Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the following: The Mandalorian Seasons 1-2, The Rise of Skywalker, Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-3, Star Trek: Picard. Minor spoilers may be present for other iterations of both the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises.
I’ve been working on my review of Season 2 of The Mandalorian, which was shown on Disney+ at the end of last year, and I found myself saying the same thing several times. I will (eventually) finish that review, but for now I wanted to take a step back and look at two of the biggest sci-fi/space fantasy franchises, and one crucial difference between them.
Whether it’s the prequel trilogy, sequel trilogy, spin-offs, or even the recently announced slate of upcoming projects, Star Wars is intent on sticking close to its roots. I’ve made this point before, but Star Wars as a whole has only ever told one real story – that of Palpatine, Anakin, Luke, and Rey. Every film and television series in Star Wars’ main canon either directly tells part of that story or is inextricably tied to it. The inclusion of Luke Skywalker and other legacy characters in The Mandalorian doubles down on this.
In contrast, Star Trek has continually tried new and different things. The Next Generation took its timeline 80+ years into the future and left much of the franchise’s first incarnation behind. Deep Space Nine took the action away from starships to a space station. Enterprise was a prequel, but not one which told the early lives of any classic characters. The Kelvin films attempted to reboot Star Trek as a big screen popcorn blockbuster. Discovery took a serialised approach to its storytelling, and Picard picked up that format but used it to tell a very different type of story. Lower Decks is perhaps the biggest departure to date, branching out beyond sci-fi into the realm of animated comedy. Though there are common threads binding the franchise together, each project is one piece of a much larger whole, and the Star Trek galaxy feels – to me, at least – much more vast as a result.
Where Star Wars has told one overarching story, Star Trek has told hundreds, many of which are totally separate and distinct from one another. And that concept shows no sign of slowing down. Indeed, both franchises are doubling down on what they do best: Star Wars is focusing on classic characters and looking inwards, Star Trek is expanding and trying new things.
That willingness to change, to explore totally different and unrelated aspects of its setting, is what sets Star Trek apart from Star Wars right now – and arguably is one of the big points of divergence going all the way back to the mid-1980s. It may also explain why so many fans are excited about The Mandalorian and even the dire Rise of Skywalker, while some Star Trek fans have never been interested in Discovery, Picard, and Lower Decks.
Nostalgia is a big deal in entertainment, and while I would argue Star Wars has overplayed that particular card far too often, there’s no denying it has seen success with that formula. That’s why we’re seeing the Obi-Wan Kenobi series, the Ahsoka series, the Lando series, and even the Cassian Andor series all getting ready to debut on Disney+ in the next few years.
Someone far cleverer than I am said something a while ago that really got me thinking. If a franchise – like Star Wars, in this case – relies so heavily on nostalgia to the point of never trying anything new, it won’t survive beyond its current generation of fans. Because bringing in new fans – the lifeblood of any franchise – is increasingly difficult when every project is designed exclusively with existing fans in mind. How can Star Wars survive when its current fanbase moves on if everything it does is fan service? What kind of appeal does the Obi-Wan Kenobi show have to someone new to Star Wars? Basically none.
With the exception of Star Trek: Picard, which did rely on the strength of its returning character, I think any Star Trek project has the potential to bring in new fans. Some shows and films are definitely enhanced by knowing more about Star Trek and its setting, but even in Discovery, where main character Michael Burnham is related to classic character Spock, there really wasn’t anything that required a lot of background knowledge.
Star Trek is not only trying new things, but the people in charge are conscious to allow each project to stand on its own two feet. They are parts of a greater whole – and while I have argued many times here on the website that Star Trek could do more to bind its ongoing series together, it’s still possible to watch one show and not the others without feeling like you’ve missed something important.
What we see are two very different approaches to storytelling. Both Star Trek and Star Wars were reborn in the mid-2010s out of a desire on the part of their parent companies to use nostalgia as a hook to bring in audiences. That should not be in dispute, and I don’t want to say that Star Trek somehow avoids the nostalgia trap. But where Star Wars really only has nostalgia going for it, Star Trek continues to branch out, using nostalgia as a base but not allowing it to overwhelm any project.
Neither approach is “right” or “wrong;” such things are subjective. I don’t want to sound overly critical of Star Wars either, because despite my personal feelings, there’s no denying many of the creative decisions made are popular – even The Rise of Skywalker, which was eviscerated by critics, was well-received in some areas of the fandom. It just strikes me as interesting and noteworthy that these two major franchises are taking very different approaches to the way they construct their narratives.
Whether it’s the inclusion of Luke Skywalker himself, the aesthetic of practically everything in the show, or a storyline which returns the franchise to the Jedi and the Force, The Mandalorian oozes nostalgia from every orifice – and if that’s what fans want and will lap up, then that’s okay. It was too much for me, and I stand by what I said last year during the show’s first season: I was expecting to see “the adventures of a gunslinger far from the reaches of the New Republic;” a show which would take Star Wars away from some of those themes to new places. That was my preference – a personal preference, to be sure, and judging by the positive reaction not only to The Mandalorian but to spin-off announcements like the Obi-Wan Kenobi series (and the return of Darth Vader to that series) I’m in the minority.
Star Trek takes a different approach. Both Picard and Discovery in their most recent seasons moved the timeline forward, brought in new characters, and dealt with contemporary themes. There were touches of classic Star Trek in both shows, including in aesthetic elements like set design and costuming, but in both cases the franchise feels like it’s moving forward.
Costuming is an interesting point to consider, as it’s representative of where both franchises find themselves. As early as 2015’s The Force Awakens, Star Wars was stepping back, relying on Stormtrooper armour, First Order uniforms, and especially the costumes worn by Rey that were practically identical to those seen in the original films. This was continued in The Mandalorian, not only with the main character’s Boba Fett armour, but with the use of Original Trilogy Stormtrooper armour and costumes for many villains. In contrast, Star Trek took its main characters out of uniform entirely in Picard, and Discovery has introduced a whole new set of uniforms and a new combadge for the 32nd Century. Where Star Wars looks back to its heyday, Star Trek looks forward, incorporating some of its classic designs into wholly new variants.
What we see in these costuming choices is a reflection of where both franchises are narratively. Star Wars continues to look back at the only truly successful films the franchise has ever made: the Original Trilogy. Frightened of trying anything truly new and unwilling to leave that comfortable ground, it’s stuck. As I wrote once, the Original Trilogy has become a weight around the neck of modern Star Wars, as projects not only become constrained by those films, but continue to fail to live up to them.
Star Trek looks forward, tries new things, and embraces change. Not every new project will win huge support and be successful, but some will, and every project has the possibility to be a launchpad for others, taking the evolving franchise to completely different places.
It’s clear which approach I prefer, and that I’d like to see more innovation and change from Star Wars. Though I was certainly underwhelmed by some of the recent announcements made by Disney and LucasFilm, I’m hopeful that, despite being held back in many ways by an overreliance on nostalgia, some decent films and series may stumble out the door.
Each franchise could learn something from the other, though. Star Trek’s projects are split up, and while Discovery’s third season made an admirable effort to connect to Picard, that was not reciprocated. Lower Decks had many callbacks and references to ’90s Star Trek, but otherwise stands alone. The franchise could work harder to bind its different projects together, reminding audiences that they’re watching one piece of a greater whole.
Star Wars could see how a successful sci-fi franchise doesn’t need to be constrained by its original incarnation, and that shaking things up can work. The Mandalorian felt to me as though it was retreating to Star Wars’ comfort zone, and while that move may be popular right now with the fandom, it doesn’t really provide a solid foundation for expansion in the way Star Trek’s shows and films have done.
At the end of the day, both franchises are testament to the power of nostalgia to bring fans back. But they undeniably take very different approaches to that. Star Wars is conscious to try to make everything feel like its first couple of films – to the point that it can be overwhelming. Star Trek certainly doesn’t overwhelm anyone with nostalgia – to the point that some recent projects have been criticised for feeling like they aren’t part of the franchise at all.
Whichever approach you ultimately feel works best, one thing is clear: neither franchise is disappearing any time soon! The first half of the 2020s -and hopefully beyond – will see several different projects from both Star Trek and Star Wars, and as a fan of both and of sci-fi and fantasy in general, that’s great news. Long may it continue!
The Star Trek franchise – including all properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. The Star Wars franchise – including all properties mentioned above – is the copyright of LucasFilm and Disney. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.