I honestly never though such a day would come – when I would be in my mind or anywhere else, comparing in all seriousness, a Star Trek show with a show by Seth McFarlane.
[NOTE: There are SOME spoilers ahead, so be aware!]
Lemme just say for anyone that has any doubt on this, I’m a big Star Trek fan, in fact I’m very much a Trekkie/Trekker/whatever obsessive title you prefer to use. I grew up with TNG and the TOS movies and am even a fan of the divisive Voyager series. Enterprise, I can take it or leave it. That said, I have not been a fan of the relaunched movies overall – I LOVE the casting, the actors are fantastic across the trilogy and the music and production quality is stellar and these are the highlights of the new incarnation; however the writing has gone from vaguely passable (Star Trek) to abysmally embarrassing (Into Darkness) to all-over-the-place (the 3rd one…). Don’t get me wrong, there were many good things but the writing, tone and feel of the scripts to me as a Star Trek fan felt totally off from what I love about the various incarnations of the franchise.
And THIS is where The Orville comes into the picture.
For those of you that don’t know this, The Orville (now 3 episodes in) is an hour-long sci-fi drama with some jokes and levity sprinkled in here and there, that is a complete and total fan-letter of love to the Star Trek franchise. Though the people behind the series put out trailers that made it look like an out and out comedy reminiscent of all McFarlane’s previous work, this show is anything but that – it tells some VERY serious stories, including tackling (with a lot of class and realism I might add) the issue of sexism and cultural rights in just its third episode.
I started this new show for some lighter fare, something to feed the sci-fi geek/nerd in me who was saddened by the recent cancellation of Dark Matter and had been missing shows like Star Trek that had a degree of intelligence and characters and a less grim-dark future view than almost all sci-fi tends to lean toward especially nowadays. That The Orville surprised me with how detailed and well crafted it was, making my mind skim over any shortcomings buoyed by the positives, is an understatement.
But then my Netflix popped up an update that the new Star Trek series was about to release! Cue much excitement especially given then positive feeling I got off the trailers compared to the much more action-oriented movies plus a good cast that included Michelle Yeoh (at least for a bit) and the very under-rated Doug Jones.
So over the last couple of days, once the episodes were out, I got to see the pilot, i.e, the first two episodes back to back. And I did.
And I was whelmed… neither under, nor over… just whelmed…
The CGI and sets and costumes looked utterly fantastic. Michelle Yeoh was perfect and so Captain-y that I loved her character from her first dialogues. Doug Jones was a great fit and in fact reminded me of Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory in so many little ways and mannerisms that it was like seeing Doug channel Jim Parsons as Sheldon to play an alien on Star Trek. I loved it. The shows opening which was sans any violence and was just them helping an unsuspecting alien race and everything – it was good and felt true to the spirit of it’s source material in a way the movies just never did, ever, and it was all well done and paced well enough that I didn’t even mind the slightly cheesy sand-art moment.
Even a multitude of little details, like spaceships not being head-on and facing exactly face-to-face as happens in most space shows/movies but instead slightly askew and at odd angles as would happen in reality – I really appreciated that attention to detail.
But then came too many things that made me think they were trying too hard to stand out and be “cool” or something and the end result was perhaps not what was intended. First of all, let me be clear, this is not a sleight on anyone, just observation:
- Your to-be-lead character for this show that is part of a franchise that is known to be pretty progressive by and large, is now not just a female officer, but an orphaned, black female officer and as if to shovel in more still – she was raised like Spock on Vulcan. It’s like they were trying too hard to make this character as acceptable to every so-called “social justice warrior” out there and to hardcore Star Trek geeks. It didn’t help that the character starts out fine but by the end of episode one and well through a fair bit of episode two, I was left with the feeling that “wow that was too much damned drama!” and thinking this cool character Im supposed to like is a bit of an asshole. And on top of that she had her super-Vulcan-y connection to her mentor across the galaxy which was so much like the absolutely shite idea to have transporters that could beam across light years and at warp-speed in the movies – it just pissed me off I’m afraid.
- The Klingons. I REALLY liked the portrayal, the characters, the ideology and the setup with them – we
never really got to dabble into the Klingon Wars proper in any predecessor so I have hope to enjoy that. BUT the Klingons’ design, the look, the weirdly metallic/plastic fetish-store look they’ve given them, it makes the earlier incarnations look so classy by comparison. And the worst part? I hated that the Klingons, the savage, blood-thirsty warrior race were made almost painfully dark-skinned almost across the board and in some weird heavy-handed reverse racism-y, something, they treated that one poor albino Klingon like an outcast. Somehow left a sour taste.
- The big conflict. To me Star Trek was never about violence and explosions and war. It happened. They had terrible things going on at points including actual wars – but this show is following the more action-heavy line of the recent movies and the need to be more action oriented especially this early… I get that it was possibly an attempt to draw people in and make them excited but things like that, just left me with a bad taste. Maybe they have too much money and felt like they needed to make the shows scale grander to justify it? Or that if it was slower paced/less action driven, the average person wouldn’t get into it? Even if that last part is right, it’s wrong to me because it defeats the purpose of what made this franchise what it was by pandering to the lowest denominator.
And this is once again where The Orville comes into the picture. I started watching it for a laugh. Instead I found myself after 2 episodes of each series, comparing them. The end result for me? I’d rather watch The Orville.
Why you ask? Would I possibly want to watch a Star Trek ripoff starring Seth McFarlane on a smaller budget than a brand new Star Trek show?
Well for starters are the above things I didn’t much care for that stand against the Star Trek series opener. Aside from that, The Orville, despite the occassional goofy joke (which are far, far fewer than you’d expect if you’ve only ever seen the promo’s) is actually a lot closer to what Star Trek is in my mind – it’s 3 episodes to date have been somewhat light and about a ship exploring and travelling and doing it’s job across space, solving problems (not always with stuff exploding into a billion pieces) and actually very interesting story-lines – especially Episode 3 where a couple from a planet of 100% males has a rare, once in a century female child and want to do the “normal” thing of surgically making her male.
The episode touched on the topic as well as how it compares to things in our world like circumcision or freedom of choice and gender rights and it did it in a stunningly intelligent and even handed way – and in fact didn’t have the cliched “happy ending” of it going the way that humans on Earth would expect. It was real.
Besides that, there’s a crew that we get to spend time with and learn about right from episode one – from a doctor to an engineer to two pilots to a security officer and rookie and a 2nd officer as well as the captain and 1st officer. And they’re all not just people standing around in a scene, they all feel different to each other and to do that amidst an ongoing story with lots going on + world building where you’re establishing rules, not an easy task. And over these three episodes we’ve already seen several people here get a chance to have their character, their way of thinking and such fleshed out a little and make me want more. By contrast, in Discovery, except for Michelle Yeoh (who dies), Sonequa Martin-Green, an admiral played by Terry Serpico (who also dies), the Klingon T’Kuvma (yup, he dies too!) and Doug Jones, no actor has anything memorable at all to do or say in almost 2 full hours of this series. I find that sad.
And last but not least – the science. Star Trek Discovery does alright, but there is more focus on quick pacing, melodrama, character angst and action than on quirky and interesting ideas. That tendency to explore new ideas and weird concepts and put them in the stories is what made those who love Star Trek, love it – and The Orville does that right from episode one with the time-altering beam to the second episodes species that believes any other species with lower technology is to them as a monkey is to us and would treat them as animals. It’s all about the mind-set from where you start and to me that shows in these early episodes and it matters.
I’ve also come to realise that a lot of those that have given The Orville some pretty shockingly harsh and hate-filled reviews seem to have an issue with something else and I’m going to assume it’s Seth McFarlane in general and maybe his humour specifically – because I saw those reviews, watched the show because I had some time to kill and three episodes in, I do not get at all where that level of hating is coming from really.
I still hold hope that Star Trek Discovery will turn out to be the Star Trek show I want it to be and be a return to form for the franchise that will see a revival in it’s standing and ability to be a regular ongoing TV series – because frankly I miss having good Star Trek to look forward to every year.
But that said, I’m also happy that The Orville exists (for now at least) because if my concerns about the way and mind-set of the people making it is true, then I will look to The Orville to get my fix of the franchise I love because it carries that spirit so far, much more so than the big-budget movies and show that bear the actual name.Kudos to Seth McFarlane for being a true science fiction and Star Trek fan and keeping the positive spirit alive. And for breathing some new life into the hopeful and optimistic science fiction that has all but faded, the one that gave us something to look forward and not constantly making us fear the future and technology and A.I. and such. I miss that and I for one am glad to have it here for as long as they can keep making them.
If you agree, disagree, have an entirely different opinion to all the above – feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments or share them on social media.