If you follow Star Trek on Facebook, it has become a tiring spectacle to see self-professed fans of The Orville troll Star Trek Discovery (DSC) posts. There’s lots of whining and complaining about how Discovery isn’t ‘true’ Star Trek and The Orville is more like Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG). In American culture today, it seems like idiots are trying to force us to take sides on everything, and that’s a shame. There’s no need to suffer like idiots.
I just finished binge-watching the first season of The Orville on Amazon, and I binge-watched Star Trek Discovery last year with a free week of CBS All Access. I’m left feeling like writing a comparison. I have a degree in Film with an emphasis in screenwriting, and once upon a time I got the bible for Star Trek Voyager (VOY) and pitched ideas to Executive Producer Michael Taylor by phone. Nothing ever came of it. I opted for academia until it crashed; these days I mostly wander the Earth wondering what might have been if I had gotten my foot in the door, and I’m mostly happy I didn’t.
Honestly, we are lucky to have both of these shows. The creators and writers of both have been influenced by classic Star Trek, and they each carry the torch forward in their own ways. The production values of both shows are great, even though they are very different in their approach. The Orville with its bright lighting looks so much like The Next Generation, while Discovery has a darker movie look like the older Trek films. This matches the mood of the writing as well, with The Orville being ‘light’ while Discovery often feels ‘heavy’.
The writing of the shows is where things differ the most. Seth McFarlane has said that The Orville is an homage to TNG, and it feels a lot like it. Although touted as comedy and satire, the drama feels very similar to TNG, but the writers also throw in bathroom humour, dick jokes, and pop culture references that make it feel ‘small’ screen or ‘accessible’. Meanwhile, Discovery is trying to be something new and different, the next thing that is Star Trek, in the same way that each past show was different from the others. Discovery has a much bigger palette—a whole galaxy and an alternate universe to boot—but sometimes it misses the mark, feeling like it is still trying to find its footing.
One of the problems I had with getting into season one of Discovery was the way it flies in the face of established Star Trek canon. I remember way back when I pitched to Voyager that Micheal Taylor told me two things about my ideas. One, ‘something similar has already been done’ (in one of the 400+ episodes of the past), or two, we have an idea like that already under development. When it comes to canon, something had to give. Ultimately, it would have been smarter if the creators of Star Trek Discovery had simply said “we’re rebooting the prime timeline, so forget everything you think you know about Star Trek”.
The Orville doesn’t have this problem because it has no canon to follow. The Union takes the place of the Federation, and the Krill are the antagonist alien a la the Klingons. The Orville often plays off of Star Trek stories, re-using some of the plot-lines and music from TNG, but as parody it has lots of leeway in the ways it works with the material. The acting and writing is top notch, and by episode eleven it really hit its stride, dropping much of the schtick and growing up.
Still, I find myself bemused how self-professed fans of The Orville complain about social justice warrior (SJW) writing in Discovery when episode three of The Orville is an SJW episode that takes place in a courtroom. Overall, The Orville did more SJW stuff than Discovery in its first season, and the approach it takes is more obvious. But Star Trek has always been about social justice. Kirk outright preaches at times in the original series from the sixties (watch The Omega Glory written by Gene Roddenberry for a cringeworthy example). Discovery is more understated with its social justice—showing and not telling—and I guess some people see that as sneaky.
That being said, I hope that Discovery gets better in season two and finds a way to get rid of some of its shackles. I wonder why episodes only run about 42 minutes and incorporate commercial breaks that make the show feel sluggish and old fashioned. Cramming Star Trek into 42 minutes doesn’t feel right when compared to other streaming shows that create a whole world. Why put it on a streaming service only to adhere to commercial network standards? DSC needs more space to grow.
What of the trolls on Facebook? Why must we suffer idiots? Perhaps it has something to do with Discovery being on a pay platform while The Orville is on network TV. Maybe these people are stuck in their basements watching TNG and Seinfeld reruns, so The Orville feels familiar to them. They like dick jokes and that goes hand-in-hand (no pun intended) with worrying about STDs, so Discovery (DSC) is inaccessible to them and a little scary. Or maybe the motivation behind the trolling of Discovery is a fear of being left behind. Discovery is more challenging to follow than The Orville. It’s trying to do something new and different, and some people are scared of that.
So now I suppose I must pick one over the other, like voting someone out of the tribe or waving a rose under a woman’s nose before giving it to another with larger breasts. Both shows have their merits, but it often feels like The Orville belongs on the small screen while Discovery pulls you in more like cinema. I’m not a great fan of Seth McFarlane. He’s a likable and amazingly talented guy, but it often feels like he’s writing for teenage boys who watch FOX. Yet with The Orville perhaps he is growing up and bringing those teenage boys along with him.
So I’ll take both shows. One to remind me of where Star Trek has been, to give me a laugh and pay homage to the past. Another to forge a future out of these dystopian times we find ourselves in. Maybe we should count ourselves lucky that the creative rights for Star Trek aren’t so guarded like Star Wars. Pushing boundaries, boldly going? This is what Star Trek has always been about, and I keep watching to see where it takes me next.