One of the unwritten rules of geekdom is that you have to pick a universe to be your favorite, and that you will defend it tirelessly against the non-believers. Nowhere is this more evident than with Star Trek and Star Wars. Anyone who’s been following me for a while will know that this is a repost of sorts – I’m updating a piece I wrote for Geek Shui back in July of 2010. It’s a popular topic; and by popular, I mean it makes people want to hack off each other’s limbs with light sabers and set phasers to kill.
OK before we continue, I wanted to go over a few Rules of Engagement (who knew I would find a use for the Law of Armed Conflict outside the military… and yes, there is such a thing… and yes, they enforce it… back on topic now):
- First, there will be no “magic” or bending of the physical “laws” of the universe. No Jedi. No Sith. No Q – we’re pitting tech against tech, here, not mythology against mythology. Besides, the Q are all powerful and could simply will the force out of existence or, for that matter, will everyone into sponges
- Second, while I might mention the Borg, they will not be a player, mainly because they don’t play nice with anyone and would likely just end up a third faction – besides, the Borg would likely win in a “Mary Sue-less” environment. Why? Because one cube would be all they need to adapt to the technology and more cubes would come. ‘Nuff said
- Everything considered MUST be canonical. We’ll talk about that in a moment
Lastly, everyone has their own opinions on this – if you plan to comment, please try to back up your arguments with some sort of data. And for the Yoda’s sake, be respectful
Comparing Star Trek and Star Wars is a popular concept. The battle cries are many, and the banner has even been flown at the highest levels (I’m talking about the famous interview exchanges that went on between Bill Shatner and Carrie Fisher). There are a few sites that have already gone into great detail about how the Empire would trounce the Federation (and anyone else in the Trek universe), but I found that a lot of it is based more on guessing and fanaticism than an actual impartial view of the “science” involved. In doing research on the topic (both in the past and again as I write this), here’s what I discovered:
Taking the incredible lapse of time out of the equation (mostly because quite honestly the tech in the Star Wars universe has been mostly stagnate for at least 40,000 years), the science used in each of the Universes is very different. This is probably because Lucas was writing pulp science fiction based on old-time serials, and Roddenberry was creating an idyllic future for mankind. Those very different motives meant very different approaches to the “science”. Roddenberry was bound by what he knew our technology was in the 60′s, and where it could possibly reach in 300 years. Lucas was only bound by his own imagination.
What that means for the “science” is that while Star Trek is lousy with scientific theory and rhetoric, Star Wars has very little. For example, we hear all the time about Warp Drive and the principles of Space-Time. There are technical manuals and jargon and all sorts of explanations as to how things work. But we have no idea how FTL travel works in Star Wars, only that they call it “traveling through hyperspace”. We know they have red laser and green lasers, but no idea how light sabers contain the energy into blade form. Lucas, quite simply, didn’t care. It didn’t add to the story. It was a Space Opera, not Science Fiction.
That doesn’t mean the fans didn’t have at it, though. Both universes have spawned countless variations and tales, add-ons and continuations of the original stories. Star Trek had “The Animated Series“, Star Wars had “Droids“. This gets us into a discussion on what is canon and what isn’t. With Trek, canon is defined as anything that appears on film or television with the exception of The Animated Series, which is very specifically non-canon (despite their use of the original cast for voice-over work). Additionally, Paramount (who owns the property), has licensed the name and intellectual property for non-fiction reference books which are also tied to the canon (though not always canon themselves). Further complicating the matter is the fact that the Star Trek canon often contradicts itself, mainly because Gene Roddenberry had no idea his show would mean so much to people. He wasn’t worried about keeping the integrity of the timeline intact. One example would be in the episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, Spock mentions that “one of his ancestors” was human – later it was his mother (hardly an ancestor). Further, the character is smug and demeaning. Also, it mentions that they were traveling outside the galaxy, which was later changed because of the immensity of that prospect. So in trying to keep it simple, after Roddenberry left us, his legacy was managed so that we could make sense of it. So, in essence, if you didn’t WATCH it, and or it wasn’t live actors, it isn’t canon.
In Star Wars, it’s different. George Lucas is still alive and very much a part of defining what is in isn’t canon. In his mind, the only canonical items are those from the movies (i.e. the movies themselves, the radio play and the novelizations – and any work that comes from them specifically). Lucasfilms has said that with so much work out there, they do their best to reconcile everything and make it work. I think the best example of this is when George Lucas was asked where Anakin got his scar in Episode III. His reply:
“I don’t know. Ask Howard. That’s one of those things that happens in the novels between the movies. I just put it there. He has to explain how it got there. I think Anakin got it slipping in the bathtub, but of course, he’s not going to tell anybody that.”
I think that explains a lot.
So let’s look at the universes themselves. Star Wars tends to do things on a massive, epic scale (which is why I think people choose them as the favorites to win in a confrontation). But with that in mind, there seem to be come major inconsistencies as it relates to the power output of their ships, – which is what makes an “apples-to-apples” comparison so difficult. Star Wars measures its power output in watts (W), which is a concept with which most of us are familiar. It’s the unit that measures how much work it takes to move an object one meter in one second against a force of one newton (N). Ooooh, science-y. Star Trek on the other hand, measures the power output of its craft in dynes (dyn)(which actually makes more sense from a propulsion standpoint). A dyne is the unit which measures how much force it takes to accelerate a mass of one gram one centimeter per second per second. Brain hurt yet?
What we need to know, then is how watts compare to dynes. In relative terms, a newton is equal to 100,000 dynes. So that means it would only require a single watt to move an object one meter per second against the force of 100,000 dynes. You have some grey matter leaking from your ears – you should take care of that.
Now, let’s get to comparing ships. A single Imperial-I Class Star Destroyer (which is about 1600 meters long – a little more than twice the length of Enterprise-E) has a reactor that produces 7.75 x 1024 W of power. Just to provide a little perspective, the flux capacitor from Back to the Future only requires 1.21 x 109 W of power to TRAVEL THROUGH EFFING TIME. The Sun – the life giving orb of boundless energy at the center of our Solar System but out about 4 x 1026 W of power, a mere 100 times that of the ISD. I don’t think that the materials they used could contain that amount of energy, but what do I know. Meanwhile, a standard Federation ship, in this case the U.S.S. Voyager, can produce roughly 4 x 1015 dyn of power (so using the earlier equation, about 4 x 1010 W). The ships in Star Wars ARE more massive, on the order of 10 to 20 times more, but that hardly requires 100 TRILLION (1014) times more power.
Maybe the Emperor wasn’t confident in his manhood…
I’ve just illustrated the first problem in comparing these two universes. And really, I think it’s because Star Trek is fundamentally different than any other type of Science Fiction involving space craft. Star Wars is more typical of the genre as it related to space battles, with said battles being more along the lines of those we are familiar with (you know, with fighters and large ships with marines and landing forces, etc). But Star Trek battles play out more like gun duels or barroom brawls. It wasn’t until much later in the history that space battles started to take on a more familiar (and massive-scale) approach, with the inclusion of smaller craft and large group tactics. Even then, ship-to-ship combat seemed to be the order of the day. To make a more naval comparison, Star Trek battles play more like submarine battles (with their heavy use of torpedoes and ship-to-ship tactics), while Star Wars battles play more like surface ship battles (with air/space fight support, landing forces and battle formations).
So what we’re left with is this: Star Wars overestimates and uses impossible physics while Star Trek just makes up units and particles, like “isotons” and “rapid nadions”. Comparing these two is like comparing Barack Obama to Mitt Romney; they’re both full of crap, but different kinds of crap. The last time I did this, I presented a scenario, but I feel like that it’s too easy to assume I’m not being objective, so I’ll just offer some basic comparisons and give example scenarios.
OK, so let’s look at tactics first. The Imperials strategy is based off of their numerical superiority, even when facing enemies in their own space. Star Warsis presented as being more populous than Star Trek, but I honestly think their Galaxy is much smaller than ours. There are about the same number of worlds in both universes, but it takes longer to get around in Star Trek and they only occupy about 5% of the galaxy. By comparison, the populated area of the Star Wars galaxy is about 50-60% of the total space.
Most of the races in Star Trek are humanoid, and they haven’t mastered automatons, like in Star Wars. That said, computer technology in Star Trek seems more advanced, particularly in the tactical sense. While computers are used in Star Wars the amount of missing going on in the blaster arena seems to allude to the idea that they aren’t computer guided. They may provide tactical assistance, but it’s never really seen. Scanners, likewise, seem to be more advanced in Star Trek, with an ability to scan for even very small items, inconsistencies in hull composition, propulsion trails, etc.
The weapons themselves are also very different. The beam weapons in Star Trek produce a beam of high energy particles called “nadions”. In the Star Trek Universe, they have the unique ability to affect nuclear bonds, which is why they create heat. In Star Wars, the weapons are actually plasma-based, though it’s never really discussed in detail. I’m assuming that based on the fact that they need to refine tibana gas for the blasters to work, and they can run out of “ammo”. That also means that the blasters aren’t just direct energy weapon, meaning that the shields on the Trek vessels might not be as effective, since they are designed to dissipate high energy weapons, not plasma. This is evident in the fact that the Romulans use plasma torpedoes, and they are highly effective. Ironically, those shields would be highly effective against Ion cannons.
The torpedo and missile type weapons are also completely different. Proton Torpedoes are slower and more like traditional warheads than Photon or Quantum Torpedoes. The Star Wars heavy weapons were designed for a multitude of purposes, including planetary bombardment, but were typically slow moving. They are traditional warheads; explosive, but because of standard ordinance. Photons, on the other hands, were actually more destructive because they used the annihilation of matter/anti-matter as the catalyst. They also moved at near light speed – too fast to be targeted and shot down. A single photon torpedo could destroy an entire city, while a proton torpedo would be more like destroying a few city blocks. Even from a capital ship.
So at the end of the day, Imperial ships are more powerful, but are inefficient at targeting because it’s hard to miss such large ships. Federation, Klingon and Romulan ships are smaller and produce less power, but have better weapons and targeting on the whole. The personnel are more plentiful on the Imperial side, but it seems like the Federation is better trained, Klingons have more will, and ROmulans a stronger sense of survival than the Imperials do. The Imperials have fighters, but the Trek side doesn’t need them because their ships are far more agile and capable of FTL speeds over shorter distances.
I imagine it like this: A Sector Group of Imperials (for reference, the fleet at the Battle of Endor was a Sector Group – about 2,400 ships, including fighters) against a combined battle fleet of Federation (about 100 ships), Romulan (about 30 ships) and Klingon (about 40 ships) forces. The size of the ships isn’t as big a deal as you might think, making the fighters much less effective. The Trek computers track them too easily and they can’t outrun the beam weapons that don’t fire bolts, but rather continuous streams. Wide dispersal blasts of photons and phasers make being in an unshielded fighter a bad thing. Smaller Trek ships are easy pickings for the larger Imperial ships, though, and a Super Star Destroyer would make short work of any ship that approached too closely. I can imagine a couple of Negh‘Var battleships ramming into it and taking it out, though. All in all, I think the Imperials would win in a single engagement, but a prolonged war would end in a Star Trek victory, mainly because they are more adaptive and would find ways to creatively destroy even the largest Imperial ships. I’m interested to know what you think, but rtemember, be respectful and try to stick to canon.
That means Han shot first, and Khan was the biggest badass of them all.