As we suffered through a drought of reruns over the summer, the only thing more exciting than the debut of a woman Doctor Who on the horizon was the news of two new science fiction shows which promised to reinvigorate the genre of space exploration – both of which follow in the Roddenberry wake of Star Trek. On one hand, there is The Orville, the newest pet project by Seth MacFarlane. On the other, the newest installment in the official franchise, eponymously titled Star Trek: Discovery after the name of the seminal star ship of the series.
The two-hour pilot of Discovery introduces us to First Officer Michael Burnham aboard the USS Shenzou, circa ten years prior to the events of the original Star Trek. Having been called to a remote sector to check on a damaged piece of equipment, the crew of the Shenzou are pulled into a tense standoff after Michael ends up exploring a mysterious object in a debris field which turns out to be a Klingon ship. The Klingon attacks and in the tousle she accidentally kills him. What follows is the destruction of the Shenzou, the brutal death of its captain and Michael’s mentor, Michael’s subsequent court martial, and the beginning of a war between the Federation and the Klingons.
There are a number of brave things Discovery is attempting: first, it’s wagering a lot on its premise as a prequel. The danger of revisiting the ‘before-time’ in any established universe is that the audience already know the end product (and say what you will about the pedantry of Trekkies, but they will hold you to account), which can be a limiting factor as far as creativity is concerned. J.J. Abrams deftly – and rather recklessly – avoided this obstacle by creating an entirely new timeline for his movies. The jury is still out on whether or not such a sanctioned move sits well with loyalists.
Which makes Discovery so interesting. While set back in the original timeline of all the other shows, it may have found a more acceptable loophole by exploring certain incidents or storylines which are redacted. This is just a fan theory, so we’ll have to see how it plays out, but some avid watchers have suggested that Discovery recounts the formation of Section 31, a shadowy organization within the Federation who work behind the scenes. An organization whose influence on established Trek canon isn’t part of recorded history – and therefore, fair game.
The show is also courageous in adopting a serialized format. Unlike most of its predecessors, who only fleetingly relied on continuous narrative arcs to bridge episodes, this incarnation has a linearity which follows from episode to episode. This isn’t surprising, considering the direction that most – if not all – science fiction and fantasy shows have taken in the last decade, from Game of Thrones to Battlestar Galactica. From the standpoint of a storyline this allows for some compelling character development as we watch the crew try to adjust to the blurry ethical dilemmas of war and Michael try to reconcile her guilt and alienation.
Which is part and parcel of its other defining feature. Namely, a darker tone, but this is by no means a criticism. The themes of conflict aren’t new to the franchise, but Discovery seems as if it’s taking its cue from Deep Space Nine which chronicled the war with the Dominion (and also pioneered the serial conceptualization of an extended battle effort over the course of several seasons). But whereas DS-9 had already built up a believable narrative and established its characters before launching into a full-scale war effort, the in medias res nature of Discovery throws us right into the fray and every episode feels like it’s doing double duty just to keep up. Needless to the say, the writing of the show thus far certainly lacks the eloquence of previous shows, and there is the lingering aftertaste of Abrams’ contributions in the heavily action-focused editing and pacing of events (including some logical inconsistencies in the way a few crew members have met their grisly end). For now, I think, most of us are willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, but it’s been a shaky start.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, MacFarlane’s long-awaited fusion of comedy and sci-fi has paid off in an unexpected way. As a devoted lover of Star Trek himself, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the pilot of The Orville smacks of the same authenticity – or that he’s cast himself in the lead role. Add this to the fact he’s somehow managed to wrangle Brannon Braga as a producer, a creative powerhouse behind four of the previous Star Trek shows and the director of Star Trek: First Contact, and you’ve got yourself a reliable platform when it comes to all things space.
And thankfully, the exposition is minimal. The pilot opens with our protagonist Ed Mercer catching his wife cheating on him with a blue-skinned alien (who ejaculates from his head… just bear with me). Reeling from the end of his relationship, he plummets into a slump and is given one last chance to prove he’s capable of captaining his own vessel, a sleek tri-engine cruiser called The Orville.
Of course, things become a bit more complicated when Mercer discovers that his ex-wife, Kelly Grayson, has been assigned as his First Officer. This is compounded by the presence of a hostile alien species known as the Krill which attack a science station looking for a device that can control time. And so begins the exploits of Mercer and his crew. From the very beginning, it’s hard to put your finger on what exactly The Orville is, and I’d argue this is its prevailing strength. There have been attempts to satirize or parody the Star Trek universe before – including Galaxy Quest, which remains one of the most underrated comedy sci-fi hybrids – but The Orville has found the perfect balance between taking itself too seriously and succumbing completely to silliness and in-jokes.
There are, of course, unmistakable parallels to the source material. The Union to which Mercer and Grayson belong is clearly an analogue of the Federation of Planets, the Krill are unequivocally the Klingons of this universe, and even the bridge crew themselves echo familiar tropes, including a casual fun-loving helmsman, a bulky stoic alien with a literal sense of humor, and an artificial intelligence who is just ‘trying to understand humanity’. Even the look of the show is pared down and color-coded to a mid-90’s conceptualization of interplanetary star trekking, and a sharp contrast from the futuristic neon-blue depth offered by Discovery.
This is both to the show’s credit, but it’s also a hindrance. On one hand, its avoidance of pure parody opens the show up to storylines which are nostalgic of the same kind of content Star Trek was always supposed to be about – asking the tough questions about conflict, gender, politics, culture, and what it means to be human (or humanoid). There is a philosophical and dramatic element underpinning its comedic vogue, and neither dimension usurps the show. If anything, the jokes in The Orville are emblematic of MacFarlane’s humor: dry, organic, and cleverly integrated. Whether it’s Isaac, the artificial life-form, going overboard with his first attempt at a human “prank” by covertly amputating the leg of a crewmember, or Mercer asking a commander of a Krill vessel to take two steps to their right so that they’re properly framed in the viewer, the comedy may in fact be the saving grace in terms of distinguishing itself.
Because, alas, there is something almost too familiar about The Orville. The thin line between appropriately paying homage to a previous show and generating your own unique story is going to be a consistent struggle, especially when you’re borrowing from a series which defined its own genre. But then, maybe the question shouldn’t be whether or not The Orville or The Discovery too closely mirror their origin material. What Star Trek represented and brought to the forefront – either as a pop culture artifact or as a serious piece of contemplative media – was precisely what we seem to be in need of again. The optimistic humanism of the previous shows stood out as an exemplary for what Roddenberry saw as essential human characteristics. More than that, Star Trek offered a hopeful alternative and at the same time held up a mirror as a way to show us how to get there. In other words, confronting the issues of the present and contextualizing their solutions in an imagined future.
So far, The Orville gets closer to that message – and as a result, it’s a lot more watchable – while Discovery is still coming to terms with whether or not it’s an action movie.