Now that Star Trek: Discovery is out, there is a whole contingent of fandom that is relieved. They can now get on with telling you how much the new Star Wars movie sucks without seeing anything more than two trailers. ‘Cuz that’s what they do.
But, since all it seems I write about of late is either my own series or The Orville and Discovery, we can now address the elephant in the room.
Hi, Jumbo. Nice to see you. Welcome to my new house. It’s a fixer upper, but we love it here.
Seriously, though, now we’ve gone back to the 1980s when, apparently, you had to choose between Kirk and Picard. (Answer: Sulu.) Or between Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 in the 1990s. (Answer: There’s always a boom. On both shows.)
And really, pondering this is going to interfere with my ability to binge watch The Expanse.
But we have returned to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when late night meant Leno vs. Letterman, Beavis and Butthead still aired, and Kevin Murphy still voiced Tom Servo on Mystery Science Theater 3000. We had Star Trek in the 1990s, and we had Babylon 5. And it was a freaking awesome time to be a space opera buff. And so it is today. We have The Orville, with its retro, almost 80s vibe. And we have Discovery, taking Trek down a dark and complex path where Enterprise might have gone if they hadn’t waited until Season 3 to do it. (And the finale sucked.) Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends.
But rather than think of it as one vs. the other, there’s enough of that nonsense on the Internet already, think of them as yin and yang. Seth McFarlane created The Orville because he missed Star Trek‘s aspirational tone. The Next Generation was about potential, hope, and promise. However, McFarlane tends not to believe his own press lately, and his show, while having some of that crude Family Guy humor, nonetheless boldy goes where we haven’t gone for a while. And because McFarlane is not constrained by political correctness, he can pretty much have you on both sides of a debate in the same forty-five minute episode, leaving the commercial breaks for you to recover from whiplash. He clearly loves Star Trek, right down to his Enterprise D-inspired bridge and bevvy of Trek directors and producers along for the ride. Brannon Braga, who was not my favorite showrunner on Trek, is one of The Orville‘s producers, and it only took the show three episodes to have me wondering when Picard was going to stroll onto the bridge and get Ed Mercer out of his jam. But because this is Seth’s show, they are more willing to ruffle feathers and “go there” where Gene Roddenberry and Rick Berman would not. See Episode 3, “About a Girl,” where an all-male species has to deal with the problem of a female being born to them. Of course, the rest of the crew is offended. Humans and most of their counterparts have two genders and generally don’t function well if the genders don’t mix. But the Moclans? Well, that’s not so easy a question in that situation, is it?
On the other hand, we have Discovery. With The Orville going with the classic Trek vibe, Discovery is going for edgy and dark, embracing modern television in a way the earlier Treks embraced the movies. It’s a complex plot and, only two episodes in, we have yet to see the ship the series is named for. Everything has been updated despite this taking place ten years before “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” the second Star Trek pilot. And a few things have been tossed out the window. The captain is not the central character. Not everyone is happy to be cruising the stars. And the universe is suddenly a dark, dark place. Star Trek has always reflected its times. From the optimism of the 1960s to the post-Cold War euphoria to uncertainty and 9/11, the original run of Trek series were a reflection of their times. And the times are very strange, seemingly unstable. Going back to when the Klingons became the galactic bad guys and inscrutable enemies is the way to do that. Plus, viewers yearn for extended story arcs and Game of Thrones-like intrigue. (Doubt anyone’s getting gratuitously naked and only two people have died of sword wounds so far.) And it’s 2017. While the prior series were able to convincingly incorporate the 1960s sets and sound effects into 1990s and 2000s television shows, even Chris Pine’s Enterprise, which looks like the Apple version of Starfleet, seems a bit dated. At this point, the writers and production designers have to cast off trying to stretch 1965 designs beyond the breaking point. So we get a Star Trek that predates Captain Pike by a year, yet has holograms, elaborate computer interfaces, and ships that don’t just lumber about. As much as some long-time fans complain about the Kelvin timeline movies, the reality is that JJ Abrams is making his films for them. This is Star Trek for a generation that grew up with streaming, smart phones, and social media.
If one show has the advantage, it’s The Orville. It’s on broadcast television and streamed a day later on Fox Now (free if you have Sling or cable) and Hulu. Star Trek is on CBS All Access. For me, it’s worth it for back episodes of The Big Bang Theory and NFL games that don’t pixelate on antenna. I cut the cord two years ago and haven’t looked back. I can drop or add channels as I please. So $6 a month to get some content I can’t normally get is fine with me. But…
Most people don’t want to buy another streaming service. They want this on Netflix, where Trek airs in Europe and much of the rest of the world. The Orville is freely available, and a Hulu subscription nets you lots of content, including some shows that have vanished from syndication. (UFO and Space:1999 anyone?)
Speculation abounds that Trek may be sacrificed in order to give CBS a bargaining chip with cable and satellite providers. Since Star Trek makes CBS and her sister company Paramount a lot of money, I doubt that will happen. Discovery will find a new audience when CBS inevitably caves in and puts it on Amazon (for pay, and why do they do that to The Expanse? Damn you, NBC!) or Netflix. The studios crave taking their content in-house and controlling the distribution, but the truth is viewers don’t want more streaming services. They want less.
On the other hand, CBS may profit from letting this play out, and we could be looking at a Discovery movie in 10 years time. The Orville is on Fox, which notoriously fumbles its scifi properties, The X Files being the sole exception. Seth McFarlane could be going to Netflix or Amazon with hat in hand if Fox pulls the plug prematurely, as they are famous for doing.
But one vs. the other?
It’s an hour a week, kids, for each. What are you going to do with the rest of your time? Watch Hannah Montana reruns?