Thoughts on THE ORVILLE and STAR TREK: DISCOVERY

Orville castThe Orville, the new science fiction/comedy/drama show from Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, premiered on Fox September 10th. MacFarlane stars as Captain Ed Mercer, new commander of the Planetary Union exploratory space vessel the Orville, with his ex-wife Commander Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki) as his first officer. Three episodes in, I’m still not really feeling it. The promos made it look like it was more or less just a straight Star Trek parody, but the actual show is something odder than that. It’s a weird mix of Star Trek parody and… Star Trek.

MacFarlane is obviously a massive Trek fan, even making a cameo on Star Trek: Enterprise in its fourth season.

And that’s partly the problem. MacFarlane is such a fan of Trek that he’s barely changed anything about it to do this show. The Orville is basically just Star Trek: The Next Generation with the serial numbers filed off. It’s got a multispecies crew in multicolored uniforms with emblems on the left breast, working for an peaceful interplanetary organization with a naval rank structure, traveling to strange new worlds in a metallic grey spaceship with a faster-than-light means of propulsion that glows blue in the rear of the ship.

Orville ship
If you showed this ship on a regular STAR TREK show, it would blend in perfectly.

They’ve got phaser-like rayguns, handheld communication devices, holodecks, and shuttlecraft. They’re missing the transporter, but that’s about it. They’ve got a android crewmember on the bridge, a female doctor and security chief, and a grumpy brown alien with a bumpy forehead. Regular DS9 guest star Penny Johnson Jerald plays the ship’s doctor. Hell, four of the first five episodes are directed by veterans of various Star Trek shows (Robert Duncan McNeill, Brannon Braga, James L. Conway, and Jonathan Frakes).

That’s a lot of Trek elements. There have been other science fiction properties that had a distinct Trek influence (Babylon 5 and Galaxy Quest both come to mind), but they aspired to do more than just that. They made pains to differentiate themselves. They’d zig where Star Trek zagged. Babylon 5 got more political, had commlinks on the tops of their hands, and had blue collar contractors working in their docking bay. Galaxy Quest had a different means of transport to the ship, a laconic Engineer instead of a hyperactive one, and a redshirt who talked back. There’s doing a Star Trek satire and parody, and then there’s doing Star Trek fan fiction, and so far MacFarlane is doing the latter.

Orville Ed Mercer Seth MacFarlane
It takes more than dressing your Captain in blue to make it not STAR TREK. Seth MacFarlane as Union Captain Ed Mercer.

Overall, I’d say that the comedic elements of the show are the most successful ones, with my favorite gags being the gelatinous crewmember voiced by Norm Macdonald, and holodeck characters that defy expectations, like the viscous-looking sparring partner with a gregarious personality or the western bad guy who wants to settle his dispute with a dance-off instead of a shootout. And that makes sense, since the comedic stuff is MacFarlane’s basic brand. His previous projects Family Guy, American Dad!, Ted, and A Million Ways to Die in the West were all comedic. So it’s an odd mix when the humorous subplots are mixed with a straight dramatic stuff. This is a show that has a main plot where Bortus of the monogender Moclan race unexpectedly gives birth to a baby girl and must decide whether or not to give the baby a sex change, interspersed with a scene of Norm Macdonald’s gelatinous Yaphit hitting on ship’s doctor Claire Finn. I’d like to see the show go more comedic so that it could be more effective overall. It’s nice to see MacFarlane trying to stretch and do something different from his previous work, but at this point, The Orville doesn’t do anything that Galaxy Quest and Star Trek itself didn’t do first and better.

From left: Jason Isaacs, Michelle Yeoh, Doug Jones, Sonequa Martin-Green. Photograph by Matthias Clamer for Entertainment Weekly.

So what’s happening with the actual Star Trek? Well, after several delays, and behind-the-scenes changes that saw co-creator and original showrunner Bryan Fuller stepping away of the series, Sunday night saw the premiere of Star Trek: Discovery. It’s the first television incarnation of Star Trek since the cancellation of Enterprise in 2005, and the flagship show for the new CBS All Access streaming service.

Set ten years before the famous five-year mission of Kirk and Spock seen on the original Star Trek, Discovery grabs you right from the first teaser, as a Klingon named T’Kuvma plans to unite the 24 houses of the Klingon Empire. An early mention of Kahless the Unforgettable assures Trek continuity freaks that they’re in good hands. And for a deep dive into Star Trek nerdity, the Black Fleet from John Ford’s classic Klingon novel The Final Reflection is officially incorporated into Trek canon.

Star Trek Discovery Klingon
Although I still think the new Klingon armor looks like a doily. Chris Obi as the Klingon T’Kuvma. Photo by Jan Thijs. © 2017 CBS Interactive.

The show then introduces our main character, Lieutenant Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and her commanding officer, Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), facing a classic Trek dilemma of how to save an alien planet without revealing their presence and violating the Prime Directive. Captain Georgiou’s means of contacting her ship when sandstorms disrupt their communications is pretty damn clever, and a great introduction to the series. And the main plot seems intriguing, with the Vulcan-raised Commander Burnham seeking to unravel the Klingon plot and avoid plunging Starfleet into a war.

I also liked the opening title sequence, even though it lists a staggering NINETEEN producers.

The look of the series is fantastic, with great sets, cool costumes, and stupendous, movie-quality special effects. They use sound effects from both TOS and TNG, making it feel more like the regular Star Trek Universe and even throw in a few J.J. Abrams-style dutch angles and lens flare from the current movies. And of course, you get glimpses of cool aliens throughout.

Lobot Discovery
It’s nice to see that Lobot got a job in Starfleet after he left Cloud City.

So the show is great. What I saw of it, that is. Because CBS only gave us a small sampling of what Discovery is about on Sunday night.

You’d think that a show called Star Trek: Discovery would actually show us the USS Discovery at some point during the premiere, but nope, all of the Starfleet action takes place aboard the USS Shenzou, the domain of Michelle Yeoh’s Captain Philippa Georgiou. The USS Discovery isn’t glimpsed, or even so much as mentioned. According to the character listing on the show’s Wikipedia page, Shazad Latif’s Ash Tyler, Anthony Rapp’s Paul Stamets, Mary Wiseman’s Sylvia Tilly, and Jason Isaac’s Captain Gabriel Lorca were all absent from the CBS network airing. That’s FOUR out of six of the show’s regulars. How are you supposed to judge a series premiere that only gives you a look at ONE THIRD of the show’s characters?

Star Trek Discovery cast transporter room
Who are these people and why are they dancing in the transporter room? You’ll have to subscribe to CBS All Access to find out! From left: Jason Isaacs, Michelle Yeoh, Shazad Latif, Doug Jones, Sonequa Martin-Green, Anthony Rapp, Mary Wiseman. Photograph by Matthias Clamer for Entertainment Weekly.

Seeing how little CBS’s one-hour premiere of Discovery set up the actual series, it seems pretty obvious that the first two episodes were originally a two-hour premiere that was split down the middle to try to get audiences to subscribe to CBS All Access. I’ve been following Anthony Rapp on Twitter for a few months, and he’s been enthusiastically diving into the Star Trek Universe, marathoning the various series and even diving into classic Trek novels like Diane Carey’s Final Frontier and John Ford’s The Final Reflection. His newfound passion for Trek was infectious, and I was really looking forward to seeing him on the show. So it was a shame to find him completely absent from the CBS premiere.

I was waiting to decide whether or not to plunk down the cash for CBS All Access until after I watched the Discovery premiere, and now that I’ve watched it, I’m still not sure if I’ve seen enough of the show to properly judge it. Generally speaking, introducing all your characters and setting up the entire premise of your show in the premiere episode is a good thing. Imagine if the TOS pilot “Where No Man Has Gone Before” ended before the death of Gary Mitchell and Kirk & Spock’s newfound understanding of each other, or if “The Emissary” ended before Sisko met the Prophets and decided to stay on DS9. That’s what it felt like we got here. I liked what I saw (Hell, I mostly LOVED what I saw) but this premiere was CBS trying to entice potential regular viewers with just half a story and only one third of the cast. I’m not sure if that’s quite enough yet.
So, creatively, I give Star Trek: Discovery an A-. Business-wise, it rates a D.

Addendum: Like any good geek, I expressed my concerns on Twitter. Discovery actor Anthony Rapp was classy enough to respond to me. you can read our exchange here.

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17 Comments

  1. M-Wolverine

    I haven’t watched The Orville, and I explained why I don’t think it would appeal in the other discussion of it. But gelatinous Norm Macdonald almost has me.

    I watched Discovery, and too thought most of the cast was non-descript. Mainly because apparently none of them except the lead and the alien are regulars. (I haven’t seen it, but doesn’t “Guest Starring” and another captain and ship give away Michelle Yeoh is going to die die die?)

    The alien annoys me a little when these “earlier” shows (this, Enterprise, Kirk’s dad’s ship) have alien members. It was a pretty big deal that Spock was on the Enterprise, as most planets had their own ships. There was a Vulcan Constitution class ship too. This him being alien and weird. And the prejudice when people find out what Romulans look like. Next Gen or even movie era, have at it. But all these obscure aliens when the major Federation founders weren’t represented grates. Maybe wait until the Animated Series era at least. 🙂 (Plus I’m not sure a crew member who is scared of EVERYTHING could really be put in that position as 3rd in command.)

    Other things I’ve seen people say annoyed that bugged me too:

    *Klingons look didn’t really work, and I’m not sure making them blacker was a good answer. And worshiping (not just revering) Kahless, seemed like it was trying to make ham-handed commentary. Klingons who wouldn’t relish battle with Vulcans who fired first?Seriously, everything we know about Klingons from every other show and movie is that they would take the opportunity to fight and die in battle, not grudgingly back down and respect the Vulcans for firing first.

    * Holographic tech already?

    * It gets thin stuff in this episode, but the whole Spock’s sister thing is needlessly stupid. The whole story works just as well if she’s raised by random unknown Vulcan family (not a bad take) but the way it is reeks of “everything has to be related.” Also Sarek looks like Sarek, but didn’t come off like them. Snarky Vulcans aren’t emotionless.

    * I know we have to make it look good, but things can’t be more advanced and better than on the flagship Enterprise, which should be out there right now with Pike on it somewhere. Likewise uniforms with the Enterprise delta on them during a time period when each ship is known to have had their own, unique patch. Starfleet didn’t adopt Enterprise’s delta as the Starfleet insignia until decades after Kirk’s five-year mission was over. The uniforms should be the same too.

    * A commander who is wholly unlikable. She’s belligerent, insubordinate, impulsive, reckless, and just plain awful. Pike, Kirk, Picard, and Janeway would all pass on her as a first officer. And I don’t really see how she’d recover from her acts in this episode, even if she was right. Maybe Kirk could get away with it, but she’s be out or on a cargo ship by episode 3. But I’m sure part 2 explains it. I just don’t think it will be in a satisfactory way.

    It looked pretty, and the sound effects WERE great (though the CGI was hit or miss). But I mostly was of the opinion that if it was free I’d certainly be watching it, but wasn’t so great that it’s anything I’d pay for. And I can only guess it gets worse after Fuller’s involvement is past.

    1. Yeah, I see your point on the alien crewmember thing. That’s a “Damned if you do/Damned if you don’t” thing about ST prequels. You can’t really put in other aliens without making Spock less special, and you can’t really do a ST show without some aliens on the crew SOMEWHERE.

      The blacker Klingons are juuuust on the verge of looking like an unflattering racial caricature, but I’ll see where they’re going with it.

      I’m also taking a “Wait and See” approach to the whole Burnham being raised by Sarek thing. I assume they have some reason for her being raised by Sarek instead of some other Vulcan family. My initial reaction is that, like Sybok, she makes Spock a little less special. It also reeks of Mary Sue-ism and Small Universe Syndrome. But let’s see where they’ll go with it.

      I’ve more or less made my peace with the more advanced look to the uniforms and tech. As fun as a retro-futuristic STAR TREK series would be, they’re just not going to make something like that in 2017. It would turn off too many mainstream audience members.

      At this point, I think I’m waiting for a few more episodes to stack up before I pay for the CBS All Access service. That way I can watch several at once and get a better feel for the show overall. Plus, my friend Zaki Hasan tells me that the Discovery doesn’t show up in episode 2 EITHER, and considering how much that irritated me in the first episode, it’s probably better for my blood pressure if I wait. 🙂

      1. I will say that the “We’ve hardly had any contact with the Klingon Empire for 100 years” thing is a little weird, and a bit too reminiscent of the backstory for the Romulans in “Balance of Terror.” But let’s see where they go with it. Other than the look of the show, it seems to fit into the existing TREK continuity pretty well so far.

        1. M-Wolverine

          It’s more a pet peeve than a major objection. I get why they do it. But I remember reading the old paperback of the behind the scenes of the show, and how in depth a lot of the backstory was, and the alienation of Spock, only “alien” on the crew, and too human for Vulcan. The flat out racism he faced when the Romulans are revealed. (And it really makes Bones barbs seem kinda racist too if every ship has a bunch of aliens on it).

          Likewise, I don’t see racism around every corner, but the Klingons made me a little uncomfortable. Because the whole point before of making them more alien was so they weren’t just the swarthy guys. Back when really white Chris’s Lloyd & Plummer could play one.

          You hit it with the Spock angle. With the tech I thought but forgot to mention that they do have to do something, because it’s kind of funny that the Apple iPhone 8 commercial has higher tech than the communicators, so they have to do something, (And the 8 is a couple of months from being outdated).

          I don’t think anyone gets the backstory of Klingons vs. Romulans, and just meshed them together. The whole cloaking device things bugs me, because the Romulans getting it is a big part of multiple original series plots, so it’s new then, AND the Klingons get it later from the Romulans, so it all appearing here- ugh.

          Warning on how long to wait on Access- I’m pretty sure they’re going to hold back half the episodes till next year so you can’t binge it all anytime soon, and have to subscribe to get them timely. I’m not sure how (the expected) serving behind another white captain is going to be a step on the right direction, or conversely not just white male bashing with #1 always being right. A show locking up Yeoh with an all female command team would be a new dynamic. Not to mention it’s not Blacks (since they’re not all American) that have gotten the short end, but Asians. Billions of them as you have to go back to Sulu for the highest achieving one. (Not that I don’t love some Sato, but she wasn’t the strongest officer ever). But it feels like we’re going to lose all that good dynamic from the first episode.

          1. The Klingons and the Romulans have gotten pretty muddled together over the years. The third season of TOS had the Romulans in Klingon ships because the original Bird of Prey model was lost or damaged and the show wanted to get its money’s worth out of their new Klingon D-7 design. STIII originally featured Romulan villains, but that was changed to the better-known Klingons, which led to stuff like a Klingon ship with a cloaking device and Kruge and his crew being obsessed with honor, which was formerly a Romulan trait. Then TNG came along, and since the Klingons were the Federation’s allies now, THEY became the ones all obsessed with honor and glory and the Romulans became the mustache-twirling, deceitful bad guys. It was the opposite on TOS. ST09 even said that the Klingons had Warbirds, which were formerly just a Romulan thing.

          2. M-Wolverine

            All very true. It was all that Klingon-Romulan Treaty tech exchange. 😉 Though I hadn’t heard about Romulans being the original villains for Star Trek III. That explains a lot. Wonder how Saavik would have handled all that.

            That was one of my main objections with NG, that somehow because they wanted to put a Klingon on the ship they shifted Romulans all around. Didn’t fit any of the earlier appearances. Fleshing out the Klingons as not just being eeevvvviiiillllll was ok, but not at their expense. But then in those days they were desperately trying to make the Ferengi work as more than comic relief, and no, it didn’t become a thing. Finally hit with the Borg, because “people” can’t be bad, but machines can. *eyeroll*

      2. Edo Bosnar

        I just can’t get excited by ST: Discovery and have little interest in watching it because I so dislike the very premise, i.e., the whole Trek “history” angle, going back to the time before the original series. Didn’t we get more than enough of that with Enterprise? (And I also disliked that series quite strongly, both the concept and the execution.)
        I’ve got nothing against individual films or episodes that delve into “past” events, but having a whole series rest on that premise seems so needless to me. The ST universe is a such a rich and truly adaptable setting for telling stories, as demonstrated by TNG, DS9 and Voyager, so there’s really no need to keep going back to that same period and setting in and around TOS and fiddling around with it (and rebooting it – yeah, I’m not a big fan of the NuTrek films, either).
        As an aside, since you mentioned the possibility of a retro-futurist style, I have to say that the ST Continues and ST New Voyages fan films show how that can be done while still telling great stories, largely without messing up any of the stuff M-Wolverine listed.

        1. M-Wolverine

          I’m not sure 10 years before is really far enough in the past to make a difference. And how long before we get Ensign Kirk crossing over? I liked the concept of Enterprise (and quite a bit of the cast), because it was set far enough in the past. A more rough and tumble era than even the OS, which after NG’s really antiseptic feel was a refresher. But the execution was pretty awful. They missed out early by not leading it into the Romulan War. And then tried to shoehorn all sorts of stuff in at the end and it was too late. That would be a different Star Trek.

          I just don’t know where Star Trek goes from here. I hear a lot of people say “go into the future well past Next Gen” but how far can we get before the tech and the mindset of people just isn’t that relatable, and the fact that they’re still dealing with the same problems seems pathetic. Is there another big bad they haven’t discovered yet, like the Borg? It starts to turn into the Star Wars novels problem, where you can’t do the Empire AGAIN, so let’s create these outsider aliens that are really bad…and it stops being Star Wars.

          Star Trek might be “doomed” to do as they’re doing with the movie, and be more nostalgia driven, much like super hero movies doing old stories in a new way. Be more episodic and make the adventures smaller, like the last film. Or give it a specific mission in the same time frame. Marvel is doing a pretty good job of making the same movie in slightly different genres to make it interesting. Enterprise could have been a Star Trek war tv show. Maybe a smaller ship that doesn’t just get lost, but has a specific mission that isn’t the generic Enterprise “just go explore.” A scientific vessel. Diplomatic one. Someone who comes in after the Enterprise (whichever one) comes in and finds things, and gets the whole Federation exploration or membership drive going. Heck, you could even revisit a lot of the worlds already shown, but it would be different than remaking the old episode, but would be more Part 2.

          Discovery has a lot of the feel that they wanted to come up with different characters to experience different things, but didn’t really think about what the actual ship/show’s mission was. Which is probably because Fuller wanted it to be an anthology, like Star Trek: Fargo, and do one storyline a season. Which sounds like a great idea, but they pushed him out for…reasons.

    2. Le Messor

      I agree with all M-Wolverine’s points.

      I also found that first episode to be more like a generic 90s sci-fi show than Trek – not bad by any means, but not great either.

      “Set ten years before the famous five-year mission”

      Thank you. I’ve always been a bit confused about the time period.

      I thought the main character looked like a Vulcan, but didn’t act like one, so was surprised when she was supposed to be exactly the other way around.

      “I’m still not sure if I’ve seen enough of the show to properly judge it.”
      Agreed.

      “It’s -600°C out there!”
      … You mean, it’s below absolute zero? More than 300° below absolute zero?

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    I would argue quite a bit about Babylon 5 being that Trek influenced. Influenced by the fact it was sci-fi for tv, certainly; influenced by some of the writers involved, definitely. However, they differ in so many ways that I don’t think you can point at it and say Trek-influenced, as much as other shows out there.

    Babylon 5 drew far more inspiration from classic sci-fi literature, via EE Smith’s Lensman Saga (the Vorlons and Shadows manipulating younger races and affecting their evolution, the Lensmen and the Rangers), Lord of the Rings (Lorien, the Shadows, the Technomages, the Drakh), World War 2 and the rise of Nazi Germany,, the Arab-Israeli conflicts, Blake’s 7, and a whole bunch more. There’s so much swilling around there. Certain elements were very much structured like Trek, such as the role of the doctor, metaphorical conflicts between alien races. That is hardly unique to Trek.

    Despite all of that, any sci-fi tv show, particularly one that lasts more than a season, lives in Trek’s shadow and is certainly informed by its history.

    1. M-Wolverine

      I think the styles and the themes are very much different as you say, but the structure of galactic organizations, aliens, and strange new worlds, all owe a lot to Star Trek. Just like Battlestar Galactica, while very different concept, owes a lot of the look to Star Wars. And how Star Wars leaned some on Star Trek, and Star Trek on SciFi that came before it. (As well as other things for both; foreign movies, westerns, nautical tales).

    2. I didn’t mean to say that TREK was the ONLY influence on B5, and I don’t think I did. But the influence of TOS is certainly there. Hell, the in-joke behind Garibaldi’s name is enough to prove that. And even if JMS was consciously trying to make it NOT like TREK in places, that’s still an influence. That’s all I meant.

  3. M-Wolverine

    One more thing that annoyed me = holographic instant communication. You can argue about the holo tech which didn’t come later, but I can handle making things a little prettier. But face timing across the galaxy? The whole point was those great distances meant they weren’t in contact with Star Fleet always, and the Captain had a lot of leeway to makes decisions. Now they have to wait forever for the ships to get there, but the can have conversations from Star Fleet headquarters to the edge of the galaxy in real time.

    And it also set up the “let’s call Spock and ask him about Khan….uh, Sarek…” moment that’s a horrible back door save, and makes no sense, and was only the least bit tolerable before because it was honoring Nimoy one last time. Both conversations weren’t necessary either, because the debate of the first could have been done between the two lead characters, and the latter could have just been her Vulcan upbringing knowledge. (I mean, she’s already a First Officer before Spock at the same time! Even if he’s on a bigger ship).

  4. jccalhoun

    I haven’t gotten around to seeing Orville but I thought the first two episodes of Discovery were fine. Just fine. Not great. Some interesting things but some of the writing was just terrible (when the main character was flying towards the Klingon ship/artifact) and the new Klingons are just weird. In the first episode I thought “OK, maybe this is a new ethnicity of Klingon but the others look like the TNG version” but then in episode 2 representatives of the other houses show up and look just like these. And their voices sounded weird like it was just the room mic of the actors talking through the makeup instead of rerecorded sound booth audio. And it was so staccato that it sounded like someone just reading syllables without being told what they meant.

    In some ways I wonder if the essential tropes of Star Trek are so dated that the franchise needs to go away. No matter how much they reboot it or how many prequels they do it is still fundamentally a 1960s vision of the future that doesn’t include the technological advances that we have today (like wifi for example…)

    1. M-Wolverine

      Star Wars does have the “a long time ago in a galaxy far far away” to deal with the retro future tech. When an iPhone is basically a communicator and a tricorder it’s hard to come back from that and still be Trek. I’m waiting for the iPhone edition with a phaser in it….

      Disappointed to hear part 2 doesn’t follow up on the houses of Klingons being a (better) explanation for the different looks of the Klingons. I always thought the “they genetically modify themselves to look more like the race their combating so they can infiltrate thing was a stretch. But with many planets in the Klingon Empire, and I’m sure a lot of forced assimilation, you could easily see how different planets or systems could have differing looks. Just because it seems like there are humans who look like humans on all sorts of different planets it doesn’t mean Klingons couldn’t have drastically different “racial” features. Heck, in that society they don’t even really HAVE to be the same species to be “Klingons.” If the Earth branch of the Federation was more like the Klingon Empire you could see how they could have conquered Vulcan long in the past and made them “humans” and part of the “Terran Empire.” Seems like another missed opportunity.

    2. Le Messor

      “And it was so staccato that it sounded like someone just reading syllables without being told what they meant.”

      Yes, I was going to comment on that. I call it ‘List Language’, and thought this was a particularly egregious example.

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