'Discovery' vs. 'The Orville': Who Treks Better?
It’s been a long time since Star Trek was on television—over a decade since the finale of Enterprise. The JJ Abrams trilogy was a fun distraction, but barely substantial enough to qualify as a footnote in the rich history of the franchise. While Star Trek has proven capable of producing great films, it has always performed best as a series. Imagine how embarrassingly fortunate the fans felt when we got not just one, but two new shows boldly attempting to carry on the Trek tradition. The Orville and Star Trek: Discovery are very different shows, but they clearly have ambitions as similar as their inspirations. What makes this juxtaposition interesting is that the newest official entry in the canon of Star Trek is essentially competing with a parody of itself. Let’s see how well these shows fulfill their legacy.
Serious Science Fiction
Both shows aspire to the cerebral sci-fi storytelling that has been the signature of Star Trek since the days of Gene Roddenberry. Good Star Trek stories typically emphasize scientific curiosity as a valid motivation, and hold wisdom as its valued reward. Discovery nails the uncomfortable relationship between war and science, technological progress fed by mechanical annihilation. The starship Discovery is both the Federation’s greatest scientific achievement and also its most powerful secret weapon. But even as they design new and terrifying tools of destruction, they are also finding groundbreaking new methods of travel, communication, and learning. The prototype spore drive on the Discovery allows Starfleet to strike at the heart of enemy territory and vanish in an instant, but it will also enable them to explore the farthest reaches of the galaxy, to seek out new life and new civilizations. While the titular ship definitely sees more combat than the Enterprise, the crew still finds time to explore planets and make first contact with different species. The Federation may be at war, but it never forgets about its true mission: the pursuit of knowledge. The premiere episode even has the main character, Michael Burnham, winning an ethical argument with a computer, which is the most Trek-ass scene I’ve witnessed since Voyager went off the air.
Despite presenting itself as a sitcom, The Orville often has an engaging sci-fi premise for the crew to explore. So far the show’s best entries are the formulaic “planet of the week” episodes, where the crew finds a new civilization and has to understand and communicate with them in order to solve a larger problem. They have encountered a world ruled by religious fundamentalism, another where an advanced species keeps a zoo of intelligent life, and even an eerily familiar world that is ruled by a literal court of public opinion via social media. Typically the crew tends to “fix” these alien civilizations by convincing them of the superiority of human ethics and morals, but every new Trek show spends its first season climbing out of this classic pitfall as it discovers its own identity. There is still a great deal of potential for progress. One of The Orville’s better episodes sees the crew debating against a sex-change operation for a female infant born into an exclusively male species. Despite the humans’ eloquent arguments, the alien court rules that the child will have the operation in order to give her the best possible chance at a normal life in an all-male society. Even though they disagree, the crew of the Orville respects the decision made by another culture.
Captain and Crew
The only thing more important than the ship is the crew that flies it. They are our tour guides to a galaxy teeming with intelligent life, and after a few seasons, they can even become treasured friends. Diversity has always been a cornerstone of good Trek, not just because it's socially progressive—the vast array of different characters ensures that almost any viewer can find someone they like or identify with. I was rooting for Data on his quest to become human through seven seasons of The Next Generation, and I felt a swell of pride as Worf became the noble warrior he was always meant to be on Deep Space Nine. And while I found most of Star Trek: Enterprise to be tediously dull, I was amused by Chief Engineer Trip Tucker, the first Starfleet officer I’d ever heard speak with a drawl, constantly having to explain his Southern idioms to people from other planets.
Discovery has a much narrower focus than its predecessors, following only a handful of key characters rather than the entire bridge crew. This allows for more complex character development, like Michael Burnham’s internal conflict between her culture and her nature, yet still underserves others like Saru, who is rarely given anything to do other than spout technobabble and monologue about fear.
The Orville’s crew are typical comedy strawmen—they all have one, maybe two remarkable characteristics that will be the source of endless punchlines. The helmsman is a drunk, the science officer is a robot that doesn’t understand humans, and the security officer is a tiny girl with Hulk-level strength. If any of them change or grow like a real person, they’ve completely forgotten it by the next episode. Commander Grayson is clearly more qualified to command a starship than her captain, and has the thankless job of supporting him while he constantly berates her for past infidelity. Every now and then he’ll have a heartfelt chat with her and reveal he’s finally over it, but not enough to stop mentioning it every time they argue. Honestly, none of this would be as bothersome if The Orville was just absurdity on a spaceship, but it insists on taking its story so seriously that it can only disappoint when it ends in a cheap throwaway gag. The plots and the characters feel like they’re being handled by two entirely separate writers’ rooms.
Its the captain that really sets the tone for the series, and here the shows differ greatly. Discovery pulls a bait-and-switch during the premiere, subverting the usual standard. Captain Phillippa Georgiou is the Starfleet commander we’ve come to expect: strong, intelligent, honorable and charismatic. She speaks to her crew like old friends without ever losing her air of authority, doesn’t believe in shooting first, but also won’t back down from a fight. When she inevitably falls victim to the “Special Guest Star” curse, we meet Captain Gabriel Lorca of the Discovery, who is definitely not standard Starfleet issue. The only science he cares about is war, and his only field of study is battle. Although certainly strong and intelligent, Lorca is also ruthless and cunning, manipulating both friend and foe alike to achieve his ends. He even displays open contempt for the principles of Starfleet when they hamper his strategies. The admiralty view him as a loose cannon, but are forced to tolerate him because of his value as a warrior.
The Orville’s Captain Ed Mercer is smart, compassionate, morally conscious and amiable. But he is also the kind of goof that would jeopardize a diplomatic situation to make a funny. He is also incredibly insecure and desperate for people to like him, and thus commands no respect. His crew walks all over him, disobeys orders, and are also willing to risk their lives and open warfare with an alien race to make lame jokes. I honestly can’t fathom why anyone would give him command of a starship if he wasn’t played by the executive producer. Just like the titular ship, the show often feels lost, unable to decide what kind of series its going to be.
Boldly Going (Or Not)
Although set earlier in Star Trek’s timeline, Discovery still brings new concepts to the table, and promises to delve deeper into ideas the franchise has yet to fully explore. Things like interpersonal conflicts and the Mirror Universe. Sadly, the one place they routinely fail is with the series’ most iconic aliens: the Klingons. We were promised that all-out war with the Federation would show us the Klingon Empire in a new light, and it has not been flattering. The proud, honorable race of warrior monks we have come to fear and love over 500+ hours of Star Trek have been replaced with brutish, mumbling space orcs. They are given no motivations beyond bloodlust, and we never get a glimpse of their homeworld. If you’re new to Star Trek, you could be forgiven for thinking the entire Klingon Empire is run from one ship, because that is the only set they ever use. We learn nothing of their culture or spirituality beyond their predilection for violence. Reducing them to monsters is lazy writing, and the very antithesis of Star Trek. I hope they will do better, because they clearly can.
Ironically, The Orville’s most consistent shortcoming is its humor. It sold itself as a workplace comedy on a starship, which is certainly a fun premise with lots of possibilities. When it sticks with that premise, the show really shines. Nothing made me laugh harder than the helmsman and navigator complaining about how boring it is to chart star systems, but those moments are frustratingly few and far between. Instead, most of the jokes revolve around Seth MacFarlane’s old standards—bodily fluids and pop culture references. Similar to Discovery, the writing is surprisingly sloppy where it needs to be the sharpest. Putting aside how difficult it is to believe that people in the 25th century watch 400 year old sitcoms so religiously that a joke about Friends is greeted with anything but confused silence, most of the punchlines land with a thud. These are the kind of jokes MacFarlane can rattle off without even trying, and he’s built a very successful career around that talent. But he’s also capable of the really incisive wit common among history’s greatest humorists, and its disappointing to see it neglected in favor of a wish-fulfillment role.
At present, Discovery is more consistently enjoyable. There are scenes and characters that can be done better, but I was never bored. There has been more than one episode of The Orville I simply could not finish, usually the ones that revolve around Grayson and Mercer’s failed marriage, arguably the least interesting thing to happen in the history of science fiction. While it’s fair to say both shows have room for substantial improvement, they’re still in their first season, and it seems likely they will get a second chance to do just that. Let’s hope they use it wisely.
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