As The Orville and Star Trek: Discovery close season two, it’s clear that the The Orville has the spirit of Star Trek.
The story of how The Orville, (created by Seth McFarlane), inherited the spirit of Star Trek begins some time ago…
Summer 1992: Starlog magazine is covering two SciFi TV shows which are in final production and nearing release. Both shows are set on a space station on the frontier of space. Both stations would serve as a nexus for myriad alien races to come together and find a way to co-exist. Both stations would eventually find themselves on the front lines of a galactic war. One station bears the designation 9, the other 5. Both shows would be endlessly compared and contrasted by their respective, adoring fans. One is Star Trek, the other is not.
September 2017: Two shows have just premiered. Both shows are set on a starship. Both ships will have a multi racial crew and will serve a larger organization made of many races and planets which have come together in peace to explore the galaxy.
One is Star Trek, the other is not.
Both sets of shows have been and continued to be compared and spoken of in the same breath. SciFi fans are a patient bunch, and every now and then our cup runneth over. It happened then and it’s happening now.
All Our Yesterdays
There’s one important difference: In the 1990’s there was plenty of Star Trek. The early 90’s saw the rise of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the conclusion of the cinematic adventures of the Original Series crew. If you didn’t like DS9 OR B5, there was always somewhere else to turn. By end of the millennium, Star Trek was everywhere – two concurrent series, a modestly successful movie franchise carried on by the Next Gen cast and a new series yet to be announced. Not every episode or movie was a gem, but there was so much content, and Star Trek was alive and well.
The landscape of 2017 was very different. Star Trek had been last seen on TV in 2005. During the 12-year dry spell that followed, three Star Trek movies set in what became known as the Kelvin timeline had come and gone and while those movies were Star Trek in name, they split the fan base as to how truly “Trek” they were. Many felt they went against the spirit of Star Trek and strayed a battle bridge too far from Gene Roddenberry’s vision.
Where would Trek fans turn?
The Undiscovered Country
The answer came in Star Trek: Discovery. At last, Star Trek was returning to its true home – television.
It would be on CBS, but a CBS you had to pay extra to watch.
Ok…But that’s another story!
It would be about a war with the Klingons and a mushroom drive.
Never mind! What was important was Star Trek was back and Trek fans would be getting weekly episodes just like in the old days.
Oh yeah, there’s this other show by Seth MacFarlane that looks like Star Trek, but it’s a comedy. Star Trek with farts?
Strange, but ok. We’ll check that out, too. It won’t cost extra to watch and its Sci-Fi so why not?
In September 2017 these two shows set course for adventure, but one ended up more like Star Trek than the other.
To be sure, Star Trek: Discovery is Star Trek. It says so in the title. It’s even set during the period of the Original Series. Pike’s Enterprise exists and is out there with Spock. Kirk is on the Farragut or the Republic (Please see reader comments below for an accuracy check.) Make no mistake, Discovery IS Star Trek.
And yet it’s The Orville that feels more like Star Trek.
To answer that, ask first: what makes Star Trek…well, Star Trek?
What Are Little Shows Made Of?
After over 50 years of Star Trek, the short answer is in the eye of the beholder, but, for the most part, one knows when something feels like Star Trek and when it doesn’t.
“Shaka when the walls Fell!” (“Darmok,” TNG) feels like Star Trek – a perfect mix of striving for understanding and peace against adversity, all in a brainy little package.
The Pew Pew of Star Trek Nemesis did not feel like Star Trek.
So, what’s The Orville doing that makes it feel more like Star Trek?
In a nutshell, The Orville is not afraid to BE Star Trek.
First, all the classic tropes are in place. The Orville so closely follows the Star Trek template that it could be one of the many quantum realities from the TNG episode “Parallels”. It so looks and feels like The Next Generation that it can kindly be called a love letter to it. Orville has its equivalent of the Federation, Star Fleet, a mandate to explore strange new worlds, even a Prime Directive. The crew is made up of iconic characters from across Star Trek history: there is a Worf, a Data/Spock, a sassy doctor, a Riker-Troi (Decker – Ilia) relationship, an Odo, a Janeway, a Tom Paris, a genius engineer and more all spread throughout the cast of The Orville. Like the original Enterprise, the USS Orville is not a flagship. It’s just another ship in the fleet. (That’s right, I said it! The Enterprise was respected but didn’t become famous until it had completed the five-year mission under Kirk). The Orville appropriates all these elements but uses them in a fresh and vital way. It’s no surprise that many of the folks who worked on the Berman-era Star Trek are working on The Orville. It’s evident down to the camera work which is elegantly done by Marvin Rush – a veteran Director of Photography from the Berman era.
So, on the outside, we clearly have a show that looks like Star Trek.
Yeah? Discovery has all that, too, but it looks like it was made today and not in 1998!
True, Discovery looks beautiful and there’s nothing wrong with that, but Orville also looks beautiful in addition to feeling like Star Trek.
Where Trek has Gone Before
Take the character of Second Officer Bortus masterfully played by Peter Macon. On the surface, he serves the same function as Michael Dorn’s Worf on TNG. Bortus is a Moclan, a tough, humorless race comprising of one gender – male. On board is his mate, Klyten, played by Chad Coleman (Practically unrecognizable from his roles in The Wire and The Expanse). In the beginning, it seems they’re on the show mostly for laughs, but It’s not long before their relationship becomes a spring board for some of the most sensitive explorations of sexual Identity, orientation, and inclusion (or lack thereof). The show implicitly asks the view to consider if an entire race is one gender, then do the words gay or straight have any meaning? When a child is born that does not conform with an entire race, what then? The Orville handles these issues with surprising sensitivity (followed by a good pee joke.) The bar is raised even higher in the episode “Deflectors” when the crew encounters a Moclan who is only attracted to the female gender. Orville is not afraid to more deeply explore the topics first touched on by TNG with the episode “The Outcast” (in which Riker falls in love with a member of a genderless race), or the gender bending by the Dax symbiote in Deep Space Nine.
In the episode, “A Happy Refrain”, the ship’s doctor Claire Finn (Deep Space Nine Alum Penny Johnson Jerald), falls in love with Isaac, the alien AI played with a combination of eeriness and comfort by Mark Jackson. At first, it seems like a rehash of the Next Generation episode “In Theory” in which Data has a go at a romantic relationship with a random crew member, but Orville’s plot involves two of the main cast ensuring no quick resolution and just when the episode seems predictable, it takes a risk and doubles down on it. That risk pays off in spades later in the season with the big two-parter “Identity”.
The Orville regularly explores strange new worlds! Go figure!
In classic Trek fashion, the crew of the Orville find themselves in situations on alien worlds which reflect the issues in our own. Season One’s “Majority Rule” is a commentary on the role Social Media plays in our lives today. “All the World Is Birthday Cake” is a First Contact mission gone horribly wrong. It’s very reminiscent of the type of single-issue planet that Kirk and crew often discovered. This time, it’s not a left behind Chicago Gangster book, a 1960’s Roman Empire, or a demagogic super computer, but rather a society run by astrology. It earns a bit of an eyeroll, but the brutal treatment of the outcast Giliac has enough representation in today’s newspapers to make it relevant. It’s a little “Taste of Armageddon” mixed with a lot of “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”.
The Orville is heavy on the “science” of Science Fiction with its own Science Consultant for 7 episodes so far and it shows. The finale episode of season one “Mad Idolatry” has the crew encountering a planet that shifts in and out of our universe with extreme time dilation between appearances. It’s very similar to the Star Trek: Voyager episode “Blink of an Eye”, however the stakes are much more personal for the Orville crew as the burden rest mostly on the shoulders of Commander Grayson (Adrianne Palicki).
The Orville Has Optimism
Finally, and perhaps, most importantly, The Orville maintains a spirit of Star Trek optimism. Captain Mercer and his crew, while themselves very flawed and imperfect, never cease to find the best in each other and those they encounter in space. With everything Mercer endures with the Krill (the Klingons) throughout the first two seasons, he always maintains hope that both sides can eventually come together. The crew drives each other crazy a la McCoy and Spock/ Odo and Quark, but there is always the sense of underlying respect. The glob of goo Lt. Yaphit (voiced by Norm Macdonald) is the annoying guy you wish would just go away until he shows real heart in a rescue attempt – and it doesn’t feel contrived. Lt. Commander LaMarr (J. Lee) may be satisfied with having soda on the bridge while Navigating and clocking out, but Grayson eventually sees more in him and challenges him to meet his potential and eventually earn a promotion to Chief Engineer “New Dimensions”.
The Orville has more humor than any Star Trek. The humor was greatly misrepresented in the previews, giving the impression that it would be all scatological humor. Look, it’s not highbrow humor and it’s the part of the show that feels the least Star Trek, but it somehow works. The jokes are true to each character and seem appropriate to the moment. In the season two opener “Ja’loja”, Bortus must return to Moclus for his sacred urination ritual. Yes, it’s the pee version of Pon Farr and it seems ridiculous, at first, but the reasoning behind it makes sense given the Moclan anatomy. While it plays for laughs throughout most of the episode, the actual ritual at the end is handled with reverence by both the show and the crewmates and is quite touching. It gently prods the crew and the viewer to question at why it was dismissed as a silly punchline.
Second Star To the Right
Star Trek has never been perfect and neither is The Orville, but when it’s at its best, it questions the world around us, makes us take a harder look at the issues we face on planet Earth, and challenges us to at least believe that we can be the best versions of ourselves and leave the world a little better than we found it, if we try. It’s about one person or group saying to another person or group what a novelist one hundred years from now will call the three most important words: “Let me help.”
That gives me hope.
That’s the true spirit of Star Trek and The Orville has that spirit.