Empire or Federation: Where would you rather live?

Because I’m a geek, and because I have plenty of time, I’ve been thinking lately about Star Trek and Star Wars. Comparing and contrasting, listing pros and cons, entertaining questions for which I’ve never had satisfactory answers, etc. I’m a fan of both franchises (how I hate that term!), and, in my idle moments of Walter Mitty-like fantasizing, project myself into their respective universes. While I’m (mentally) there, these are some of the things that occur to me…

In Star Trek*, you never see any private or commercial space traffic. How come? Is that by design, or merely a practical consideration of Trek’s limited budgeting? Alien ships aside, Starfleet appears to be the only authorized human venue for space travel. Which would be kind of like, in our present day, having only Navy ships at sea; no freighters, no yachts, no tankers, no runabouts — only armed-to-the-teeth warships, even for the most benign exploratory or scientific purposes. And, I guess, only Air Force planes in the sky. Hey, that would be like living in a military dictatorship!

Star Wars, on the other hand, is positively loaded with all kinds of spacecraft, some of dubious purpose — The Millennium Falcon, as a perfect example. If the Empire is so evil, so oppressive, why does it allow almost unfettered access to seemingly anywhere in the galaxy, and to seemingly anyone? For what looks to be a military dictatorship, the Empire is pretty liberal on civil liberties! Especially with an active rebellion going on…

Getting back to Gene Roddenberry’s creation, we’re told explicitly (by Captain Jean-Luc Picard,) that 24th century human civilization “has no need for money.” Which is a nice thought, sure. That opens the way for human endeavor to be about something more than mere survival, or the greedy acquisition of even greater riches. Everybody’s taken care of… Which is just dandy for Starfleet officers, who can devote their lives to going where no one has gone before. But who cleans the bathrooms on the Enterprise? Metaphorically speaking, of course. What’s the reward for doing the really crappy jobs that, for whatever reason, require a human touch? Or the really hard, dangerous jobs, like, oh, let’s say… construction of the Enterprise? The trailer for J. J. Abrams’ upcoming STAR TREK film shows exactly that: welders and crane operators working on building the dome of the fabled starship. Do those guys go home to the same creature comforts that high-ranking Starfleet or Federation personnel do? What about the poor “redshirt” bastards whose job it is to get killed on an away-team mission? What’s in it for them, or their families? In Nicholas Meyer’s STAR TREK II : THE WRATH OF KHAN, we see a short scene set in Admiral Kirk’s San Francisco apartment. Apartment?? That’s all a Starfleet admiral gets to live in? Just a freakin’ apartment? What’s a Galactic hero gotta do to get himself a house around here? 80 years later, we see Robert Picard’s beautiful vineyard and winery, so how does he rate a nice chunk of property?

Meanwhile, over in George Lucas’ Star Wars universe, everybody’s gotta make a living. Some are scrabbling at it, like Owen Lars or Watto, and some are doing quite nicely, like Jabba the Hut or Lando Calrissian. Institutionalized slavery is even factored in to the economy! But my point is, there’s an economy. Han Solo requires payment — quite a bit of it! — to ferry Luke and Ben to where they want to go. He’s got bills to pay. (And his bills are nothing compared to the economic and trade issues that open up Episode I, and ultimately lead to the consolidation of the Empire.) Again, it’s funny that this oppressive Galactic Empire should have such an apparently loosey-goosey economic policy; it’s like if all of China were like Hong Kong, they’d be a more capitalistic society and even our American one.

From a couple of observations like these, it might appear that it’d be better — or at least more fun! — to live under Star Wars’ Galactic Empire, than it would be under Star Trek’s (seemingly more benign) United Federation of Planets.

Except for those stupid goddam Jedi. Those clueless, blind, master-race-spouting, mutant theologians… they couldn’t even detect, much less prevent, their best and brightest falling into the dark side. The one guy, that they pretty much recognized as being the fulfillment of the prophecy, who instead became the greatest mass murderer in all of history. Maybe the take-away lesson is that any sort of theocracy, even a benign and new-agey one, ultimately produces a Darth Vader. Where there are Jedi, you will, eventually, always get Sith Lords. And that, dear friends, takes a whole lot of the fun out of Lucas’ fantasy playland. Life under the rule of gods and monsters is distinctly unappealing…

At least the vaguely militarized bureaucrats who make up Trek’s Starfleet Command (who, let’s face it, pretty much run the whole show,) are mortal beings. If, eventually, they go from benign to malignant, there’s always the possibility of uprising, revolution, and removal. Equilibrium for all the races can be restored, under a new and better form of government. (Until that one turns to shit.) Hey, maybe they’d even allow private ownership of spaceships! Now, that would be a fun place to live…

* In using the terms “Star Trek” and “Star Wars,” I’m referring to their respective fantasy universes, as shown in all incarnations of each, i.e. all movies, TV episodes, novelizations, etc., not the (respective) TV show and movie that went by those specific titles.

3 Responses to “Empire or Federation: Where would you rather live?”

  1. First of all, I really enjoy reading your weblog.
    Some of your entries, such as this one, engage my own sense of geeky self; it’s fun to allow the mind to wander (project?) along other universes and see what thoughts creep up. I am also a pretty big fan of the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises (yes, I hate that term as well) and I may have a few counterpoints for you.

    In actuality, the idea of private/commercial merchant space craft is touched on quite often throughout each of the Star Trek television series and is well incorporated in to canon. The series, Enterprise, for example, introduced the character of helmsman Ensign Travis Mayweather, who was born and raised on the civilian ECS (Earth Cargo Service) vessel ‘Horizon;’ the series establishes (in the episodes ‘Broken Bow’ and ‘Horizon’) civilian merchant vessels to be somewhat generational due to the limited warp capability (around Warp 2) of the civilian ships of the day. The original Star Trek Series describes the Merchant Marines/Merchant Service (episodes: ‘Bread and Circuses’ and ‘The Ultimate Computer’) as a civilian group within the Federation operating survey vessels and freighters. In the series ST: Deep Space 9, the space station in question is a hub of civilian commercial, merchant and pleasure travel as well as a way station for military craft of various species. The series ST: Voyager establishes (episode: ‘The Raven’) that civilian craft are encouraged, but not forced, to file flight plans with Federation authorities.

    I think your musings on the Star Wars side of civilian craft to be pretty dead-on. However, I will touch on one thing: the nature of FTL in each series. Star Trek uses a very limiting FTL premise in an effort to add a sense of drama and exploration. In Star Wars, the idea of FTL is treated simply as a means to get from one place to another and the occasional dramatic escape, or as is often the case with the Falcon, the lack there-of. Anyway, the reason the Imperial Navy appears to be so liberal is simply because it is impossible (without the use of Interdictor Destroyers along major hyperspace routes) to prevent or even severely limit space travel. That is what allows smugglers like Han Solo to stay in business. Instead, as is demonstrated throughout all of the films, the Empire establishes ground bases on highly trafficked planets and positions its Fleet in strategic efforts to ‘police’ the universe.

    Upon reflection, I think that the idea of humans not using money in the Star Trek universe is a concept about which fans must sort of “read between the lines.” I believe that the thinking is that on Earth and through human colonies, money is a non-issue. However, it is well established that humans, including Starfleet, do use various forms of currency when the situation dictates. For example, gold-pressed Latinum is established in both the series ST: DS9 and ST: TNG as a form of currency the Federation uses to negotiate and facilitate trade with outside governments, most notably the Ferengi. The Federation does appear to have a financial system of Federation Credits established to make trade easier for space-going citizens. In the original series, Federation credits are used rather extensively in episodes such as ‘The Trouble With Tribbles’, ‘The Apple’, etc. This is also seen in ST: TNG in episodes such as ‘Encounter At Farpoint’ and ‘The Price’.

    Once again, in terms of the Star Wars universe, I think you hit the nail square on the head. I fall back to my earlier statement about Lucas painting a stark picture of human civilization and the workings, financial and otherwise, have a more gritty and rustic feel. The disparity of class and social standing is meant to be obvious, as is the overt need for money. In Roddenberry’s universe, the opposite is true. I think that yes, the poor ‘red-shirt’ bastard who most likely won’t come back from that landing party has an apartment waiting for him back on Earth just as nice and well appointed as any Starfleet Admiral; the guy out there welding the framework on a new Starship is doing so because he wants to and not because he has to … his family is safe and sound and not in any danger of starvation. In short, the two universes of Star Trek and Star Wars present a view of space faring humanity from very different angles. It certainly makes for good conversation.

    I would like to say, again, that I’ve enjoyed this blog post greatly. It is interesting to see the different way we each see such iconic cultural franchises (ugh! That word again!) and how we relate to each.

    My husband would have fallen asleep already!


  2. paulbaack Says:

    Thanks again, Rain, for your kind words and thoughtful comments.

    I learned something from you here (which is my way of saying good point; I stand corrected) about the Star Trek universe. You’re right, there’s quite a lot of private and commercial space travel going on, most of it, I guess, offscreen — but still there. Actually, another example which occurred to me was the character Harry Mudd from the original series. And, yes indeed, DS9 was like a galactic Grand Central Terminal; not having watched the show very much, that particularly obvious example kind of slipped my memory.

    As to the economics angle of Trek, I still have a hard time understanding (or, rather, believing) the no-money economy of (at least the human part) of that civilization. I just don’t know what the motivation would be to do the really crappy and/or dangerous jobs — why be a package handler for UPS, or a plumber who has to wallow in filth, or a roofer in Phoenix in July, or a garbage collector, or etc., etc.? The recompense for such jobs is inversely proportional to the number of people who want to do them; money is the only prize for such otherwise unrewarding labor. So, in the Federation, why would otherwise comfortable people do these things?

    Regarding monetary currency, gold-pressed Latinum always seemed, to me, to be more of a Ferengi thing than a Federation thing. The Ferengi were always presented in such a mocking light that it was hard to take that whole issue very seriously. Again, not having watched Deep Space 9 all that much, there may have been more going on than I’m aware of. Same thing for Federation Credits, except for how they would be apportioned. How does a (human) citizen get that extra walking-around money, on top of their freely-supplied regular requirements? Who determines who gets how much?

    Let me point out that these things don’t really occur to me when I’m watching Star Trek (or Star Wars,) in any of its incarnations. Like most fans, I love the characters and their arcs, and the romance of a life of adventure set against the backdrop of a galactic civilization. These are more 3 a.m. thoughts, when I have trouble sleeping. 🙂

    It does make for fun conversation. Thanks again for reading and responding!

  3. Hey Paul – great site! Anyway, don’t forget that in TOS Trek Kirk and Spock were quite happy to disguise themselves as ‘traders in kevas and trillium’ (in ‘Errand of Mercy’) and there’s also Harry Mudd and that bar scene in ST:III where McCoy tries to tender a private starship hire… more geekery when I’m not about to catch a train! 🙂

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