There are three topics that should never be discussed at the dinner table: religion, politics, and the relative merits of Star Trek and Star Wars. Luckily for us, MakeUseOf isn’t a dinner table.
While any debate around the two great Star franchises tends to get… passionate… I’m going to try and approach the subject as logically as Spock. I’m not going to talk about which canon is better — it’s obviously Star Trek — but instead focus on whose cannons are better. Let’s take a look at the technology of Star Trek and Star Wars.
Before diving deep into this debate, it’s important to set a few ground rules.
I’m not an expert on either series so I’m going to be leaning on the work of far more enlightened thinkers; the Trek-Wars wars have been waged over countless forums and websites for many years. Generally, what was considered canon before Disney acquired Lucasfilm and J.J. Abrams rebooted Star Trek is going to be admissible.
Also, what is shown is going to be favored over what is said. On Quora, Rom Lokken explains that a Star Wars Star Destroyer is reported as being able to generate power equal to 1 percent of the sun’s energy output. This is ridiculously inconsistent with the actual observed performance of Star Destroyers in the film. “For those crying foul,” he writes, “a Star Destroyer that needs that much power (to create the abilities displayed) would represent the most fantastic inefficiency ever conceived.”
One major complication is that, while Star Trek writers at least attempted to create plausible explanations for the technology, George Lucas did what he wanted by throwing in random technobabble. When taken alongside the Force, it’s easy to see why some fans consider Star Wars to be an epic space fantasy rather than a science fiction tale.
With all that in mind, let’s dig in.
We’re actually pretty keen on robots here at MakeUseOf. Star Trek and Star Wars both feature great robot characters: C-3PO, R2-D2 and Data are all fan-favorites. C-3PO is a yellowish droid who talks a lot, while Data is a yellowish android who talks a lot. So far, so samey. Unfortunately for C-3PO, his tech just isn’t up to scratch.
C-3PO was pieced together from junk parts by a crazy kid, whereas Data was carefully designed and created by a mad scientist. Data also has the advantage of being “fully functional,” hyper-intelligent, and an integral part of the Enterprise crew. C-3PO gets in the way, while R2-D2 is little more than a gun sight on wheels. Data even won the MakeUseOf staff vote by an overwhelming margin. Yes, I actually polled my fellow authors.
Star Trek 1, Star Wars 0.
This one’s another simple call. If the Skywalkers lived in the United Federation of Planets they wouldn’t need to worry so much about their arms. Yes, they’re able to get them replaced with cybernetics, but Bones would probably be able to reattach the originals. While my colleague Philip Bates is interested in getting upgraded, I’d sooner keep my real limbs.
Everything short of instant death — just don’t wear a red shirt! — seems to be curable on the Enterprise. With technology like tricorders that can instantly diagnose almost all ailments, Star Trek takes this one with ease.
Star Trek 2, Star Wars 0.
This one is interesting. The warp drives on Star Trek ships use a matter/antimatter reactor, while Star Wars ships use comparatively lower-tech fusion and fission reactors. Looks like another easy victory for Star Trek, no? Perhaps not.
The issue is in the actual performance of the drives. ST-vs-SW.net places the fastest speed achieved by a ship in the Star Trek universe at around 21,000 times the speed of light, with slower ships maxing out at around 9,000 times light-speed. However, most ships probably cruise at something around 2,000 times the speed of light. In the Star Wars canon, the fastest ships come in at around 16,500 times light-speed but the typical cruising speed is around 11,000 times the speed of light. So, although the fastest Star Trek ships may be capable of greater speeds than Star Wars ships, they tend to cruise at far lower speeds.
Outside of light-speed drives, Star Wars takes it handily. The Empire’s Star Destroyers are shown to be ponderous beasts, slow to maneuver in real space, unlike the Federation’s ships which are practically capable of pirouetting on a dime.
Therefore, I’m going to call this one a tie. Star Trek gets points for the more advanced drives, faster top speed, and maneuverability, while Star Wars takes it for average speed, which would be more important more of the time.
Star Trek 3, Star Wars 1. Things are heating up.
Weapons are another controversial topic. Boba Fett’s ship, Slave 1, is described as having 64,000-gigawatt lasers and 190 megaton missiles, while the puny Enterprise-D only has a 3.6-gigawatt main gun and 64 megaton missiles. This is where Rom Lokken’s rule from earlier kicks in.
“Some of the energy readings suggested for Star Wars laser weapons would instantaneously vaporize any unshielded craft, not to mention the atmosphere in between them, in rather spectacular fashion,” he explains, continuing, “Nothing in the physical behavior of these weapons supports these values.”
With that established, the case becomes a lot more clear-cut. In his Quora article, Rom devotes several paragraphs to explaining all the way Star Trek weapons are superior to Star Wars ones.
Weapon tech is also no contest. Photon torpedoes travel at warp speed. This means that are unblockable by SW vessels whose reaction time is such that skilled humans can provide superior guidance as compared to their computers (thus their manual firing). Photon torpedoes are matter/antimatter devices whose yields have been described as being able to wipe out cities with a single torpedo. Proton torpedoes are sub-light (and slow) missiles that can destroy city blocks.
He’s equally decisive on the subject of lasers.
Without going into the difficult discussion around energy outputs of beam weapons. ST beams are computer controlled, use the vastly superior Trek sensors and computer systems and have output that has been described as being capable of destroying the entire surface of a planet. Turbo lasers (save and except the Death Star) have limited firing arcs and while incredibly numerous are dramatically limited by poor fire control and range.
I have to call it: Star Trek 4, Star Wars 1.
Sensors, Shields, Replicators, and Transporters
When I started writing this article I thought the Star Wars franchise would put up more of a fight. Instead, I’m combining sensors, shields, transporters, and replicators into a single category to avoid an absolute massacre. All four technologies broadly deal with detecting or manipulating energy. In every case, Star Trek wins out.
The sensors on the Enterprise are orders of magnitude better than anything in the Star Wars universe. Starfleet sensors can scan ships trillions of kilometers away, while ST-v-SW.net concludes that Star Wars scanners seem to be limited to a few hundred thousand kilometers. Star Trek scanners can read the DNA of opposing crews, while the best offered by Star Wars could only determine that Yoda wasn’t a Wookie.
While shields are a huge part of the Enterprise’s capabilities, large ships in the Star Wars universe don’t have anything comparable. An X-Wing wouldn’t be able to get through a Starfleet ship’s shields, but can easily get close enough to the Death Star to destroy it.
Star Trek society is post-scarcity. Replicators mean anything can be created anywhere. Poverty and hunger are things that just don’t exist in a meaningful way. The opposite is true in the Republic and, later, the Empire. Slavery, hunger, and poverty are all seen in the films. Another easy win for Star Trek.
Transporters are actually very similar technology to replicators, and once again, Star Wars has no answer. Kirk and crew get can get beamed anywhere they want on a whim, while Han Solo is stuck slogging along in his rust bucket.
I’m going to be gentle. Star Trek 5, Star Wars 1. Even though this could easily be 8–1 to Star Trek.
But What About the Force?
The Force is the one thing that really takes Star Wars away from being science fiction. Its pseudo-religious undertones and utterly unexplained properties make it very difficult to compare with anything in Star Trek.
Take lightsabers, which only a Jedi can use as they’re reliant on their ability to use the Force. Are they tech? Or are they just a magic sword? If they’re tech then they earn Star Wars a half-point for close combat gear, but if they’re magic I’m inclined to dock the series a half-point because George Lucas’ constant retconning annoys me.
Either way, it doesn’t make much difference to the final score. It’s 5 plays 0.5 or 5 plays 1.5 depending on how you view the Force. Star Trek takes the trophy. Live long and prosper.
This is the bit where you get to tell me how wrong I am. I’ve skipped over loads of different technologies — like the holodeck — from both canon. Please, if you disagree with anything I’ve said, let me know, at length, in the comments. Comparing the two series is definitely an art, not a science.