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.