, as Padawan, is at the centre of many of the key episodes in The Clone Wars, and Ahsoka muses out loud about it, particularly to fellow Padawan Barriss Ofee (who later betrays her, having become disillusioned with the militaristic policies of the republic and the Jedi). In the great game of ‘what if?’, what if the mother of Anakin’s children were not Padme (which beside the difference in age – downplayed by the casting of Natalie Portman – is unproblematic) but Ahsoka, or someone like her (do a Google search of images for Ahsoka to see how many sexualised versions there are); not a Princess, but a Padawan?

The last time we watched Clone Wars, Isobel asked me ‘Why can’t the Jedis get married?’, a perfectly reasonable question; to which I would add the rider, ‘to each other’. There is, of course, a large amount of fan fiction which posits just this relationship, but unlike Star Trek Into Darkness (where I feel there are clear nods to Kirk/Spock), even the welcome revisions of The Clone Wars aren’t able to take Star Wars into that dark a direction.

It would be easier to understand Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side if he, like Barriss Ofee, had become a revolutionary, disgusted not only by the Jedi’s militaristic hypocrisy, but by the ‘evil’ of the taboo on attachment, a repression that leads to secrecy or abuse. Pulling down the Temple would seem a necessary act to one whose love for another could not be contained by the homosocial codes and rituals of the Jedi order, but becomes literally perverted, made sinful, taboo, by them.

Perhaps the sense is that, if Jedi husband and wife, or partners, were to fight alongside each other, the needs of the one might outweigh the needs of the many; rather than doing their duty and protecting the community (or social order), the Jedi might decide to put each other first. In Star Trek II and III, the relationship between individual and group, and the responsibilities of each to the other, is right at the heart of the narrative, and this is carried over to Into Darkness, with its post 9/11 inflections of Kirk’s ‘heroic’ and individualistic adventurism, that must be tempered by his assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the group. In Star Wars, this relationship is never made clear, because it is always articulated in terms of an individual moral choice between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ courses of action.  

In Star Wars’ terms, the Federation in Star Trek is an Empire that believes itself to be a Republic, peopled by soldiers who think of themselves as explorers. Star Wars separates out good and evil, right and wrong because its universe is fundamentally moral in conception; Star Trek’s Federation is open to re-scripting in Into Darkness because it, like the United States that it figures and ideologically reproduces, is an admixture of both.


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