One of the most bizarre confluences of the year was a fall television season that saw the premieres of both the newest iteration of "Star Trek," and Seth McFarland's "Star Trek" parody series "The Orville." It seems only fitting that I review both of them together. I've seen five episodes of each show so far.
Now, "The Orville" is the more fascinating animal, because it's not what it looks like at first glance. Seth McFarland plays the captain of the starship Orville, with Adrianne Palicki as his first officer/ex-wife, and a crew of various broad character types. As you might expect, it's a mixture of 90's era "Star Trek" and McFarland's usual frat-boy humor. However, it's the ratio of humor to sci-fi adventuring that seems to have caught everyone by surprise.
McFarland is far more interested in the science-fiction than the funny business here, to the point that "The Orville" is more or less a "Star Trek: the Next Generation" clone played straight, with a few bits of "Family Guy" humor grafted on. As a "Trek" fan, I find "The Orville" deeply nostalgic, as it takes pains to replicate so much of the older shows from the '90s, from the alien makeup to the brass-heavy musical cues to the whooshing sounds that the doors make. Several episodes feel like they simply repurposed extra "Next Generation" scripts. My favorite characters are the alien crewmembers, Bortus (Peter Macon) and Kitan (Halston Sage), who could have easily stepped out of episodes of "Next Generation" or "Deep Space Nine." As science-fiction, "The Orville" is deeply, deeply derivative, but pretty watchable.
As a comedy, however, it stinks. McFarland's sophomoric humor and pop culture references clash horribly with the rest of the show. Helmsman Malloy (Scott Grimes) and navigator LaMarr (J. Lee), along with an amorphous blob named Yaphit (Norm McDonald), are given the bulk of the crass jokes and one-liners. McFarland also managed to work clips of media like "Real Housewives" and "Seinfeld" into three of the episodes so far, echoing the "Family Guy" cutaways. You could completely excise these attempts at humor, and "The Orville" would work perfectly fine. The show actually generates plenty of gentler laughs with its cheesy, out-of-date aesthetics and character interactions. McFarland and Palicki are pretty good together as an old-school bickering romantic duo. The more ribald stuff just comes across as clumsy and counterproductive.
As much as I like some of the ensemble's dynamics and enjoy the familiarity of the "Orville" universe, it's not giving me any good reasons to keep watching. Also, since the series is totally episodic, I can watch any of the better episodes that come along independent of the rest of the show.
On to "Discovery." I want to save the bulk of my discussion of the show for a spoilery separate post once I've seen the full season - it's only nine episodes all together - but I'll get my main points down here. "Discovery" has been accused of not being "Star Trek" enough for the franchise, and I suppose this was necessary. Since it's been over a decade since the last "Star Trek" television show went off the air, and science-fiction television has changed enormously, you do get a sense of "Discovery" reacting to some of the other big titles that have come along in the interim, and trying to play catch-up. The most obvious influence is "Battlestar Galactica," a darker, bleaker space opera with more mature content. So it's no surprise that "Discovery" is a more action-oriented, militaristic series set in the early days of the Federation, when humans were at war with the Klingons.
Another major change is having a serialized story, where the starship USS Discovery of the show's title doesn't even show up until the second episode. Our POV character is Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), the first officer of a Federation ship. Due to her actions in the premiere, she winds up convicted of mutiny, stripped of her rank, and then invited to join the crew the Discovery, under Captain Garbriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs). Michael also has strong ties to the Vulcans, as the adopted daughter of Ambassador Sarek (James Frain). Her Vulcan education makes her emotionally remote, and along with her notorious reputation as a mutineer, leaves her with few allies among the crew. This is the element of the show that I found the most disorienting. Homosexual characters and profanity were new elements I expected, but a "Star Trek" show without the friendly camaraderie of a tight-knit crew in place was something I wasn't sure that I could handle.
The series has a lot of rough patches, and there are definitely some character issues and tonal problems that need ironing out. Unlike "The Orville," however, "Discovery" shows every sign of steadily improving as it goes along. I admire its ambition and its willingness to try different things, even if they aren't all working. I don't really enjoy Michael as a protagonist, for instance, but as she's been changing and growing over these past episodes, she interests me enough to want to follow, and to see who she becomes. Other standouts include Saru (Doug Jones), an alien officer, and Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman), a peppy young cadet and Michael's roommate. The high price tag doesn't hurt either, allowing for fancier effects and visuals.
And the "Star Trek" franchise has earned enough goodwill over the years for me to give them plenty of benefit of the doubt.