The Orville, Discovery, Neither, or Both?

Standard Issue Star Trek Geek Jim came back with another Trek article, but he insists it isn’t a Trek article. The Orville isn’t exactly Star Trek—or it is. I may have to watch these shows and find out what he means. Fortunately for those of us who haven’t purchased the CBS App, Jim has consumed these shows and is willing to share his thoughts. Enjoy.

If the headline drew you in, then you must have seen it, the Keyboard Commandos arguing that The Orville is the only “real Trek” on TV today, or Star Trek: Discovery’s backers denouncing The Orville as frat-boy humor for bitter Trek fans who never understood Gene Roddenberry’s vision to begin with. Both shows are well into their second seasons by now, and I’ve recently caught up with both, so I wanted to take a moment to stop and look at each show, get into what’s working and what’s not.

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The Orville: What’s Going Wrong?

Any show, in fact, any story, is about its characters. What happens is never as important as who it’s supposed to be happening to. The Orville offers some quality characters, and in the spirit of Star Trek, it puts them in not just physical jeopardy, but in ethical dilemmas that are sometimes hard for the viewer to reconcile. This, in and of itself, is a good thing, but legitimate criticism is due when those dilemmas don’t result in any noticeable changes to the characters involved. For example, not nearly as much has been made of the decision to change an infant’s gender at birth, in compliance with alien cultural practices, as the fact that Captain Mercer still pines for his ex-wife. This makes understanding the stakes on a week to week basis rather difficult and can be disengaging for an audience.

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The Orville: What’s Going Right?

Contrary to what I’d expected, this show is not a Star Trek spoof. I say that because it isn’t a show that makes fun of itself. They don’t mock the thought of an idealized future for humanity. They don’t poke fun at the concept of an interplanetary alliance. The jokes in the show tend to be situational, as in snarky comments about given situations. Failing that, the humor comes from the quirky personalities of ship’s crew. The charge that The Orville showcases “frat boy” humor is, I think, more the result of an unfair comparison. Star Trek is a franchise that takes itself quite seriously. Jokes in the original series were almost completely limited to nothing more than a wry quip that might earn a moment’s side-eye under the arched brow of a stoic vulcan. In later Trek, Data offered some light-hearted moments as he read poetry or pet his cat, but the show never aimed too hard at making anyone laugh. Next to these, it’s not hard for anything meant to be funny to look juvenile. In this way, McFarlane’s show writes a love letter Star Trek without trying to be Star Trek.

Let’s talk about the other one, shall we?

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Star Trek: Discovery: What’s Going Wrong?

I’m going to get some obvious points out the way. These are my primary objections to the show, and they’re far more about decisions made at the outset than anything any one episode has chosen to do. First, and I’ve said this before, having a show that depicts a utopian humanity that has conquered poverty and scarcity set behind a pay-wall is horrible. CBS should be airing this series on its network, and they’re insulting the material, and hurting its ratings by not doing so. Second, I am bored to death and beyond with prequels. Trek fans have been pining for a look at the post-Dominion War federation for years now. We’ve already gone back to Starfleet’s humble origins with Star Trek: Enterprise, and I believe audiences may well feel that anything that hasn’t been mentioned in fifty years of Trek before now, must not be all that interesting a part of the story. How can it be? It needs to either fit neatly into established canon, or ignore established canon.  The season-one premise of offering audiences a look at the Federation in wartime is nothing new. Remember what I just said about The Dominion War? We’ve seen Starfleet at war. It was in Deep Space Nine, and those were some of the best episodes the franchise has ever produced, but it’s done. Lastly, making Michael Burnham Spock’s foster sister and dragging Sarek into the story undermines the show even more. It’s one thing for Captain Janeway to namedrop Picard, or for Torres to namedrop Data. It’s fine that Deep Space Nine begins with an uncomfortable meeting between Picard and Sisko in the aftermath of the battle at Wolf 359. None of those characters, Janeway or Sisko, leaned on Picard to make them interesting. Likewise, Picard was interesting before he met Kirk in the Nexus. There’s nothing about Burnham that means she can’t be an interesting character who can carry a show on her own, but by making Sarek (and now also Spock) recurring figures so early in the series, she’s not being given a chance to forge her own identity. She’s borrowing one from them. I could redouble this argument with a criticism about making Captain Pike the new captain of the U.S.S. Discovery, but it’s something that bothers me for a lot of the reasons I’ve already mentioned.

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Star Trek: Discovery: What’s Going Right?

The “What’s Going Wrong” section of this write-up looks disproportionately long. I realize that, but when you discount the fact that the paywall and the setting as a prequel were always going to be points against it for me, the damage really isn’t all that bad. One of the common internet gripes about this show is its heavy-handed agenda, but let’s be honest. Star Trek has always had a heavy-handed agenda. In the interest of fairness, some people may be reacting to the feeling that politics are permeating everything nowadays. It’s become inescapable, and I find it exhausting in so much other media, but Star Trek has never been a place to go to escape social, ethical, or philosophical discussion. The fact that Discovery engages in this is probably the way in which it is truest to the spirit of the franchise. If you were to strip any Trek series of its social, political, and philosophical agendas, you’d be left with phaser battles and ship explosions to carry the series, which interestingly enough, leads to another complaint people make about Discovery. It’s too action-focused. I don’t agree here either. As I said, any Trek series features combat (which makes their claim of Starfleet not being a military outfit silly), but in the past, the limitations of television budget and special effects have hindered their ability to make the battle scenes impressive. With Netflix footing the bill for Discovery’s first season, the producers were able to add a lot of polish that fans of the franchise just aren’t used to seeing. That doesn’t mean the violence underneath that polish is anything new. So if you have a problem with agendas, and action sequences, why watch any Star Trek series? Without both of those, you don’t have much more than William Shatner or Jonathan Frakes making bedroom eyes at women in bodypaint and forehead prosthetics.

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So Which One Works?

They both work. I truly enjoy both shows so far. Neither is perfect, and I hope to see each improve, but as is the case with so much media in Geekdom these days, I wish people could enjoy these for what they are. Neither needs to be bad for the other to be good. You don’t have to like each for the same reasons, because they don’t offer the same things. They aren’t trying to. If The Orville took itself too seriously, it would be a shameless ripoff. If it didn’t pick a demographic to target, it would fail because nothing is all that funny to everyone. If Discovery didn’t deviate from past series, it would have no chance to add something new to the franchise. Because it’s playing to a modern crowd, it stands to draw new fans who may end up deciding to go back and watch what came before it, gaining new attention for the older shows and ensuring what Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, and Archer had to say won’t dissolve into obscurity as their audiences age out. We’re fans of science fiction. New shows keep science fiction thriving. Let’s be glad about that.

3 Lists of 3 Star Trek: The Original Series

Jim handed me two Star Trek 3 Lists of 3 last month and somehow your uncle Geekly only posted one of them. My bad. I don’t have a whip on hand, so I may have to flagellate myself with my back scratcher.

Thanks for the Trek article, Standard Issue Star Trek Geek Jim.

In my last Star Trek article, I listed The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine ahead of The Original Series. Lest some of our readers take that as a knock on The Original Series, I want now to give credit where it’s due and explore some of what makes TOS special.

Things to Love about Star Trek: The Original Series

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Optimism

Each Star Trek series reflects its time in a certain way. Now, with everything happening in our twenty-four-hour-news world, it seems the product of that is post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction. In the 1960s, we faces race riots, the Vietnam War, and the threat of mutually assured destruction with the USSR. Somehow, Star Trek managed to imagine a future that had taken all of that and persevered onto better things. I know, in Trek canon, there is an apocalyptic war, but we survive it and we prosper.

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Diversity

In a time when Americans feared a communist takeover of the world, we see Chekov, a Russian, on the bridge of the Enterprise. Twenty years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we see a show put a person of Japanese ancestry, Sulu, on the bridge with Chekov. An African American woman, Uhura, is a bridge officer herself. This is the world we’re still striving for today.

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Philosophy

Star Trek has always had episodes that posed philosophical questions, but it all began with The Original Series. Yes, there were plenty of episodes that focused on seducing green women, but TOS questioned its viewers with what we might do in a situation where we found ourselves the inferior life form, and how we might respond should a superior life form treat us as indifferently as we, at times, treat our own planet’s less evolved animals.

Best Characters

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Captain Kirk

You knew he’d have to be here, so let’s skip the how and get into why he’s a special character without having to compare him to other Trek captains. James Kirk is the prototypical romantic idea of a starship captain. He’s young to hold such a high rank, he’s handsome and charismatic, but he’s also evolved in a way that fits with the idea of our future the show sets out. Yes, we can get into his sexual proclivity and criticize the character for that, but episodes like Balance of Terror and The Enemy Within do a great job of complicating Kirk as a character and showing an appreciation for his gentler nature, his respect for life, and the effects of the strain of command.

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Spock

Another one you knew would have to make the cut, but let’s talk about why. Spock introduces us to Vulcans on the show, but he’s only half Vulcan. In that way, he’s a surrogate for the audience in understanding the differences between the races, but in another, very progressive way, he represents the joining of worlds the show hopes for, and what is mirrored in the civil rights movement of that time.

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Bones

Doctor McCoy is gruff, old fashioned and at times, even a little backward in his thinking by comparison to the other characters aboard Enterprise. Somehow, however, there’s still a place for him. He’s still a part of that world, still thrives in it, and the crew is better for having him there. Maybe this is Roddenberry’s way of acknowledging there will always be holdouts where progress is concerned, and maybe that’s okay.

Things We Can Forgive

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It’s Pollyanna

I love the optimism in Star Trek. It’s probably my favorite things about the franchise, but there are some things that get a little too sugar-coated. One thing that comes to mind is Gene Roddenberry’s insistence that currency does not exist in the Federation, despite references to “credits” in the show. Who would volunteer to scrub plasma conduits, or wear a red shirt in a landing party if they weren’t being paid? What does the Federation do if not enough people aspire to mine dilithium on colony worlds? Do they force them? That’s suddenly a much darker world, isn’t it? Even so, I’ll take a little wishful thinking over mindless pessimism. The issue of currency rarely comes up in the show anyway.

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Retcons

For those who don’t know the term, “retcon” means retroactive continuity. In essence, it’s what happens when a story contradicts itself and needs to be explained away. The Klingons’ appearance, and the changing color scheme of crew members’ jerseys are examples of this in the show. Gene Roddenberry described himself as a notorious revisionist, and told fans whatever the most recent instance laid out should be taken as canon. Given that Star Trek boasts improvement and evolution as some of its major themes, can’t we accept a little revising now and then?

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It didn’t do more

Simon Pegg, in promoting Star Trek: Beyond, expressed disappointment in the fact that some fans bristled at Sulu’s portrayal as homosexual in the movie. This was meant as an homage to George Takei, who originally portrayed the character, and is homosexual himself, but I think this portrayal may have undercut Roddenberry. We may feel discouraged by the intolerance we see in our daily lives today, but there’s no denying that whatever bigotry exists in our world, it isn’t the same as the institutionalized intolerance of the past. Some have said Gene Roddenberry would have loved to portray a gay character, but we have to remember he was facing bans in the south for having an interracial kiss on screen (Kirk and Uhura). Roddenberry may have wished he could push the envelope further. Today, an interracial kiss on screen isn’t even noteworthy, so before addressing the social issues Star Trek didn’t tackle, it’s only fair to acknowledge that we today aren’t up against the same things Roddenberry was in the 1960s.

Hopefully giving a little love to The Original Series assuages some of the perceived shade my last Trek article may have thrown in that direction. If you’re a die-hard fan of TOS, and you still feel I’ve wronged the classics, just remember that all I’ve really said is Star Trek is a franchise that has improved on itself. Would Gene Roddenberry have wanted it any other way?

Superman Starter Stories

Standard Issue Comic Book Geek Jim—that’s SICBG Jim to you—is back for another Starter Stories article. He rambled on about “truth, justice and the Geekly way,” and I told him he could commandeer the site if he didn’t preach Superman to me. Okay. Superman—the Standard Issue Comic Book Superhero—doesn’t get enough love. Shine on, you Crazy Kryptonian.

Superman is my favorite superhero. It’s hard to come up with a starters list for him, though, because so many of his best books are retellings of his origins, or Elseworlds stories that can’t be considered canon. With that in mind, here are the titles I recommend for approaching the character and better understanding where he is today.

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Birthright (written by Mark Waid/art by Leinil Yu; 2003-2004)

 Superman: Birthright is a good place to start with Superman. It’s a reimagining of Superman’s origin that includes a lot of what’s part of canon today. Maybe most notably, the idea that the “S” on his chest isn’t an “S,” as “Man of Steel” famously told us. Birthright sets the stage for Krypton to be used as more than a passing point of interest in Superman books. Mark Waid is always a good bet.

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What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way? (written by Joe Kelly/art by Doug Mahnke and Lee Bermejo; 2001)

I love this one because it wrestles directly with so much of what people say is wrong with Superman. It’s a defense of his optimism and an example of how his real powers aren’t in his strength, speed, or invulnerability, but in what he has the power to show humanity about itself. It’s not an attempt to retrofit the character to make him more interesting to modern audiences, but an exploration of what everyone seems to overlook about him now. Lee Bermejo is also one of my favorite creators, so that doesn’t hurt.

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Kingdom Come (written by Mark Waid/art by Alex Ross; 1996)

This book builds on what I’ve said about our second entry. Kingdom Come contrasts Superman with a lot of the more edgy characters in recent comics and makes a case for why Superman is not only relevant, but necessary. Mark Waid does what he does, rendering a faithful depiction of the character, and Alex Ross offers some of the definitive Superman art in recent history.

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Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? (written by Alan Moore/art by Curt Swan; 1986)

This book is meant to put a cap on the story of Superman. It’s told by Lois Lane ten years after the supposed death of the hero. It’s gloomy, especially by the standards of Superman comics, but there’s a bittersweet quality in seeing the character’s legacy laid out on the page.

The Death of Superman

The Death of Superman (written by various/ art by various; 1992-1993)

This arc was written and drawn by various creators, as it encapsulates a pretty long arc. I’ll be honest here and say it isn’t one of my favorite stories in Superman lore, but it’s on this list because it’s iconic, and it’s too important to comics history to leave off. This is the story of how Superman died defeating Doomsday. The image of Lois cradling Superman’s broken body, Jimmy Olsen in the background pleading for him to be okay is one of comics’ great panels. Of course, this was the moment that broke death in comics, as the resurrection of Superman set a trend and lowered the stakes moving forward.

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All-Star Superman (written by Grant Morrison/art by Frank Quitely; 2005-2008)

This is my personal favorite. The story that gets to the heart of what makes Superman so special, that even in the face of his own mortality, he protects the people of Metropolis. He stops to comfort a troubled teen on the verge of suicide in another of recent comics’ great panels. Quitely’s art is serene, and Grant Morrison’s affection for the character comes through without making the story saccharine.

SICBG Jim has given your uncle Geekly the honor of writing a closing statement. I hope I can live up to the great example he set. Here it goes.

Superman’s portrayal in the DC Extended Universe—and I blame the writing and directing more than Henry Cavill—leaves a lot to be desired. The DCEU may be one of the largest targets Jim thought of when he said that creators “retrofit the character (Superman) to make him more interesting to modern audiences.”

The stories above, and especially All-Star Superman, do a great job of showing that the Man of Steel is more than a super-powered Batman in gunmetal blue tights. He represents hope, and the original comic book superhero is still one of the best. Do agree with SICBG Jim’s story selections? Let us know either way. I’ll just be in the corner doing my best Mister Mxyzptlk impersonation.

Star Trek Series 3 Lists of 3

Jim walked into the Geekly office, and it looks like he has a new 3 Lists of 3. You have the floor, man.

Who thinks it’s time for a 3 Lists of 3 on Star Trek? No one? Well, we’re doing one anyway. Firs thing I should admit is that Star Trek Discovery isn’t even up for consideration here, because I haven’t watched it. I don’t want to support that business model of endless streaming services, and also I’m cheap. Without further stalling for word count, here are the three best episodes of the three best series in all of Trek-dom.

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Star Trek: The Next Generation

I said it, so fight me. I’m a TNG guy. You think you’re mad now? Keep reading. The Original Series isn’t even #2 on my list. Here are the three best episodes of The Next Generation.

The Best of Both Worlds

Okay. This is a cheat, since it’s a two-parter, but I’m going to count it. This/these episode(s) saw Captain Picard assimilated by The Borg and turned against the Federation .The experience changes Picard, and also feeds into a couple other crucial plot points in Star Trek lore.

Chain of Command

Now I’m doubling down on two-parters. Hey, the series did this quite a bit, and more often than not, when they did it, they did it for a good reason. This story is another great bit of character development for Picard as he’s tortured in the captivity of the Cardassians. You may have seen the gif of a traumatized Patrick Stewart shouting, “There are four lights!” This is from this episode. It addresses the psychology, efficacy, and morality of torture, and also puts Deanna Troi in a proper Starfleet uniform, so there’s that.

The Measure of a Man

Starfleet decides to study Data and orders him to submit  trial is held to determine if Data is a living being, and has the right to refuse. It’s Star Trek at its best, an examination of philosophy and ethics applied to characters we love.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Did you think I was bluffing about the TOS not being #2? Well, I wasn’t. Truth be told, ask me to do this list again tomorrow and I might put DS9 ahead of TNG. DS9 shows the Federation at war, challenging so much of the doctrine Gene Roddenberry laid out for this franchise, but doing it thoughtfully. It’s not just great Trek, it’s great storytelling.

In the Pale Moonlight

Remember what I said about DS9 complicating the morality of the franchise? No episode in all of Star Trek does this better. It also features Garak, one of the most complex and interesting supporting characters the franchise has ever seen. Here, Captain Sisko manipulates the Romulans to get them to enter the war on the side of the Federation. We’ve seen Starfleet officers compromise their ethics before, but these are depicted as traitors to the uniform, or at best, men who’ve lost their way. This episode makes no such judgment, and it’s truly refreshing.

The Siege of AR-558

This episode shows us a side of Starfleet we haven’t seen often. Sure, we’ve seen ships explode, and even some shootouts on the ground, but this episode depicts a long, ugly battle in the trenches. Here we see the cost of the Dominion War in action, and it’s made personal when Nog is wounded in combat. This is also an important episode for adding depth to the Ferengi, who have too often been given the one dimensional alien monoculture treatment.

Duet

Kira was a great second in command in this series. She’s smart, capable, and continues this series’ legacy of complicating moral questions. In this episode, we get glimpses into Kira’s past as a member of the Bajoran resistance, as well as her experiences under Cardassian occupation. Here we see her come face to face with a man she remembers as the commandant of an infamous forced labor camp. Her relationship with Sisko is challenged, as is her willingness to operate under Federation protocol.

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Star Trek: The Original Series

Okay, so The Original Series does make the list. It has to, really. Without the original, nothing that came after would have been possible, and that’s a debt always owed to what came first. This show had plenty of misfires, but also some truly classic moments.

Balance of Terror

Star Trek was, like all art, a product of its time. In this case, the cold war left its mark in an exceptionally clear manner. We have the neutral zone enforcing a delicate peace, and two groups who can’t even see one another prepared to destroy one another. It parallels the story of the film, The Enemy Below, and gave us the famous Trek quote, “…I might have called you friend.”

Space Seed

This episode explores the history of The Eugenics War, a critical point in the fictionalized version of Earth’s past within the Star Trek universe. It addresses the consequences of genetic engineering and, most importantly, it introduces us to Khan. Without this episode, Wrath of Khan, the best of the Star Trek films, would not exist.

The City on the Edge of Forever

What I like about Star Trek is that it takes an optimistic look at humanity’s future. Yes, things get bad. They’ll get even worse still, but someday we will get things right. That feels rare in science fiction. This episode has Kirk and Spock chasing a delirious Dr. McCoy into the past to preserve their future. There, amid rampant crime and poverty, Kirk meets a woman who is an almost insufferable optimist. She predicts eventual harmony and prosperity for mankind. In short, this episode functions as a sort of metafictional look at itself, at the sort of hopeful person who creates a better future by believing in it.

There you have it. There’s Jim’s take on the three best episodes of the three best series in Star Trek history. Do you disagree? Throw on a red shirt and we’ll fight about it.