We have them both now.
‘Star Trek: Discovery’ and ‘The Orville’ are now both released, and available for our collective consumption and review.
In case it hasn’t been made clear through the various musings on the Discord Server, I’ve been a Star Trek fan for as long as I can remember. New episodes of The Next Generation was what I remember seeing the most growing, followed closely by reruns The Original Series. While I was too young to catch on to all the morality plays that were being thrown at me, Star Trek had very much influenced my life and has shaped large chunks of who I am today. As I grew older, the messages and questions that episodes would raise and put to the viewer became more apparent, deepening my fondness for a franchise that I already held dear.
Course that feels like forever ago now, given the more contemporary versions of Star Trek we’ve received over the past eight years.
“Hey look, another guy that’s gonna bash on JJ-Trek.” – the internet
Well, I mean. That wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.
It’s okay, I know you really just want to do Star Wars
Really my dissatisfaction about the more modern versions of Star Trek we’ve received stems from Enterprise (2001), which ran for four seasons. Enterprise was a pretty mixed bag for me. It was great to see a period of time before the Federation existed, where humans were very much just entering the galactic stage. What I wasn’t a huge fan of were some of the inconsistencies that began to spring up through the series that seemed to contradict established Star Trek canon. I personally was also not all that enthused with the Temporal Cold War arc, feeling that it diminished the importance of the crew of the Enterprise in the face of what was a much larger conflict that spanned time itself. Enterprise was cancelled after it’s fourth season, which was unfortunate as I thought Enterprise really started to find it’s feet in the fourth season.
With Enterprise’s cancellation, Star Trek was officially off the air. It hadn’t been that way since before 1987, before the premier of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Prior to that we had The Original Series in the 60’s, followed by The Animated Series in the 70’s. The movies of course started with the premiere of Star Trek The Motion Picture in 1979, with a film coming out every few years from then on until 2002 with Star Trek: Nemesis. It wouldn’t be until 2009 that we would get Star Trek again with J.J. Abrams’ reboot.
At least I think it’s a reboot? It’s hard to tell given the explanation from the marketing side, and then a conversation from the movie itself. There was a short conversation about how the movie was it’s own timeline due to events that happened in the Prime Universe (where all the previous shows and movies live), causing the timeline to split.
The case against JJ-Trek, or the Kelvin Timeline, has been written about extensively by others already, and there’s little I could probably add to that. All I would like to do is add, with all the aesthetic and lore complaints aside, the newer movies have not been able to win me over since they haven’t done much to make me feel invested in it’s universe.
I don’t know who any of you are…
I don’t know these characters. I’m not familiar with this Kirk, this Spock, this McCoy. This Uhura, Sulu, Chekov, or Scotty. It’s as if the J.J. movies didn’t actually want to put in the time and effort to make these characters their own in the new timeline, instead relying on the audience’s familiarity of those characters from previous works that are no longer valid since those events did not occur for these characters.
What makes the original crew work for movies one through six was that we had a host of adventures and backstory that had been laid before us that made the movies work the way they did. We didn’t have to explain Kirk, Spock, McCoy, or any of the other crew since we already knew them. There were of course moments of growth for these characters in the movies, but that growth still relied on very developed characters over the course of twenty-five years. Same goes for the movies featuring the cast of The Next Generation.
J.J. Abrams’ movies don’t feature that, instead pushing the “Hero’s Journey” narrative as a sloppy substitute for the development we had for the original run.
So, who do you work with again?
Now, enter Star Trek: Discovery. Specifically, Commander Michael Burnham. First Officer of the USS Shenzhou.
Raised by Sarek, who is also Spock’s father, after what appears to be an attack by Klingons that left Michael orphaned. At least, I’m pretty sure it’s the same Vulcan. There hasn’t been any mention of Spock so far in the first two episodes. She undergoes the same sort of educational regimen that Vulcan children undergo, eventually ending up as a Starfleet Officer under Captain Michelle Yeoh. Which I specifically say Michelle Yeoh, who is the actor that plays the Captain of the USS Shenzhou, as I don’t remember what the name of the character is. But I do remember her specifically from the James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies. After looking it up, the Captain’s name is Phillipa Georgiou.
Though this isn’t super important, who the Captain is since she dies later due to fighting a skilled Klingon warrior in episode two. What is important is that the Captain is important to Michael, as it’s supposed to be a character development point for her.
Which is where I internally groaned, seeing the obvious points for the hero’s journey once more taking shape. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been taken aback by this as much as I was, since the show was stated as being about Michael Burnham and her arc as a character. Which to the credit of Sonequa Martin-Green’s acting, Michael is a good character that I will likely care about.
But that’s really it. There’s nothing about Michael Burnham, or the rest of the show in the first two episodes that makes me care about this as a Star Trek show. Very few things called out to me as Star Trek. The anachronistic Starfleet insignias, the Type 2 phasers that were used, and the very loosely Trek-based Starfleet ship silhouettes were all that I could really identify as “Star Trek.” While a nerd like me does want to have all the little things like that correct, the look is meaningless without the soul to put into it. And we haven’t even gotten to the actual ship yet, the Discovery.
I see what you’re doing, and I like it.
Let’s talk about my new favorite Star Trek show, The Orville.
The forms within Seth MacFarlane’s new show are easily recognizable as being pulled from Star Trek. The Union can be identified as the United Federation of Planets, uniforms are color coded to departments, the ‘Quantum Drive’ is a ‘Warp Drive’, ranks are displayed in a similar manner on uniforms, and the bridge is even laid out in a way that would easily be something found on a Federation Starship.
But it only works because the script is giving attention to the crew, and not just one character. By the end of the first episode, I could tell you each of the main characters’ names and what function they carry out on the ship. How that stuff sticks varies from character to character. Alara for instance is super strong due to coming from a planet that has higher gravity than the average found on planets around the galaxy. This is demonstrated through her physical capabilities of breaking down heavy doors and flinging heavy equipment at a would be hostage taker. Bortus is memorable due to his flat demeanor that tells me he likely won’t understand jokes, and that becomes clear very early that he’s not human through this personality display and not just the alien makeup he wears. Malloy is a hotshot pilot, but lacks discipline. And so on.
These aren’t groundbreaking archetypes. What is important about them is that we’re able to identify them immediately because of actions the characters take within the show. And not in a throw away manner either, but in a way that sows the fabric of the show together. It’s about these characters as a group, not just one or two of them.
While the particular idiosyncracies of the characters found on The Orville don’t have direct comparisons to those found in Star Trek, as I can’t recall a moment where a character from Star Trek drew a penis on stuff, it’s still a group of people that are working together to overcome situations put before them. And not just black and white situations either, as episodes two and three both bring forth moral issues of today that usually result in heated debate between opposing viewpoints.
Star Trek: Discovery’s first two episodes might be trying to bring something up with regards to the Klingons and their renewed Space-Jihad, it isn’t a focal point for the series so far to delve into the issue. It might not be attempting to place a moral quandary in front of the viewer, and I will admit that I’m reaching by even mentioning the Klingons and their seemingly religious motivations in their actions.
Here’s to the finest crew in not-Starfleet!
Which that’s the point. ‘The Orville’ so far has in three episodes managed to be more like the Star Trek of years past than a new, actual Star Trek show. Admittedly you would not get the impression that ‘The Orville’ was going to be getting involved in that kind of storytelling, presenting much more like a sitcom in space in the teasers. If anything, I’d describe ‘The Orville’ as a sci-fi show that wants to present those moral issues to you, while viewing it through a lens with characters that are updated versions of what you would find on a Star Trek show. The cultural background for these characters is more readily relatable for an audience of today than that found in Star Trek. How the talk, how they look, and how they observe is easy to pick out and go “Hey, I act/talk like that.”, which is a breath of fresh air for most viewers for this kind of a show. It certainly is for me.
Both of these shows are in their infancy and of course have kinks to work out, but Orville I think has the upper hand. It’s got a formula that’s recognizable as taking it’s cues from Star Trek of twenty-five years ago. As for Discovery, it may end up being a great sci-fi tale about Michael’s journey, but there’ll be little about it that will be Star Trek other than occasional costume and set items.
And I don’t care what anyone says. Those are aliens pretending to be Klingons in Star Trek: Discovery.