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Non-Trek Worldbuilding. Part 3: Early Star Wars.

By Tom Anderson.

Filmed in Death Valley, so I'm told.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

This topic may seem like a peculiar choice for this article series, in which I explore how science fiction settings which came about after the appearance of Star Trek struggled to define themselves as distinct without seeming derivative of it. After all, for much of the lifetimes of many people reading this article, Star Wars has been in the ascendant, a global mass media phenomenon which is impossible to escape. Indeed, it is often later incarnations of Star Trek which have struggled to define themselves as distinct from Star Wars, and have often been accused of copying elements of it.


However, this was not always the case. Star Wars was one of the first true blockbusters from day 1, when the original film – then titled simply Star Wars, later retitled Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope – hit cinemas in 1977. At that point, it had been close to a decade since the original Star Trek series (retroactively called The Original Series or TOS) had been debuting new episodes. However, it was in syndicated repeats across the United States that Star Trek had acquired a much larger fanbase and had filtered down to form the bedrock of pop culture. This fanbase was sufficient to exert pressure for the United States test space shuttle to be named Enterprise, for example.

Well, it's not an X-wing, so they must be the Enterprise crew, although Captain Kirk is probably off on a different gig.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Star Wars was clearly very different in scope, as we’ll see, and it didn’t take long for the tail to start wagging the dog; the success of the first Star Wars film, along with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, led to a planned Star Trek revival series (usually called “Phase II”) being reworked into a film: Star Trek: The Motion Picture.


However, in the beginning, Star Wars was often highly derivative of Star Trek, despite the apparently very different setting. It also took inspiration from many other science fiction settings, including Dune, Flash Gordon, and John Carter of Mars. To his credit, George Lucas has never shied away from conceding this. Star Wars was always intended in part as a homage and pastiche to the science fiction serials he enjoyed in his youth, in the same way that the later Indiana Jones films did the same for the cliffhanger-strewn adventure serials of the same period.


It is a measure of the sheer global success of Star Wars, and generational change, that few people now realise that (for example) the iconic text crawl at the beginning of Star Wars films was a homage to serials like Flash Gordon doing the same, rather than something distinctive to the series. Indeed, Star Wars became so ubiquitous that when film adaptations of Flash Gordon, Dune, and eventually John Carter of Mars came around, their directors then struggled to distinguish them from Star Wars in turn!

If you want to know more about the Crawl, Force Material is happy to explain.

Picture courtesy Force Material.

Lucas has also discussed how he watched repeats of Star Trek while writing the original script and praised it for inspiring him, while taking its ideas in different directions.


First of all, let’s look at how the setting of Star Wars differs from Star Trek and indeed most science fiction, to the point that many critics would rather refer to Star Wars as a distinct genre of “science fantasy”. At the beginning of Star Wars (the original film and its subsequent sequels and prequels) we are informed that the action takes place: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”. That is not simply poetic language, though it is a nice variation on the kinds of phrases by which many cultures begin recounting a story. Lucas originally envisaged Star Wars as being told retrospectively, “from the Journal of the Whills”.


This is probably one of the many ideas taken not from any film or TV inspiration, but from JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, whose influence on Star Wars is not discussed as much as it probably should be. Yoda, in particular, is a curious combination of the characters of Gollum and Tom Bombadil in many ways. The Lord of the Rings is also supposedly a story told from the Book which Bilbo, Frodo and Sam are writing in-universe, The Red Book of Westmarch, although this is only noted in the framing material.

The Yoda Fountain at Lucasfilms ILM. Or is it Gollum? Or Tom Bombadil?

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Anyway, while Lucas more or less abandoned the Whills idea (there have been nods to it in later Star Wars media), the fact remains that Star Wars, unlike Star Trek and the science fiction we usually envisage, is not set in “the future”. Even Dune, whose setting is similar in many ways, is explicitly set thousands of years in the future. But Star Wars is set a long time ago (to us, the viewers) and in a galaxy far, far away from our own.


This does beg the question of why there are apparently so many normal humans around, then. This was never explained at the time of the release of the original films, though later there were several suggested explanations – my personal favourite being that from the cancelled novel Alien Exodus, in which humans are refugees from George Lucas’ dystopian film setting THX-1138 who fell though both space and time. In that setting, the planet Corellia is named after someone of Italian descent named Corelli.


In many ways, the background setting of Star Wars is reminiscent of Chinese or late Roman history. The galaxy has apparently been effectively united under a single, multi-racial government for a very long time, with very little in the way of alien races associated with sovereign governments (as is the case in Star Trek, among others).


In the first film, Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker that: “For over a thousand generations, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the old Republic. Before the dark times, before the Empire.” Writers tended to assume “a thousand generations” meant about 25,000 years. Notably Kenobi never implies exactly when the Empire rose, and many writers also assumed it was rather earlier than was eventually decided in the prequels. The Star Wars narrative is therefore also mixed with the fall of the Roman Republic, in which the supplanting and replacement of an elected (but ineffectual) Senate with an absolute monarchy is regarded as a recent aberration.


Nonetheless, the point is that history in Star Wars – like China and late Rome – seems to assume that the galaxy is “naturally” united by a single government, and all the titular star wars are ‘civil’ wars spent fighting over who controls this government. They are not about a human government fighting against an alien government, and the very idea seems strange in this context.


The Star Wars Expanded Universe occasionally introduced the idea of distinct alien threat forces like the Ssi-ruuk or the Yevetha, but these always felt unfitting (perhaps deliberately so, to shake things up). There is a sense that the galaxy has pretty much all been mapped and there are no unknown corners (again, not something necessarily preserved in later Star Wars media) but there are plenty of hiding spots for the Rebels to hide from the Empire.


One thing which is today seldom discussed is the use of US Civil War terminology and ideas in the first film. The Rebel ship at the very start of the first film, which is today usually referred to as a “Corellian corvette”, was at the time usually called a “Rebel blockade runner” in the supplementary material. This is one of a few examples of any ‘Rebel’ group being connected with the Johnny Reb Confederates of the American Civil War, this being an era in which the Confederate Lost Cause was still frequently romanticised in mainstream American TV and film. Speaking of slavery, as applied to living beings it is rarely explicit in the original Star Wars films (rather than the prequels) but the auction of droids by Jawas in the first film is clearly, and chillingly, modelled after a slave auction. It is hard to watch Luke’s Uncle Owen telling C-3PO to shut up when you’ve made this connection.


Speaking of droids, Star Wars came up with its own distinctive term, albeit just being a contraction of ‘android’ (literally ‘man-like’). The term android may have been popularised by Star Trek (eg in What Are Little Girls Made Of? and I Mudd) and reached Lucas’ ears that way, although the term is much older than that.


Note also the tendency in Star Wars to Capitalise Things that were probably never intended to be proper nouns in the original script – The Old Republic, The Rebel Alliance, Jedi Mind Trick, etc.


In creating Star Wars, Lucas and his team had to come with their own unique aesthetics and technology. Star Wars is very different to Star Trek in the former respect, partly pioneering the “used future” aesthetic with the Millennium Falcon, Rebel fighters, and so on, which would be further developed in Alien. The kind of more stark, shiny, utopian-style used elsewhere is instead usually associated with the Empire in Star Wars (given a meaner and harsher look), though it also describes the look of the Rebel blockade runner at the start of the film. There are, nonetheless, traces of inspiration from Star Trek; in particular, the Y-wing fighters at the end have engine nacelles that look suspiciously similar to those on the USS Enterprise.


The Star Trek inspiration is more obvious when it comes to technology terminology. Near the end of the first film, Luke and his comrades are informed that they will need to perform a trench run on the Death Star and fire on its one vulnerability, a small auxiliary exhaust port. However, as it is ray-shielded (ie, protected against energy weapons) they will have to use ‘proton torpedoes’, a rather blatant rip-off of Star Trek’s photon torpedoes.


The energy weapons seen in Star Wars are more distinctive, taking inspiration from WW2 war films. The energy bolts they fire resemble tracer fire from machine guns and, like tracers, are colour-coded to which side is firing them (red for the Rebels and green for the Empire, reflecting the colours used by the US- and Soviet-aligned forces in the near-contemporary Vietnam War respectively). These weapons are referred to as ‘lasers’ or ‘blasters’ despite not behaving anything like lasers, and supplementary material by people with too much time on their hands bent over backwards to explain what they actually are. The heavier ones on ships are called turbolasers and the one on the Death Star which destroys planets is called a superlaser, two names which were clearly coined by a six-year-old.


Where Star Wars blasters do take inspiration from Star Trek is in the concept of them having stun and kill settings, one of many elements of the original Star Trek which entered pop culture early on. When a stormtrooper stuns Princess Leia near the beginning of the first film, the stun setting is shown with a visually different effect, a series of collapsing blue rings. This historically wasn’t the case in Star Trek, but in a case of the tail wagging the dog later, the much more creatively bankrupt Star Trek reboot in 2009 copied the look of Star Wars blasters and the colour-coded stun and kill settings, rather than using the more distinctive and powerful-looking phaser effects they always had before. Indeed, the prequel series Star Trek: Enterprise had briefly used weapons that looked like Star Wars blasters before introducing proto-phasers precisely because they look more primitive and less powerful. In Star Wars itself, this is compensated for by using absolute torrents of blaster fire to imply a heavy bombardment.


The Han Solo novels by Brian Daley were some of the first supplementary material released for Star Wars, and they also expanded on the arsenal of weapons available. Daley came up with ‘needlebeamers’, blasters which fire very narrow, penetrating bolts and are presumably the energy weapon equivalent of needle guns. He also created the ‘disruptor’, a variant of the blaster which is more powerful, but also more unstable and unpredictable, only used by truly reckless bounty hunter types. The term ‘disruptor’ was probably borrowed from Star Trek, though in its appearances in TOS it was usually assumed to be a sonic disruptor, only becoming a generic energy weapon later.


Faster-than-light drive is another area in which science fiction settings frequently struggle to distinguish themselves from Star Trek. It is a measure of the popularity and ubiquity of Star Wars that the term ‘hyperdrive’ is now frequently associated solely with it, when it is a much older term that dates back until at least the 1950s. The associated term ‘hyperspace’ goes back to the 19th Century and was originally coined by mathematicians to describe certain non-Euclidean spaces. In fact, in the original Star Trek pilot The Cage from 1965 features Spock ordering: “All decks prepare for hyperdrive, time warp factor…”; the term ‘warp drive’ is not used, although ‘time warp factors’ and ‘the time barrier’ are. It is an interesting what-if if Star Trek had kept the term ‘hyperdrive’ and Star Wars had had to come up with something else!


The hyperdrive in Star Wars is typically much less well defined than many other faster-than-light technologies. It is basically treated as a get-out-of-jail free card for the most part, with the assumption that the enemy cannot pursue or attack one through hyperspace, in contrast to warp drive in Star Trek. The one rule that seems to apply in the original Star Wars films is that one first needs to lift off from a planet and reach orbit before engaging hyperdrive (given that our heroes are pursued a few times and would clearly go to hyperdrive early if they could). Supplementary writers interpreted this as hyperdrives not functioning in gravity wells, and created a whole host of tactics based on this idea – an idea which the Disney sequels appear to have promptly ignored. The effect seen on going into hyperspace is for the stars to suddenly streak (which may have inspired a similar later warp effect in Star Trek) and then, seldom seen, for them to turn into a whirling tunnel of blue light. That’s from the perspective of the ship itself; from the outside it seems to suddenly blast off into the distance (and sometimes spin as well). Bizarrely, this effect did not appear at all in the prequels, because Lucas had the questionable view that people would watch the films in numerical order and therefore wanted the first appearance of the effect in the first film (ie, Episode IV) to retain its visual power.

It's not like dusting crops.

Picture courtesy Wookiepedia.

Unlike warp drive, hyperdrive is not really associated with any distinctive engine or object on the outside of the ship, with the only component vaguely mentioned in the films being “the motivator”. The speed of hyperdrive was also left extremely vague. In the first film, Han Solo claims the Millennium Falcon: “Can push point five past lightspeed”, which is implied to be impressive; presumably this doesn’t literally mean just half again as fast as lightspeed, as then it’d take years to reach Alderaan. In a later film, Imperials worry that the Falcon: “Could be halfway across the galaxy by now”, which implies conversely that it’s very, very fast, so who knows? Timothy Zahn eventually came up with a hyperdrive speed scale, which was then promptly ignored and replaced with another, less sensible one.


Matters are not helped by some writers taking Han Solo’s boast about the Kessel Run and parsecs seriously in the first film, when it’s clear from Kenobi’s expression that this was never meant to be well-founded.


Probably the single most blatant lift from Star Trek appears in the second film, The Empire Strikes Back. Han Solo finds a clever way to hide from an Imperial Star Destroyer, and the captain and crew try to figure out where the ship is. One protests that: “No ship that small has a cloaking device!” It is easy for us to forget now that ‘cloaking’ to describe invisibility, and especially the cloaking device, was certainly not a generic term at this point but lifted directly from the Star Trek episode The Enterprise Incident. (Cloaking previously appeared in Balance of Terror, but not the term “cloaking device”). Maybe Roddenberry should have tried to copyright it, because Marvel Comics and others also stole it later and eventually it became treated as a generic term (not unlike ‘warp drive’). Though it doesn’t appear on-screen, supplementary Star Wars material also had not trouble stealing the term ‘subspace radio’ from Star Trek. I have already mentioned some influence from The Lord of the Rings – I could also mention how the garbage compactor scene in the first film takes a lot of inspiration from the Watcher in the Water before the gates of Moria, for instance. Many others have written about the influence of Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress on the first Star Wars film, but it is an area on which I lack expertise so I will pass over it.


The influence of Dune on Star Wars is little discussed, but obvious once one is familiar with it, especially on the first film. Dune features a galaxy ruled by an Emperor in which a desert world, Arrakis, inhabited by fierce native Fremen, is the only source of the spice which enables faster-than-light travel. The first Star Wars film opens on a desert planet inhabited by fierce Tusken Raiders (‘Sand People’) natives, and we later learn that Han Solo got into trouble for smuggling ‘spice’. (Poor old Kevin J Anderson and others had to construct a whole narrative about where this spice comes from and what it does and how it’s totally different to the Dune version, alright). The Bene Gesserit order have a mystic mastery over the body called ‘Prana-bindu’ and can use ‘the voice’ to influence the weak-minded. The Jedi Knights were originally called the ‘Jedi-Bendu’ in early versions of the Star Wars script and Kenobi uses a Jedi mind trick to influence the weak-minded. You get the idea.


Nonetheless, Star Wars emerged from its rather derivative beginning, capturing the imaginations of a generation and beyond. And, indeed, it became so popular that it began to influence others in turn. I’ve already mentioned how the later, less original Star Trek reboot films let themselves take arguably too much influence from Star Wars. The Deep Space Nine episode “Valiant” is basically a cynical retelling of the first Star Wars film in which youth, pluck, and courage is not enough to defeat an enemy superweapon. The Voyager writers seemed surprisingly keen on using relatively obscure Star Wars terms in their series – the B’omar monks became the B’omarr threat species (that spelling makes the lifting obvious), Voyager is attacked by a psychic Bothan at one point, a character in Living Witness is named Quarren (a Star Wars race), Janeway has a love interest-cum-adversary named Kashyk (the Wookiee homeworld is named Kashyyyk), and so on.


So perhaps it all works out in the end. Still, for old time’s sake, the Star Wars Clone Wars animated series inexplicably had a graphic of a Cardassian Keldon-class warship in the background. Which is kind of impressive considering the DS9 CGI people never bothered to make one themselves.

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Tom Anderson is the author of several SLP books, including:

The Look to the West series;

among others.



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