There’s always been this weird rivalry between Star Trek and Star Wars I’ve never completely understood. I’ve always liked both, mostly because they are both quite different. And, for the most part, neither tries to be much like the other one. They live in their own separate worlds: one in the future and one in the past. But, when the classifications get handed out, you can only pick one. It’s kind of like how a person can’t be both a Mets fan and a Yankees fan (even though some people secretly are) — it just doesn’t work that way.
Star Trek will always hold claim to the fact it came first, beating Star Wars by a full 11 years. Star Trek has been around for 50 years. That’s remarkable. When Star Trek premiered on NBC in 1966, it followed Daniel Boone and was followed later in the night by The Dean Martin Show. (And people wonder why Star Trek was never a hit on television. I’d love to see the Venn diagram overlap of Star Trek fans and Dean Martin fans.)
But Trek also now owes a lot to Star Wars. It was the success of Star Wars that got Star Trek: The Motion Picture into theaters. Before The Motion Picture, Trek had been mostly dormant, except for an animated series (that has the voices of most of the original cast and is pretty great). There had been talk of a new television show called Phase II, with the original cast returning, sans Nimoy, that was far enough into production that models had been built. But after Star Wars, everyone involved started to think bigger and turned one of the Phase II scripts into Star Trek: The Motion Picture. But did they try to make Trek into Star Wars? Bless ‘em, they made basically the opposite of Star Wars: a slow-moving meditation on humanity. It’s kind of amazing Star Trek: The Motion Picture exists.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released on December 7, 1979 — just over five months before The Empire Strikes Back. This is the closest Star Trek and Star Wars would come to going head-to-head at the box office. They’d come close again in 2002 when Attack of the Clones was released in May and Star Trek: Nemesis was released in December, but The Next Generation cast was finishing up and Nemesis wasn’t a particularly good movie, or representation of Star Trek. (And, to be fair, Attack of the Clones wasn’t a good representation of Star Wars, either, but Attack of the Clones made a lot of money.) My point is, Star Wars and Star Trek were never really going after the same crowd.
Well, until now.
In 2005, Star Wars movies were dead. George Lucas said that after Revenge of the Sith, that was it. The story was over. Lucasfilm started concentrating on television: The Clone Wars and an ultimately untitled live action series that never happened, even though scripts were written. (See, with a never-made television show, Star Wars and Star Trek have something in common.) So Star Trek, on life support since Enterprise went off the air in 2005, saw an opening; basically: With Star Wars gone, what if we became Star Wars?
The two franchises really did trade places for a little bit there. Star Wars became a television property with a million different stories going every which way and mixed results, while Star Trek rebooted its entire universe, tidied everything up, and concentrated on huge movies that only came out once every few years — a real “event,” just like the Star Wars movies used to be. And that’s not even pointing out that J.J. Abrams supercharged the franchise with so much action that, yes, it had more of a Star Wars feel to it.
And say what you will about the whole “John Harrison is Khan” nonsense, but people did care. It got a lot of attention and gave Star Trek Into Darkness a sense of mystery. (Of course, that helped lead to the disappointing reactions, because non-stop mystery and hype has a way of doing that.)