Christmas Eve...great timing?
I question because I waited until now to talk about my thoughts on 'Star Trek: Discovery' and 'Orville'. Partly I had waited because I felt it unfair to properly review and compare the two until the end of their respective seasons.
However, the season for 'Orville' is very short (only 12 episodes ordered and produced) and 'Star Trek: Discovery' is on a mid-season hiatus. In all fairness, their status as rival shows is also somewhat coincidental. Discovery was announced last year, around the release of 'Star Trek: Beyond', and was meant to debut at the beginning of the year...not around my birthday. But various production issues prevented its completion and release. I won't go into all of them here. However, before pre-production, Star Trek fan and famous producer Seth MacFarlane did pitch an idea of his own: how about a Star Trek following a sort of B-list or C-list crew? CBS said no for whatever reason, so he pitched this idea to his TV home turf Fox and the "parody" 'Orville' was the result.
I'm going to focus on Orville a bit because like many Star Trek fans, I believe 'Orville' is a "true" Star Trek successor series. When I started watching it, I wasn't so sure as I'm not really the biggest Seth MacFarlane fan...but I have to hand it to him. By the end of the second episode, I realised that I remembered all the names of the characters, I cared about them, I was invested in the (very interesting) stories and I was humming the theme tune at work! The humour is not necessarily 'laugh out loud' humour, but a lot of it is very subtle jabs at the weaknesses of the main Star Trek franchise e.g. the unrealistic weapons-firing, the multiple shots of shuttlecraft transporting the crew down to the planet's surface (the original series came up with transportation or beaming in order to avoid these shots as they were expensive). To top it all off, the Orville itself is a ship I really want to walk inside of and explore (it's very nice) and the general mood of most episodes is very upbeat and optimistic. This is on purpose as MacFarlane himself had noted that most science fiction these days is so utterly pessimistic and cynical.
What made me start watching it was that, it seemed like 'Galaxy Quest' the TV show, however, actual Star Trek alumni worked on or starred on the show. I have to conclude though, it's no 'Galaxy Quest'. The point of 'Galaxy Quest' was to poke fun at over-dedicated fans and the actors' relationships with that reality. 'Orville' is, truthfully, its very own beast existing in its own universe.
Possibly something to keep in mind with 'Star Trek: Discovery'. I tried to not be too hard on it in the first few episodes because I certainly don't want to get hung up on "continuity porn" as Brannon Braga referred to fans obsessing over (he was lead showrunner for 'Star Trek: Voyager' and most of 'Enterprise'), however, there is also the simple reality that, apart from The Original Series, no series of 'Star Trek' has been perfect from the very first episode. It's often joked that it takes up to Season 3 (whether beginning, during or end of) to get good.
Unfortunately I force myself to push back a headache when watching most of the time because it feels so wrong. It's supposed to be set roughly a decade before the Enterprise NCC-1701 launches its eponymous 5 year mission, but a lot of the technology is more reminiscent of something like 25th Century technology. Then the uniforms look wrong. The warp tunnel looks wrong. Then the Klingons look wrong. Then the Klingons act wrong...
I was going to go on a long rant and talk about how the writers had chosen the wrong race with which to depict their allegory of isolationist/populist movements, how they had chosen the wrong set of famous characters to make their lead relate to the universe, how they had used some very strange plot setups and scenarios, etc. But at some point, I realised that with all the twists, turns and dramatic face-offs and on-screen deaths, the writers were trying too hard to make a Star Trek series like 'Game of Thrones'. Actually, the writers were just trying too hard.
So from a marketability standpoint, I understand all the cynical moves of making Klingons the bad guys (because Klingons are popular!), having the first Captain be played by Michelle Yeoh and the lead character be Spock's foster sister: easier to promote. However, the fault lies with the writers for trying SO DAMN HARD making a ground-breaking science fiction serialised show that would grab audiences and hook them to the drama and and and...
*sigh* I do like some very minor elements, but for the most part I do not like the characters. Nor any of the ships. So much focus was made on the story, the set-up, the scenario, the unsubtle commentary on modern social issues...the best episodes of Star Trek always involved writers finding the characters a role to play and a way to flesh them out first, and then placing them in a morality play situation. Which would explain why Paul Stamets is one of the few characters in the show that I like. (He also continues the fine Star Trek tradition of being portrayed by an accomplished stage actor.)
The perfect illustration of Discovery for me, personally, is the end of episode two. We see the lead character, Michael Burnham (who is a woman), being court martialled by three Starfleet admirals, but they are completely in shadows and you cannot see their faces. You can see the famous Starfleet insignia, but you know you are not really watching Star Trek.
So as the critics seem to like 'Star Trek: Discovery', I had to ask myself an important question: could Discovery work as its own science fiction piece, in its own universe and without all the Star Trek hang-ups?
No. Without the 'Star Trek' name and motifs, it really is a mediocre work of science fiction.