Monday, July 14, 2014

Star Wars vs. Star Trek Part 6 : Cultures and Languages

It is almost essential for epic Sci-Fi stories to have races of aliens. It is equally essential that these alien cultures have a well-developed culture or their existence seems frivolous and flat or even fake. But which franchise does it better? Trek or Wars?

Developing cultures of alien species is something Star Trek excels at. The most well known are the Vulcans, who seek to live by reason and logic alone with no emotional interference. There are the Klingons, a gruff warrior race. The Ferengi who obsess over trade and profit.  The Borg function as a hive-mind and seek to assimilate others to their ranks.

Each of these Star Trek species are unique. They hail from different planet and have unique languages. They have specific abilities, rituals and symbols. They are well-developed, even down to their mating habits, and many having existed in the Star Trek universe for almost 50 years.

The culture which has gone through the most developing and changing is undoubtedly the Klingons. The species originated in the 60s. They were portrayed by white actors who covered their faces in bronze shoe-polish. Some people thought they represented a prejudice view of the Japanese culture in a time when World War II was still fresh in the minds of Americans.

It wasn’t until 1979 that Klingons got face-ridges, sharp-teeth, and their very own language. The language was developed by Marc Okrand, an American linguist who wanted to make it unique. It purposely betrays many common traits of spoken languages on Earth including the fact that it has no “ah” sound. The devotion Trekkies have to the Klingon language is actually pretty phenomenal. There is an opera entirely in Klingon called “Klingon Christmas Carol”, Shakespeare has been translated to Klingon, even parts of the bible have been translated to Klingon. There are a few dozen fluent speakers worldwide.

One could try and make a case that the Star Wars alien cultures and languages are also fairly fleshed out. The Hutts, for example have their own language, Huttese. Like the Ewok language it was based on a real dying tribal language. But its hard to take a language seriously when one of the curse words is “Poodoo”.

The sad truth is that the Star Wars cultures are not developed as well as the Star Trek ones. You don’t learn much about wookiees by looking at Chewbacca. He is loyal and often angry and wears a bandoleer full of ammunition pouches. Yet beyond the fact that it is unwise to upset a Wookiee, we don’t know much about them. It’s not that we need to have Chewbacca flashbacks that show his native land and people, we just need some kind of items, clothing, or props that gives the audience some clues to who he is, where he comes from.

WETA Workshop
Let’s be honest, Lucasfilm is no WETA. When watching Lord of the Rings you subconsciously pick up hundreds of traits from the Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves, and Orcs in every single frame. There are some Star Wars species that get this kind of focus but unfortunately they are Ewoks and Gungans.

Many Star Wars races are just too simplistic. The Hutts are evil crime lords. The Nemodians are evil merchants that speak in Chinese accents. The Tusken Raiders are wandering violent desert folk and are probably an allegory for Arabs. The Ewoks are simple forest-beings with little understanding of technology. The Gungans are weird fish things that appeal to 4-year-olds. Can we really compare any of these cultures to Star Trek or Lord of the Rings or the Wizard World of Harry Potter. There is little complexity in Star Wars cultures because many are designed with preschoolers in mind.

This is another example of why Star Trek fans and Star Wars fans clash. Star Trek fans love learning about the facts and nuances of the cultures in their universe, where Star Wars fans just want to see things blow-up. I have to admit that this is something that Star Wars can work on. After all, wouldn’t it be amazing to actually see the art and architecture of Alderaan before watching it explode? Wouldn’t this have raised the stakes and made the loss of the planet more tragic? Perhaps this was the reason I actually felt terrified when Vulcan was destroyed, but continue to feel nothing for Alderaan. Certainly this is something that J.J. can work on in Episode VII.

Klingon Opera
Today's winner is STAR TREK. Here is the score sheet so far.

Score so far:
Round 1 -Aliens & Robots (Star Wars)
Round 2 -Human Characters (Star Trek)
Round 3 -Action (Star Wars)
Round 4 -Science (Star Trek)
Round 5 –Planets (Star Wars)
Round 6 – Cultures and Languages (Star Trek)

Overall Score:
Star Wars = 3

Star Trek = 3

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