CBS’ Star Trek: Discovery and FOX’s The Orville are two wildly different, yet equally valid, takes on Star Trek. Despite only one of them being a canonical Trek show, both series deliver a unique perspective on the franchise, sure to appease different kinds of Star Trek fans. Those that yearn for Roddenberry’s nuanced, yet optimistic vision for the future (and thus, the future of storytelling) are likely to prefer Discovery, while The Orville is sure to satisfy fans who prefer a level of familiarity and comfort in their Trek entertainment, delivering digestible and very tight case-of-the-week installments that pack a sci-fi punch.
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But while each show has something for a kind of Trek fan, we wanted to look at which show does Star Trek better overall? Well, the easy answer is, of course, Discovery. But then, there’s the complicated answer.
Discovery is the true evolution of the franchise — what it’s meant to be in 2017 — while The Orville is what you remember about Trek on a more superficial level. This isn’t to say The Orville is a worse show; it’s just that it sets out to do something entirely different, focusing on comedy and not pushing sci-fi boundaries as Star Trek was intended to do per Gene Roddenberry’s vision.
The Orville succeeds in keeping the classic Trek TV format intact. The original Star Trek was renowned for its successfully tight, done-in-one, five-arc storytelling, and The Orville does a similar thing, offering easy-to-digest one-off episodes that don’t rely too heavily on what came before. In this regard, it’s very similar to classic Star Trek. It also follows a Trek tradition of relatively simplistic cinematography.
On the other hand, Discovery shakes up the visual aesthetic of Trek, borrowing a bit from J.J. Abrams’ lens flare style, but injecting a more impressively cinematic scope. Where The Orville spends its time developing a large cast of characters (in the tradition of Trek spinoffs like The Next Generation), Discovery has yet to bother with digging deeper into its secondary characters, instead choosing to focus its time (mostly) on Sonequa Martin-Green’s Michael Burnham. Discovery spins our notion of a Starfleet crew — and the norms of introducing them — on its head.
Where The Orville departs from Roddenberry’s vision is its characterization. The lead character played by Seth MacFarlane is reeling from his divorce after having caught his ex-wife cheating on him. Of course, MacFarlane is later forced to command a ship alongside that very ex-wife. This kind of conflict would be deemed too petty for Roddenberry; the revered TV creator would see these futuristic scientists as far too advanced to be absorbed in such “insignificant” interpersonal issues. While MacFarlane looks like a Star Trek captain, he’s not exactly written like one.
Meanwhile, Star Trek: Discovery handles conflict in a much more mature way. When Burnham launches the mutiny, it happens because of an intellectual line of thought (justified by her established logical background on Vulcan, mixed with her human, emotional intuition). This nuanced action is definitely more in line with what Roddenberry had in mind for conflict in the distant future. At least, it’s an evolution of the conflict Roddenberry established in his original Star Trek. The Orville is a step backwards. However, it’s a comedy; it’s allowed to be dumb.
Where The Orville’s conflicts are mostly interpersonal and only touch on moral complexities, Discovery pushes the boundaries of Star Trek storytelling way further, executing a modern, allegorical take on modern American isolationism and white nationalism through the lens of the Klingons. Discussed at length by CBR’s Kevin Melrose, the Klingons are representative of the modern “Make America Great Again!” sentiment that has festered a divisive climate in the United States. Discovery’s clever, allegorical handling of this subject matter is an advancement of Roddenberry’s science-fiction storytelling, done to great effect. The Orville rehashes or hits the same notes as classic Trek, while Discovery takes it to a whole new level.
Where The Orville chooses to primarily center its story on a straight white male, Discovery has women of color and LGBT characters among its ranks. As The Orville concerns itself with a moderately bickering crew, Discovery has one of its main characters shoot their captain and throw a goddamn mutiny. The Orville is a familiar, safe take on Star Trek that — regardless of whether you find it funny or not — serves up age-old tropes that are of course welcome back on the small-screen, but do little to advance Roddenberry’s vision for science-fiction. Discovery is truly Roddenberry’s Star Trek realized in 2017; The Orville is a blast from the past. They’re both fun, but you make take more value from one over the other. It just depends what you prefer from Trek.
The series is currently streaming on CBS All Access in the United States, Crave TV in Canada, and Netflix internationally; it kicked off on September 24, and will run until November 5 before taking a short break until airing its second half in January 2018.
The Orville is set 300 years in the future and follows the exploits of the of the U.S.S. Orville and it’s motley crew, led by the recently-divorced Ed (MacFarlane) who is taking command of a ship for the very first time. Joining MacFarlane’s captain are his ex-wife, Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki from Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), his best friend (Scott Grimes), an alien from a single-sex species (Peter Macon), and a gelatinous creature voiced by comedian Norm Macdonald, among others.