It seems to be one of those moments of cosmic serendipity, when two or more works with eerily similar concepts come out independently of each other at around the same time. Pop culture is full of such moments, such as when both the original Star Trek and Germany’s Raumpatrouille Orion premiered within two weeks of each other, albeit on different continents, in September 1966. Or 1991, the year of the two Robin Hood films (and the better one of the two is the one no one talks about anymore), 1997, the year of the two equally forgettable volcano films, or 1998, the year of the two “asteroid threatens Earth” films. 2017/2018 also had such a moment of cosmic serendipity, because it was not only the year that four different movies about Churchill and Dunkirk (why, dear gods, why?) and two different takes on the John Paul Getty III kidnapping (why? Who still cares about that?) came out, but also three very different takes on Star Trek, one official and two inofficial ones with the serial numbers filed off, after twelve years of no Star Trek on the small screen at all.
I have already exhaustively talked about Star Trek Discovery and also discussed Black Mirror‘s take on Star Trek, “USS Callister”. So that leaves the third version of Star Trek, Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville, which is the only of the three current variations on Star Trek that I haven’t yet seen. However, yesterday I rectified this and watched the first two episodes of The Orville.
Now the initial reception of The Orville was mixed, to say the least. Official TV critics were generally baffled, because they went in expecting a Star Trek parody with MacFarlane’s trademark crude humor and got something quite different. Meanwhile, reactions from SFF fans and reviewers ranged from “This feels like fanfiction and watching someone’s private Star Trek fantasy” via “This is kind of old-fashioned, like The Next Generation used to be twenty-five years ago and those who like the show are old-fashioned” and “Who cares if it’s official or not, at least it feels like Star Trek, unlike some other show you could name” to “Star Trek with the serial number filed off or not, this actually is a pretty good show.”
None of these reactions are wrong and all contain at least a kernel of truth. For starters, The Orville is not a Star Trek parody in the vein of Bully Herbig’s Traumschiff Surprise skits, Pigs in Space or even Galaxy Quest. And The Orville is indeed very different from Seth MacFarlane’s comedy work (which is a good thing, as far as I’m concerned, considering how dreadful my previous experience with Seth MacFarlane and his work was), though it does resort to typical US sitcom humor on occasion. Now some of the jokes – mostly those arising out of science fiction and Star Trek clichés, e.g. the jokes about the “anti-banana ray”, drinks on the bridge and cannabis from the replicator, Ed accidentally walking through the Blob like crewmember, the tentacled underwater creature which turns out to be a botanist or the bit with the Krill commander standing off center on the viewscreen (come on, it is weird that people always stand exactly in the middle of the viewscreen in SF films and TV shows, to the point that I even included a “Sorry, could you please adjust your screen” line in Graveyard Shift) – work. They work precisely because these jokes arise naturally out of the science fiction setting.
On the other hand, the typical US sitcom humor, particularly the bickering between Ed and his ex-wife Kelly or the brief scene with Ed and his very embarrassing parents, who insist on discussing their and Ed’s health issues, doesn’t work nearly as well, simply because it doesn’t really fit into the science fiction setting. Particularly in Star Trek like settings, audiences are used to the characters behaving with at least a modicum of professionality. I can’t imagine any Star Trek captain, not even Lorca, nor any captain in Star Wars, Babylon 5 or any other SF universe for that matter, yelling at their ex-partner in the ready room within earshot of the bridge crew or discussing colon cancer screenings via the bridge viewscreen. And while couples may quarrel and bicker, they usually quarrel because one of them is a surgically altered Klingon spy and not because they don’t like the way the other eats their morning cereal. Science fiction fans tend to like competentence porn and characters who know what they’re doing. US style sitcoms, on the other hand, derive their humor largely out of the fact that their characters, at least the male ones, are completely and utterly incompetent. And interestingly, The Orville sticks with the US sitcom trope of competent women paired with not very competent and occasionally childish men. Because aboard the Orville, the women (Kelly, Doctor Claire, Alara) and male aliens (Bortus, Isaac) are all pretty competent, while the human men (Ed, the helmsman and the navigator, whose names I have forgotten) are portrayed as the typical bumbling sitcom dudes, though the helmsman is also an ace pilot. What is more, Ed and Kelly are very much the typical US sitcom couple. She is highly competent and attractive, whereas he is very average and bumbling. And like so often with sitcom couples, you wonder just why a woman like Kelly would put up with a guy like Ed in the first place. And Kelly clearly does care about Ed, as the final moments of the first episode show, we just don’t know why. Maybe, The Orville will eventually answer that question, but for now it’s a mystery. Though several reviews I’ve seen have said that the arguments between Kelly and Ed settle down after a few episodes, which is a good thing. Indeed, my Mom said, “Oh please! We all know that they’ll eventually get back together, so can they just stop the bickering and get on with it.”
Now the pilot episode makes it pretty clear that the Orville and her crew are very average. The admiral played by Victor Garber even says as much to Ed. The Orville is not the flagship of the fleet like the Enterprise (either of them) or a cutting edge secret weapon like the Discovery, it’s just a midlevel ship crewed by the sort of people who would never make the cut to serve aboard the Enterprise and wouldn’t survive five minutes aboard the Discovery. Victor Garber’s character (maybe I should just call him Admiral Exposition) pretty much tells Ed that he’s nobody’s first choice to command this or any other ship – they simply have more ships than captains (I wonder why. High death rate, some kind of war we’re not told about, recruiting problems?). Isaac and Alara are explicitly introduced as affirmative action picks (I wonder how well that bit went down in the US), the helmsman is a screw-up who’s only hired because he’s a friend of Ed’s, Kelly is only there initially, because no other first officer is available, and Doctor Claire is there because she is needed. In regular Star Trek, you only see a ship like the Orville, when it runs into trouble and the Enterprise or the Discovery have to swoop in to save it or mop up the remains after the cosmic phenomenon of the week killed everybody on board. But not every ship can be the Enterprise, the Voyager or the Discovery and it’s a pleasant change to focus on a more average ship with a crew that’s not quite as hypercompetent, but still do their best. I just wish that they wouldn’t have stuck quite so much with US sitcom tropes and clichés.
Now let’s move on to the next complaint, namely that The Orville feels like fanfiction. This is absolutely correct, because The Orville indeed feels like fanfiction. In spite of some token effort to file off the serial numbers, it’s very clear that The Orville is basically a Star Trek show set in the Star Trek universe. Okay, so their Federation is called Union, their Klingons are called Krills (who even look a lot like the nu-Klingons from Discovery), but they have warp drives, holodecks and replicators. About the only Star Trek tech The Orville doesn’t have are transporters (and Ed and Kelly are kidnapped via a transporter in episode 2, it’s just not human tech). So yes, The Orville is a big budget Star Trek fan film. But that doesn’t make it bad.
In her post about The Orville, Star Trek Discovery and other new US TV shows, Abigail Nussbaum says that The Orville made her feel a bit embarrassed at watching someone else acting out what is clearly a private fantasy. I sympathise with this, because I’ve had the same feeling on occasion. The most blatant example was while watching a special episode of the German comedy program Neo Magazin Royale, which was billed as the revival of the popular German game show Wetten Dass?. Now Wetten Dass? is certainly ripe for parody, though I did find the choice to parody the show when it had been off the air for three years a bit odd. However, when I watched the special Wetten Dass? edition of Neo Magazin Royale, I quickly realised that this was not a parody at all, but an earnest attempt to revive the former ratings juggernaut and also Jan Böhmermann applying for the job of Wetten Dass? host. The episode culminated in Böhmermann, who’d lost a bet, coming on stage dressed up in a costume from the musical Cats, singing the song “Starlight Express” from the eponymous musical, while sitting in a bathtub full of mustard. The whole thing was just as weird and disturbing as it sounds (and available on YouTube here). And while I was sitting there openmouthed, staring at the TV, I suddenly realised that I was watching someone else acting out their private fantasy. Böhmermann clearly was a huge Wetten Dass? fan and always dreamed of hosting the show, he clearly loved musicals, particularly the big 1980s musicals Cats and Starlight Express, and obviously wanted to perform in one of them. And as for the tub full of mustard, I honestly don’t want to know.
Watching Jan Böhmermann singing “Starlight Express” in a tub full of mustard, while hosting Wetten Dass? made me feel deeply uncomfortable, because I felt as if I had intruded on someone else’s fantasy. Abigail Nussbaum apparently had a similar reaction to The Orville. But while it was obvious at some points that Seth MacFarlane was clearly having the time of his life (watch how he fires his phaser – he’s dreamed of this moment for years), I never felt the same discomfort as I felt at watching Jan Böhmermann singing “Starlight Express”. It’s probably because while I understand why someone would dream of commanding a Starfleet ship (is there anybody who has never dreamed of that?), I haven’t watched Wetten Dass? in years, don’t like Starlight Express and find Cats overrated and certainly have never dreamed of bathing in mustard. So Böhmermann acting out his private fantasies felt alien to me in a way that MacFarlane acting out his doesn’t.
So let’s move on to the next point, namely that The Orville is old-fashioned and feels like 1990s TV, which is usually paired with the observation that Star Trek Discovery is a lot more like modern prestige TV in style, tone and look. Again, this criticism is absolutely correct, because The Orville looks and feels very much like a 1990s Star Trek show. The ship is clean and brightly lit, a stark contrast to the overly dim lighting that afflicts pretty much every other space-based SF show out there (and coincidentally, my Mom very much appreciated the fact that The Orville is well lit, since she hates the dim lighting that is currently so en vogue). Planets look like office parks, university campuses and shopping malls. Uniforms are colour coded and actually include colours other than black, blue or grey. Episodes are self-contained and wrap up their plot in 45 minutes. And while the visual effects look better than 1990s Star Trek, they are also ropier than what you see in Star Trek Discovery or The Expanse. Compared to the latter two, The Orville indeed looks rather old-fashioned. However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Now I have been pretty critical of this so-called “golden age of television” or “peak TV” and especially of its excesses before. Not every male character in a TV show has to be a complex anti-hero (which all too often translates into horrible person) like the protagonists of the various “quality TV” shows. Of course, Ed Mercer is something of an anti-hero, but he’s an anti-hero the way Homer Simpson is an anti-hero. He’s not a murderous psychopath like Walter White or Gabriel Lorca. However, SF TV has room for both Ed Mercer and Gabriel Lorca. And while serialised shows can be great, when well done, not every show has to be serialised. And indeed, I often prefer standalone episodic shows to serialised shows, because if you watch too many serialised shows at the same time, it’s easy to forget what happened, even with recaps at the beginning. And don’t even get me started on shows that are clearly created solely for binge watchers who will burn through an entire season in a single weekend. I’m not a binge watcher, I neither have the time nor the inclination, and most working adults I know are not binge watchers either. Viewers like me exist and we are many. Because even in this era of “peak TV”, there is room for shows which are a bit like TV shows were back in the 1980s and 1990s. Genres like crime dramas and medical dramas still have these “old-fashioned” shows. There is very little talk about them, but plenty of people watch them, myself included. SFF, however, has been dominated by heavily serialised and dimly lit “peak TV” era shows for years now. There is certainly room for something that looks and feels more like science fiction shows used to be before the so-called “golden age of television” came along and usurped everything else.
So let’s address the inevitable comparisons between The Orville and Star Trek Discovery (leaving aside “USS Callister” for the moment, which is its own beast and uses Star Trek-like visuals to make a point about toxic masculinity). And the comparisons really are inevitable, because on the one hand we have a show that is very much 1990s Star Trek with the serial numbers filed off, while on the other hand, we have a show that carries the official Star Trek label and is full of references to previous iterations of Star Trek and yet manages to neither look nor feel like Star Trek much of the time. Indeed, if you look at Star Trek Discovery and The Orville side by side, they couldn’t be more different. One is light (in every way up to the sets) and somewhat fluffy, the other is grimdark (also up to the sets). And yet, there are some surprising parallels between both shows that go beyond the fact that both share a common ancestor, the original Star Trek of the 1960s.
For starters, both shows feature a protagonist who is something of a screw-up given their last chance to redeem themselves. Of course, Ed Mercer is merely a man having a rough time after a difficult break-up who occasionally shows up drunk for duty, while Michael Burnham is literally the most hated person in Starfleet, even though she didn’t do most of the things she’s accused of. What is more, both Ed and Michael were once highly promising officers who screwed up due to unexpectedly losing someone important to them, Kelly and Philippa Geogiou respectively. And both characters find themselves face to face with the person they lost, though Ed only gets a repentant Kelly, while Michael gets an evil and genocidal Mirror Georgiou. Still, considering that Star Trek traditionally features hypercompetent characters, the fact that both current reiterations focus on screw-ups is notable. Though I’d argue that Michael actually is highly competent with occasional lapses in judgement, while Ed does not strike me as very competent even at the best of times.
There are other parallels as well between Star Trek Discovery and The Orville as well. Both shows include a gay couple in the main cast, which wouldn’t be remarkable in 2018, if not for the fact that Star Trek traditionally has a crappy track record on LGBT representation. The Nu-Klingons of Discovery and the Krills of The Orville look eerily similar to the point that I said, “Oh, shut up, Voq, or whatever your name is” when the Krill commander issued his demands. Both shows also give us alien nudity and bodyparts we did not particularly need to see in L’Rell breasts and Bortus’ butt. Both shows have extras without any lines in highly elaborate make-up standing or walking around in the background. The pilot episode of Star Trek Discovery and the second episode of The Orville both have a female officer in over her head ignoring direct orders and committing mutiny in order to save their captain, only that Alara gets a medal and Michael gets a life sentence. Okay, so Alara succeeds, while Michael doesn’t, but the discrepancy is still striking. Both shows have a cafeteria scene, where no one wants to sit with the ostracised outcast, in the early episodes, another thing which isn’t a classic Star Trek trope, though it is a very American trope, as I explain here. Captain Lorca has a Tribble on his desk, while Captain Mercer has a plush Kermit the Frog. Though I liked the bit that Ed introduced Kermit to Bortus as “a great leader I admire” (if Ed sees himself as Kermit, does that make Kelly Miss Piggy? Though Piggy always was a cracking good officer in Pigs in Space) and that Ed’s Kermit had a role to play in the plot, whereas Lorca’s Tribble never did anything, not even detect Klingon spies in disguise, which is something Tribbles are traditionally good at. Hell, both shows mention a tardigrade, an otherwise obscure micro-animal whose DNA eventually plays an important role in the plot. And when the elderly scientist dude mentioned tardigrade DNA in the pilot episode of The Orville, I pretty much jumped from my chair, very much to my Mom’s surprise. And in fact, the tardigrade reference is the strangest parallel between both shows, especially since you hardly ever heard about tardigrades until last fall. Was there by chance an article about tardigrades in a science journal recently that might have inspired their unusual popularity in contemporary Star Trek inspired SF? Or maybe it’s just one of those moments of cosmic serendipity striking again.
So let’s take a look at the plots. The big difference is of course that Star Trek Discovery is heavily serialised, as is currently en vogue, whereas The Orville is episodic. Star Trek Discovery is also addicted to surprise revelations and shocking twists (TM), many of which are not nearly as shocking and surprising as the writers seem to think. What is more, not all of Discovery‘s shocking twists are earned or even fit very well into the ongoing plot. Indeed, Discovery has fallen prey to a problem that afflicts many serialised shows. The constant need for shocking twists (TM) and revelations means that the overall plot ceases to make sense after a while. This is what happened to Lost, Prison Break, Heroes and many other serialised shows which started off strong and then went completely off the rails. However, beneath all the shocking twists (TM), a lot of Discovery‘s actual plots are old SF standbys, frequently borrowed from previous versions of Star Trek. Though to be fair, Star Trek has gone through most viable SF idea and many non-viable ones (“Spock’s Brain”, anybody?) in fifty-one years, so there is a high probability that any given plot of a given SF story, particularly one set in space, will bear similarities to a Star Trek episode.
In its first two episodes, The Orville also dishes up some very old SF tropes, namely rapid aging and the alien zoo where humans are treated as exhibits. Star Trek has done both before as early as the original series, which tackled rapid aging in “The Deadly Years” and humans as zoo exhibits in its original pilot “The Cage”, later revisited in “The Menagerie”. And Star Trek sure as hell didn’t invent those tropes either, in fact they probably go back to the golden age, if not further. But even if a trope is old, the true skill lies in the execution. And in both episodes, the solution to the problem posed by the plot, destruction of enemy spaceship via rapid aged redwood tree in “Old Wounds” and handing over a huge video library of reality TV episodes to the alien zookeepers in “Command Performance”, was genuinely clever and unexpected.
However, I don’t watch TV for the plots anyway, since I can usually predict how an episode will go, which drives my Mom crazy. No, what keeps me coming back week after week, episode after episode, are the characters. And characterisation is one aspect where Star Trek Discovery has a huge advantage, because – as I pointed out in my season one postmortem – the characters and their relationships were one of the few things that I really liked about Star Trek Discovery. Though Star Trek Discovery discarded too many of its characters and two of the best romantic relationships in all of Star Trek for the sake of cheap twists and emotional drama. It also had the problem that the bridge crew, though seen in almost every episode, were cool looking cyphers with barely any lines and zero personality.
Compared to Star Trek Discovery‘s complex and interesting characters, The Orville‘s characters come across as a lot flatter and one-dimensional. But then, I’ve only seen two episodes of The Orville so far and by the second episode of Star Trek Discovery, we hadn’t even met most of the main cast yet. What is more, even if the characters of The Orville are largely a collection of clichés and stereotypes – the well-meaning bumbler, the repentant ex-wife, the class clown, the inexperienced officer, the logical android, the stoic alien, the hypercompetent doctor – I nonetheless quickly got a handle on who these people are. In fact, I can remember the names of most of the characters except for the helmsman and the navigator after only two episodes, whereas I was still referring to Discovery characters as jerky scientist dude, cute doctor or rubberhead several episodes in. This isn’t limited to Discovery either – I couldn’t remember the names of most of the characters of Enterprise after three seasons. In fact, I only know for certain that the captain’s dog was called Porthos and would have to look up the names of the others. So for me to remember the names of most of The Orville‘s characters after only two episodes is quite remarkable. The Orville‘s characters might not be deep and complex – and in fact I cannot imagine The Orville even trying to tackle subjects like PTSD and sexual violence against men like Discovery did with the characters of Ash Tyler (okay, they blew it in the end, but at least they tried) – but they’re certainly distinctive.
What sets Discovery apart from all other Star Trek shows is its tight focus on a single character, namely Michael Burnham. We mainly see the other characters through Michael’s eyes. And in fact, some of the inconstant characterisation in Discovery – Stamets pretty much has a complete personality transplant and Saru becomes much more likable in the second half of the season – might be due to Michael’s view of these people changing.
The Orville, on the other hand, seems to be more of an ensemble show like Star Trek traditionally was, with different episodes focussing on different characters. The first episode introduced the cast, while the second focussed mainly on security officer Alara (whom I’d love to introduce to Discovery‘s Tilly, since I’m sure they’d get along just wonderfully). It’s time honoured approach and one that works, because it gives us the chance to get to know everybody and also gives every character a chance to shine. Besides, Discovery‘s tight focus on a single character really wouldn’t have worked with The Orville, because the focus would most likely have been on Ed. Considering Ed is played by creator, writer and showrunnr Seth MacFarlane, a too tight focus on his character would easily turn him into a Mary Sue. And though The Orville does feel a bit like fanfiction, Ed Mercer is not a Mary Sue.
One of the main problems with season one of Star Trek Discovery was its sheer inconsistency. Over the course of its short first season, Discovery seemed to be awkwardly patched together from about five very different shows, only some of which bore any resemblance to what we’ve come to expect of Star Trek. This lack of consistency contributed to the whiplash effect of Star Trek Discovery and was also mirrored by a lack of consistency behind the scenes, since Star Trek Discovery had about four dozen different producers, only some of which had any previous experience with Star Trek at all, and seemed to switch showrunners every other week or so. The result is an unholy mess.
Now it’s difficult to judge The Orville‘s consistency on the basis of only two episodes. Even Star Trek Discovery managed to be consistent for two episodes in a row, depending on which two you picked. However, according to the reviews I’ve seen, the overall tone of The Orville remains constant over the course of the first season. That’s also largely because The Orville is the vision of one person, Seth MacFarlane. You may not like MacFarlane’s idea of what Star Trek should be like, but at least The Orville is consistent and won’t give you whiplash like Discovery. What is more, MacFarlane has staffed his team with a lot of Star Trek veterans behind the camera (and in the case of Penny Johnson-Jerald in front of the camera as well), whereas at least half the people working on Discovery never worked on any Star Trek show and some of them never even seem to have seen a single episode of Star Trek.
Coicidentally my Mom, who watched both the original series and the various 1990s Star Trek series (she even watched Deep Space Nine all the way through, while I bailed, though she bailed on Enterprise halfway through season 3), enjoyed The Orville a lot more than I thought she would, especially since she dislikes sitcoms and any sort of comedy programs. And though she didn’t much care for some of the overly sitcom-like bits, she enjoyed the show overall, because The Orville feels like Star Trek used to be and my Mom likes Star Trek. She also appreciated the fact that episodes are self-contained and that the sets are well lit and that during space battles, it’s easy to see who’s shooting at whom. In fact, she liked The Orville a lot better than The Expanse, which we’re also watching at the moment (she hasn’t seen Discovery yet).
It seems to me as if Seth MacFarlane set out to make a 1990s Star Trek show with more jokes and that’s exactly what The Orville is. It looks and feels like a lost Trek show from the 1990s and that’s probably why I found it so enjoyable. Because to me Star Trek, particularly the various 1990s Star Trek shows, are very much comfort viewing. Back in the 1990s, a German TV station broadcast Star Trek – starting with Next Generation, then Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise and then looping back to the beginning again – every weekday afternoon after Baywatch. I was in university at the time and watched whenever I could. And if I couldn’t watch, I taped it. So I’ve seen pretty much every episode of Next Generation and Voyager (skipped the latter seasons of Deep Space Nine and Enterprise, because I didn’t much care for them), several more than once. Coincidentally, I’ve also seen a surprising amount of Baywatch, because it was on directly before Star Trek (and trust me, Baywatch was really, really bad). At the time, I said, “Other people watch daily soap operas. Star Trek is my soap opera, only that my soap has spaceships and aliens.”
The Orville gives me the same comforting feeling that watching Star Trek used to give me twenty years ago. I can’t really see it every reaching the heights that Next Generation and even Deep Space Nine and Voyager reached on occasion, but then no one could have predicted how good the show would eventually become during The Next Generation‘s first season either. But from what I’ve seen so far, The Orville very much feels like a midlevel episode of Next Generation or Voyager. And that’s perfectly okay. Sometimes, comfort food is what you want.
Star Trek Discovery, on the other hand, is a lot more ambitious. It wants to have a serialised arc, more action than we usually see in Star Trek (and better choreographed, too), more complex characters and a deeper focus on them, more interpersonal conflict. Discovery wants to make a point about morality in wartime (not exactly new, but Americans seem to need regular reassurance that they can engage in wars and still remain true to their ideals, historical evidence to the contrary), it wants to present the Klingon point of view and the mirror universe point of view, it wants to make a point about PTSD and sexual violence and male vulnerability, it wants to colour in the margins of the orginal series, it wants to show how the Federation got from the quasi-dystopia of Discovery to the quasi-utopia of the original series in only ten years and it wants to give its protagonist a redemption arc, too. However, in the process, Discovery bit off much more than it could chew. Most of the many things Discovery wants to do just plain don’t work, though you can occasionally see glimpses of the much better show that Discovery could be, which makes it so very frustrating to watch. Meanwhile, The Orville has much lower ambitions, but largely succeeds in what it’s trying to do.
So which is better, Star Trek Discovery or The Orville? It’s difficult to say, because both shows are so very different in tone and style and scope, even if they are both derived from the same root. And honestly, why can’t we have both? The Orville makes for enjoyable comfort viewing, but probably won’t ever be groundbreaking. Meanwhile, Star Trek Discovery has the potential to be a very good show, once it gets its shit together. Besides, we finally have a several space opera shows on the small screen again (Discovery, The Orville, The Expanse, Dark Matter) after many years of no TV space opera at all and that alone is plenty of reason to celebrate.