The Psychology of Star Trek VS. Star Wars: Episode IV at San Diego Comic Con 2014 (Recap)

Psychology of Star Trek VS. Star Wars: Episode IV at San Diego Comic Con 2014

Last week, Dr. Andrea Letamendi and I brought our intergalactic scifi battle, The Psychology of Star Trek Versus Star Wars, back to San Diego Comic Con! Producer Rod Roddenberry (Trek Nation) and actor Sam Witwer (Star Wars: The Clone Wars) joined the discussion with Brian Ward returning as referee.

While Episode III focused on the science behind family, relationships, friendships, and bullying, for Episode IV we discussed what it takes to reach your full potential and what happens if you fail to achieve it. 

If you couldn’t make it, download the audio, watch the full panel, or check out the highlights below. 

Round 1: Realizing Your Full Potential

Star Trek 2009's Kirk facing Enterprise; Star Wars: A New Hope Luke twin sunset.

Brian: Whether it’s realizing that your more than a kid from Iowa or a moisture farmer on Tatooine, both franchises deal with self-actualization quite a lot. Psychologically speaking, which franchise handles it in a more healthy manner?

Andrea: We know that Star Wars is about self-actualization, the journey to your fulfillment, your purpose, your meaning, everything you are living for. We know through many characters in Star Wars that their individual journeys are very important. Star Trek deals with that, but within a societal/psychosocial themed universe. It’s more about building social relationships and trying to get along and all that.

Ali: Star Wars has a great story about self-actualization with these individuals – that’s nice. Star Trek is about humanity, the whole species. There are 3 basic things Star Trek is about when it comes to psychology – overcoming prejudice, promoting tolerance, and working together. We have some Andorians here – they helped us bring the Federation together. The Federation is about groups of people overcoming their prejudice and working together on large goals. That’s what Star Trek is about, something that’s larger than just individual people.

Sam: I’m going to have a real hard time here guys. Much like the two sides of Darth Vader warring with each other, I also feel like Spock in that I have my Star Trek side and my Star Wars side. I’m disagreeing with everyone at this point! So [turns to Andrea] are we supposed to win here, is that how this works?

Andrea: I would ask you to embrace your anger, give in to the dark side.

Sam: [Turns to Ali] Let’s talk about those individuals you said suck. What’s wonderful about them in Star Wars is they have more in common with mythic archetypes. You go all the way back to people like Odysseus and ah all those folks and even…ah…[audience laughs]…I’ve read stuff! I’m trying to stay away from the Greek gods because Star Trek did that as well, right? Like, “Oh we had Apollo in our show…”

Ali: In every other episode of The Original Series, yeah.

Sam: Yeah, exactly! Anyway, [Star Wars] has more to do with large myth couched in this wonderful fun popcorn Buster Crabbe Flash Gordan stuff. It makes those lessons really digestible to young folks. I remember in high school, a lot of situations where as a young person I was trying to figure out what’s right and wrong. You’d say, “I could do this, but that’s the dark side, the quick and easy path.” Those movies provided us with that vocabulary, to help us digest the world around us in terms that are a lot more fun than sitting around and mashing your teeth about being a young person. 

Rod: I grew up on Star Wars, believe it or not, I saw it in the theater 10 or 20 times. My intellectual maturity wasn't really developed. However, when it did…

[Audience laughs]

Sam: I’m on your side, pal! I’m on everyone’s side!

Brian: This is why they keep inviting us back!

Rod: Listen, I love both sides. I’m just trying to dig the knife a little bit, just to stir things up. I grew up on The Next Generation, that was my series. For Mission Log, I just started watching it again. The first season may not be the strongest season, but every episode dealt with an issue. The Next Generation was already that better humanity. It was hard for certain people to identify with those humans because they were what we could be one day. I think a lot of what is in Star Wars is very familiar to us. The behaviors, the basic right and wrong, good and bad. I’m really not downing it, but it’s just easier to understand – black and white. Star Trek is a bit deeper, for me, because it’s a better humanity already. It makes me feel good. That’s the world I want to live in. That’s the future I want to live in. I don’t necessarily, although it might be fun, want to live in the Star Wars world.

Ali: But if you want a war, watch Deep Space Nine. We’ve got a war too! It’s a really big one, with Changelings and stuff.

Sam: Let me ask everyone here - what’s darker? This is me actually asking. I have a friend I showed a whole bunch of Star Trek to and a whole bunch of Star Wars. She felt Star Wars was a lot darker.

Rod: Deep Space Nine is pretty dark show.

Sam: Yeah…let’s lie and get the Romulans into the war. Spoiler alert!

Ali: Ah…best episode ever! Sam, that’s my favorite episode of Star Trek right there – “In the Pale Moonlight.” You just earned points!

Sam: Star Trek is all about we fire on you, but then you fire on us, and then we come to an understanding afterwards. If I decide to go to war with you guys, Darth Vader don’t take no prisoners man! I’m just saying, it’s in your nature to be forgiving. I don’t want to take the gloves off.

Round 2: Failure

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan; Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace Darth Maul

Brian: You could have been genetically bred to conquer the Earth and be the best of the tyrants, but sometimes you get only get a quarter of the Earth under your possession before they jettison you into space. And you could have been given away to a lord of the Sith to be his apprentice and just before you got to realize that potential you were cut in half. Let’s talk about these two franchises and what it means psychologically to nearly realize your goals and having them taken away.

Ali: This question is pretty awesome.

Brian: I know.

Ali: My favorite part about Phantom Menace is Darth Maul. I thought he was such a cool character. To see him brother back in Clone Wars was so exciting. We too on the Star Trek side have Khan and he was brought back too…but we don’t have to talk about that. What we are talking about is what happens when you have a goal. Both of these individuals were bred for one purpose. Darth Maul, from an early age, without much choice was raised to be a dark Sith assassin. Khan was engineered through eugenics to become a superhuman. In “Space Seed” they say he was “the best of them”. Both of these individuals have a singular purpose. Khan wanted to rule the world. He didn’t really do a good job, sorta led to World War III. Darth Maul was bred to kill Jedi and he was cut in half. Both of these characters become consumed with revenge. Khan wants it against Kirk and Maul wants it against Obi-Wan. The psychology here comes down to this – “I’ve done far worse than kill you. I’ve hurt you! And I want to go on hurting you!” Revenge is all about having a wound and hoping if you get back at that person it’ll somehow fix the would. What we know about the psychology here is at first revenge feels good. “Revenge is dish best served cold”, with a little bit of sugar on top because it feels good in the moment. But what the research has shown is the more you’re stuck on revenge and ruminating on these thoughts that pain, your wound, how angry you are at Obi-Wan and Kirk, it just festers. Compare this against Luke and Kirk. Kirk lost his son to Klingons. Throughout The Undiscovered Country, Kirk is going through this process of forgiveness and trying to find empathy for the Klingons. Luke had his hand cut off by Vader and the Emperor is telling him to give in to the dark side and he doesn’t. Both of those characters are able to find forgiveness. Both develop empathy. They’re not saying it’s okay that these things happened, but they are able to find a way to move on. [Maul and Khan] are not.

Andrea: While I understand Khan’s feelings of revenge, biological and neurologically they’re superficial. We keep ending the story when Darth Maul is cut in half. What happens after that? There's this recovery process, an interesting and realistic psychological transformation that we see unfold in Clone Wars. Actual neurobioloigcal research has shown us that when we have that type of severe psychological and biological injury, there are changes in the brain. When we hear the phrase trauma causes brain damage or the body never forgets, that's what we're seeing in the encounter on Lotho Minor. He's completely psychologically disorganized and dysfunctional. He's nearly psychotic. I want to recognize Sam for characterizing that level of psychopathology. You could really feel that level of dysfunction. That speaks to the neurobiology of the experience of failure, trauma, and stress. It's hard to watch but I thought it was very realistic.

Sam: Thank you. First, I'm just going to say this, I'm the worst teammate ever. I'm going to reveal something here that is going to give Star Trek fans a lot of glee – so I'm sorry. What you said [Andrea] was beautiful and what you said [Ali] is where I'm going to go with this.

Rod: This is great! I really don't have to do anything.

Sam: When we were talking about Darth Maul, we talked about his whole arc before we recorded anything. One of the things we kept touching back on was, "I've done far worse than kill you, I've hurt you." So when we first meet him he's in crisis and then he gets his stuff back together and all he wants to do is beat up Obi-Wan and kill him real quick. He wins, he beats Obi-Wan but then lets him go because he doesn't feel any better. Maybe it wasn't big enough. Maybe the revenge needs to be larger, bigger. So he starts raising an army, doing all these things, figuring out who Obi-Wan cares about and then eventually finds Satine. Spoiler alert here, but he ends up hurting Obi-Wan in a very major way. Obi-Wan demonstrates his superiority by not seeking revenge, which is disappointing to Darth Maul but we never get to that point because suddenly we get to Darth Sidious and there's a whole other revenge plot that happens there. It's an endless cycle. I'm certain if we had seen Khan more in the TV series or movies we would have seen a recurring revenge cycle because it's a wound that never heals. The only way that you can heal it is by forgiving your enemy, by offering a compassionate response, by offering mercy. It's no mistake that the first thing we hear Darth Maul say in that garbage pit is mumbling to himself about how mercy is a lie. The last thing we hear Darth Maul say is him begging Darth Sidious for mercy, and Darth Sidious doesn't give it to him. So thank you Star Trek, thank you Andrea, thank you everyone for feeding that response. I suck at this.

Andrea: Remember the rule of two – it's usually broken. There's usually a 3rd party in the rule of two. I'm okay with that.

Sam: I'm betraying my own kind!

Ali: The Sith should really drop that rule of two, it hasn't worked out too well for you all.

Rod: I come at this from a slightly different point of view. There's a lot of respect for Khan in “Space Seed” and the latest movie. There's a lot of depth to the character. I didn't know much about Darth Maul except what I saw in the movie. I learned quite a bit right now. Khan, I have respect for him. He loves his family. Those 72 other people are his family. He has compassion. He has a heart. His views are a little screwed up, but I find him to be a more intriguing character to me whereas I think Maul was more one-dimensional but I know more about Khan than I do Maul. Sometimes you can look at someone who has the wrong point of view but you can still understand them and appreciate where they're coming from. That's where I live with Khan.

Sam: One of the primary differences with Star Trek and Star Wars is that Star Wars paints in more primary colors. It's louder and bigger. Star Trek likes to get really nuanced in very specific ways. That's why I love both of them.

Rod: It's hard to do that with theatrical versus television.

Sam: Right! That's absolutely true. It's nice to see that in those 6 movies they had a lot of success with that nuance, especially with Khan. Star Wars performances don't work if you do them subtly. Star Wars is better when it's bigger and faster and operatic and giant. Star Trek is better when it has subtle moments with the characters – Kirk, Spock, and Bones talking a problem out.

Rod: It makes me want to know more about Darth Maul though. I want to sit around a coffee table with him, have some other characters surround him like Luke and they just talk philosophy. [Asks audience] Who would win in a fight -- Khan or Darth Maul?

[Crowd mostly screams Khan]

Ali: I don't think Khan would win against Maul! I'm going to give an assist to Dr. Letamendi over there...what beat Khan in The Original Series? A BIG PIPE! Come on! Maul has a lightsaber.

Sam: Oh no no no no my friend, I saw Kirk at one point take both of his fists and combine them into one fist and strike him several times. That's what I saw. One fist can do a lot of damage. Two fists are like square root of fist.

Brian: But these two would never meet because Star Trek is in the future, Star Wars is a galaxy a long time ago.

Rod: Yeah but they got really at warp speed! They can go back in time.

Sam: Slingshot effect, come on man let's do this! 

Round 3: Rule of 2 and Number 1

Star Wars Rule of 2, Star Trek Number 1

Brian: Rule of two and Number One. Talk about mentoring and apprenticeship. Whether it is Captain Picard and Riker or Sidious and Maul. Let's talk about what we know about training and education and which system is better.

Andrea: Folks know what the rule of two is? Usually there is a master and apprentice. A lot of times with the Sith this is violated. There's a secret other apprentice who kills one of the other two. Despite that there's a classic relationship where the mentor is trying to instill some intellectual, emotional, and physical ability in the mentee and there's a need to make the mentor proud of them. With Star Trek, there are times when Riker was offered his own ship and he didn't immediately take that opportunity...

Sam: You get paid less if you leave the show.

Ali: The economics of the future are a little different.

Sam: You guys wanted Riker off the show? I didn't. Don't take the ship! Stick around. He's got a cool beard now.

Andrea: There's something weird about their relationship. There's too much enmeshment or attachment. When the bird's ready to fly, leave the nest.

Sam: Let's talk about the master and apprentice relationship between Ben and Luke and Ben's replacement – Yoda. There's a real thing that happens in Star Wars where Luke is impatient. He doesn't listen to everything that's told to him. Yoda's trying to say, "Hey, chill out, relax, people can take care of themselves. It's not all about you." Luke can't see that point of view. In fact, The Empire Strikes Back really is about respecting your elders. Luke doesn't do that. Because he doesn't do that he goes off trying to rescue his friends and his friend end up having to rescue him. He almost blows the entire plan. He almost loses the entire movie series for us in that one impatient move. Then the next movie is interesting because it's about the opposite. It's about rejecting your elders. Move past your elders. You become the man or woman. You've grown up. You're actualized. Ben says, "You must face Darth Vader again."

And he's like, "You're saying kill him?"

"Well...face him."

“You know he's my dad?"

"Yeah, I do."

"Yoda, what do you think?"

"You must confront Vader."

Luke's like, "You guys are dicks! What is wrong with you people?!?"

"We saw him kill a bunch of children, he's a terrible husband, and he’s in this total Goth phase. We just want you to take care of him."

"No dude! I don't know what my solution is yet but I'm going to figure something out."

So the next movie is about rejecting your elders, the opposite message of the previous movie. Luke is now an adult, a man. He's grown past that mentor relationship. Now he's ready to make his own decisions. What does he find? He figures out a solution that no one thought of! A compassionate solution. A Star Trek solution. Through that we get a very satisfying ending. A brave ending. It makes Darth Vader a sympathetic character and Luke someone who's brave enough to have compassion.

Rod: I just learned so much!

Brian: Ali and Team Trek?

Ali: How do I follow up any of that?

Brian: It's got to be psychological torture.


Sam: There are five.

Ali: So...ummm...I agree with both of you so let me take this into a different direction because I need to do that. This question is really one about training and education. How do we create the next generation of Sith, Jedi, and Captains. Both series have an academy and a mentor type relationship. If we look at the psychology of education, it actually shows that a lot of the lecture style of teaching that happens in academia, well there's not a lot of evidence to support that. What works really well is learning from your peers and having some type of mentor available to clarify and go through the stuff you're learning. Both series do that well. We see it with Luke, Wesley, and Nog. But Star Trek does it better. Both series have aptitude tests, like the SATs. In Star Trek, we've got the Kobayashi Maru. Star Wars, you guys have an aptitude test as's a blood test. It's looking for midichlorians and we know tests like that aren't as successful. In Star Trek the tests are character based – how do you respond to this situation. Star Trek's about integrity, equal opportunity. You don't have to be off the charts on your midichlorians. You can be a Ferengi and still be in Starfleet.

Sam: That was extremely offensive, racially. "You can still be a Ferengi." REALLY?!?

Ali: Technically they're not members of the yeah.

Sam: Wow.

Rod: I might agree with Star Wars a little bit. I love your response [Ali], so I'm on your side, but the one thought I really had was if you're a member of the Federation you have to abide by Federation laws, Starfleet has rules and regulations. With Riker and Picard, there wasn't much growth in the characters. Not as much as Luke and Leia. They don't have to abide by any set rules. They understand that everyone's going to have a different journey while the Federation regulates.

Ali: Hold on, Rod. Riker grew a beard, how much more growth do you want?!?

Rod: Yes, yes he did.

Sam: Star Trek taught me a lot about patience in that process you're talking about. There really was a feeling that you must have a great deal of experience before you captain a ship. Even when you captain a ship you are looking to your friends who are your subordinates but you're treating them as equals because they have knowledge that you don't. They have wisdom that you don't. You add that to yourself before you make a decision.

Rod: Yoda had 900 years of wisdom.

Sam: There's that. Star Wars is more about how the relationship with your father and your parents is not what you hoped it would be and can you forgive them for it? There are two different types of learning there and both are very useful for young minds.

Audience Member: Switch seats!

Sam: We're trying to bring balance to the force dude!

Rod: Without dark there can be no light.

Round 4: The Creators

Star Trek's Gene Roddenberry, Star Wars's George Lucas

Brian: We've talked about the visions of these two franchises, but I want to talk about their creators. Gene Roddenberry and his vision for Star Trek and George Lucas and his vision for Star Wars. What do these two franchises say about their creators? Let's start with Team Trek.

Ali: I'm going to allow my estimated colleague Rod RODDENBERRY to take the lead on this question.

Rod: Obviously I wasn't around for The Original Series, but I did learn a great deal about my father since then and I do every day in terms of his philosophy. I can tell you that the difference between The Original Series and The Next Generation was a difference in my father. You see the cowboy Kirk versus the Picard who just wants to shepherd ambassadors from place to place. I know that came out in a derogatory way.

Sam: Yeah I like Picard.

Rod: I actually like Picard too, but the action wasn't there. That's the difference between my father in his 40s and his 60s. My father had an incredible life. He was a World War 2 pilot. He was a LAPD officer. He wrote speeches for the chief of police when they were trying to bring the police and the community closer together. He was thinking about those things then. He saw the worst that humanity had to offer and he saw the best humanity had to offer. It was with that perspective that he was able to build these philosophies. Everyone puts my father on a pedestal. He did create Star Trek but he also had help shaping it. There were so many others who were involved that made it what it is. This is why I brand everything Roddenberry. Well, first CBS won't let me use Star Trek. But I'm in love with the philosophy. I love what the series teaches us. I think it teaches us all something different, but it does teach us that we need to accept each other and find beauty in the differences between us. That's something that resonates so powerfully with me. It's something I work on every day. I might see someone and hear them say something and I'll say, "They're full of shit." Then I have to think, "What a second, they might have a point." That's how we grow as a species – hearing something that is contrary to our thoughts and being willing to accept them. That's my father, that's Star Trek, and what I see in the show. If anyone changes that in future movies or TV shows I'm going to be really pissed off.

Ali: The story of Gene Roddenberry is the story of resilience. This is an individual who did go through and see a lot of horrific things, whether it was in World War 2 or working as a police officer. He was able to survive those things, to endure them, and to grow as a person. That experience must have in some way influenced the story of Star Trek, which is a story about resilience and working to better ourselves.

Brian: Team Wars?

Andrea: I completely agree.

Brian: What is wrong with this panel!?!

Sam: Hold on, you're asking us to get competitive when we're sitting here next to the guy's kid?!? I don't get it.

Rod: Hey listen, I just said it, I want to hear contrary ideas. I want someone to tell me Star Trek sucks and tell me why.

Andrea: I don't think it sucks! What you said is completely valid. I feel the same way. I actually hate the "versus" things. I know it's the title of the panel, but I think both Star Trek and Star Wars are meaningful to us in different ways. I hate the idea that people think Star Wars is just a space opera with cowboys in space. George Lucas had an idea to create these worlds out of escapism. To get outside of where we are and who we are. To be in this fantasy world. To get excited and hopeful. To get lost in it. It wasn't meant to be a prediction of where we're going to be. It's a way for us to get outside of where we are in order to cope with what's going on. Star Trek has messages about a universe where we can collaborate and coexist. Folks who are currently disenfranchised and disempowered and feel that they are overlooked are hopeful that one day we'll get there. That's completely meaningful to us in a different way. I need to watch Star Wars to not think about the fact that we're not there yet.

Sam: There's an interesting contrast, and I'm speaking completely out of school here. I don't know this for a fact at all, but I'm going to say it anyway because I'm wearing a tie. It seems to me that your father when he wanted to make Star Trek had some things to say. He wanted to slip it into these sugar pills and get the audience to digest it without knowing what they were consuming. George Lucas, I don't think when he started had that ambition. All artists feel compelled to create something. We don't exactly know why, we just do. The deeper the artist is, the more interesting things slip into that creation. It's like the difference between Alien and Prometheus. The thing about Alien is it was just a bunch of dudes getting together and saying, "Let's make a horror film!" But they were deep dudes and ladies. And suddenly these things slip in to that horror film and we go, "Oh my God, look at what they were doing and saying!" They didn't quite know it at the time. It was almost an accidental process. With Star Wars, Darth Vader was supposed to die at the end. Did you guys know that? George Lucas has some kind of instinct, "Ah you know what can we do a take where he just spins off into the distance? Because if we can't you're fired." Then around the time of Empire Strikes Back, he's sitting in a hotel room...

Rod: Watching Star Trek.

Sam: Watching Star Trek. He's got a script in front of him that he's rewriting. Anakin Skywalker is a ghost talking to Luke Skywalker about Darth Vader. Then around a certain date Anakin Skywalker disappears from the script. Then no one's talking about Anakin Skywalker the same way. Suddenly, there's misinformation. At some point he was sitting in his hotel room writing and he calls up his wife, "Hey ahhh...Anakin's Darth Vader...I think I just made us a million dollars." The point is George Lucas, the things he was putting into those movies were incidental to what he was doing. George has things that he thinks about, George has things that are important to him, and if you're going to make a fun popcorn movie those things are going to slip in. Roddenberry was more considered. That's exactly why both of these franchises engage both sides of the brain. Both are hugely creative and hugely intellectual. I think Star Trek is a little bit more left brain and Star Wars is a little bit more right brain.

Rod: There’re also hundred of hours of Star Trek.

Ali: Just give Disney a few years...

Rod: While Paramount and CBS sit on their assess.

Sam: It's interesting that the difference between these two men might have been that –one man wanted to make a fun popcorn movie and go by instinct and the other had some things to talk about.

Q & A

Star Wars Death Star Run, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Runabout Wormhole Aliens

Since our panel was the last of the day, the convention staff were very generous and allowed us to go over our allotted time. This opened up the opportunity for a dialogue with the audience on topics such as self-actualization in the rebooted J.J. Abrams Star Trek films, why Star Trek appeals to individuals in the military, portrayals of strong female characters in Star Trek and Star Wars, and the impact George Lucas’s personal life might have had on Star Wars. The highlight of this discussion was the following question:

Audience Member: What is your favorite aspect of the series you are not currently defending?

Rod: Ewoks. I'm one of the three who loves Return of the Jedi. I love the Ewoks. I want one as a pet.

Sam: You saw them as pets!?! Even an Ewok can join Starfleet! To pick one thing about Star Trek that I love is too difficult.

Rod: But you spent all of tonight defending Star Trek.

Ali: The whole idea of using the force, during the Death Star run, in that moment Luke has to find mindfulness, completely being present in the moment, letting whatever judgments he has like "you can't do it Luke", let that go away, embrace the moment, and trust your instinct. Man that had a huge impact on me when I saw Star Wars. I saw Star Wars first before Star Trek and I thought it was really cool! Scary, but cool. It paved the road for me to see Star Trek and embrace it for what it was.

Sam: Kirk. The fact that the Klingons really messed him up but even with the guy who killed his kid, Kirk had an instinct to try to help him even when he had an advantage.

Rod: I want to say the same thing about Luke and Darth -- he never gave up hope.

Andrea: I really hate Ewoks. I had to say that. I really like Star Trek and its ideas on inclusion. I absolutely love watching The Original Series, The Next Generation, and I just started watching Deep Space Nine. I've said this before on a previous panel, but the pilot episode of Deep Space Nine is incredible. I love that they didn't bring in a human psychologist or psychiatrist to tell the story of living in the past and trying to recover from trauma. It's an incredible way for us to think about our own journey when we are stuck with terrible things that can happen to you. The way the wormhole aliens teach us that is incredible. It's a great psychological lesson done in a very cool way.

Ali: You know what else I like about Star Wars? It helped bring Star Trek back. And now we're returning the favor.

Episode V

Andrea and I are currently developing the next phase of the panel and hope to continue the debate with Episode V in 2015. Got a topic you want to see us debate? Let us know in the comments below.