Warning: Contains SPOILERS for Star Trek: Discovery
Every so often, Hollywood will drop two similar but competing movies or TV shows at the same time. For example, in summer 1998, there were two movies about an asteroid poised to strike the Earth: Michael Bay's Armageddon and Mimi Leder's Deep Impact. 2013 saw two films about the White House being attacked: White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen. Even a major franchise like James Bond has battled with 'itself': 1983 saw two competing Bond movies released in theaters, Octopussy starring then-current Bond Roger Moore defeated the original 007 Sean Connery's Never Say Never Again at the box office. While not competing with each other, both The Walking Dead and its prequel spinoff Fear The Walking Dead are staples of AMC. Now, the Star Trek franchise and its newest incarnation, Star Trek: Discovery, faces a similar type of doppelganger, Seth MacFarlane's The Orville.
The Orville debuted on FOX a couple of weeks ago to strong ratings (aided by its Sunday Night Football lead-in) before settling into its regular Thursday night time slot. Executive Produced by Star Trek veteran Brannon Braga and MacFarlane, who also headlines the series as Captain Ed Mercer, The Orville features a very familiar (by design) premise to Star Trek fans. A science fiction comedy/drama set in the 25th century, The Orville centers on an exploratory ship in the service of the Planetary Union - essentially Star Trek's United Federation of Planets - commanded by Mercer and his First Officer and ex-wife Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki). Their crew is a multi-species assortment of humans and aliens, and together thus far, they've engaged in the morality plays and space battles fans associate with classic TV Star Trek. The Orville is very clearly modeled after Star Trek: The Next Generation in nearly every way, save for its sitcom-level comedy.
This Sunday, after years of production delays and creative upheavals, Star Trek: Discovery premiered its first hour on CBS also to strong ratings (better than The Orville's) before settling into its berth behind the paywall of the network's streaming service, CBS All-Access. Melding the visual style of the J.J. Abrams Star Trek films with the more complex drama classic TV Trek is known for, Discovery is a prequel series set a decade before the voyages of Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and the Starship Enterprise. The first way (of many) Discovery breaks Trek tradition is by centering not on a captain, but on Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), the First Officer of the U.S.S. Shenzhou commanded by Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). Raised on Vulcan by Sarek (James Frain), the father of Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Georgiou makes a life-altering and tragic decision when the Shenzhou comes face to face with impending war with the resurgent Klingon Empire.
MORE STAR TREK THAN STAR TREK?
Which series honors Star Trek in better ways? This depends on the viewer's opinion of and desire from Star Trek. MacFarlane is a lifelong Star Trek fan and everything about The Orville makes this evident. Along with Braga, whom he met when he guest starred on Star Trek: Enterprise, MacFarlane seeks to bring back the classic aspects of Star Trek that have been missing since the more hyperkinetic Abrams films became the only new Star Trek audiences experienced for a decade. Like most Star Trek series, The Orville is structured to be more episodic week-to-week, as opposed to the tightly serialized television series that are prominent today. Though certain story threads, like the constant bickering between Mercer and Grayson as they sort out the lingering bitterness of their failed marriage, carry over though each episode, The Orville takes The Next Generation's approach: meeting a new alien race posing some sort of moral and ethical dilemma, solving it, and moving on to the next problem.
The Orville's visuals, color-coded uniforms, command structure, and the look of the starship itself purposely evokes The Next Generation's venerable U.S.S. Enterprise-D as well as the U.S.S. Voyager. Like the Enterprise-D, the Orville is basically a bright, comfortable, and inviting hotel in space. The Next Generation's tropes like its Ten Forward bar are present on The Orville, as is the holodeck, where crew members can cosplay as characters in any time period and enjoy recreational virtual reality simulation. The only thing missing are transporters, one of Star Trek's signature staples. Beyond that, The Orville is essentially a mock up of Star Trek that is tweaked just enough to avoid any lawsuits for infringing on Star Trek's copyrights. The cast of The Orville freely admits they hope the series slakes the desires of 'disgrunted Star Trek fans,' of which there are many, especially where Discovery is concerned.
In contrast to The Orville, Discovery is Star Trek, in ways both familiar and jarringly different. The look of the Klingons has been reimagined, to the chagrin of many Trekkers who have issues with how this all makes sense in accordance to decades of previously established canon. Trekkers who scoffed at the frankly Star Wars-like breakneck pace of Abrams' films and longed for the calmer and more comforting Star Trek the classic TV series presented are similarly put off by Discovery's cinematic style and darker visual palate. The series' divergences from canon make some fans question whether Discovery is set in the classic Prime timeline of Star Trek, as the producers attest, or if it actually takes place in the rebooted Kelvin timeline of the Abrams films. Also lacking is the familiar triumvirate of core characters who are fast friends, epitomized by the heroic trio of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy (DeForrest Kelley). The warm mentor/student relationship established between Michael Burnham and Captain Georgiou is immediately torn asunder before the first episode is over.