Why the Constant Change of 'Star Trek' Makes Me Love 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi'

Why the Constant Change of 'Star Trek' Makes Me Love 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi'

Dec 19, 2017

WARNING: SPOILERS for The Last Jedi will be found below.

While the critical reaction to the latest entry in the Star Wars saga – writer-director Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi – has enjoyed near-universal acclaim from film critics, opening up Twitter or Facebook to see what the franchise's biggest fans are saying about the movie paints a bit of a different story.

In truth, it appears that a lot of Star Wars fans simply don’t know what to make of Johnson's effort in their beloved universe and it largely seems to be for a couple of primary reasons: the plot and characters went in entirely different directions than they were expecting and although it’s a main "Episode" entry, the film was almost gleeful in its act of disregarding nostalgia for what you've seen in the series before.

Indeed, the very intent of the film itself is revealed through dialogue from the enigmatic Kylo Ren, the larger villain of the piece, when he tells our protagonist Rey, "Let the past die. Kill it if you have to." In a lot of ways, that's exactly what Star Wars: The Last Jedi sets out to do, which takes the universe we know and leaves it in a very uncertain and unpredictable place by the time the frame does its quick, circular fade to the tune of John Williams' incomparable score to reveal the director credit.

Admittedly, though, I am a big Star Wars fan. The original trilogy is nearly unparalleled as examples of space-based fantasy. I also find a lot to love about George Lucas' prequel trilogy and the world-building they accomplished between 1999 – 2005, and find the fall and ultimate redemption of Anakin Skywalker to be a wonderful story. Juxtaposing that with Anakin's son Luke looking hopefully to the horizon of the desolate Tatooine inherently speaks to every young person's desire to do more and to be more.

So, as a massive fan of Star Wars, why did I love The Last Jedi so much where many of my fellow Star Wars fans apparently came away either hating it or at least dismissing it? Weirdly enough, the answer can likely be found in another space-faring franchise, one which has a stated mission of "boldly going where no one has gone before."

Why Star Wars Needs to Change, and Began to in The Last Jedi

In 2005, after the release of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, George Lucas made no bones about the apparent fact that, as a cinematic franchise, Star Wars was finished. After the sale of Lucasfilm to the Walt Disney Company and in the run-up to the release of what we now know as The Force Awakens, Disney would make clear that they don’t intend to simply make "a few" Star Wars movies before letting it lie.

Much like their successful forays into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they saw Star Wars as a living, breathing, ongoing series whose end was far from certain. In order to keep things interesting, then, Star Wars would have to do something it never really had to do on a core, fundamental level: it would have to evolve and change in order to survive.

While The Force Awakens set the table for the new episodic entries in the saga effectively, it didn’t take many risks. In fact, the only real clue that things had at all changed in the Star Wars universe in the 30+ years after Return of the Jedi were in a couple of names, some costumes, and the clear aging that the series’ biggest stars had undergone. Though it introduced new characters, The Force Awakens was a powerhouse because of how much it leaned on all of our collective preconceived notions about what makes a Star Wars movie good, particularly when it came to belief in the original films.

When it comes to The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson abandons a lot of elements that we kind of take for granted as Star Wars fans. Luke Skywalker, less the idealistic young Jedi we last saw, is now jaded, broken and isolated. A character we all thought would loom large over this new set of films as a primary villain in Supreme Leader Snoke was killed with all the ceremony of shoveling snow off your sidewalk. That’s to say nothing about the truth of Rey’s parentage, the details we discovered about Kylo Ren’s origins as a Dark Side practitioner (and what pushed him in that direction), or the loss of other fan-favorite characters we had to endure.

Star Wars is now way more episodic and ongoing than it has been in the past, and one of the reasons that I’m very okay with that may rest in my love of a series that is all about reinventing itself with each new iteration. I’m talking, of course, about Gene Roddenberry’s 1966 creation, Star Trek.

Boldly Going: The Lesson The Last Jedi Takes from Star Trek

Beginning as a TV series in the late 1960s, the original Star Trek series introduced us to characters who are now timeless: the unflappable Captain James T. Kirk played by William Shatner, the conflicted and logical Spock portrayed by Leonard Nimoy, and the irascible and emotional Dr. Leonard McCoy played by DeForest Kelley. It was canceled after three seasons in 1969, but in syndication, Star Trek found new life in the 1970s, and after the theatrical success of the first Star Wars film, its newfound popularity on the small screen helped it make the jump to the big one. Star Trek became a new cinematic franchise with the original cast between 1979 – 1991, producing six movies and creating an entirely new generation of fans.

In 1987, though, a year after the highly popular Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home hit theaters, the franchise returned to television, but there was immediate backlash over the concept: instead of the characters we knew and loved, the new show would take place nearly a century into the future, on a new Starship Enterprise and with an entirely different cast.

It took a couple of years, but Star Trek: The Next Generation enjoyed success on television that the original series could’ve only dreamed of, with the cast of that show making the jump to star in four of their own films from 1994 – 2002. In all that time, the Star Trek franchise did not stop its presence on television until 2005, producing an additional three TV series with all new casts, ships, and even taking place across two different eras of the canon.

While J.J. Abrams reinvigorated the movie franchise with the iconic characters of the 60s show, even the 2009 movie upended the table of Trek canon by taking place in an alternate reality and destroying Spock’s home planet. The latest TV series, Star Trek: Discovery, also plays with many preconceived notions surrounding the “prime” Star Trek canon, giving life to characters and scenarios that the franchise has never explored before, including a war-monger of a Starfleet captain in actor Jason Isaacs’ Gabriel Lorca, and the exploration and weight of legacy visited upon Sonequa Martin-Green’s main protagonist, Michael Burnham.

Also, Klingons apparently have no compunction about eating humans. Did you know that? Because I sure as hell didn’t and I’ve been a Trek fan my entire life.

Change Is the Only Constant

The bottom line is this: Star Trek has been on a constant path of reinvention and evolution ever since it first hit the airwaves in 1966. In 51 years, we’ve had seven different TV series with six different casts, six Original Series movies, four Next Generation movies, and three “Kelvin” timeline movies. Star Trek has never been afraid to change and tells stories in different ways in order to stay relevant for its contemporary audiences. Its viability as a series that tries to tell new stories with new characters in new situations is what has kept it alive for over a half-century.

If Star Wars is going to persist until the end of time, then it needs to change, and we saw the true potential of that change in The Last Jedi. By taking a wrecking ball to established tropes, characters and scenarios, The Last Jedi shows that it’s thinking about the future of Star Wars, where reinvention will always be necessary in order to stay alive, stay current and stay relevant. By taking a bit of a page out of the longstanding playbook of reinvention that Star Trek has always used, Star Wars is starting to understand that you can only rest on your laurels for so long without stagnating.

Sometimes to stay fresh, you need to blow something up in order to build it anew. Star Wars is starting to do that because its eyes are on perpetual existence, which is why I’m more confident than ever after The Last Jedi that we’ll be enjoying both Star Wars and Star Trek for untold decades to come.

A mission to “boldly go where no one has gone before” will tend to make that possible.

Chris Clow is a comic book expert and former retailer, and a writer with work having appeared in the Huffington Post, Fandango and others. He also hosts the podcasts Discovery Debrief: A Star Trek Podcast and Comics on Consoles. You can find his weekly Comics on Film column every week here at Movies.com, and you can follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.

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