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SDCC 2020: The Psychology of ‘Star Trek’ vs. ‘Star Wars’ – Panel Coverage

San Diego Comic-Con International’s virtual Comic-Con@Home program of panel streams on their YouTube Channel included a fan favorite back for another year: “The Psychology of Star Trek vs. Star Wars”  Brian Ward (The Arkham Sessions) starts the panel by holding up a Star Trek tricorder and a Star Wars blaster, proving he was qualified to be an objective moderator.  Two clinical psychologists will discuss Star Trek and Star Wars through a psychological lens, and two special guests who have worked on these powerhouse IPs will bring subject matter experience and knowledge to the discussion.  The objective: to provide a venue for the audience to observe a healthy and fun debate regarding two beloved franchises.

Team Trek is represented by Dr. Ali Mattu (The Psych Show; Netflix’s The Mind Explained), a cognitive behavioral therapist who helps individuals with anxiety disorders, and Todd Stashwick (Heroes; Supernatural; Gotham) who portrayed Talok in Star Trek: Enterprise.

Team Wars is represented by Dr. Drea Letamendi (Lattes with Leia; The Arkham Sessions), a mental health educator and advisor at UCLA, and Jennifer Muro (DC’s Primer Superhero; Marvel’s Spider-Man), who wrote Star Wars: Forces of Destiny.

With the flip of an Arkham Sessions exclusive coin (“shameless plug” according to Stashwick) by Ward, Dr. Mattu called and won the coin toss.  He decides to defer and let Team Wars go first. Ward goes over how the debate structure will be managed and then asks his psychologists if they are happy with the credentials of their partners, Stashwick and Muro.  Drs. Mattu and Letamendi express that they are, so naturally, Ward said he is going to switch the partners.  The revised teams:

Revised Team Trek: Dr. Mattu and Jennifer Muro

Revised Team Wars: Dr. Letamendi and Todd Stashwick

Muro and Stashwick are great sports to switch and with that, Ward presents the first topic.

Topic One:  Mandalorians vs. Klingons – Which Group Displays More Principles
Dr. Letamendi starts the dialogue outlining the strengths of both groups around creed and beliefs, but then goes on to distinguish the Mandalorians as unique because they do not identify as a race, but as a multi-species cultural group, thereby giving them an advanced level of understanding of what an ethnic group might be.  The Mandalorians seem to embody a sophisticated method of actualizing everybody through their acceptance of all species to their group, thereby creating a sense of belonging within a shared community yet with value in individualism.  She posits that she loves Star Trek, but adds that as the show and films tackle controversial themes, she struggles to understand the Klingon race that is characterized by aggression, combat, and violence, implied to be inherent to this group.

Dr. Mattu jokingly begins his rebuttal by strongly suggesting that Dr. Letamendi watch more Star Trek.  He agrees that Dr. Letamendi has brought up excellent points about the Mandalorians; however, he believes that the Klingons are a better parallel to the world we are living in right now, as well as always having been a reflection of our world.  In the 1960s series, they represented the Cold War-era hatred between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. and with Worf in the 1980s series, audiences witness the diversity of beliefs that exists amongst the Klingons who have a strict honor code.  And in Star Trek: Discovery, audiences see real divisions (tribes) between the Klingons. Dr. Mattu closes with his example of Worf, who he argues embodies more than the characterizations of the Klingons, thereby opening up the diverse beliefs and complexities of the Klingon group as a whole.

Ward interjects that Stashwick is next with a rebuttal to Dr. Mattu’s points.  Backing up Dr. Letamendi, Stashwick states that a Mandalorian is a choice, not a result of birth.  Hence, the Mandalorian embraces an ideology that is part of bigger whole.  The Mandalorian has come to the aid of the oppressed.  While he may not have seen enough of Star Trek as Dr. Mattu suggested initially to Dr. Letamendi, he articulates that Worf is an exception, an outlier, to the rule or the Klingon whole.  Stashwick argues that the concept of the various tribes has only been lightly touched on.  He adds that while the Mandalorians extend a hand to join their group, he does not sense the same with Klingons.

Finishing off this first topic discussion, Muro initially expresses that to her, “vs.” means “differences” rather than “winning.”  She states that she believes that Klingons have psychological diversity and Worf is a good example for witnessing his reactions to other Klingons as they interact with each other.  Some are honorable and some are not.  She echos Dr. Mattu’s argument that as a race, the Klingons have diversity on a psychological level that is similar to the human race and is relevant to understanding ourselves today.

As the debates concludes for the first topic, Dr. Mattu expresses the optimism that Klingons represent in the franchise because of their shift from villain to having peace with the Federation.  In addition, one of their own a Federation officer serving on the bridge of the Enterprise is monumental.  Stashwick asks if Klingons as a whole are now peaceful, to which Dr. Mattu banters back that there is a peaceful core.  Ward offers that it took a Chernobyl-like event, so the resulting peace represents a lot of effort.

Topic Two: Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and Journey of Luke and Jean-Luc
Ward asks the teams to consider the stories of Skywalker and Picard, both who have matured through their emotional experiences shaped by idealism, darkness, and self-doubt.  Are their journeys relatable today?

Dr. Mattu expresses his stress over this topic, because he loves Skywalker and Picard’s journeys through their personal stories of trauma they have endured which many people have experienced.  He defers discussing Skywalker to Team Wars, and focuses in on speaking about Picard’s journey, which has included being simulated by the Borg, responsible for the death of many people and the loss of his family.  Throughout all of those things, Picard relied on his ship, his crew, and his code as an officer; however, there have been moments where his crew was not there and there were Federation decisions that he did not agree with that caused him personal turmoil and as a result, he pulled away as a way of coping.  Many people cope in a similar way.  Picard’s journey is finding meaning and purpose and negotiating his experiences.  It is what makes his story relatable today.

Dr. Letamendi totally agrees the journeys of Skywalker and Picard are excellent examples of the development of emotional intelligence, as well as illustrating that such individuals typically have a good sense of logic, see themselves as accomplished, and are guided by a set of morals/ethics.  Luke becomes centered through the Force and the set of principles guiding him as a Jedi.  EQ is about an individual tapping into the emotion of the experience, overriding the logic, while empathizing with the emotion of others.  In Luke’s early years, he did not have the developmental focus that maturity brings.  As he matures and his role in protecting his family, friends, and the universe come into focus, he becomes more emotional mature.  Luke’s EQ is an example that Dr. Letamendi looks to when managing interpersonal relationships and processing trauma — it moves beyond himself to the perspective that each person matters.

Muro confesses that she is an original trilogy fan, so she has to work past her mental framing of young Luke/older Jean-Luc.  At Picard’s core, he is empathetic and a diplomate, always trying to see all the sides.  She brings up an interesting observation that with Jean-Luc, audiences see his youthful years through flashback, while for Luke, we experience his early years right beside him, but not his later years that were spent in isolation.

Stashwick states that Luke is told to not allow his emotions to cloud his decisions; however, Luke allowed his emotions to dictate (cloud) his judgment. Through introspection and exchange with Rey, Luke gains emotional intelligence and once again finds balance between the Force and Jedi principles.  Dr. Mattu adds how fortunate we are as fans to have beloved characters in both franchises that we have looked up for decades who represent the lesson of learning and growing from the failures experienced.  He says how important this lesson for all of us.

Topic Three: Rey and Burnham as Contemporary Heroes
How do Rey (sequel trilogy) and Burnham (Star Trek: Discovery) show us healthy coping and self-care? And, how do they preserve or deny their heritage and identity in order to maintain their well-being? How is legacy important when it comes to their destinies to save their respective universes?

Starting the conversation for Team Wars, Dr. Letamendi states both characters embody resiliency and in spite of the criticism lodged against them as being too perfect, she argues they are realistic.  Rey has had to adapt and adjust to being a scavenger on a planet she did not choose to live on and is a story of child abandonment and neglect; however, her journey is about building her resilience and growing through her experiences. She is a young, confident woman and embodies integrity.  Dr. Letamendi also takes a moment to acknowledge that Rey manages to find a sense of contentment and joy which probably allows her to hold onto hope.  

Dr. Mattu is happily frustrated because he loves everything that Dr. Letamendi has articulated, leaving him to grapple with what points to make in his rebuttal.  He does address that legacy is what a person makes with it. Burnham has an incredible legacy through her parentage and upbringing, and through this character, we learn of her adaptability and positive stance (perspective) toward the societies she meets.

Stashwick picks up Rey as being a ray of hope.  He passionately argues that she is looking to the future, seeking her family as well as her identity as a Palpatine – and as a Skywalker.  Her resilience gives her ability to find balance where others have struggled.

Muro focuses in on Burham’s relationship with her Vulcanism, especially given that she is all human. (Spock was half human.)  She has worked hard to emulate the culture she was raised in; hence, her resiliency is giving space for her human nature and believing in her reasons for why she does what she does.  

Topics Four: Kelvin Timeline and Sequel Trilogy
Dr. Mattu is a fan of the Kelvin Timeline, the imbalance it leaves the characters in, and their efforts to connect with each other and in the things they believe in.  It’s about find meaning and how to serve that meaning.  He ties that to what we are experiencing today with the pandemic.  

Dr. Letamendi takes on the sequel trilogy.  She addresses how the stories give us meaning around important themes that help us to understand ourselves and the human experience.  It’s about relationships and redemption – rebuilding and restoring connections.  Resilience is central to the sequel trilogy and the idea of coming back to the good is a major themes that began with the franchise in 1977.

Muro returns to the Kelvin Timeline as she wraps up Team Trek’s debate on this topic.  She thinks this plot device is an effective twist to the franchise and the relationships between the characters. She likes how the characters are challenged to be better, for example, Kirk and Pike.  Muro states she was devastated by the destruction of Vulcan and the effects it had on Spock and fans.

Stashwick argues that the Star Trek reboot is very similar to the original Star Wars film.  He states that the mental health message of having physically destroyed something (the Death Star) does not resolve the underlying issues (root causes).  The internal demons our characters are fighting in one generation can come back in future generations to deal with again. Hence, it is important to pass along lessons learned, so our children’s children do not repeat our mistakes.   It is an excellent closing point to the topic and for the concluding the panel.  

Star Wars and Star Trek are two of the most popular fandoms in our culture and are excellent examples of why stories really do matter.  In this panel discussion, each guest articulated many reasons how the characters and their experiences within the context of their respective universes can help us as fans and audiences relate and identify with their journey as they grapple with trauma and grief.  Their experiences represent methods for overcoming adversity and learning from their mistakes, but they also can help us to find contentment, joy, and hope — all themes that define and give meaning to Fanbase Press’ #StoriesMatter initiative.  If you missed this panel, I encourage you to go and watch this one.  Catch the panel on the Comic-Con@Home YouTube Channel here.


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