If you listen to critics of the arts, teachers of the arts, and even a fair number of actual artists, you will hear many praises of and exhortations to realism. If you examine art, you will find that many people have been wildly successful while showing a flagrant disregard for realism.
A prime example of this is Twilight. (If you were an old, powerful, more-or-less immortal supernatural being, would you be in high school?) However, I am going to focus on Star Trek and Star Wars and their shared violation of realism in everything military. I have chosen this focus because that sort of (un)realism is widespread in fantasy and sci-fi, and also I like Star Wars and Star Trek and have enough firsthand experience of them to write about them.
I once read a detailed critique of a certain Star Trek episode that made a very strong case that, at the end of the episode, three important characters should have been court-martialed. This is how I learned that, in real militaries, staff officers (however senior) don’t take command from line officers (however junior).
But one doesn’t need that sort of knowledge to see that the entire franchise is built around a principle so lethally unrealistic only television can save these people. This is the principle that in any unknown or dangerous situation, senior officers are immediately placed at the point of greatest jeopardy. They routinely round the senior officers up into bands just small enough to be easily ambushed, just large enough to virtually exterminate the senior staff in case of disaster. The Next Generation made a show (hah) of not sending down the captain, except when he really wanted to go, but this did not improve the picture a great deal.
This is Star Trek’s main offense to military realism. There are smaller ones, such as the fact that the Enterprise keeps civilians as permanent residents. Consequently, they are always endangering small children, and you don’t want to think about what’s happening in other parts of the ship while the officers are hanging on for dear life on the violently-shaking bridge.
Of course, Star Trek would not be Star Trek if our heroes didn’t get to do the coolest part of everyone’s job. Star Wars’ offenses to realism are less fundamental, but somehow even goofier. Consider that the Rebel Alliance gives away generalships like Employee of the Month awards. They may give them away as Employee of the Month awards. There is no other way to explain why Han Solo is made a general fresh off the accomplishment of getting defrosted, nor why Lando is a general five minutes after being a shady businessman.
I know: the maneuver at Taanab. But look: No single maneuver will make you a general unless it wins the battle, ends the war, saves several major heads of state, and prevents an invasion of hostile aliens from another dimension.
Another premier example of Star Wars’ unrealistic war is the ground battle on Endor. I like Return of the Jedi better than most, but it is ludicrous that the battle was won by a horde of midget aliens armed with weapons that were obsolete at the founding of the Roman Empire. If the stormtroopers had stayed by the installation and defended it – which was the only reason they were on the moon – it would not have been possible for them to lose. Even when, strangely impelled to be idiotic, they charged into the trees, they should still have carried the day. Superior firepower beats superior numbers any day, and it isn’t possible to defeat professional soldiers with advanced weaponry by konking them with rocks.
Star Trek and Star Wars give every indication of having been written by people with a rather slippery grasp of military matters. That their lack of realism hasn’t kept them from smashing success doesn’t prove that a lack of realism is all right. But it does prove that when people turn to fiction, realism is not terribly high on their list of desired qualities.
We might have guessed.