Jedi or Trekkie? The Humanist Perspective

 

 

 

The [Jedi] Order has long been about justifying its own existence, about acquiring and holding power… I know what I swore to do as a Jedi, and it didn’t have anything to do with turning a blind eye to social evils because the Sith were a bigger evil.  – Gotab (Bardan Jusik)

 

 

 

Your report describes how rational these people are. Millennia ago, they abandoned their belief in the supernatural. Now you are asking me to sabotage that achievement, to send them back into the Dark Ages of superstition and ignorance and fear. No!

– Captain Jean Luc Picard

 

 

Ask any sensible 25 year old human which they prefer, Star Wars or Star Trek and, without missing a beat, they will reply Star Wars and proceed down the list of its clear advantages.  It’s more exciting.  There’s more action.  The bad guys are cooler.  It’s grittier.  It has women in leadership positions before 1990.  The aliens aren’t just people with face paint.  There’s magic.  Light sabers, dude, light sabers.

And so forth.

Ask any 35 year old, and the answer just as inevitably comes back Star Trek, and especially from the people who most vociferously insisted Star Wars a decade prior.  It’s about bigger social issues.  It’s philosophically more subtle.  The science is more interesting.  The team dynamic is more compelling than the series of lone wolves that Star Wars has to offer.

And so on.

The implication seems to be that Star Wars is the stuff of idealistic, solipsistic adolescence, and Star Trek that of pragmatic, socially-oriented adulthood, but that is to do a disservice to the philosophies of power and social change present especially in the Star Wars expanded universe, and the sense of individual struggle to be found in Star Trek’s most recent instantiation.

Starting with Star Wars, I won’t attempt to instill the original films with more philosophical weight than they had.  The movies were the defining experience of my childhood, and merchandise related to them continues to consume more of my personal income than I care to reveal.  They are thoroughly rad, but they aren’t particularly deep.  They do, however, contain themes of astounding pregnancy which have been worked by others into fascinating ruminations about how change happens in civilization.

The best place to go to find this broader scope is undoubtedly the novels, of which there are hundreds, but the high point for me is definitely the nine-novel Legacy of the Force series, and particularly book eight, Revelation, by veteran Star Wars novelist Karen Traviss.  The series centers upon the rise of Jacen Solo, son of Leia and Han, who possesses force abilities of untold power and flexibility, and seeks to use them in the service of a galaxy just rebuilding itself after disastrous invasion.  It is hardly worth the hauling out of a Spoiler Alert placard to say that the Dark Side soon has him in its clutches.  But what’s interesting is that the Dark Side isn’t some metaphysical notion of pure evil, but rather a philosophy about how you institute reform in a civilization.  Presented with the self-serving inertia of those in power and comfort, how do you make life better for those actively but voicelessly suffering?

In grappling with this issue, the Legacy books are really looking at the structural flaws of Buddhist versus Christian practice.  The Jedi, whose espousal of detachment allows flagrant injustice to continue in the galaxy so long as their precious monastery stays in power, are everything that’s wrong with a classical Buddhist approach to society, and Jacen soon grows frustrated with their mysticism-laced unwillingness to get their hands dirty to help people.  The Sith, full of absolute confidence in the righteousness of their own actions, gifted with the ability to take action in the name of galaxy-spanning goals regardless of consequence, are the Christians, drunk on their own supernatural power and convinced that anybody who opposes them opposes the universal order and therefore deserves death.

 

 

Jacen is tossed about on the horns of these polarities until the sheer need for resolute action in order to save the galaxy tosses him into the arms of the Dark Side.  During one of his moments of introspection, he basically rewrites the original trilogy, showing that the Rebellion, in acting as it did, was far more Sith than Jedi in affiliation:

“Who would make the tough choices if they were hidebound by conventional law?  Had anyone protested about Luke Skywalker bringing down Palpatine?  The Rebellion broke every law in the book, and killed many people, but citizens were ready to accept that because change was needed.  [Jacen] was only doing the same thing, and yet he was vilified for it.  He was wounded by the blindness around him.  Why could they not understand?  He wasn’t explaining it clearly enough, perhaps.”

Ultimately, the fallout from all of this propels the Star Wars universe into The Fate of the Jedi series, which finds the Jedi in disgrace and the galaxy questioning whether or not we’d be better off after all without these self-appointed paladins of disinterested virtue in charge.  These books make the original movies retroactively more profound, and are worth the reading by anybody wanting to expand their love of a galaxy far, far away into that stage of life that needs something more than the hiss of a light saber to capture its interest.

 

To Star Trek, then, and particularly to the most recent series, Star Trek: Enterprise.  Responding to criticism that The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager were essentially tales of space bureaucracy incapable of bringing in a younger audience, Enterprise went back to the very beginning of humanity’s interstellar program to catch us at a moment of cocky inexperience, before the Prime Directive, before the diplomatic concerns of negotiating borders with the Romulans.  The crew, led by Captain Jonathan Archer, manifestly does not know what it is doing half the time, and in the space that protocol usually fills, they are left to suss things out for themselves as best they can.

And in that sense, this series is much closer to Star Wars than to the previous offerings of Star Trek.  It is consistently about individual agency and power, and how that ought to be used to accomplish what you find to be the right task, precedent be damned.  Whereas an episode of Voyager (incidentally, my favorite of the Trek series, though I realize I’m basically alone in that) will feature the crew agonizing over the application of Federation protocol to a particular instance, in Enterprise the issue Archer is constantly facing is what his power as a starship captain morally allows him to do, and what it compels him to do, which is a very Jedi/Sith kind of dilemma.

The framework, however, is still very Star Trek, in that Kantian philosophy and enlightened skepticism come to the rescue more often than not.  The categorical imperative is the big machine that dictates how the episodes are going to turn out, while appeals to mystical explanations and vague religiosity, which cropped up from time to time in Voyager, are routinely squashed in favor of freedom of thought and the scientific method.  It is entirely an amalgam of the personal drama of Star Wars and the larger concerns of Star Trek, with the occasional manifestly gratuitous Decontamination Room Scene by way of fan service.

 

The title of this essay implied a solution, that the weight of judgment would settle finally on one pole or the other of this, the most important question of our times.  Certainly, looking at it casually, a humanist would be better rewarded investing their leisure hours in old Star Trek episodes than in repeat viewings of Star Wars, but that is to undervalue the richness of Lucas’s original conception, one which set the stage for big questions to be asked, even if he didn’t himself ask them.  There is no need to hang up your Mandalorian armor upon reaching the august age of 30.  Nor must you seek islands far from the Trek universe if you want to probe issues of individual psychology.  The answer to Trekkie or Jedi is, simply, BOTH, or if you have utterly no sense of imaginative play, then NEITHER, but to alight on one side or the other exclusively is to do yourself a profound disservice.

Now, Marvel or DC, on the other hand…. That one’s easy.

One comment

  • December 6, 2013 - 10:38 pm | Permalink

    Well written. I admittedly have to say I preferred ST which I guess dates me. I refused to see SW until a Philo Prof said I was being a snob and go see it. Frankly, Raiders of the Lost Ark did more for me but then that could be for a variety of less pertinent reasons. I have certainly seen the SW movie more than the ST series–though I have to admit I was a most rabid fan of the original ST but then I was 9 at the time–and seen every episode several times in the afternoon while doing homework. I rocked our baby to sleep to SW on several occasions and that may explain some things about him.

    I can happily skip over Battlestar Galactica–it’s impossible for me to see Lorne Green as anything but the benevolent patriarch of Bonanza–dating me again.

    I am not sure it’s fair to include the books as a means of fleshing out the philosophy. I didn’t read them for either story, genre? As you write they are in a way that different from each other.

    I would say there is yet generational paradigm shift, so to speak, and that’s Josh Whedon’s work which has an appeal I can’t quite reach in his space cowboy work but my son has high praise for him.

    In an odd sort of indication it was always far more enjoyable to watch SW stoned than ST. I compare the movie to the series where Deep Space 9 and Babylon lost me; it was really Kirk-Spock and JLP that did it for me.

    By the time of later ST series nearly all TV series lost me.

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