07 October 2017

Star Trek: Discovery and The Orville

We're going to take another stroll into off-topic-land. As I'm sure you know by now, this past month has seen the debut of two new television series of interest to nerds and dorks like myself: Star Trek: Discovery and The Orville. Fans of this blog will be aware that I am a major Star Trek nerd.

Just to be certain, let me describe why. Some of you may have read my previous post in which I describe the reason I love the original Star Trek so very much. If this is the case, you can safely skip the next paragraph to get to the good stuff. But I want this understanding to be explicit so that the rest of this entry will make sense.

The original Star Trek was wonderful for five main reasons: 1) it was relentlessly optimistic, 2) it used science-fiction to explore modern social topics, 3) it eschewed the traditional good/evil dichotomy for a more nuanced dynamic between antagonists and protagonists, 4) it emphasised exploration and discovery, and 5) the character dynamic of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy was a wonderful thing to behold. Although The Next Generation did not have #5, it did a good job (especially starting in season 3) of the other themes listed here. The other Trek series? Not so much...

So when I heard that they were making a new Star Trek series, I was very excited. I was looking forward to getting back to basics. Back to what I loved about the original series. Sure, it wouldn't have Kirk, Spock, or McCoy, but it would have the other elements.

Or so I hoped.
Then, I learned of The Orville. Sure, it was a comedy series (at least to an extent), which took some cues from Galaxy Quest, but I could tell from the trailers that it was going to follow in the footsteps of its main inspiration: Star Trek.

I've now watched the first four episodes of The Orville and the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery. Here are my thoughts:

The Orville is an amazing show. I have loved every episode so far. The first episode was a little slow, as it had to lay the foundational groundwork of introducing characters and setting up the premise. But the second episode was much better, and explored the character dynamic between Captain Mercer and his ex-wife first officer. It also made a definite point of developing some of the secondary characters (specifically, Alara and Dr Finn). It examined a couple of social issues ('is it right to keep living creatures captive?' and 'how do we define sentience?'), and allowed the dynamics of the crew to grow as well. The third episode was a touching (if admittedly somewhat ham-fisted) look at a major social concern (gender issues and transgender concerns), developed another character (Bortus) and introduced an ancillary character (Bortus's mate Klyden).

Then the fourth episode left me reeling. That was such a good episode. I felt as though I were watching an episode of the original Star Trek, it captured all the beats so perfectly (down to Alara wearing a head covering to hide her alien features, just as Spock did in several episodes of the original series).

As mentioned, I've only seen two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery so far. I have to be honest: I enjoyed them. There were a couple of points at which I nearly jumped out of my seat and shouted, 'It doesn't work like that!' when they showed something that I felt was a violation of Star Trek canon (a human using the Vulcan nerve pinch, for example). But despite that, I found myself enjoying the show.

After we finished the episodes, I had to digest for a while to sort out my thoughts. I think I will continue to watch the show, but I'm going to have to pretend that it's not really Star Trek. In my mind, it's merely going to be a coincidence that the enemy aliens are called 'klingons' and follow a religion devoted to someone named Kahless. It's a massive coincidence that the protagonists serve in 'Starfleet' and wield weapons called 'phasers,' which (along with their communicators) just happen to strongly resemble their counterparts from Star Trek.

The first two episodes don't appear to have a lot of that relentless optimism that I loved from TOS. It didn't deal with weighty social issues. There appears to be at least a level of the good/evil dichotomy that I'm tired of seeing in modern media. There was some exploration, sure, but that's only one out of five. And from the story setup, it appears that it's not likely that we'll see any more of these beloved themes in any future episodes.

As I said, I will keep watching, and I'm sure I'll end up saying that I enjoyed it. But so far, it just isn't scratching that Star Trek itch that I've been feeling for many years now.

The Orville, however, is.

Which is why I'm so upset that I keep seeing reviews online talking about how bad The Orville is. I'm not going to link to any of them; I don't want to provide them with any traffic. But every time I pull up Chrome, I see yet another suggested article with a headline like 'Seth McFarlane's "The Orville" [sic] sets off for a humorless (and lifeless) void' or 'Seth McFarlane Plays It Safe in His Egregious "Star Trek" [sic] Rip-Off.'

My understanding is that The Orville may be getting a lot of bad critical reviews, but it's doing well with audiences. Especially those in the 18-49 age range (which is the range I occupy), where it appears to be appealing to others who, like me, long for the wholesome storytelling of the original series.

Until today, the only positive reviews I had seen online were these:

I am pleased to say that when I googled reviews of The Orville during the writing of this article, I saw many more positive reviews than negative ones. Perhaps whatever it was that made so many critics write scathing reviews has passed (the first article linked above suggested that the negative reviews were the result of CBS paying critics to pan the Fox show in hopes of generating more interest in their Discovery).

I've heard of some people who refuse to watch The Orville because they don't like Seth McFarlane. To which I say: don't let that dissuade you. I'm not really a Seth McFarlane fan either. Family Guy is a bit too out there for my taste (I've seen several episodes, and enjoyed some of them to an extent, but overall, I don't really care for it), and I dislike American Dad quite a bit. But the humour in The Orville is very much secondary. The show is definitely a dramedy, where the drama shares equal spotlight (if not hogging more for itself!) with the comedy. And the comedy in The Orville is not as out there, nor as raunchy, as in McFarlane's other works. It can sometimes tend a little towards the lascivious (like when the android character Isaac mistakes being called 'a dick' for a compliment), but overall, it's much more tame than what we've come to expect from Mr McFarlane.

So, in summary: The Orville is most definitely the Star Trek show I've been waiting for, despite not actually being a Star Trek show, and Star Trek: Discovery is a good show, but is not Star Trek, despite having the words 'star' and 'trek' in the name.

Anyway, next week we will return to our usual gaming stuff. Until then, go watch some good TV (which, in my opinion, is a pretty rare thing these days), and remember to

Game on!

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