Star Trek: Discovery is currently on its second season. It’s a show that’s shown on CBS All-Access and, more importantly, has the official backing of Paramount, the company that has the rights to everything Star Trek. This means it has access to everything in the franchises history. This includes the names of the ships, the brands and even the characters. CBS and Paramount are doubling down for Season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery as they now feature two characters from the Original Series, Captain Pike and, more importantly, Spock.
On the other side of the universe, we have The Orville. Developed by Fox and Seth MacFarlane, the man mostly known for the crass animated hits Family Guy and American Dad. When The Orville was being previewed, they made it seem like it was going to be a 1-hour comedy show that’s going to make fun of science fiction and the Star Trek shows. It looked like The Orville was going to be another Seth MacFarlane comedy show but just set aboard a starship where the captain’s second-in-command just so happens to be his ex-wife. Basically, it looked like The Orville was just a spoof on Star Trek.
Yet, here we are two seasons later and the general consensus is that The Orville is a much better Star Trek show than Discovery. How is this possible? How is The Orville, which is supposed to be a knock-off of the original product, getting the approval of so many die-hard Star Trek fans, while Discovery, the official show based on the franchise, is getting the thumbs down from Trekkies?
To answer this question, we have to look at what The Orville is doing right to engage the Star Trek community and what Discovery is doing to alienate them.
First, let’s go look at what Star Trek is to a lot of fans. To the casual viewer, the shows are going to be your typical sci-fi fare. Humans exploring the vastness of space, encountering aliens, giant space battles and lasers. Yes, Star Trek has those and this is why a lot of people outside of Star Trek fandom can’t understand why there are so many nerds and geeks all over the world enamored by the franchise. Like a surface scan of a planet, they don’t see the stuff that underneath all of that. Because Star Trek is a little bit more than just space battles and sci-fi geekery (although it has those, too).
Star Trek eschews the typical depiction of what we see in most science-fiction programs. Most sci-fi media proclaim that the future is bleak and the world will descend in chaos via different reasons. Cultural wars. Declining natural resources. Destructive climate change. You name it, it’s going to destroy the world in the future. To a lot of people nowadays, it’s a future that they themselves can envision since that’s what the world looks like right now!
Star Trek is and always has been different. Well, sort of. In the actual lore, we did go through the Eugenics Wars and World War III before we actually garnered global peace. But even though all that did happen, the Earth did start to thrive and actual peace was gained. All races lived together in harmony. Humanity managed to push all our cultural differences to the side and we thrived. We developed technology to fly at faster than light speeds throughout the galaxy and even met new sentient beings. It’s much different than most sci-fi shows in that regard.
Star Trek also is much more, shall we say, “thoughtful” than most sci-fi programs and movies. All the Star Trek shows have episodes that deal with current day issues and asks if we can do better right now. You know all the issues that I talked about that will spell doom for the planet? Well, those problems are also tackled in some Star Trek episodes since the ’60s! One of the very first episodes of The Original Series that I saw was Let That Be Your Last Battlefield. I was really young and I was surprised at the twist that, just because one side of their face had a different color, the other person thought he was the superior being! Now that I’m older, seeing the half-blackface can seem a little heavy handed but the message wasn’t lost on my younger self.
Star Trek always had their ways of dealing with these dark issues about the human condition but they also told really good stories about life as well. Not all problems were solved by brute force but, a lot of times, through diplomacy and just out-thinking your foe. This was what drew me to Star Trek in the first place. It was smart and it allowed for smart people to be the heroes.
So, how does this translate to what’s happening with The Orville and Star Trek: Discovery? Simply put, The Orville does a much better job at trying to emulate the feel of Star Trek while Discovery seemingly tries to deviate from it.
You can definitely tell that Seth MacFarlane is a huge Star Trek fan, specifically The Next Generation, as The Orville takes a lot of cues from that series. The sets look remarkably like the designs in The Next Generation. The uniforms also look rather similar. Even the theme song gets the beats right. But, more importantly, The Orville understands what Star Trek is all about.
Although The Orville only has 13 episodes per seasons, which is kind of small when compared to other Star Trek shows in the past, they have used these episodes to delve into complex matters. There have been episodes that tackles sexism, racism and, in Majority Rule (one of my favorite episodes, by the way), even the proliferation of social media and how it controls our lives.
On the other hand, let’s go look at the “official” Star Trek show: Discovery. Discovery doesn’t seem all that concerned about trying to be like Star Trek. The tone is much darker than the rest of the franchise, both literally and figuratively! The sets are definitely much more dimly lit as most of the lighting comes from the props, such as the computer monitors. The stories are much more gritty and, in general, there’s much less thought in trying diplomacy in order to straighten out differences. The first two episodes actually depict the start of the Klingon War! To be fair, Discovery is supposed to be set before the ceasefire between the Klingons but I don’t think fans were expecting a rather gruesome bloodbath to start off the new series. How very un-Star-Trek like!
This disparate tone has generally made longtime Star Trek fans raise a Spock-like eyebrow as it is very curious as to why they’re taking this route. It’s not that it’s bad, mind you; It just doesn’t come off as Star Trek. It may seem strange to say but this may be all intentional on both Paramount and CBS’ part.
Despite Star Trek being a massive franchise and nerds and geeks all around the world loving it, it’s kind of always been the butt of jokes as this was the first really nerdy show on TV. Maybe “nerdy” isn’t the right word. “Insightful” may be more appropriate. While there have been sci-fi shows that also deal with societal problems before, they were usually anthology shows like Twilight Zone. But, unlike Twilight Zone, Star Trek was never really taken all that seriously because of the focus on space travel and the like. Star Trek had the misnomer of nerds liking the show and, despite being smarter than most shows, thought to be kids stuff. So, while Star Trek was a well-known brand, it was known for all the wrong reasons.
Then the Star Trek reboot films happened. It breathed new life to the franchise and brought in new fans. To the hardcore fanbase, this was a double-edged sword. Sure, the new movies drew in a lot of mainstream attention and legitimized Star Trek to a degree. But, at the same time, a lot of these new fans couldn’t really wrap their head around “classic Star Trek. Where were the giant action setpieces? What’s with all the talking about exploration? These new fans were caught off-guard because the new movies don’t really depict what happens in a typical Star Trek episode.
This is where Star Trek: Discovery comes in. Discovery follows the same tone of the reboot films. There’s a lot more action and the grimmer tone fits in nicely with the movies. Discovery also has a much higher budget than any of the other Star Trek series that have come before it and you can clearly see that in the special effects, the sets and the makeup. It does feel more ambitious but, in general, lacks what made Star Trek the franchise it is. It’s developed to appeal to the newer fanbase who grew up with the films, not for the “oldies” who grew up watching the shows.
There’s also the real problem with the entire relationship with Paramount and CBS. There’s a lot riding on Star Trek on both sides but both companies are looking at different revenue streams. In a nutshell, CBS wants the “new” Star Trek separate from the “classic” ones while Paramount are banking on their alternate take to bring in massive numbers. There’s a lot to digest here but go watch Midnight’s Edge‘s video explaining how the new series isn’t part of the original timeline below.
With that in mind, it’s much easier to see why The Orville is besting Star Trek: Discovery in the minds of the diehard Star Trek fan community. Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville, while not officially a Star Trek property, follows the tone and the feel of the original franchise and all of that isn’t a coincidence. It’s a love letter to the franchise and it’s being produced by some of the people who love the show. It’s actually taking a huge risk by trying to emulate what the original Star Trek shows did. But then again, the original Star Trek was a huge risk in television programming, wasn’t it?
Star Trek: Discovery is the other end of the spectrum. While it is officially recognized as the “official” Star Trek for this generation, it’s not trying to appeal to the long-lived fanbase it’s cultivated over the years. It’s trying to appeal to the fans who liked the new movies as well as trying to be different enough to avoid any conflicts of interest between CBS and Paramount. At the same time, it’s also playing it safe by working with what has more mainstream appeal.
Does this mean that Star Trek: Discovery is a bad show? I wouldn’t go that far. In my opinion, it’s an okay show but it’s a bad Star Trek. The Orville comes off as a much better show because, well, I like Star Trek! And since The Orville is out-Star-Trekking Discovery, I’ll say it’s the better show right now.
Which do you like better? The Orville or Star Trek: Discovery? Let me know in the comments section below!