STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
Both The Orville and Star Trek: Discovery do honor the spirit of Star Trek, but in their own different ways. However discomforting as Discovery can be, it's clearly an ambitious and high-quality series with a story it wants to tell. The chances it takes with Star Trek's tropes - such as how the Starship Discovery doesn't even appear in the first two episodes - are actually a virtue to those seeking a more complex series that places Star Trek on the same playing field as prestige TV shows like Game of Thrones, Westworld, and Battlestar Galactica. (Some however, don't want this from Star Trek - they want the familiar, especially after the Abrams movies.) Discovery is clearly not modeled after its predecessors' brand of seeking out new life and new civilizations - essentially humans meeting aliens with problems and solving those problems in an hour before moving on to the next planet.
Discovery upended the old Trek paradigm immediately and in the case of Michael Burnham, we realize by the conclusion of the second episode that our lead character is a disgraced and broken mutineer stripped of her rank and undergoing a redemption arc. There have been a few disgraced and incarcerated characters in Star Trek before, such as Ensign Ro Laren (Michelle Forbes) and Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeil), who have gotten second chances to serve on starships. Paris, who became helmsman on the U.S.S. Voyager, is clearly the model for The Orville's wisecracking helmsman Lt. Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes). Burnham, however, is the series lead, not a supporting character, which, along with being an African-American woman, makes her a first for Star Trek. Discovery, like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's later seasons, is a show about a galactic war and about the difficult moral and ethical choices our heroes face in the midst of that war.
While Discovery flies out of the gate confident of what type of science fiction series it is, the same can't be said of The Orville, which struggles from the get-go to find an appropriate and pleasing mix of science fiction, drama, and comedy. In MacFarlane, The Orville centers around a talented comedy writer who makes a questionable leading man. MacFarlane is frankly miscast as a captain who would inspire the loyalty of hundreds of souls choosing to follow him across the galaxy; it seems like hubris for MacFarlane to place himself in the same spiritual seat as William Shatner or Patrick Stewart. The Orville wants to tackle complex moral quandaries - such as the third episode addressing the gender identity of the daughter of Bortus, their Morclan second officer - but the quality of the courtroom scenes that decided this problem was embarrassingly staged and the writing was ham-fisted. In every episode of The Orville thus far, dramatic and tense moments are consistently undercut by MacFarlane's penchant for inserting anachronistic references like Beyoncé song lyrics and juvenile jokes, which often land with a thud.
THE REAL STAR TREK
The Orville has found success on FOX and it does seem to service some Trekkers' desires to have an entertaining Star Trek substitute to watch. The fact that The Orville is on free television gives it a huge advantage over Star Trek: Discovery, which many fans feel just isn't enough of a reason to subscribe to a streaming service they otherwise don't want. For its part, The Orville plans to continue mining tried and true Star Trek tropes and having prominent Trek actors appear in cameos. For those not willing to pay to see the new Star Trek series and are finding The Orville's spin on Trek enjoyable or even intriguing, The Orville is pleased to cater to their tastes.
Star Trek: Discovery has drawn critical acclaim for its bold attempt to tell a new kind of Star Trek story and for bringing blockbuster cinema to television. If CBS chose to release Discovery from behind its paywall prison and allowed it to be seen for free like all of its other Star Trek TV predecessors, at least some of the ire toward Discovery would dissipate, and fans would find a rich, complex adventure tale set firmly in the Star Trek universe to relish (and nitpick). How far Discovery will go in its 15 episode voyage to deliver its version of Star Trek is the big question. Discovery sure to continue to court some controversy as it challenges some established and cherished norms of Star Trek - for better or worse.
The choice, if you're looking to make one, between The Orville and Star Trek: Discovery is like drinking supermarket-brand soda instead of brand name Coca-Cola or Pepsi. There's nothing wrong with partaking in the offshoot brand if you prefer not to pay for the premium brand. However, in the Star Trek Challenge Taste Test, there is nothing like the real deal.