Blade Runner’s Tyrell Corporation (in the 1982 original) had an interesting slogan for its humanoid ‘replicants’; “More human than human.” In a way, Fox’s Star-Trek-by-any-other-name TV series “The Orville” is the Tyrell answer to Star Trek’s latest (and arguably least familiar feeling) incarnation, “Discovery.”
It’s been over 12 years since the previous Trek TV series “Enterprise” was cancelled, and aside from three hit-and-miss Bad Robot-produced movies (loved the first and third, hated the second), it’s been something of a drought in the Trek landscape.
Then producer Bryan Fuller (Voyager, Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies, American Gods) announced last year that Trek was coming back to TV… sort of; turns out it was coming back as a streaming series for CBS-All Access’ new streaming service (a fledgling Netflix-hopeful, but with far less available content at this point). Fans were divided, and the debate continues to this day. While CBS-AA has had record new subscribers for Discovery’s debut, it also alienated some older fans to refused to pay for what had been previously offered via the airwaves for free. For me, it was kind of a non-issue; while I admit that I don’t really watch CBS-AA very much (especially with Discovery on mid-season break) I also am not terribly put out paying for several new episodes of feature-film quality Trek a month for the price of a single bargain matinee movie ticket (episodes that I can watch on any device in my house; even my phone). I get the fan rage, even if I don’t necessarily share it. But these productions cost serious money (DSC costs about $8-8.5 million an episode), so I see it no differently than I did when I paid $13 to see “Star Trek Into Darkness” (one of my least favorite Trek movies ever) at my local multiplex (for one showing at one time…).
But I digress…
As Star Trek Discovery launched on Sept. 24th of this year, I found it to be promising, but difficult to gauge as a whole because of its serialized format; it’s like judging an entire book by one chapter. The new series has put both gravity boots into the preferred modern television storytelling format by largely eschewing standalone episodes (a trademark of older Star Trek) and embracing the serialized, easier-to-binge-watch model of most modern TV shows. With over 700 hours of TV episodes and 13 movies in the can, Star Trek really had no choice but to try something a little different when it finally returned…
… or did it?
Two weeks before Discovery’s debut, a new Seth McFarlane (Family Guy, American Dad, COSMOS) produced space opera called “The Orville” beat Discovery to the punch. Orville was, in the pre-release publicity, largely promoted as a full-on comedy. My initial thoughts were that it was going to be a weekly “Galaxy Quest”-style parody of Star Trek, and being a huge fan of the 1999 Dean Parisot Star Trek spoof movie, I was really looking forward to it. Then I saw the premiere of “The Orville”, and I had a lot of issues with it. The comedy didn’t seem as sophisticated or even as funny as I might’ve hoped. Many of the one-liners seemed tacked on and fell flat upon delivery. That said, the series that followed has been much improved; in fact, I consider myself a fan of the show now, despite a few nagging, residual issues.
Both series are now out there, and to me they feel like two different interpretations of the same basic series’ idea; a uniformed starship crew on a mission to explore space and carry the flag of the Federation/Planetary Union with a diverse crew of humans and aliens working together in common cause.
Where do they diverge?
Discovery is a Trek prequel (set 10 years prior to the original series) that is embracing darkness, moral ambiguity and serialized storytelling. Think Star Trek’s basic setting, but with a touch of “The Expanse” (2015-present) and “Battlestar Galactica” (2003-2009). The first season (so far) has focused on a war between the Federation and the Klingons, which the show’s central character (Sonequa Martin-Green’s Michael Burnham) may have unwittingly started. She is now onboard the titular ship, seeking redemption by aiding the Discovery crew and slowly becoming one of the somewhat dysfunctional family. There is some Star Trek feeling, but it’s in little bits sprinkled throughout the series. This is arguably a more mature Star Trek, and lacks some of the joy of the previous shows.
In contrast, Orville is keeping it very light, while still managing to tell some truly compelling, solid (albeit 1990s-styled) science fiction stories, along with hit-and-miss jokes. It’s essentially Star Trek: The Next Generation 2.0, telling stories that one would imagine a new Star Trek incarnation should be telling in 2017. Some of the episodes so far would be great additions to Star Trek canon…if only they could legally be called ‘Star Trek.’
So…how do they stack up?
Here’s my own Discovery/Orville Comparison:
* Production values:
Disco (I’m lazy, okay?) sports excellent production values. Each episode looks like a feature film, and the results are just dazzling. Gorgeous, detailed sets, uniforms that make the crew look like superheroes and makeup designs that make actor Doug Jones (“Saru”) and its Klingon characters truly seem alien.
^ Every set, prop and costume of this lavishly-made series is meticulously crafted and worthy of closer examination (which I’ve been lucky enough to do twice this year; at Comic Con San Diego and at the annual Star Trek convention in Las Vegas).
Orville’s sets look more like sets, though that is largely by design, I suspect. As are the Galaxy Quest-style uniforms. It’s all designed to evoke the brightly lit, optimistic feel of 1980s/1990s science fiction shows, and on that count, it succeeds brilliantly. The sets are handsomely made, if a bit (deliberately) simplistic. Ironic that Orville’s look is much more a visual homage to Star Trek than Discovery itself.
Personal preference: Discovery.
Each episode of Disco is pure eye-candy. Feature-film quality. Orville looks just fine, but it’s not exactly groundbreaking stuff.
Disco’s characters are a work in progress; while Martin-Green’s convicted mutineer Michael Burnham was supposed to be the central character, a number of the series’ other characters have been overtaking her of late, in both fan popularity and overall appeal. Mary Wiseman’s Cadet Tilly is a shy, nerdy college Starfleet coed on her first space mission and is instantly relatable (and likable). Veteran creature-makeup actor Doug Jones’ Saru is a beautifully realized alien with a compelling backstory (his race is natural prey to his planet’s more dominant species). Spore-drive engineer Lt. Hugh Stamets (Anthony Rapp) is the first openly gay character in Trek (about time!), along with his partner, Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz). Stamets began with something of a Sheldon Cooper-esque intellectual snobbery until he is ‘transformed’ by his own creation (he’s one of my favorites as well). Disco’s captain, Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) is unlike ANY captain in all of Star Trek history; more Dallas’ J.R. Ewing than James T. Kirk, and he brings much edginess and excitement to the show; much of that is from simply trying to figure out he’s capable of doing next. There is also a recently acquired security chief Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif) who may/may-not be a Klingon agent/sympathizer, having (allegedly) been a POW aboard a Klingon vessel for months. And, of course, there are Klingons themselves; namely a former spy/interrogator and now possible defector (?) named L’Rell (Mary Chieffo) and her brutal warlord commander Kol (Kenneth Mitchell). Unlike other Trek characters, Disco’s characters are being revealed slowly, rather than arriving fully formed right out of the box. They’re also a lot more ‘gray’ than previous Trek characters as well (with the possible exception of the crew of Deep Space Nine). Perhaps Disco’s cadre of characters are not to everyone’s liking, but I’m enjoying the slow reveal.
Orville’s characters are a mix of new characters with comedic variations of previously-seen Trek archetypes; and they’re all a bit more screwed up. Captain Ed Mercer (Seth McFarlane) and first officer Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki) are a recently divorced couple who seem to be on the verge of reconciliation. Alien bridge officer Bortus (brilliantly played in perfect deadpan by Peter Macon) is a Worf-like alien who is also the funniest character on the show; largely because he is the only one who isn’t straining at it. He lets much of the humor come from within the character (he is also in a same-sex marriage, once again beating Star Trek to the punch). Android science officer Isaac (Mark Jackson) is a more literal Data-clone who comes from a race of intelligent machines and has trouble relating to his organic shipmates. Security chief Alara Kitan (Halston Sage) is a freakishly strong alien waif from a planet with heavier gravity (not too unlike TNG’s Tasha Yar, but minus that character’s confidence). Ship’s doctor Clair Finn (DS9 veteran Penny Johnson-Jerald) is a single mom who is clearly a nod to single mom starship doc Beverly Crusher, but with a bit more 21st century sass. There is a gelatinous engineer named Yaphit (voiced by comedian Norm McDonald), who is a snarky blob who harbors a bit of a crush on the doctor. There is also helm officer Lt. Malloy (Scott Grimes) who seems to be little more than a bad one-liner delivery machine, and former navigator-now-chief-engineer Lt. John LaMarr (J. Lee), who was recently outed as a closet genius and was promoted to chief engineer (much like TNG’s Geordi LaForge).
Personal preference: Tie.
Both Disco’s morally ambiguous crew and Orville’s merry band of TNG-archetypes are becoming more and more compelling every week. Disco’s crew is edgy and increasingly compelling (esp Tilly, Lorca and Stamets), while Orville’s crew fits an old Trekkie’s sensibilities like a pair of worn bedroom slippers. Disco’s crew offer something new, while Orville’s offers something comfortingly familiar. Though I wouldn’t mind if Orville’s Lt. Malloy finds himself on the business end of an airlock soon…
* Series sum total so far:
Disco’s best so far:
While the pilot (“Vulcan Hello”) was an interesting kickoff, it was too incomplete to really stand on its own (we don’t even see the titular ship or most of its characters till the third episode).
Disco’s worst so far:
Orvilles Best so far:
Orville’s Worst so far:
So, while Discovery sees Star Trek trying to reinvent itself as newer, edgier television (or is it stream-o-vision?), Fox network’s “The Orville” (yes, on regular old network television) seems to be perfectly content telling very familiar feeling (and even looking) Star Trek-style stories with very Star Trek-ian characters. Both are variations on a theme, with one of them pushing boundaries within its format while the other is perfectly content to tell new stories within a familiar framework.
Do we, the audience, have to choose? Of course not.
Since Discovery is on a streaming service, it’s not really competing for the same network shares as Fox’s Orville. While I offer them here for comparison and contrast, I am not really trying to quantify one as ‘better’ than the other. I’m merely highlighting/analyzing their differences.
^ It’s a bit like the contrast between the two current ‘android revolt’ scifi shows, AMC’s “Humans” and HBO’s “Westworld”; Humans offers more direct, emotional storytelling with its AI revolution taking place in a seemingly modern-day suburban UK, while Westworld is more esoteric and artsy, taking place in a surreal, futuristic amusement park (whilst time-jumping through several eras simultaneously). Personally I refuse to pick only one; and I’m glad that I live in a time where I enjoy both.
When I want to see Trek pushing its own storytelling boundaries? There’s Star Trek Discovery. When I want to enjoy something a bit more familiar? There’s The Orville.
As the old Almond Joy/Mounds candy ads used to say, “Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t.”
* Title image for this blog courtesy of my talented friend, Gaz Williams!