Note: There will be spoiler talk over the First Three Episodes of The Orville, and the First two epsidoes of Star Trek Discovery. Read at your own risk.
If there is one TV Franchise that I love more than any other, it would be Star Trek. From a young age, Star Trek enthralled me. I remember watching the Next Generation as a child and marvelled at a galaxy filled with Klingons and Romulans, and an Android who wanted to laugh. I remember watching the old Series with furry tribbles, bad graphics, and evil Spock in a goatee. I devoured what I could of Voyager and Deep Space 9, even getting my Husband into Trek during the early years of our relationship. Star Trek is one of those shows whose universe, worldview, and idealism appeal to me on a fundamental level.
This year, there are two new sci-fi shows that have come out: Star Trek Discovery, and The Orville. Both of these shows exemplify the best of Trek, but also the future of trek, even though one of them is decidedly not Trek.
The first of the two shows I watched was the Orville. The show has been created by Seth McFarlane, of Family Guy fame, and it backed by Brannon Bragga, a former Star Trek alumni who have worked for most of the last Generation of Trek shows (Voyager, DS9, TNG). While net set in the Star Trek Universe, the parallels there are obvious, right down to the 5 act formula of the episodes. The show is a bit crasser in that the characters are more flawed than your typical Trek crew. They drink, they take drugs, they make mistakes and feel sheepish about it. They make jokes and rib each other. It is a friendlier, less sterile group of people which makes for better TV. The archetypes of comedy are there, and each character so far fills their niche well.
What is interesting however with the Orville is how it is approaching their episodes. Any Trek fan would instantly recognise the progressive streak in the Orville. From the casual dropping of Cannabis Edibles to the deeply divisive discussion about Gender and social conforming, like holy shit. Star Tek was often at its best when it would take current issues, and frame them by using an extreme alien example and deconstructing the human argument. The episode “About a Girl” is exactly one of those episodes. While taking on several subjects at once: Gender, Body modification of babies, and respect for another culture’s beliefs, the episode juggles these issues as well a typical trek episode would (which is good and bad). Being Episode three, I know there were some cringe moments, what early season 1 trek isn’t cringey on some level. Remember the TNG episode where the Enterprise met a world ruled by women? yikes.
Being Episode three, I know there were some cringe moments, but I felt that the tone, the drive, and the ending was pure trek. The trek that people loved and gravitate to, but also doesn’t take itself completely seriously. The episode and the show aren’t perfect, but it brings back that mirror to talk about some of these issues in a way that people may not think about. “About a Girl” to me felt more about the helplessness one feels when a whole society believes something different than you, and how standing up doesn’t mean action immediately. As we saw with Worf in The Next Generation, that change takes time, and I suspect that if the Orville has a decent run, we will come back to this issue in a bit more acute detail. The seeds were sown in this episode and using Bortus as the Worf character that will have his journey of awakening and understanding (via Rudolph).
Star Trek Discovery, however, is not the same Trek from your youth.
Star Trek Discovery is trying to do what Enterprise wanted to do halfway through its series run. Enterprise is likely my least watched or liked Trek. It started off very much in the frame of the previous Treks, but sluggish ratings and a changing world lead to the Xindi storyline which played on post 9/11 realities. I felt that Enterprise failed in that shift. Discovery does this with a 20-teens mentality – The outbreak of War, the fear of religious fanaticism, and the danger of extremists becoming leaders and martyrs.
Star Trek is known for its idealism and solid belief that good and progressive values will always win. Those values are challenged, but not often tested however in most Trek series. The Crew and the Federation almost always have a firm grasp of what is right, what is best, and those two things almost always align. Deep Space 9 veered the most from this formula (Benjamin Sisko was quite good in showing the grey side of the Federation), but the most popular trek has always been the most idealistic trek. The first two episodes of Discovery places Trek in our current world – What happens when being benevolent, avoiding conflict, and peace fails. What happens when your idealism is used against you, and treated as a weapon, and not as a goal? How do you remain idealistic? How do you remain hopeful? How do you stick to your values when you have to grab a gun and kill.
You saw this on display when Commander Michael Burnham tries and pressures Captain Georgiou into not seeking peace like the Federation would, but rather attack a threat she knows is coming. The scene is confronting for any trek fan because of the obvious conflict between the two, and how it goes ultimately unresolved. It highlights the internal struggle for Trek. How do we stay true to our values when we are most tested by a changing world?
Further, it seems that Commander Burnham has long-standing issues with another officer, which is a pretty huge departure as well for a Trek series. Even Bones and Spock had respect for each other, the same may not be said for Commander Burnham and Lt. Commander Saru. In the previews for the season, it looks like Burnham will have a lot of conflict with the crew, in ways that the Maquis/Federation split of Voyager should have always had more of.
As someone who avoids conflict and violence as much as possible, the two episodes spoke to me. I love the quick and clever plans that avoid harm, but there are times when that is impossible, and how do I reconcile the need for violence when it goes against my moral code? The Federation in this situation was set up to walk into this war. The other side used the Federations rhetoric to unite others against them, and the Federation was not prepared to change. Moving forward, I suspect we will see this tension between the Federation’s values, and the Federations reality, and I really look forward to seeing how this Trek manages it. And I am glad to see a show tackle those ethical moments that are not so blatant as the Orville. It is deeper, more personal, more nuanced.
When I saw the first Episode of the Orville, I said that it looked like “Funny Trek” and that Discovery would be “Dramatic Trek.” I think right now we need both, and both serve a good purpose. I hope they continue to develop and grow into themselves.