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“Star Wars” vs. “Star Trek”: Which side are you on?

Proponents of both fictional universes made their case for sci-fi supremacy in a surprisingly serious discussion at Oregon State University on Thursday night.

In a 90-minute presentation titled “Trek Wars: Visions of/for Humanity,” OSU faculty members Randall Milstein and Joseph Orosco championed their personal favorites and discussed what the two immensely popular entertainment franchises may have to tell us about how we can shape our collective future.

Close to 100 people attended the event at OSU’s Memorial Union, including a handful of devotees dressed in Star Fleet uniforms, Jedi robes or the garments of a Sith Lord.

Milstein, an instructor and astronomer-in-residence with the Oregon NASA Space Grant Consortium, took up the “Star Wars” cause, pointing out that George Lucas’ sprawling space fantasy has “conquered our culture” — not only with the box office success of nine wildly popular films but also through the relentless marketing of “Star Wars”-themed toys, games and consumer products.

To illustrate his point — and get in a dig on his “Star Trek”-loving colleague — he held up a plastic light sabre, a movie prop he argued has become instantly recognizable around the world even to people who have never seen the movies.

“It’s the most iconic weapon in all of science-fiction, even more so than the phaser,” he said. “Search your feelings — you know it’s true.”

He noted that Lucas had modeled the “Star Wars” saga on what mythologist Joseph Campbell has described as “the hero’s journey,” an archetypal form in which the protagonist triumphs in a struggle with adversity and undergoes a powerful transformation — a narrative that can be found at the heart of many of the world’s great religions.

“This is a myth that’s traveling all over the world, just like any myth,” Milstein said.

But “Star Wars” is more than just an appealing storyline, he argued, noting that it also has a lot to say about the eternal struggle between good and evil, the interconnectedness of everything in the universe and the quest to achieve a sense of balance and belonging.

“It has a theme running through it, and that theme is always people trying to find their place in whatever world they’re living in,” he said. “No matter how alien that world is, they’re trying to find their place in it.”

Orosco, a professor of philosophy and peace studies who has taught two philosophy courses on “Star Trek,” donned a Star Fleet uniform for the occasion and began his presentation by confessing, “I got married in this thing.”

While it isn’t quite the marketing juggernaut that “Star Wars” is, “Trek” has still managed to exert immense cultural influence through six television series (including an animated show) and 13 feature films.

In the realm of technology, Orosco pointed out, the franchise has predicted or served as the template for a number of developments, including the 3-D printer, which echoes the replicators that miraculously produce any sort of food or beverage on command for people in the “Star Trek” universe, and the flip phone, patterned after the communicators used by Star Fleet personnel.

Unlike darker sci-fi narratives that paint technology as a force for mindless destruction, “Star Trek” offers a vision of the future in which “technology is our friend,” Orosco said.

In the world of “Star Trek,” humanity has evolved into a kind of high-tech golden age in which problems such as war, poverty, disease and environmental degradation have seemingly been left behind.

Diversity is also held up as an important value. When it debuted in 1966, the original “Star Trek” TV series broke new ground with a multiracial cast. It was multispecies as well, with humans going into space alongside members of alien civilizations.

To underscore that point, Orosco showed a slide comparing the United Nations flag with the strikingly similar emblem of the United Federation of Planets.

“I think it’s no coincidence,” he said.

Another key “Star Trek” theme is friendship, he said, with human beings — and, in many cases, alien life forms — frequently helping each other and working together for a common goal.

Many of his students find “Star Trek” hokey because of its utopian vision of the future, Orosco said, but that’s precisely what he finds so appealing — especially in the midst of a media landscape currently dominated by the sort of dystopian worldviews on display in “The Walking Dead,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” and the “Hunger Games” movies.

“That’s the moment we’re in,” he said. “But if we think about our history, it’s not clear that destruction and dystopia has to be our future.”

And that’s something that “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” have in common, Orosco added: Rather than giving in to despair, these two very different fictional universes both hold out a sense of hope that if people come together for the common good, we can shape a better future for ourselves and our descendants.

“Both of these franchises, what’s good about them is that they don’t get bogged down in the dystopia we’re in right now,” he said.

Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.

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Special Projects Editor

Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald

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