Star Trek and the essence of myth

In 1977, George Lucas created what he hoped would be a modern culmination of human myth systems.  Most fans of Star Wars are aware that the films George Lucas made (at least the original trilogy) have far more in common with the folklore of ancient Greece and medieval Japan then they do with any other work of science fiction.  I would argue that Star Wars is even more closely related to films like Clash of the Titans, Excalibur, or The Lord of the Rings, or even The Seven Samurai than it would have with films like The Day the Earth Stood Still or 2001: A Space Odyssey.  These mythic stories of heroes and wizards, damsels in distress and villains, are the foundations for a large percentage of our shared art, culture, and literature.  In creating Star Wars, George Lucas was telling a pastiche of the oldest stories in the world in a way that had never been attempted before.

These stories have passed from generation to generation, and like any story, the plots have slight alterations, the characters names can be changed, and details here and there also change.  It used to frustrate me as a kid when I would devour these stories and see it never told the same way twice.  It helped me later to realize that stories change with time, but the essence of the stories are never different.  Check out the legends of Camelot.  How many knights sat at the Round Table?  Was it Mordred or a fight with Lancelot that brought Camelot down?  Depending on the source, there are vastly different answers to these and other questions.  Time changes stories.

On the other hand, there is Star Trek.  Trek and Wars have always been at diametric opposite ends of some contrived scale for hard core scifi fans.  Perhaps this is most memorably shown in this excerpt from “The Late Show With Conan O’Brien” where he sends Triumph the Insult Comic Dog to the opening of Star Wars Episode II, and has an uninvited guest show up.


This of course is comparing apples and oranges.  Trek started as a TV western (with starships doubling for covered wagons, and Klingons for the local natives).  While parts of it undoubtedly borrow liberally from myth and legend, there is plenty of it that is wholly modern (Jason’s argonauts weren’t really multi-racial;  the Seven Against Thebes didn’t include women; and I’m not sure that Tribbles have an equivalent in any myth system).  The problems in Star Wars are mythic in nature (rescue the damsel, save the world).  Trek’s problems were those of racism and ageism;  ethical dilemmas for heroes that were more complex than those generally presented in mythic stories; and the incorporation of modern physics into science fiction.  One isn’t necessarily better than the other but it is important to note that while Luke Skywalker is a descendant of Jason and Hercules, Captian Kirk is more closely a descendant of Matt Dillon, The Virginian, or Bret Maverick.

However, in a few months, Star Wars fans will definitely have something to get genuinely geared up about, because Trek is going to soundly and unapologetically go stomping all over Star Wars‘ turff …. not that this is a bad thing.

I figure that centuries ago, there were probably a lot more mythic stories that were told than have existed through to the modern day.  The ones that “made it” were the ones which endured because they were good stories and because they were popular.  Over that time, as I noted above, the characters underwent alterations, and the plots got changed.  Storytellers embellish.  Generations emphasize different parts of the story.

In May there is going to be a new Star Trek movie.  The character names will be the same.  The starship name will be the same.  A few other names will be the same.  Everything else will be vastly different.  The very history that has been long established and cherished by the legions of fans will be greatly changed.

and I say:  good!

Star Trek is now shifting into the realm of myth.  If Trek is truly worthy of surviving as something more than a cultural artifact, then it must also survive the test that all mythic stories have been subjected to:  will the essence of what it represents survive in the popular and cultural memory as time goes on?  If it does, then new actors and new changes to the plot and history will be non-factors.  It is not a question of a new Trek being better or worse than the original, but rather a question of: can these stories and characters remain relevant to the future generations.  If the answer is to be yes, then change is not only inevitable, but a necessity.

The world we live in is grim.  So was the world of the late 1960s.  Perhaps Trek’s greatest contribution to society was that it was one of the few works of culture (artistic or otherwise), that spoke to almost anyone and said that there will be a future, and it will be better to live in than it is now …. and not only should you live for that day, but that you should work to make that future a reality sooner vs. later.  For those who have seen the landmark episode “The City on the Edge of Forever”, this is the basic philosophy of Trek in a nutshell:

Then as now, we need an occasional kick in the butt to get moving forward, and that also means letting go of parts of the past and embracing changes in the future.

Even for Star Trek fans.


One Response to Star Trek and the essence of myth

  1. Tom N. says:

    Tom, interesting analyses like this one are great, and are part of why I enjoy reading your writings.

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