Recently, two science fiction shows started. One was on CBS, the other on Fox.
On CBS, Star Trek: Discovery premiered. It was the latest installment of a long running science fiction franchise, begun in 1966 on NBC.
On Fox, Orville was a brand new show, with no previous franchise. The creator was previously known for comedy, and there are more than a few comedic elements to the show.
However, it is my goal with this post to show how Orville is spiritually Star Trek, and Discovery is not.
Of course, there has been a lot of controversy over the changes made to canon in Discovery. The Klingons are different, the technology is wrong for the time period, etc. I’m not going to rehash these points; they are irrelevant to my argument.
In Star Trek, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, and Enterprise, science fiction was the setting. Each week, the story had a point to make, sometimes moral, sometimes social commentary. However, with each successive series, the commentary became more and more buried beneath the science fiction plot lines. It was still there, for the most part, but by the time of Enterprise, it was more exploring the morality of science fiction situations, rather than exploring morality using science fiction situations.
The formula was repeated in each series, though. Mostly human crew, a non-human observer/commentator who wrestled with the core concepts of humanity (Spock, Data, Odo, The Doctor/Seven of Nine, T’pol), various other archetypal characters, all thrust into situations which put human morality and ethics to the test. In the original series, everything from racism to automation in warfare was addressed. What-ifs from a Nazi Germany where Hitler died, a Roman Empire with television, and a world where the British won the Revolution were covered. How humans dealt with the completely alien, death, power, and even Plato’s Cave were subjects.
The Next Generation covered similar issues, but brought into the 80s and 90s. Race relations, the end of the cold war, the results of the sexual revolution, and the much more dominant role of the US on the world stage were discussed. Even religion, something that had been mostly avoided in the original series, could finally be addressed by the atheist Roddenberry.
Deep Space Nine mixed things up a bit by having the crew stationed at the edge of the Federation, near world that had been ravaged by occupation and war for a half century. A new resource that could repair the deeply damaged planet was discovered, but it had ties to the religion of the people of the planet. How would humans deal with all of these wrinkles? The first Star Trek series to rely more on the serial format, rather than wholly episodic, the tapestry of the show changed, and not everything was resolved at the end of every week’s episode.
Voyager pulled back to the more episodic, but with a serial backstory. Some fans didn’t identify with some of the characters, and the series got mixed reviews. Voyager struggled with its own identity, bringing on a new character and changing the existing characters to try and bolster viewership. However, like Bill Clinton with his admission about marijuana, the character design pretty much defeated itself; it tried pot (there go the conservatives) but didn’t inhale (there go the liberals). Seven of Nine was a very sexy woman, but with the social graces of a Borg drone and interpersonal skills of a six year old child. On top of completely not getting the majority of trekkies (No, we aren’t heavily pimpled freaks living in our parent’s basements who have no idea what women are), her role as observer of humanity in the archetype was hamstrung by her opinions based on having been a Borg.
Enterprise returned to the mostly episodic, with occasional bouts of serial, but with great acting and writing (with a couple of exceptions). Like the original series, I feel it was killed before its time.
Star Trek: Discovery seems to have abandoned this formula altogether. Completely serial no moral or social commentary, the characters are hard to identify with and all make questionable decisions. There is no “Greek Chorus” character at all, unless you count Saru. The problem with him is that he is not an dispassionate observer such as Spock, Data, Seven, or T’pol, or even one with severely narrow and limited moral drives, such as Odo (justice driven), The Doctor (driven by a combination of programmed ego and a desire to help). Instead, Saru is full of passion, and fear. He literally has fronds that show off his fear state. He is no observer; he is the canary in the mineshaft.
Discovery also falls victim to the Star Wars prequel curse; the desire to over-explain things that could have just remained “technobabble”. We didn’t need to have the science of the spore drive rammed down our throats. It did nothing for the plot. It did, however, take up screen time. Did we need to know anything more about the original warp drive other than it used antimatter and dilithium crystals? Of course not. It didn’t matter, It could have been exotic matter and triberillium-oxide. It could have been tzatziki sauce and iron filings (Well, okay, maybe not that).
The important part of Star Trek was not the science fiction, it was our ability to safely examine difficult subjects because they were couched in science fiction.
In Discovery, the important part is science fiction. And special effects. Simply put, it does not have the soul of Star Trek, only the window dressing.
Some might argue that Orville is merely a sitcom set in space, but it is a lot more than that. Yes, there are many comedic moments, but they, like the science fiction setting, are secondary to the main aspect of Orville, and that is the social commentary.
Every episode I have seen so far has addressed some issue that we, as the American people, are currently facing. We’ve seen same gender relationships morph into conversations about genital mutilation and sexism. The attempt to try to make peace with a deeply religious enemy turned into a examination of how our morality could be seen as immoral to others. There has even been a poke at the idea of a pure democracy and what that actually means.
These are all subjects the original Star Trek would have addressed had it premiered in 2017 instead if 1966.
This is no surprise. Seth MacFarlane is no stranger to Star Trek. He was in two episodes of Enterprise, “The Forgotten” and “Affliction.” Quite a few actors from Star Trek have made “appearances” in MacFarlane’s other shows.
In 2011, MacFarlane admitted he would be interested in rebooting Star Trek in the same vein as The Next Generation. I firmly believe Orville is his attempt at doing just that. Considering that one of the producers is Brannon Braga. and how many other Star Trek alums have been involved in the production, it is not hard to make the comparison.