There has been a lot of new science fiction/fantasy TV this fall. Some of my favorites from last year, like The Good Place and Stranger Things, are back, and I'll get to those in Part Two. One unique thing about fall 2017 is that we've been graced with not one, but two new space opera shows. It's a good year for space ships on TV, I guess. So without further ado, here are some thoughts on The Orville and Star Trek: Discovery!
The biggest lesson I learned from The Orville is this: If you're Seth MacFarlane, Fox will let you make your Star Trek: The Next Generation fan fiction into a real show. I think The Orville is okay. It’s not a terrible show. It is nice to see a new space opera on TV. Still, I will say that my favorite thing about The Orville is that it inspired me to watch some Star Trek: TNG (The Next Generation).
My problem with The Orville is that it’s trying to be two things – comedy and science fiction – and doesn’t fully succeed at either.
I love science fiction comedy. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is obviously the gold standard, but I also love Galaxy Quest and I’ve been loving a new podcast called Mission to Zyxx. But The Orville is just not that funny. If you like Seth MacFarlane’s comedy, you might like The Orville. Family Guy has always been hit-or-miss for me, but I stopped watching it a few years ago when the “misses” got to be too much for me. There’s a fine line between being funny and being crude and assholish, and MacFarlane for me crosses that line far too often.
The Orville tones down the assholish side, but the humor is still crude and just … kinda dumb. Like the captain knows nothing about the species of his crew? I get that he’s a bit of a buffoon, but being incompetent is not that funny, especially in our current political times.
As science fiction The Orville doesn’t work because it’s trying too hard (and failing) to be Star Trek. Science fiction is supposed to estrange us from our current reality, and for Star Trek, at least in The Original Series and The Next Generation, part of that estrangement was imagining that we could make a better world.
The Orville takes place 400 years in the future but all of their pop culture references are from the late 20th-early 21st centuries. Sure, Star Trek and Babylon 5 had references to our time for the sake of being relatable to the audience, but they mixed them with plenty of stuff that had happened in intervening centuries. By analogy, imagine a contemporary show with only references to stuff that happened between 1570 and 1617: all the characters talk about is Shakespeare, the Mughal Emperor Akbar, and Spain’s conquest of the Americas.
This sort of thing works in Hitchhiker’s Guide and Galaxy Quest, because those take place in (or start in) contemporary times. If it turns out that The Orville is actually a group of gamers in virtual reality in 2017 or whatever, maybe it will make sense. But as a science fiction lover, this aspect of The Orville bothers me so much that it detracts from my enjoyment of the show.
The other problem with The Orville as science fiction is that it’s so derivative that it’s not doing anything new. Some people say that The Orville is better at being Star Trek than the new actual Star Trek show. I kind of see where they’re coming from, but I disagree for two reasons.
First, say what you want about Star Trek: Discovery (and I’ll say something about it in a bit), at least it’s doing something new. The Orville is trying to be Star Trek, and – even worse – failing to do so. I’d rather see a show try something new. Second, The Orville isn’t that good at being Star Trek. Its world building is subpar (they can’t even come up with pop culture references that took place less than 400 years earlier), and it’s not actually all that optimistic. Humans have cool gadgets and seem to have their basic needs met, but we’re still kinda dumb and immature. Maybe this is comforting in a way – accepting human nature and all that, but I prefer the ennobling vision of The Next Generation that humanity might someday, you know, grow up.
Star Trek: Discovery
|Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnam|
First things first. I’m not going to say much about CBS All Access, which is currently the only way for American viewers to see the show. To my fellow Americans: Pay for it. Or don’t. I don’t care. Nobody’s saying you have to watch Discovery. But for the love of Roddenberry, people, let’s stop with the constant indignant stream of “How dare a capitalist corporation make me pay for entertainment?” Let’s talk about stuff that matters, like Star Trek.
Also, I’m not going to dwell on comparing Discovery to The Orville. They’re really different shows – one long form, the other episodic, one mostly serious, the other with lame pop culture references that barely work in 2017 much less in the future.
I really like Discovery. Is it going to be my favorite Star Trek show? I doubt it. It’s hard to imagine Discovery dislodging The Next Generation from its secure place in my heart. Discovery is not the Star Trek show I would’ve made. My dream show would be Star Trek: Bureau of Temporal Affairs. And who wanted another prequel show after Enterprise, anyway?
Discovery may not be the show that Star Trek fans wanted, but it may be the show we need.
Why do I say that? Two reasons: it had to fit into what TV has become in 2017, and it provides a vision of how we might get through tough times.
I enjoyed the first two episodes, although I understand why some Star Trek fans didn’t care for them. They were a bit … flashy with little substance? Over the top? Grimdarker than grimdark? Literally too dark to see?
Whatever the faults of those first two episodes may be, I can forgive them because they were trying to attract new viewers by fitting into the contemporary TV landscape. TV audiences today expect different things than they did in 1966 or 1987. Something with the episodic structure, earnestness, and relatively slow pacing of The Original Series (TOS) or TNG just wouldn’t work in 2017. I think that’s kind of sad personally (especially the grimdark concessions), but as I’ve continued to watch Discovery I think the intention was to hook viewers with an “edgier” show to eventually bring them into the orbit of something that looks more like the Star Trek we all know and love.
This was a risky strategy that alienated a lot of fans right off the bat. In particular, I think there would have been far less griping about Discovery if they had started with Episode 3, which introduces the main cast, and done Episodes 1-2 as flashbacks later. Still, the more I watch the happier I am that I stuck with it. And for all my gripes about the “edginess” and grimy grimdarkness, I have to say it’s refreshing to see Star Trek trying something new even if I don’t always like it.
(A quick note on the characters: Michael Burnam is a human raised by Vulcans, which is super interesting. I’m also really loving Saru, Tilly, and of course everyone’s favorite, Stamets, who also continues Star Trek's celebration of diversity as one half of a same sex couple with his partner, Dr. Culber. Captain Lorca is supposed to be unlikable, which is interesting in itself for a Star Trek show. I hope we get to know more of the crew in future episodes. They look cool.).
The other valuable thing about Discovery, perhaps its greatest redeeming quality, is the theme of getting through bad times. As unsure as I was about another prequel series, much less one just ten years before TOS, what’s great about that is that we know things are going to get better, that the Federation of TOS is going to emerge from all this grimdarkness.
And you can see it. For all her failings, Michael Burnam (who is, improbably, the first “main character” of any Star Trek series) does care deeply about Starfleet ideals even if she doesn’t always know how to best serve those ideals. We have already seen the types of struggles recognizable to Star Trek fans: how to treat sentient life, how to honorably fight a war, how to negotiate one’s duty and personal life, whether following the letter of the rules is always the best way to serve the spirit of the rules, etc.
Captain Lorca (the grimdarkest of them all) fits uneasily into Starfleet ranks, but they need him to fight the war with the Klingons. The Klingons themselves (yeah, they look weird) are interesting, with all their political factions and drive toward purity. I keep expecting to see hats that say Make Qo’nos Great Again.
How will the Federation struggle against the forces of such bigotry? Are the Klingons as bad as they seem? When is it worth getting your hands dirty to preserve important values? And how do you do that without compromising the very values you’re fighting for? Is there room for optimism in pessimistic times?
Star Trek has always been a science fictional mirror of the deep moral questions of its day. And Discovery is, in its own interesting way, following in this tradition.
Stay tuned for Part Two, where I’ll discuss The Good Place and Stranger Things, Season Two!