I will give a virtually no-spoiler review of each one and then a comparative conclusion, based on my current view and understanding and in contemporary context of the shows emerging; what role they play, what influence they might have. So it’s highly colored by sociology; very meta, if you want to use that term. I will also look at The Orville in light of the obvious Trek knockoff it tries to be. The reviews might jump around key points a bit since I wrote these from plenty of notes I took during my watching of four episodes of The Orville first and then three episodes of Star Trek Discovery.
The overall story writing is OK and relatively enjoyable. That’s like a crucial basis that one needs to get right or everything else suffers from it. The problem is, it suffers a lot from the details as well as its agenda. This show knows exactly what it’s doing and it is showing.
The humor is relatively natural and doesn’t go too much into tryhard territory, although it can be borderline at times. It’s just the characters being their slightly quirky way, although the show tries a dissonant mix of wanting to be serious and believable but then throwing that out the window. Characters are basically not at all different from people of our time. This can be seen as a strength but also as a weakness, because it means that the sci-fi setting is nothing but window dressing. This could work just as well in any other setting. There is no inspirational factor that has something to do with the future, and some references (usually attempted humorous) to our times in fact test the suspension of disbelief of the show happening any time in the future, and that’s not the only factor in that. Sometimes the show pretends that there is a professional qualification to serving on board a starship and that it is still embedded in a military context, but then again all too often the Orville seems more like a privateer ship with a family sitcom going.
One detail that I had to facepalm about – one of those things – was when a fly-by of the Orville featured dirt specks on the screen, as if it was being filmed by a camera. This stuff bothers me all the time.
There is a lot of standard-recipe at work. It’s a show like many others. If The Orville wasn’t sci-fi, it would need more quality to make up for that space-filler. Watching it feels like someone thought: “Hey, let’s make a show that looks like Trek, but with low-brow humor and hitting home our progressive message in a way that everybody gets what we’re trying to tell them, but while at the same time making it not too obvious; throw some seeming self-reflective tendencies in there for intellectual self-congratulation, but make sure the outcome is right.”
A show absolutely emerged from our times.
In detail the show’s entertainment value suffers a little to a lot from not well thought-through events (gross logical flaws, seeming continuity errors, just not explaining HOW some outlandish things are supposed to work or why people do the weird things they do, generally dissing the actually potentially intelligent part) and bad action scene choreography and such. Too often I find myself thinking that something really doesn’t make sense, regardless of the sci-fi setting, but that I am witnessing lazy writing. This is like what Star Trek TOS would sometimes have, too, but in Orville it doesn’t quite work as an homage thing. TOS was a bit cheesy, another age of sci-fi TV, and had some really good things going for it to compensate, while The Orville features an abundance of such writing while at the same time trying to give it a STTNG paint job.
Why make a sci-fi show when it’s not backed by interest in actually exploring science? The script just says something magically works and that’s it? Makes me assume the writers would even have difficulty explaining the stuff we can do today. It’s not entirely comparable to Abrams Trek (because the storytelling is not ridiculous), but they do pull some Red Matter maneuvers in The Orville.
The show features old themes with a new paint. Some people might claim this show is exactly what the world needs, but I would posit that its thinly veiled proselytizing is exactly not what the world needs, is not making any difference, because it is a mere reflection of the two-sides-of-the-same-coin issue that has gained traction over the years. This show provides zero enlightenment over what we had decades past. It is unimaginative in that there is no interest conveyed in envisioning anything new. It is purely designed for social commentary, with the most basic construct created to deliver a narrative, no love for making it work for an intelligent audience, and mixed with light comedic entertainment. It’s like someone didn’t quite understand the franchise they’re trying to so closely base the show on, or didn’t care to.
If you just keep doing the same formula for every new generation, at best you’re standing still, but more likely it’s like that saying: If you’re not making progress, you’re going backwards.
The Orville thinks it’s progressive, but it’s just totally trendfollowing the road to hell.
Trek was thought-provoking. In The Orville someone has already done the thinking for you and is now portraying the results.
Again, there is certainly some overlap with TOS if you consider that one in the context of its time, but then you also have to realize not just the similarities but also the difference of that time to now. In TOS and Trek in general the spirit behind it seemed a bit different, more tied into the idea of a naturally more advanced future society, more of the positivity that is lacking in The Orville. TOS dealt with the same kind of themes as The Orville, so I am quite sure I am not just imagining the crucial difference.
The Orville is pretty much a product emerging from our increasingly disturbed and polarized times, i.e. making it potentially less of an inspiration than TOS.
The thing I am sensing is that the show is reflecting the elaborate mind’s idea of heart, the best a mind can do in terms of an imitation, without actually containing its energy. And there is the great social divide. If you need an example of what I’m talking about: Firefly got what The Orville hasn’t. Hell, even My Little Pony with its relatively simplistic writing, plenty of plot holes and strong messaging that it shares with The Orville has it.
You just gotta consider that Joss Whedon is a feminist and then realize how that totally didn’t bother us in Firefly. And there you have that elusive but crucial difference I am pointing at. That which cannot be imitated, cannot be faked. You either got it or you don’t.
To use the show’s language and add my spin, The Orville is a self-content artificial ego system.
Star Trek Discovery
Discovery throws some nostalgia references, some fit better than others, so it’s a mix. TOS bridge sounds effects fit surprisingly naturally into the new setting. They’re kinda timeless I guess, but also this show is situated in the early time of Starfleet. Bridge consoles explode with more energy than ever before. *sigh*
Otherwise the visual and sound effects remind me way too much of Abrams Trek. STD does the camera dirt thing, too, and disappointingly they almost dropped the phaser thing altogether, while hand guns look exactly like phasers. Action is shaky, noise, flickery, the lens flare crap is back, and because of said phaser issue everything is *bwip-bwip* now, including warp travel. This kind of design reminds me way too much of the crappiest of sci-fi.
In odd contrast to that, just like with the hand gun design, ship design is done well in terms of fitting into the timeline.
Some logical flaws in this show’s writing, too, but very few and not a big issue. Merely cosmetic, if you will, although there’s a hint of clumsy attempted nostalgia reference. It’s just all not in-your-face. Just your usual lazy writing here and there to push events in a certain way that is more the norm than the exception.
Putting the focus of the show on one character is a somewhat new approach, and it’s done moderately enough to not break with Trek style. It’s an interesting direction to explore, although this of course comes with some risks. The main character being female with a male name could be an agenda-driven thing at its core idea, but don’t get yourself trolled. I was just wondering that this wasn’t explained right-away considering the show’s otherwise eager exposition, but I guess at some point we will learn about the story behind that and it might not at all be what you expect.
I just settled for accepting you can’t expect too much continuity in the show. It seems they got an android on board.
As for the klingons and their design, well, at this point I look at the show more like a spin-off, and the execution of the storytelling is done well enough that I can live with it. Their portrayal is maybe a bit inconsistent in detail to make them a clichée, but it’s hard for me to have any strong view on these things.
Some segments of the show are a bit doo dark for my taste and there’s some disaster porn, too. To me some scenes seem too artifically set up for drama and don’t quite work. There’s no buildup to a climax. You are served whatever course you are supposed to swallow.
In both shows the first episode was relatively pleasant to watch, probably since it’s new and I had to process all that first. But it soon became clear to me that if there is too much deliberation and agenda in a show’s design, it is pretty much an invitation for nitpicking, since there’s no heart to compensate for it, that could diminish the sterility a bit. And to me that is worse in Orville.
Trek or not, I can accept Discovery as an interesting and thought-provoking series. Orville I cannot quite enjoy because it is a mess of thrown together concepts and ideas of things instead of those things themselves. Doesn’t take itself fully serious but wants to be taken serious. Tries to look like an homage, but pays homage to the wrong things and merely tries to imitate others. I tried taking it for what it is without seeing any Trek in it but that didn’t make it any more entertaining.
I will have to see how the shows evolve further, but, in peculiar contrast to so many voices, I definitely see more of the core spirit of Trek in Discovery than in Orville. Discovery might have less of its familiar form, but more of its core, and Orville is the opposite, and that’s how its humor can even work in that frame; It cannot do any damage. Orville is a clumsy hybrid of comedy skit and fanfic. For different reasons neither show fills me with particular optimism. Orville doesn’t because it’s exactly a reflection of the mindset of our times and Discovery because it’s dark and full of war.
Maybe all this explains why I also like Rogue One better than The Force Awakens. Or maybe that totally confuses you now, haha.
UPDATE: More commentary and discussion on some further episodes of the shows here: