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.